Painful Truth: Teen sisters sparked age of spirits

The world is a web of strange connections. Like the connection between two bored 19th century adolescents and one of the greatest comedies of the last few decades.

Ghostbusters is pretty good, right? Second best Bill Murray movie (after Groundhog Day), at least in my books. But why ghosts? Why slimy ectoplasm? What’s with those cards with the wavy lines?

Let us begin at the beginning, or maybe just a little bit further back.

In the early 1800s, western New York State was the site of new religious movements popping up left, right, and centre. There were folks predicting the return of Jesus (with exact dates and times, which led to the Great Disappointment), the origins of the Mormon church, and the Oneida community, a communal utopian sex cult that also made quality flatware.

Out of this milieu, in the 1840s, came Kate and Margaret Fox, two teenaged sisters who seemed to be followed around by loud rapping noises. They said the noises were spirits, which began answering the questions of neighbours in the ‘one for yes, two for no’ style. Kate and Margaret’s grown sister Leah promptly moved the two into a bigger town where they could help people with their gifts, or possibly make a bit of cash. Maybe the latter.

In 1888, widowed, alcoholic, and racked with doubts, the two younger Fox sisters would publicly acknowledge that they’d faked the raps. Both of them could crack their toes – like cracking your knuckles – at will. They recanted their ability to communicate with the other side.

It was way too late for that.

In the intervening 40 years, spiritualism had become a major social force, and had in some ways broken out to become either a new religion, or an odd offshoot of Christianity. There are still spiritualists and spiritualist churches today, though the movement died down after the 1920s.

But during its glory years, spiritualism and seances convinced many people. Part of that process was that mediums came up with many new techniques, or borrowed them from stage magicians, to demonstrate their contacts with ghosts. Table rapping was similar to what the Fox sisters did, but there were also levitating tables (usually with a foot or an assistant), making objects float around the room (wires), and even producing a weird gooey substance they dubbed ectoplasm.

Sadly for those who would like to believe in ghosts, every time a skeptical researcher got their hands on some of the stuff, it turned out to be cheesecloth or chewed paper. Some mediums could swallow and regurgitate ectoplasm and other items.

While magicians and escape artists like Harry Houdini often debunked such tactics, the showmanship convinced a lot of people, including prominent ones like Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Another supporter back in the glory days of spiritualism was apparently Dan Aykroyd’s great-grandfather. Aykroyd is a fourth-generation believer in spooks, spectres, and phantasms. So when he wrote a movie script that featured his family’s enthusiasm, he put in a lot of details that come from spiritualist and psychic beliefs – ectoplasm, Zener cards, poltergeist activity. A lot of the jargon was Aykroyd dredging through things he believed for weird words and the oddly specific details that made the humour come alive. Combine that with his co-writer Harold Ramis, who grounded the story in the creation of the Ghostbusters team, and you had a great script.

You may have guessed that I don’t believe in ghosts one bit, and certainly not in seances. But they make for great movie characters, whether you believe or not.

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