Sunday, April 26, 2015

Victorian Era: The Rebirth of the Ghost Story

By the Victorian era, in 1837, ghost stories had fallen out of favor with the public in both America and England. Before the 1840s most ghost stories were passed down orally from one generation to the next, but this was about to change.

This change in interest was reflected in an 1887 book entitled, The Rippling Train by Mary Louis Molesworth. 

A female character named Mrs. Snowdon in this story bemoans the presence of so many ghosts when she states, “One hears nothing else nowadays.”

So why did this character have to complain about so many ghost stories? Many historians state the rise of the “periodical press” as the main reason.

Before the Victorian era, most ghost stories were not published in the written form. But with the rise of periodicals ** both in England and America the need arose for mass content. Ghost stories were a good match.

Ghost stories were short, which made them easy to cut to the needed length, they were also plentiful and cheap.

*  In another post I talk about American periodicals--The Pulps--here.

Writers such as Charles Dickens and MR James were already publishing their ghost stories at Christmas--Dickens even published a periodical called, All the Year Round, in which Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell contributed stories.

Now everyone could curl up by the fire at night and share spine-tingling ghost stories. They told of creaking floorboards, murmurs in the basement or even better yet fleeting shadows that might appear at one's elbow.

Mysteries were presented along with these stories. Had the ghost been horribly burned in a fire or was the face seen on the wall a murderer condemned to walk the earth forever?

In Britain and then in America slightly later, this renewed interest in ghost stories was fueled by several interesting factors.

With the invention of the camera during this time--came an interest in “spirit photography.” This type of photography became the craze in part because of William Mumler--who was a well-known spirit photographer. 

In another post hereI share information about what a spirit photographer does.

Another reason for this rise in popularity was related to economic changes. The Industrial Revolutions in both England and America caused mass migrations. People moved from rural setting into towns and cities.

These cities--their noises and their different environments caused people to jump at every creak heard--their imaginations ran wild. The result was an interest or a belief in ghosts.

A strong middle class formed with this migration--now more people could read and afford to buy cheap periodicals.


It was during the 19th Century that the Spiritualism movement took hold. It began when the Fox sisters in New York (1848) claimed they were talking to a male spirit through a series of taps. I tell more of their story here.

The rise of Table Tilting and mediums and s√©ances became a fad on both sides of the Atlantic after this.

And most surprising was when the telegraph was invented-- and now people could talk to each other long distance--this fueled the belief in ghosts--for with every new scientific invention--people felt anything was possible.

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