This PhD project will investigate areas of exchange and confrontation between scientists and fairground entertainment in the realm of the supernatural such as mediums communicating with the dead, electric girls, sleepwalkers and seers. Initially introduced as entertainment, by the end of the nineteenth century the practice aroused the interest of religious and scientific authorities alike. It is well known that spiritualists frequently used explanations based on scientific concepts such as fluids, waves, rays, etc. By focusing on the physical effects produced by mediums – challenging the laws of gravity, the appearance of objects, the production of ectoplasms – spiritualism revived the hope of a reconciliation between science and religion. Moreover, spiritualists promoted solidarity, women's rights, education and egalitarianism. Across the continent, these advances and novelties blurred the borders between the natural and the supernatural; between science, religion and entertainment. This project aims to advance an interpretation of the ways in which supernatural phenomena were analysed and framed, with a focus on identifying various attempts to scientifically explore and explain the supernatural. The goal here is not a matter of pronouncing on the reality of occult phenomena, but of reconstructing a key moment in cultural history through the traces and documents left by the protagonists.

This project is funded by the University Research Fund (BOF), University of Antwerp.

Poster for ‘Au secret des dieux – Métempsycose Sténégry’, 1887. Collection Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica)