Belief in fairies, ghosts and other supernatural phenomena may seem to have little to do with science and its technologies. But such beliefs—often called ‘occult’—have a long shared history with science.
This story looks at the role played by imaging technologies, such as photography and X-rays, in the history of the supernatural, and how photographers and scientists like William Hope and William Crookes tried to use images to reveal a hidden world.
Spirit photography and William Hope
Can cameras capture ‘spirits’ invisible to the naked eye? From the mid-19th century onwards, many have believed so. The photographs below were taken by the British medium and photographer William Hope around 1920. After his photographic plates were developed, ghostly faces which had not been visible in the room itself mysteriously appeared. Hope and others claimed that they belonged to spirits of the dead.
The earliest known spirit photographs were taken in America in 1861, some years after the spiritualist craze began sweeping the world. Spiritualists believe that the spirit continues to exist and act in the world after death, including interacting with the living. Spectacular displays of ‘spirit’ phenomena during séances were central to spiritualist belief, from mysterious rappings to full-on spirit materialisations. Spirit photography seemed to empirically capture these often elusive phenomena, serving to confirm spiritualist understandings of reality.
Hope’s use of an old-fashioned camera, and his insistence that sitters bring their own, sealed photographic plates to reduce chances of his interference, made him seem especially genuine. To reassure themselves of the authenticity of his spirit photographs, visitors were allowed to physically inspect his old Lancaster quarter-plate camera, including its lens and carrier.
But these technologies were also used in attempts to expose Hope as a fraud. In 1922, Hope was accused of cheating by Harry Price, an investigator of supernatural phenomena, who claimed to have proved that Hope was secretly exchanging blank plates brought by sitters for altered ones with pre-added ‘spirits’.
The packet of sealed Imperial plates used, which Price had secretly had marked with an invisible X-ray insignia of the company’s logo, was central to the ensuing debate. The integrity of both Hope and his would-be exposer were called into question: both were variously accused of deception and tampering.
X-rays: An occult history
For many decades, spirit photographs like Hope’s were popularly called ‘the new photography’ or ‘the photography of the invisible’. In the 1890s, these terms began also to be used to describe another sort of ghostly image: the X-ray.
In 1895, the German chemist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen made a discovery that took the world by storm: a new form of invisible light, which enabled one to see ‘through’ human flesh. The effects of these new ‘X-rays’ could even be captured on photographic plates, exposing the hidden skeleton within.
X-rays became an international media sensation virtually overnight. From the start, these skeletal images and the penetrating powers of the X-ray were associated with death, spirits, and other occult phenomena. X-rays were popularly satirised as souvenirs of the dead, likened to spirit photography, and linked to the practices of occult mediums.
To many spiritualists in the 1890s, radiography—and its embrace by the scientific mainstream—seemed confirmation that the visible world was simply a veil, hiding a deeper and invisible spiritual reality which scientific technologies might someday reveal. If science now accepted that invisible X-rays could make the hidden reality beneath flesh visible, would it finally accept that other invisible entities like ghosts also existed latent all around us, occasionally made visible by the likes of spirit photography?
A number of mainstream, practicing scientists themselves held such convictions—including the inventor of the technology which made radiography possible.
William Crookes: Psychical scientist
Röntgen discovered X-rays using a Crookes tube, an object invented in 1875 by chemist-physicist William Crookes and used to study the strange effects of cathode rays.
Crookes believed he was observing material particles behaving more like light than matter. He theorised that he’d discovered a new form of ‘radiant’ matter, which he believed had brought science to a startling new ‘border land where Matter and Force seem to merge into one another’—the site of a more ‘wonderful’, ultimate reality.
Crookes’s research was influenced by his interest in spiritualism. Like many of his scientific contemporaries, he was seriously involved in psychical research: the 19th-century term for the experimental field of scientific study devoted to the investigation of ‘spiritualistic’, ‘psychical’ or otherwise ‘occult’ phenomena. This included more overtly supernatural pursuits than his cathode ray experimentation.
Crookes was famously involved in the testing of medium Florence Cook, who seemed able to materialise the full body of a spirit known as ‘Katie King’ under trance conditions. Years later he would also give the photographer William Hope his seal of approval.
Testing mediums with X-rays
In the years following Röntgen’s discovery, X-rays would also be used by investigators like Harry Price in the study and testing of mediums.
In 1931, Price conducted a series of tests on the spiritualist medium Helen Duncan in his National Laboratory of Psychical Research. Like Florence Cook, Duncan seemingly produced physical materialisations in a trance state—in her case, a mysterious, whitish substance called ‘ectoplasm’, which seemed to emanate from her body.
Photographs and X-ray images were both important to the investigation. Ectoplasm photographs could be closely studied after Duncan’s performances. To Price, the ‘ectoplasm’ looked suspiciously like cheesecloth—using photographs, he identified the warp, weft and selvedge of the fabric.
Price theorised that Duncan swallowed this cheesecloth before performances—perhaps holding it in a secondary stomach—which she then regurgitated as ‘ectoplasm’.
To test this theory, he X-rayed her abdomen, chest and thorax, but detected no abnormalities. Price claimed that this failure did not disprove his thesis, since Duncan had had time to remove the cheesecloth.
Nevertheless, he referred frequently to these photographs and X-rays when discussing the case, showing the importance ascribed to these imaging technologies in validating the scientific, empirical nature of his investigation, if not the authenticity of the phenomena themselves.
- Clément Chéroux and others, The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, 2005
- Simone Natale, ‘The Invisible Made Visible’, Media History 17.5 (2011)
- Richard Noakes, Physics and Psychics: The Occult and the Sciences in Modern Britain, 2019
Efram Sera-Shriar, 'Photographic plates and spirit fakes: remembering Harry Price’s investigation of William Hope’s spirit photography at its centenary', Science Museum Group Journal 17 (Spring 2022)