Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Faculty of Arts
This dissertation examines the role of the Great War in shaping British spiritualism and psychical between 1914 and 1939. Spiritualism can be defined as the belief in the survival of the human personality and the possibility of communication with the dead, particularly through the séance. Psychical research represented a more scientifically oriented and research focused approach to the supernatural. These movements originated in the nineteenth century as traditional religious authority waned. Meanwhile, scientists had harnessed unseen forces to make wireless communications possible, while others probed the mysterious world of the unconscious mind through trance. Spiritualism and psychical research flourished in the environment of the Great War alongside a host of other supernatural experiences and beliefs. Britons read prophecies about the coming new millennium, flocked to séances, experimented with telepathy, and saw the ghosts of their loved ones in dreams and in photographs. Soldiers had premonitions and saw visions on the battlefields. Some attributed their survival to angelic, psychic, or spiritual protection. Many of these individuals considered their beliefs to be based upon “scientific facts.” These experiences contrast sharply with our contemporary perspectives of the Great War as profane and futile, and conceptions of the modern world as rational and disenchanted.
This dissertation explores the reasons for spiritualism and psychical research’s popularity as well as their ambivalent place in the war’s cultural memory. This dissertation argues that in the aftermath of the Great War, a segment of the British population turned to spiritualism and psychical researcher in order to build a heaven on earth. The unification of science and religion and the construction of a universal brotherhood gave the war meaning and had the potential to redeem the bloodshed. The outbreak of the Second World War, the Holocaust, and nuclear arms race recast these aims as foolish and naïve, thus accounting for the absence of spiritualist experiences in our contemporary memory.
Falcon, Kyle, "The Ghost Story of the Great War: Spiritualism, Psychical Research and the British War Experience, 1914-1939." (2019). Theses and Dissertations (Comprehensive). 2125.