The 19th Century, much like today, was a time when many were obsessed with the supernatural and wanted "proof" of life after death. There were, and are, many in the marketplace who address this obsession with either products or promises. Turn on the television tonight and you can watch a Medium talk with the dead or a "Psychic Detective" solve crimes in Santa Barbara. There are still people like John Edward who are willing to exploit people's personal loss for financial gain, using chicanery to simulate "abilities".
What separates the 19th century from today, and I think makes it an era with richer narrative potential when it comes to supernatural stories, is that it was a time (like the 1970s I guess) when scientists -- you know the empirical people -- and magicians examined the claims of the paranormal. Deborah Blum has an interesting book covering the investigations of William James and his friends entitled Ghost Hunters and fiction author Sax Rohmer's nonfiction book The Romance of Sorcery is a wonderful glipse into one member of the Golden Dawn's attempt to study the occult in a semi-scholarly fashion.
In the late 19th century, stage magic was at a pinnacle not seen since, except in Vegas, and you have room for narrative mystery. Modern science has taken the mystery out of many paranormal claims, and we are better societally for it, but it is still fun to tell tales of ghosts and sorcerers and the Victorian era makes such a wonderful backdrop.
This is why I am excited to see The Illusionist tonight, why I read Christopher Priest's The Prestige (I reviewed the book here), and why I look forward to the upcoming film version of the Priest book.
Speaking of the Victorian Era, "tricks," and ghosts, the Stephen Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles is showcasing the works of many "spirit" photographers from the late 19th and early 20th century in their Immaterial World exhibit. The Stephen Cohen Gallery is located at 7358 Beverly Blvd. and the exhibit is open 11 am to 6 pm Tuesdays through Saturdays. The exhibit begins September 7th and ends November 11. I am excited to visit the exhibit, but a part of me finds it appropriate that the exhibit closes on Narrentag (Fool's Day).