Year of Sundays

Year of Sundays


Harry Houdini: Ghostbuster Extraordinaire

posted by Joel Gunz

By Joel Gunz

When we decided to visit the Spiritualist Church of Alice, I can’t speak for Amanda, but I was looking for one thing: a spooky thrill. That feeling of the uncanny is one of the oldest manufactured sensations known to mankind: even some 30,000-year-old cave paintings contain images that, in the right light (and with the right herbal assistance), must have looked to their ancient viewers as if they were coming eerily alive.  That natural attraction to the uncanny found an apotheosis in the 19th century with the Spiritualist movement.

By the time World War I broke out, there were some eight million Spiritualists in the United States and Europe alone. From the beginning, the movement was dogged by accusations of fraud, quackery and opportunism. Still, millions — many of them otherwise rational people — flocked to séances seeking closure over their lost loved ones or maybe just seeking a thrill. Sigmund Freud was moved to comment on their motivations, suggesting in an essay on the uncanny that we modern thinkers “do not feel quite sure of our new [scientific] beliefs, and the old [animistic] ones still exist within us ready to seize upon any confirmation. As soon as something actually happens in our lives which seems to confirm the old, discarded beliefs we get a feeling of the uncanny; it is as though we were making a judgment something like this: ‘So the dead do live on and appear on the scene of their former activities!'”

The movement became so popular that during the 1920s, Scientific American magazine offered a $2500 cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities.

Enter Harry Houdini.

In addition to his famed skill as an escape artist, Houdini was also a professional magician. When his career had been at a low, he even hosted his own bogus séances, spooking attendees with floating tables and bugles that seemed to play by themselves. As his star rose, however, he left the practice behind. And then, along came another Spiritualist, Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who hosted a series of meetings with prominent mediums in an effort to convert Houdini to Spiritualism. In each case, however, Houdini was able to expose their supposed contact with the dead as mere sleight-of-hand.

Doyle was so infuriated with Houdini’s “outing” of these mediums that he went public, announcing that the escape artist was actually using superior black magic to “block” these other mediums. Ironically, the author who created the literature’s greatest scientific detective refused to believe that which was before his very eyes. Sound familiar?

As Freud pointed out — and as I can personally attest — many of us still want to believe that spirits of the dead want to communicate with us. Before Houdini died, he told his wife, Bess, that if his spirit came back to visit her, he would utter the words “Rosabelle believe” as a code to prove that it was, indeed, him. Following his  death, she maintained a lit a candle by his photo. After ten years of séances, her husband never appeared. Finally, she snuffed out the candle, saying, “ten years is long enough to wait for anybody.”

And regarding the Scientific American medium contest? The prize money went unclaimed.



Advertisement
Comments Post the First Comment »
post a comment

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the beliefnet.com terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to beliefnet.com and may be used by beliefnet.com in accordance with the agreements.



Previous Posts

More blogs to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting A Year of Sundays page. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Religion 101 Fellowship of Saints and Sinners Happy Reading!!!

posted 8:38:43am Jul. 10, 2012 | read full post »

Gnock Gnock Gnocking on the Gnostics' Door
When Amanda and I started our church tour, I'd had it up to here with vanilla religion. I wanted to take a walk on the wild side (read: nothing Christian), but it turns out that, for a city that prides itself on "keeping weird," Portland doesn't have much to offer in that regard. And then I heard

posted 1:39:14am Feb. 14, 2012 | read full post »

Home PDX: A Church By Any Other Name
Yesterday, we went downtown to check out Home PDX. If you want to make head honcho Bruce Arnold, squirm, call their community a church.  The word has so many negative connotations, they'd just as soon not use it. Then again, the PDX Homeys have a different word for everything. Take the word "hom

posted 6:54:51pm Feb. 06, 2012 | read full post »

Full-On Faith
It's been almost a year since the inspiration for this blog began with a trip to the First A.M.E. Zion Church in North Portland. It was a predominantly black church in a predominantly black neighborhood and what I wrote about it ended up being our most controversial post to date. To this day, it's a

posted 7:25:08pm Jan. 26, 2012 | read full post »

Happy Anniversary from Emmanuel Temple Church
One year ago, Amanda and I embarked on our Year of Sundays tour of the Portland church scene. To celebrate, we decided to head back to my roots in North Portland and visit a full gospel church, just like we did in our first week of blogging. That's how we landed at Emmanuel Temple Church. Can I have

posted 12:40:57am Jan. 23, 2012 | read full post »




Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.