Tag Archives: Emanuel Swedenborg

Of haunted houses and harmless phantoms

I’ve always wanted to see a ghost, but they have resolutely avoided presenting themselves to me—until this past year, when I believe it’s entirely possible I might have actually seen one in my house.

All houses wherein men have lived and died are haunted...
All houses wherein men have lived and died are haunted…

If it was a ghost, it looked like a dusty cloud of ash in the shape of a man. If you imagine what a man’s reflection in a black and white photograph looks like, that’s what this grey shape resembled.

I was outside, and looked up when I noticed a silhouette against an upstairs window. It appeared in the same room I’m writing in now…

I often wonder if it will ever appear again, or if I saw what I think I saw … whether something in the combination of shadow and light emanating from the upstairs window somehow formed into the shape of a man that night. Did I just imagine it?

I have sometimes felt, or sensed, a presence in this room, and thought, “there’s something or someone here…” but then would forget about any impression of another body in the room with me. If I’ve thought “perhaps…. just perhaps something is there”, I’ve also talked myself out of it each time.

Last year, while taking a tour of the underground city of Edinburgh, I was certain someone was tapping on my shoulder; I turned around to say “stop it,” in annoyance, thinking one of the people on the tour was deliberately trying to scare me, but no one was there. I was rather scared in that moment; nothing like that has ever happened to me, and I’m not terribly suggestible.

In fact, I even stood close to the door, away from the group, resisting the tour leader’s attempts to corral us into an enclosed space and then frighten us (predictably and deliberately, so the women would scream and everyone would laugh). I thought that by standing off by myself, and keeping my eyes closed (which I did) I wouldn’t get scared against my will. I’m a curmudgeon that way.

Not a real ghost, sadly

It’s possible the ghost haunts my house because I live on top of ancient native tribal burial ground. I would happily return the tribe’s land to them if I could.

I have no desire whatsoever to reenact scenes from Poltergeist simply because white people got greedy and bought land dirt cheap, so as to transform it into suburbia.

However, if I have a ghost (or two) it would be because the house was built on sacred ground, and I am an interloper.

My hope is that global guilt and talking nicely to the ash-shapes will be enough to appease them. We shall see. But as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in the poem Haunted Houses,

We have no title-deeds to house or lands;

Owners and occupants of earlier dates

From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands

And hold in mortmain still their old estates.

I’m not the first person to wonder about the existence of ghosts. For millennia, necromancers summoned spirits and spoke with the dead, but this practice was squelched during the spread of Christianity.

Made on Christmas Day in 1875 by Jay J. Hartman of Cincinnati, this spirit picture makes one wonder if it is a very good a trick or a real picture of a spirit. The back of the spirit picture bears the signatures of fifteen witnesses who observed the entire photographic procedure, certifying that Hartman never touched the plate or saw the dark room during the development of the picture.

Church-sanctioned investigations into the spirit world began in Sweden, with controversial Christian theologist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who, in 1741, entered a “spiritual phase” at the age of 53, in which he gradually began to experience dreams and visions.

He believed the Lord had opened his eyes to the spiritual realm, so that he could commune directly with angels, spirits, and demons, and “freely visit” both Heaven and Hell. 

Of potential interest to astrologers is Swedenborg’s Life on Other Planetsin which he wrote that he conversed with spirits from Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Venus, and the moon (he left out Uranus and Neptune, which had not yet been discovered).

Towards the end of his life, Swedenborg warned others against seeking out spirit contact, although later spiritualists ignored his concerns.

In the protoscientific atmosphere of the Enlightenment, when ancient superstition was measured against hypotheses and theories modern science was in the process of formulating, Swedenborg’s spiritual writings were influential to those seeking ‘direct personal knowledge of the afterlife.’ 

One of the astrologer/astronomers he influenced was Franz Mesmer, a German physician known for his theories about animal magnetism (a natural transference of energies between animate and inanimate objects) and hypnosis.

Hypnosis made it possible for spiritualists to contact, or at the very least, appear to contact, the dead through an induced trance-state. Speaking to the dead became big business from the 1850s on, but its very success (due in large part to the overwhelming mortality rates of the Civil War and World War I) contributed to its notoriety, drawing both the skeptical and the believer.

Toward the end of the 19th century, then, speaking to the dead via a trance-induced medium, preferably during a séance, became de rigueur. Spiritualism, a recognized religion, which began with Swedenborg’s belief that he could communicate with spirit-guided entities from other realms, had been combined with modern science and technologies available at the time to create a compelling mystical practice, with roots in both the occult and science. Spiritualism proved far more sophisticated than a mere parlour game, and yet so very dangerous to the emotionally vulnerable or gullible.

Two organizations begun during this time have carried on into the present: The Ghost Club, founded in London in 1862, is about to celebrate its 150th year; and the Society for Psychical Research.

Both organizations were created with the purpose of investigating, with the intention of either proving or disproving, the existence of the spiritual realm, and both societies, therefore, consider themselves founded in the principles of science.

In fact, many one-time skeptics and scientists have become converts to the belief in spiritualism, as I will discuss in the next blog entry, when we look at the odd friendship and inevitable estrangement of Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The popularity of séances grew dramatically with the founding of the religion of Spiritualism in the mid-nineteenth century.

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