Spiritualism, COVID, and Me


Spiritualism has always made sense to me.


When I was in graduate school at Florida State University, I took a seminar in ethnographic methods. One of the things we noted and discussed around the seminar table was the self-disclosure preface or section in a book’s introduction in which the ethnographer discussed their own identity and how that shaped their role as an ethnographer. Perhaps best explored and articulated in James Clifford and George E. Marcus’s 1986 co-edited volume Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, ethnographers emphasized the importance of self-reflection and inability to ignore one’s own subjectivity. It makes a lot of sense that an ethnographer of a religious community would briefly discuss their own background and identity before presenting their observations of, interactions with, and interpretations about a religious community. This allowed for the reader to better understand and appreciate the researcher’s positionality and how that might have shaped those observations, interactions, and interpretations. But this is not a dynamic that is only true for ethnographers.

Whether one uses ethnographic fieldwork or archival methodologies to study a religious community, the scholar’s own identity is never not part of the picture. Religion is a human creation and a human enterprise. How can a human ever achieve objectivity in studying religion? If you talk to a scholar of religion long enough, you’ll get past the explanations of, “I’ve just always found religion so interesting” answer to why they study what they study and you’ll start to tread into an auto-biographical space.


Spiritualism has always made sense to me. But I didn’t set out to study it. My first book on the Afro-Creole Spiritualists in New Orleans happened because I was drawn to dynamics of social power, cultural formation, and religion. The séance records were fascinating documents of religion, politics, and identity, but it wasn’t their Spiritualism that drew me to them. As I spent time with their records in the archives, I would not have imagined that I would work on another book on Spiritualism. But then again, it doesn’t surprise me that I am.


I grew up Catholic and I understood the world to be one full of preternatural power. I was afraid of the things that went bump in the night and I took comfort from the teachings of my church about protection from them – be it a scapular, stories from an exorcism priest, or just simply the blessings bestowed by clergy. People ask me what I “believe” now, and I honestly don’t know. Maybe a “cultural Catholic.” Maybe a humanist. Maybe “well, Unitarian Universalist is the closest thing.” I certainly wouldn’t say a Spiritualist, but I will quickly admit that I understand them.


My maternal grandmother died when I was 8. I understood death but also didn’t. (I’m still not sure I do. Do any of us still alive really understand it?) I can’t remember the sound of her voice. (I’m going to call my mother later and ask her to describe it). When I was about 10, I remember one night in my bedroom in San Antonio and I felt pressure on the bed to my side. The cat wasn’t in my room. No one was. But I distinctly remember feeling pressure coming down on the sheet to the side of my leg. My eyes quickly opened but I didn’t see anything. I immediately thought of my grandmother. I’m not sure why. When I told my mother about it the following day, she said that it meant that I was thinking about Grandma and Grandma was thinking about me from heaven. Or it was just the ceiling fan moving my sheet. I think it was the ceiling fan, but to this day, I think back to that night and the intensity of what I felt. It was a combination of fear, fascination, and comfort. And all those feelings had to do with my understanding of the dead.


Spiritualism hits different these days though. Over 300,000 Americans have died this year from COVID-19. This past month, the death toll toppled the fatalities from the attack on Pearl Harbor and then September 11th. We spent multiple days in a row with daily death totals that ran the spectrum between those two numbers. Death was and is everywhere during the pandemic. Interest in Spiritualism rose during and in the wake of the American Civil War and then again with World War I and the influenza pandemic immediately afterwards. When surrounded by death, people look for comfort and closure. Lately when people ask me about my research on Spiritualism and materiality in the 19thcentury, I tell them that it hits differently these days. Researching a religious movement about connecting and communicating with the spirits of the dead feels different. That is the word is use: different. Most people I know have at least one friend or family member who has tested positive. Many of us know someone who has been in the hospital, and some of us have lost family or friends to the disease. I write this the day after my great uncle died of complications from COVID. Spiritualism has always made sense to me, but it seems to now make sense in a different way.


Death is not new to me. I’ve been trying to understand it since I was a small child in burying pet fish and hamsters, through understanding what it meant that I wouldn’t see my grandmother at holidays anymore, by asking questions about the grandfather who died a few years before I was born – it’s not like death is a new thing. What makes COVID different is that death is everywhere it seems and all the time. It’s on the front pages of newspapers where one can look for the previous day’s new cases totals and new deaths. Whether I’m researching Spiritualism or out walking my dog, it seems that death is always on my mind. This is why Spiritualism makes sense in a new way. I’ve always understood the appeal, but I feel like now I get it.

A Séance Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Story!

Last week I was at the University of Victoria for a Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) course on Digital Storytelling. Taught by the wonderful John Barber of WSU-Vancouver, I learned a lot about digital storytelling tools, theories, methods, structures, and more. A Twine passage in edit mode
I went specifically with pedagogical application in mind, specifically podcasts, and now have lots of ideas. Many in the class were working on a specific project, which made my pedagogical focus feel a little less exciting (assignment design isn’t always as shiny as it could be), so I decided to join in and do some digital storytelling myself.

I took my own current research as inspiration and I used Twine to make a choose-your-own-adventure style story about attending a séance!

Play it (icon)It’s not a finished, beautiful project but it’s a thing and you can play it! You can download it from my Dropbox and then open it in your browser. The html file might look scary to fellow non-coders, but just download the file and open it in whatever browser you like and it should just go!

One of the things I like about sharing this at its more simple state is that it shows what you can accomplish in a week with a little excitement about a new tool, some inspiration from ongoing research, and a good teacher (Thanks, John B.!)

Now a little bit about the process.

Twine map in edit modeTwine was originally developed for making html-based games but increasingly some use it for telling non-linear stories. Now I loved, loved, loved the choose-your-own-adventure book series as a kid. I had tried to teach myself how to use Twine before, but it didn’t go so well. Probably since I didn’t have a project goal in mind and was rather just clicking around, it didn’t make any sense. So, as others in my DHSI course started working on their digital storytelling projects and my assignment design project looked less and less exciting, I figured – why not try again. And immediately my mind went to my current research on Spiritualism and material culture.

With planchettes, spirit cabinet, slate tablets, A Twine passage in game modematerializations, and more, the topic just seemed perfect for Twine. Thus, “A Saturday Evening Seance” was born. You start on the streets of Cleveland in 1874 and choose to enter the home of a Mrs. H—. You’ve heard about her abilities as a medium and decide to pay the $1 to attend a séance at her home. From there, you’ll make a variety of choices that will drive how the experience unfolds around you. I was able to make some of the interesting html whizbang fun happen (like mouseover macros and images) but I could never get the sound to work (I’ll keep trying but you’re missing out on a spooky, creaking door sound as you enter Mrs. H—‘s home).

A few notes about the story and the images. I went with Mrs. H— because it was common in 19th-century books about Spiritualism to keep some of the mediums anonymous and just use their initials. I went with Cleveland because I’m finding more examples from there than I would have expected (especially in What Converted Me to Spiritualism: One Hundred Testimonies).