Tuesday, October 31, 2017 at 8pm
Photographing a Ghost

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Curated by Caroline Golum

When exciting new innovations in media technology emerge, two things tend to happen: practitioners use them to a) capture people in various states of undress, and b) attempt communication with the dead. This program derives from the latter impulse, from the commingling of progress and superstition, exploring the overlap between the early days of cinema and the Spiritualism craze of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Spiritualism began in our own backyard, so to speak, in Western and Central New York’s “burned-over-district,” long a hotbed of fringe practices during the Second Great Awakening of the mid-19th century. Like many religious movements, it spread by word of mouth, through traveling mediums, demonstrations, and hearsay. As the Industrial Revolution slowly widened the chasm between body and soul, mediumship and mesmerism achieved widespread popularity. In the more prosperous corners of Europe and the United States, Spiritualism reached its peak around 1897, when an estimated 8 million devotees counted themselves among the faithful. The increase in self-identifying Spiritualists dovetailed perfectly with a dramatic proliferation of media: photography evolved from a chemical science into an indispensable form of image recreation, small publications bloomed like ergot, and seances became the parlor game du jour, affording everyday people an opportunity to engage with the liminal spaces between life and death, flesh and figment.

Arriving in the mid-1890s, cinema proved to be the ideal medium for both depicting supernatural phenomena and debunking Spiritualism. Whereas still photography provided ghost-hunters with the means to “catch” their elusive subjects on film, the invention of moving pictures opened up a new avenue into the realm of the phantoms. The mere idea of interacting with another, previously unseen world was enough to inspire countless artists and thinkers: if evidence of the hereafter could not be obtained, there was certainly no harm in ruminating on its look, feel, and aura, often to comic effect. The then-nascent art of trick cinematography augmented established practices like sleight-of-hand, effectively replicating—and later, replacing—turn-of-the-century audiences’ visual definition of the afterlife.

For films like Segundo de Chomón’s The Haunted House (1908), stop motion creates the appearance of objects moving independently of a human actor; pioneering auteur-magician George Méliès took a similar approach in The Apparition (1904), in which the director himself employed these fledgling techniques to glorify his own skills as a master of illusion. In addition to the many spectral fantasies developed for this novel and dynamic format, there were also skeptical works that used the same technological sophistication to disprove the veracity of ghostly manifestations. Like his French contemporary, Britain’s Walter R. Booth was a trained magician who gravitated toward the young art of cinema. His Is Spiritualism a Fraud? (1906, with Robert W. Paul) centers around a phony medium whose fakery is exposed alongside the filmmaker’s own trade secrets. And while there may be no definitive proof of the hereafter in the movies presented this evening, their contributions to the evolution of film style are indisputable.

Complementing these silent works, a selection of contemporaneous Spiritualist accounts will be read between the films. Dead cinema and live readings will be soundtracked throughout with an improvised score by Zachary Koeber.

- CG

Works to be screened include but are not limited to:

The Haunted Castle, George Méliès, 1896
The Cavalier's Dream, J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, 1898
A Visit to the Spiritualist, J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, 1899
Uncle Josh in a Spooky Hotel, Edwin S. Porter, 1900
The Haunted Curiosity Shop, Robert W. Paul and Walter R. Booth, 1901
Apparitions, George Méliès, 1903
The Monster, George Méliès, 1903
The Spiritualist Photographer, George Méliès, 1903
Is Spiritualism a Fraud?, Robert W. Paul and Walter R. Booth, 1906
The Haunted House, Segundo de Chomón, 1908
La Légende du fantôme, Segundo de Chomón, 1908

Special thanks to Zoe Beloff, Charles Musser, and Dan Streible.

Tickets - $8, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7:30pm.