Metaphysics

Spiritualism, or the belief that the dead can communicate with the living (especially through a medium), was brought to the forefront of current-day thought and discussion by the publication in 1847 of Andrew Jackson Davis' The Principles of Nature; Her Divine Revelation; and a Voice to Mankind, which Davis claimed to deliver, acting as a medium, on behalf of the departed Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century visionary. While it is true that belief in the principles of spiritualism has existed in many times and places, Davis' fantastic claims mark the beginning of the modern spiritualist movement. Shortly after this sensation, the interest and excitement surrounding such possibilities was heightened by the Fox girls of Hydesville, New York in America, three sisters who claimed that they could communicate with the dead and transmit messages from them, heard as rapping sounds by those who witnessed their clairvoyance. The methods they used to contact the dead, such as gathering around a table in a dimly-lit room, came collectively to be known as the séance.

These sessions seemed in concert with scientific principles of the day: the séances seemed to provide reproducible, reliable results which could not be discredited. Soon, hundreds of people were imitating the methods used by the Fox sisters, contacting the spirit world to speak with the dead. Spiritualism quickly took hold in the Americas, as well as in England, France and much of the rest of Europe. This movement progressed alongside a contemporary interest in the general field of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy examining such concepts as the nature of reality and the relationship between mind and matter. Spiritualism had several sister sciences, such as phrenology (the study of the connection between the various faculties of the mind and particular organs of the brain or areas of the head, first put forward by Franz Gall) and mesmerism (the practice of bringing about physical reactions and the ability to interact with the spirit world through the inducement of a hypnotic or trance state, as first introduced by Franz Mesmer) as well as more distantly-related disciplines as geomancy (divination by means of figures or lines, formed by dots or points on the earth) and astrology (the study of celestial bodies in the belief that they have an impact on human affairs). Interest in these fields was bolstered by spiritualism's popularity. By the 1880s, spirit mediums numbered in the tens of thousands, journals on spiritualism and related topics circulated in major cities, and skills such as clairvoyance, clairaudience, telekinesis and telepathy were demonstrated regularly in parlors as well as concert halls. Many wealthy and fashionable people had "spirit parlors", which were specifically constructed to allow the occupants to contact spirits most efficiently. Spiritualist lecturers undertook speaking tours around the country. Some of them addressed their audiences while in a state of trance, passing along information from spirits they claimed to channel. The practice of spiritualism and other metaphysical pursuits was not limited to the lower classes. On the contrary, by the turn of the century the majority of most phrenology associations consisted of physicians, respected and famous personages such as Arthur Conan Doyle proclaimed themselves spiritualists, and even Queen Victoria used a medium to contact Prince Albert after his death.

Many academic observers of the day hypothesized that the rise in popularity of belief in the supernatural was caused mainly by the social upheaval of the times. The new philosophy of materialism brought about by the Industrial Revolution challenged the rigid religiosity of older times. Spiritualism was seen as a middle ground, a direct, "scientific" connection between the material and spiritual worlds. As spiritualism gained in popularity, though, it soon became clear that there were those who tried to profit from the movement by falsely creating the appearance of contact with the spirit world. Such charlatans were, by the 1900s, beginning to be outed by skeptics and especially stage magicians (most notably the great Harry Houdini), who knew the tricks of the trade, and could often out-perform fake mediums. However, it was the diligence of just these skeptics that proved the existence of real supernatural phenomena - or at least, as some doubters continued to put it, could not disprove all such cases. In one notable example in 1900, the famous trance lecturer Cora L. V. Scott submitted to scrutiny her claimed power to communicate with and even "channel" spirits by agreeing to ply her arts on a public stage with a professional "debunker" present, and under bright stage lights (as opposed to the more typical dim lighting favored by most mystics). When Cora was able to summon a spirit that could be seen and heard by the entire audience, and which could not be revealed as a fake by any means attempted by the skeptic present, it was confirmed in the minds of many that while charlatanry certainly took its share from the spiritualist movement, there were those whose claims of supernatural powers were true. From this point on, the skeptic movement became stronger, vigorously supported by mystics of all kinds who saw the benefit in stopping pretenders from sullying the reputation of the metaphysical disciplines. While many false mystics were revealed, several more instances of true "mentalist" power, as it was often called, were publicly recorded, including demonstrations by kineticists who could cause various violent results upon volunteers apparently using only the power of their mind. (This actually created a spiritualist counter-movement that claimed not that kineticists' powers were fake, but that those who had them should be controlled by legal and governmental means as a "danger to society".) Interestingly, spiritualists differed wildly by culture and training, showing no consistent pattern of how such talent is gained. Mediums who first contacted the spirits through a parlor séance seemed as likely (or not) to bear true talent as shamans born into cultures steeped in mysticism who had powerful visions as mere children. Many who wished to develop such talents schooled themselves in a variety of ways, from studying with prominent upper-class spiritualist organizations, to living with native mystic tribes across the globe for months at a time. Likewise, there seemed no pattern to success: inexplicably, some individuals were able to develop supernatural skills, and some were not.

As of the 1910s, only spiritualism had the benefit of direct proof that such talents were indeed real, but those in related fields such as geomancy, mesmerism and phrenology continue to work toward confirmation of their own practices. Even marginalized fields of study such as cryptozoology seemed to profit from the mounting proof of the reality of the supernatural; interest in the study of mythological beasts surged at the turn of the century, apparently prompted by the revelation that there is indeed a world beyond that commonly seen and heard. However, interest in these fields might be said to have been overshadowed for a time, upon the emergency of staggering reports that the spirit of a dead person could be rejoined with his or her body by a spiritualist. This concept rocked every branch of the metaphysical community. Spiritualists had naturally been claiming this was possible for over 50 years, but this seemed, notwithstanding other real supernatural phenomena, implausible to the majority of modern society. However implausible, though, it is reported to have been demonstrated by various practitioners of mystical arts - and by certain skilled entertainers, which is even more puzzling to many in the field of metaphysics. This recombination of the spirit with the body has only been witnessed in specific locations said to be significant for their "spiritual potency", which are said to be located in such diverse places as Antarctica, Japan, and Morocco. Witnesses also claim that unlike elsewhere in the world, in these special locations spirits of all kinds can routinely be seen roaming, even by those who have no other apparent supernatural skill (although, as perhaps expected, only true mentalists can communicate with them). Further, mentalists have sent word that a heretofore unknown type of spirit they refer to only as "Shadow Spirits" inhabit these locations, and can offer knowledge and insights from the unseen world to those with the power to speak with them. Though these claims still seem outlandish to many, those devoted to spiritualism and its study have already begun flocking to these locations to learn the truth of these reports.


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