Occultism and Popular Culture in Europe
Date: 22 November to 23 November 2023
Location: Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies, University of Copenhagen
There has been a long cultural fascination with the macabre, horrific, and downright creepy across European society. From the early popular novels of writers such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and the incredible visual spectacles of fairground phantasmagoria, to the growth of professional mediumship from the mid 1800s onward, and the telepathic radio experiments of the early twentieth century, Europeans have been entranced by all things spooky and ghoulish. The nineteenth century in particular was a tumultuous age of transformation, where conceptions of reality unraveled before people’s eyes. Media and technology unleashed a phantasmagoric panorama of alternate realities, and the specter of invisible agents. Interpretations and encounters at the margins of common understanding of how naturalistic and technological systems work fostered beliefs, superstitions, and myths. The ethereal presence of communications without bodies suggested the possibility of supernatural forces at play. It was within this ever-changing social climate that interests in the occult, the gothic, the extraordinary, and the horrible flourished.
So much of the popular conversations surrounding the rise and growth of occultic media during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries connected to debates surrounding human belief, perception, trust, and the standards of scientific evidence. Stories about exposure and fraud were rife within this context. These issues continue to remain important in our modern age when media sensationalism is so endemic. To a certain extent, a study of popular occulture in Europe around the turn of the twentieth century, and the ways in which practitioners and challengers manipulated new media technologies to present carefully crafted stories to broad publics, links to our own contemporary discussions in the twenty-first century about media deception and fake news. A study of the rise of popular occulture in Europe, therefore, provides important historical lessons for understanding the continued surgency of media misperception that is rampant today.
To launch the research program for the newly formed Dark Arts Research Group: Studies in Gothic, Horror and the Occult, 1750-Present in the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies at the University of Copenhagen, there will be a two-day hybrid conference between 22 November and 23 November 2023 titled: ‘Occultism and Popular Culture in Europe.’ The aim is to explore the many ways that horror, gothic and occultic topics have been communicated, presented, and packaged for broad audiences from the late eighteenth century to today. We are especially interested in the ways different kinds of media technology, ranging from print and woodcut illustrations to photography and film have shaped conceptions of horror, gothic and the occult.
We are delighted to have two fantastic keynote speakers lined up for the event: Mathias Clasen, Aarhus University; and Richard Noakes, University of Exeter.
Core research questions include:
- How and why did occultic ideas burst into the popular cultural mainstream from the late eighteenth century onward?
- What role did the new mass media technologies such as print, photography, radio, etc., play in propagating these extraordinary beliefs and cultural interests?
- How can digital tools and resources be used to transform the way we research, interpret, and ultimately present topics such as the history of European popular occulture?
Suggested topics can include:
- Print culture, publishing, and gothic, horror and the occult
- Science, perception, and extraordinary belief
- Magic, illusion and deception
- Technologies/objects used in practice, investigation, or in literary/artistic representations of the gothic, horror and the occult
- Digital studies of gothic, horror, and occultic topics
- Gothic, horror and the occult in the media
The event is funded by a small research grant from CEMES at the University of Copenhagen.
Image Credit: William H. Mumler, Mary Todd Lincoln with Abraham Lincoln’s “spirit,” c. 1872. Lincoln Foundation Collection. Photograph from Wikipedia.