is In Wild Air
The intended guest for this edition disappeared without a trace. Gone. Vanished. Phantomed. One can only assume they have shuffled off this mortal coil and are writing for a weekly newsletter in the next life. In their absence, we're joined by an actual ghost to guide us through six interesting things from the spirit world.
It's 1860. New York City. William H. Mumler is a jeweller who dabbles in photography on the side. While developing some images one day, his long dead cousin appears in the background of a self portrait. He is shocked at first, perhaps even a little scared, but he soon figures out what has happened and it gives him an idea - one that would ultimately ruin him.
Mumler had accidentally discovered how to create a double exposure and this inspired a new business, spirit photography, where he would simply shoot a customer's portrait and then later superimpose a deceased loved one onto the image. He discovered a lucrative market of people who had lost family in the American Civil War, and wanted to use Mumler's magic camera to capture one last image of themselves with the departed. The science behind spirit photography is pretty basic however when the phenomena took off, photography was still a recent and mysterious invention. This was also a time when curiosity about the paranormal was widespread in the culture, making it the perfect moment for entrepreneurial charlatans like Mumler to make a quick buck off the misery of others. The idea was sold to the public using a pseudoscientific matter called ectoplasm. Described as a "spritual energy" that could give temporary corporeal form to ghosts, ectoplasm was usually just a piece cheesecloth smothered in potato startch or egg white - good for catching the ghosts of bacteria perhaps but little else.
The most famous of Mumler's spirit photographs features none other than Abraham Lincoln's ghostly figure hovering above a seated Mary Todd Lincoln. Mumler claimed that he did not know his subject was Lincoln's widow, who had apparently used a pseudonym to book the portrait session.
Mumler's enterprise was eventually undone when he began to use living people from Boston (where his studio was located) in his fabricated images, who were able to either identify themselves or be identified by others. Given that all those people are now in fact dead, you could say that Mumler was just ahead of his time.
The Flying Dutchman
The Flying Dutchman is the name given to both the ship and captain in a tale from 17th century nautical folklore. While there isn't a single, definitive, backstory most accounts describe a Dutch Man-of-war lead by one Captain Hendrick van der Decken. Whether mad, drunk, or both during what would become the ship's final journey from the Far East Indies back to Holland, van Der Decken ordered his crew to push through a deadly storm off the coast of Africa. A mutiny occurred in response to his suicidal demands and van Der Decken responded by slaughtering all those who opposed him, throwing their bodies into the sea. It was at this point, according to the legend, that the ship gained sentience and capsized itself, killing all on board and proclaiming to van Der Decken that "Gall shall be your drink and red hot iron your meat" as he drowned. Chilling stuff, especially coming from a boat.
Now this fearsome ghost ship haunts the oceans, unable to make port, cursed to sail eternally. It is said that whoever catches sight of the Dutchman will meet a grisly end and throughout the centuries sailors have claimed the Dutchman has led them astray, causing them to crash on hidden rocks or reefs. If you head out into the water today, be sure to avert your eyes from that spectre on the horizon.
The Shandor Building, colloquially known as Spook Central and actually known as 55 Central Park West, is an apartment complex in New York City which is featured prominently in the 1984 film Ghostbusters.
Some of the building's (ficticious) history is explored in the film, including the fact that it was designed by architect Ivo Shandor and has the power to act as a portal between our world and a fairly nasty spirit dimension. As it turns out, Shandor was the leader of a secret society known as the Cult of Gozer, with Gozer being the ancient, world destroying god that takes the form of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in the film's climax. The building is the supernatural equivalent of a NASA deep space telescope, only instead of probing for dead pulsars it's probing for otherworldly beings, or in the words of Ray Stantz - the skyscraper is an antenna for "pulling in and concentrating spiritual turbulence".
Constructed from cold-riveted beams with cores of pure selenium, magnesium-tungsten alloys, and gold plated bolts, Shandors Building was home to his 1,000 member strong cult in the 1920s, during which time rituals were practiced on the ornate rooftop with the purpose of contacting Gozer and bringing him to Earth. In order to destroy it. As it turned out this isn't something that could be accomplished until a young Sigourney Weaver moved into the building decades later and found a Terror Dog in her fridge ...
