Spiritualism exposed: Scepticism, credulity and spectatorship in end-of-the-century America

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In recent years, the study of spiritualism and occultism has been proposed as a key to understand the political, social and cultural issues of nineteenth-century America. While the position of spiritualism's supporters has been the subject of most accounts, however, sources that critically questioned the spiritualist claims have been usually left aside. In this article, I will rely on this extremely rich body of sources, in order to understand how the debate about spiritualism played an essential role in the shaping of sceptical perspectives in nineteenth-century America. Focusing in particular on anti-spiritualist performances played on the stage by professional magicians and on psychological writings that questioned the phenomena of the spiritualist seances, I will argue that in both contexts the ‘spirit medium’ came to be understood as a performer, and the sitters as spectators. As a critical reading of texts such as film theory pioneer Hugo Münsterberg's 1891 ‘Psychology and Mysticism’ may suggest, the exposure of spiritualist trickery shaped a discourse on perception and sensorial delusion that anticipated in many ways later debates on cinematic spectatorship.

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