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Spiritualism, celebrity and mass media.

Natale, Simone, Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture, Pennsylvania University Press, 2016, $34.95, 235 pages.

In Supernatural Entertainments, communication and media studies scholar Simone Natale explores the relationship between the rise of spiritualism and the development of media culture. Much like the performance of spiritualism itself--employing slight-of-hand to deliver the unexpected--Natale's book also provides an unexpected journey.

Indeed, it is easy to expect Supernatural Entertainments to deliver a more materialist analysis of the intersection of spiritualism and mass media--such as a study tracking more closely with Friedrich Kittler's book about media technologies titled Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. While Natale's work touches on the impact of various media, her focus is on the connection between spiritualism and celebrity culture.

The two core projects of Natale's book are (1) to show the parallel rise of the spiritualist movement and the evolution of the media entertainment industry, and (2) to argue for spiritualism's place within commodity culture. The former establishes the spiritualist as an early example of celebrity, while the latter demonstrates the usefulness of public relations for media entertainments.

During the Victorian era, as the spiritualist movement was gaining popularity, it depended on the cultivation of the spectacle. Spiritualists were expected to be engaging and to deliver the unexpected. Thus, their roles were very performative in nature. Natale compares the spectacle expected of the successful spiritualist to popular illusionists and public scientific lecturers of the time, as well as to the spectacle associated with the early cinema.

One of the most important developments within spiritualism is the movement from the private to public spheres. Initially, spiritualists--called mediums--conducted seances within their homes to a private, small group of people. As the popularity of seances grew, the performances of spiritualists entered the public sphere, allowing for larger audiences. The larger performances gave rise to more fantastic performances that 'proved' the existence of another realm and the medium's ability to communicate with it. The public performances began to offer live music as accompaniment to the medium's performance.

Although Natale never calls it by name, public relations plays a big role in the success of spiritualism. Mediums depended on advertisements run in newspapers and spiritualist magazines to draw the public to their performances. Throughout the book Natale frequently references P. T. Barnum, who is widely considered the first showman and initial practitioner of public relations.

Presumably following the example of Barnum, Victorian era mediums thrived on controversy and scandal. Proving there was no such thing as bad press, spiritualists benefitted from news articles describing their spectacular performance as much as they benefited from the criticism. The general public tended to gain equal interest whether the article corroborated the spiritualist's claims or if it debunked a performance as fraud. People wanted to see a performance for themselves to determine its authenticity.

The spiritualist movement both impacted and benefitted the industry of mass-market printing. Natale describes the spiritualist community as being connected through print media instead of forming an institutionalized religion. People communicated through writings in tracts, papers, journals, magazines and other spiritualist publications. Additionally, the rise of the spiritualist movement bolstered interest in supernatural fictions. The popularity of the Gothic novel increased along with the rise of religious spiritualism. Natale notes that ghosts became a part of popular culture through literature and film. Ghosts were a common feature of spiritualist seances as well as a popular inclusion in the fictional narratives of literature and film.

Another connection between media and spiritualism is the popularity of spirit photography. Spirit photography provides comfort to those grieving a close family member, as it offers a tangible item with the image of their lost loved one. However, it also offers a commodity to be exploited. Spirit photographs were collected and traded by enthusiasts as indisputable evidence supporting the spirit world. Of course, this was proven false after photography became better understood and spirit photography became an example of trick photography.

Supernatural Entertainments provides a historical survey of the link between spiritualism and entertainment culture. Approaching it with an open mind, one can enjoy many connections made by Natale, including the associations with public relations, newspaper publications, mass market printing and spirit photography. However, when approaching the book with expectations of an in-depth analysis of media technologies, Supernatural Entertainments falls short. Much like sitting for a Victorian seance, if the book is approached with an open mind, readers can decide for themselves its value.

by Khara Lukancic
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Author:Lukancic, Khara
Publication:Gateway Journalism Review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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