The appetite for theatrical performances with a supernatural or horror element can be traced back through the centuries, coming in many different forms and from many different cultures. Phantasmagoria was one such series of cultural events that began happening around the world during the 18th and 19th centuries. The purpose of these events was to gather a group of people together in a room and scare the living piss out of them.
While Phantasmagoria was the event, the technology behind it was the Fantascope, which is essentially an early type of projector but with a very specific set of features. Invented by Belgian physicist and magician Étienne-Gaspard Robert (who was more commonly known by his stage name Robertson) the Fantascope was a magic lantern that used an internal light source in conjunction with a patented slide system to project images of skeletons, demons, and ghosts onto smoke or semi-transparent screens - giving the illusion that these images were really appearing before the eyes of a petrified audience. While other magic lanterns had been created before Robertson's, his was the most advanced of its time, featuring adjustable lenses and a moveable carriage system that allowed the user to change the size of the projected image and move it around. He also made it possible to project several different images at once. The Fantascope was also novel in the way that it combined technology, artistry, and showmanship. The success of a Phantasmagoria was as much about setting the right mood and atmosphere as it was about spooky pictures. Robertson would make the room pitch black, lock the doors, and incorporate live sound effects to enhance the experience. Truly a wonderful night out for anyone who enjoys panic attacks.
This invention paved the way for the thaumatrope, phenakistoscope, and zoetrope - all of which are the precursors of modern cinema. The Phantasmagoria itself is a precursor to almost any type of live performance these days, so the next time you're enjoying a light show or a movie, spare a thought for the demented ghouls that helped make it possible.
The origins of the séance are hazy at best. Many sources will tell you that they evolved from the age of Victorian parlour games in which the practice of communing with the dead was something of a high society activity. Perhaps the first documented example of a spirit-rap (as it was first known; a sort of proto-séance) was in 1848 New York, where sisters Margaretta and Kate Fox claimed that they were able to communicate with a ghost living in their house. This particular spirit, they said, was one Charles B. Rosna, who had told them that he was killed and buried in their basement many years earlier. When bones were found in the basement the story became a sensation. Eventually the bones were revealed to be animal, not human, however it didn't matter: the public imagination was captured and séance mania had arrived.
The idea behind this activity is fairly simple: with the aid of a medium or spirit guide, a small gathering of believers come together and try to channel any lost souls that may be present in the room. These spirits are unable to speak, and while they may make their presence known to the group by, say, moving an object, slamming a door shut, or just giving off a creepy vibe, usually the seance requires a tool such as a Oujia board to effectively communicate.
There are no shortage of séance guides available online, but for those of you who wish to live a little more vicariously, there's a great seance scene that takes place in the first season of (the deeply under appreciated) show Penny Dreadful.
The Richie Rich & Casper the Friendly Ghost Theory
As far as I can tell, this theory has its beginnings in The Simpsons' episode Three Men and a Comic Book but it has since taken on a life of its own. Unlike many similar pop-culture conspiracies, this one is quietly plausible: is Casper actually the ghost of Richie Rich?
There is some compelling if not overwhelming evidence to back this up. Firstly, both characters exist within the Harvey Comics universe, which means that it's simply not much such a stretch to propose the connection. Secondly they look remarkably similar. This could be purely due to the Havey Comics house style, however not all of their characters share the same look. In this instance the eyes, nose, cranium shape, and jawline are all identical. It would also appear that they are the same height and roughly the same build. Thirdly (and this is the eyebrow raiser) there is the fact that Richie Rich comics ended while Richie was 12 years old, and Casper himself is eternally 12 years old.
Both characters have been reimagined and reinvented many times over the years, and so establishing a true canon and thus gathering the definitive proof for or against this theory is pretty much a lost cause. For example, in the 1995 live action film, Casper is given a surname (McFadden) and a backstory - but who's to say that his true identity as a Rich wasn't lost and jumbled up when he passed over? We'll never know for sure. Of course it's unlikely that this was the intent of the creators (there have been numerous cross-over stories between the two titles which is a fairly strong piece of evidence against the theory) however it is a sad yet touching idea - especially when you consider that both characters are just kids who want to be loved, be it in the living or the spirit world.