Is it possible to communicate with the spirit world? That has been the question which has driven the invention of a number of ‘spirit technologies’, from the Planchette to the Ouija Board. In the glory days of Spiritualism, they became almost household items, and though not so much in vogue in modern times, they retain their otherworldly, liminal reputation.
In the beautifully presented short documentary “Ghosts and Gadgets: Communicating with the Spirits” (embedded below), collector Brandon Hodge discusses the motivations of those using these strange devices, and the historical period in which their invention sits:
We have to understand the periods of time that these devices sprang out of. They came at a time when the telegraph was very new, where electricity was very new, this unknown force… Those conceptions were so nascent when these devices were being first created, this idea that ‘well if I can receive a message through a telegram from someone hundreds of miles away within a few minutes, can we just sort of raise those poles a little higher and maybe communicate with something beyond?’
Hodge speaks passionately and eloquently about these spirit ‘telegraphs’, noting that even if you take the skeptical view that their ‘communication’ is all down to the ideomotor effect, it’s still intriguing how our brains can “autonomously and co-operatively” produce these messages. Furthermore, he says that instead of dismissing them as historical curiosities, a simple parlour trick that preyed on 19th century gullibility, we should better appreciate their importance to people at various times of crisis in modern history:
You’ll notice that the popularity of these devices ebbs and flows with war. You’ll see that people are reaching out…the Planchette is tapping into a zeitgeist of loss and sorrow.
If I could impart one thing to others about these devices, other than just seeing them and appreciating them, I want them to understand their place in history. To me they’re not just this passive item…people throughout history put their hands on these things in the hope they could communicate with the other side…what they represent was a profound belief that was followed by millions of people that has been sort of dismissed as just kookiness – and to really get at the heart of what they were seeking and what they believe is important to recognize, and I think these devices help bring that knowledge to the public.