A Long History

Rise of Spiritualism

Industrial Revolution

Industrialism and Ghosts

Post-bellum America

Supernatural and Hope

Supernatural Restores Faith

Ghosts Build Communities

Comfort to Bereaved

Why the Supernatural was Entertaining

Transcending the Real

Ghosts and Mystery

Ghosts and Thrills

Entertainers Cash In

Laughing at Ghosts 

Anthony Hopper






















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Why Were Americans Interested in the Supernatural?

Entertainers Cash in on the Supernatural (con.)

Proponents of the supernatural world were not the only ones to profit off of Victorian Americans’ thirst for sensational entertainment. Some found they could make money off of debunking spiritualism. Skeptics would offer performances in which they described the ways in which fraudulent mediums could deceive their audiences into believing that the materializations and other ghostly manifestations were real. These lectures were not always high brow affairs and were often billed as sources of entertainment. P.T. Barnum, one of the greatest showmen of his era, included a demonstration “…by Dr. Von Vleck practically showing the ballot test, blood-red writing on the arm, spiritual rope tying…and all the chicanery and humbug of spiritual imposters.” The purposes of Von Vleck’s Ouija board listed for sale in Sears catalogue; Joseph J. Schroeder, Jr., ed., 'The Wonderful World of Toys, Games, & Dolls' (Chicago: Follet Publishing, 1971) 231. "lecture" were made clear by the fact that it was sandwiched between the dancing giraffe skit and a “fat woman” display (8). Entertainers found that Victorian American audiences could be amazed and entertained by debunking performances, which resembled magic shows (9).

Victorian Americans of course could partake in forms of entertainment that involved the supernatural but not mediums or photographers. Some adventurous souls, mainly children, who were in search of excitement probably tried to conjure spirits with the aid of a mirror or some other reflecting device. Dan Norder, whose book on this subject is due out soon, believes that Americans and others have been trying to call forth ghosts in this fashion for centuries (10). However, millions of people opted to purchase a ouija board, which were mass produced by a number of companies beginning in the late 1800s (11). Using this device, Americans could dabble with the paranormal from the comfort of their homes. While individuals might have used the board for the sole purpose of calling up a deceased love one, its marketers touted their product's entertainment value. A Sears, Roebuck & Company catalogue advertisement from 1919 said it was an “[i]nteresting and mystifying game. Great mirth making game for parties” (12).






Last update 

September 8, 2004










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