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Speaking With the Dead

You might think of America’s Gilded Age, the time period of my historical paranormal thriller The Teratologist, as an era of technical innovation, powerful corporations, super rich plutocrats, and workers fighting to organize. But the late-Nineteenth and early-20th centuries were also when people couldn’t get enough of the spirit world.

Spiritualism was (and still is) a religious movement based on the belief that the spirits of the dead can communicate with us and, even, give us guidance. Mediums conducting seances to speak with lost loved ones flourished during the heyday of Spiritualism. There are different types of seances. You’re probably familiar with the group sitting in a circle in a darkened room with a medium who goes into a trance to channel the spirits. But Spiritualist churches also held them in the form of a religious service with the minister or medium announcing messages from spirits to members of the congregation.

The movement began in the 1840s, and became intertwined with social movements such as abolition. It then became massively popular because of the immense loss of life caused by the Civil War. Families found some comfort in the belief that their fallen sons, brothers, and fathers lived on in the spirit world in a happier state than in the physical world. Wouldn’t it be great if they could somehow communicate with them? Spiritualists and mediums even visited the White House and held seances while the Lincolns grieved the loss of their 11-year-old son from typhoid fever.

Spiritualism was embraced by blatant fraudsters as well as serious intellectuals. Mark Twain, a character in The Teratologist, was a member of England’s Society for Psychical Research. He wrote essays about his belief in telepathy, which he called “mental telegraphy.”

The paranormal phenomena that surround Spiritualism—from mediums channeling spirits to clairvoyant psychics to telekinesis—are now labeled parapsychology. It’s considered a pseudo-science, but I have to admit that I love to dabble in it as a fiction writer.

Wouldn’t it be cool to throw a physician, a man of rigid adherence to science, into an environment where he had to deal with a patient who could read minds and one who could channel the spirits of the dead? What if he missed his late wife so terribly that he could cast aside his scientific restraints and indulge in the hope that her spirit could really speak to him? And what if the fact she could speak to him meant that she was trapped between the physical and spiritual worlds—how could he help her get to Heaven? Those questions turned into a novel.

Now that Halloween approaches, we should remember that it wasn’t always about sexy vampire costumes. It was originally about honoring the spirits of the dead. What better way to honor them than speaking with them? I, for one, would love to.

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