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Apparition during palm reading from 1869

As Halloween approaches, we talk to Dr Efram Sera-Shriar, Associate Director of Research for the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies, International, at Durham. His research explores the study of the occult and its intersection with the sciences. He is the lead organiser for Beyond the Veil: Cross-Cultural & Interdisciplinary Studies of Horror, Gothic, and the Occult in the Nineteenth Century, taking place on Halloween, 31 October.

Tell us about your research  

My research explores the entangled histories of science and belief, especially extraordinary belief, from the beginning of nineteenth century to the interwar period. I’m interested in questions of trust and credibility and how researchers, both believers and sceptics, tried to test, affirm, or debunk the existence of an unseen world. Most of my work is informed by my interdisciplinary background in both anthropology and history of science. In my recent book, Psychic Investigators: Anthropology, Modern Spiritualism, and Credible Witnessing in the Late Victorian Age, these twin interests help me explore a group of Victorian anthropologists who investigated a series of cases relating to supposedly genuine spirit and psychic phenomena. More recently, I have been looking at cultural conceptions of spirits and ghosts in nineteenth-century Japan.   

How did you become interested in the Victorian occult?  

It will sound like a cliché, but my original interest in the occult and paranormal stems back to my love for Ghostbusters as a child. I was so blown away by the idea that someone could potentially be a professional ghosthunter, that for much of my childhood I was convinced “ghostbusting” would be my future profession. However, it was not until I landed my first permanent lectureship that I finally found the time to start developing my own research on Victorian spiritualism.  

Why do you think the Victorians so interested in the spirit world?  

Traditionally scholars have attributed the rise and growth of modern spiritualism over the past two centuries to the so-called nineteenth-century crisis-of-faith. As scientific and medical explanations of the natural world began to displace older religious ones, there was a rise in secular thinking. Naturalistic explanations for the origin of human life in particular led to a critical reassessment of orthodox religious ideas. The emergence of biblical criticism was an equally powerful source of social subversion, allowing Victorians to question scriptural authority. It was within this cultural climate that spiritualism’s appeal grew, as many nineteenth-century figures appropriated it as a way of reconciling their fears about the afterlife, and the loss of traditional religious faith.  

Tell us about your experience of the séance.  

I have participated in numerous séances over the years. For the most part they have mirrored the sorts of descriptions found in Victorian accounts. There were knocks and raps, and the mediums often attempted to reveal personal information about the sitters that was allegedly unknown to them prior to the sitting. The most fascinating experience I have had was witnessing the alleged materialisation of a spirit hand at a séance. However, the conditions at the time were ripe for manipulations and potential cheating. I strongly believe it is important to experience the phenomena first-hand, this transforms how you understand spiritualism.  

Do you believe in ghosts?  

No. I do not believe in ghosts and the evidence that has been put before me has not compelled me to change that position. However, I am not particularly interested in questions of whether or not ghosts are real anyway. I think it is far more interesting and important to understand why people believe or do not believe in extraordinary phenomena. A version of spiritualistic belief, that is, the idea that the spirits of the dead can intercommunicate with the living, exists in all cultures and times. Why? To me, that is the question worth exploring.  

Find out more: 

Attend the Beyond the Veil conference taking place virtually this Halloween  

Read more about the Centre of nineteenth century studies  

Find out more about Efram Sera-Shriar 

Find out about options to study in our Department of History  

Find out more our Department of Anthropology