The Revenant by Sonia Gensler: The Spiritualism Movement

One of the coolest aspects (there are many) of Sonia Gensler’s The Revenant is that it’s set during the spiritualist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

History: The spiritualist movement “officially” began March 31, 1848 in Hydesville, New York, when the Fox sisters claimed they made contact with a peddlar who had been murdered by the previous owner of their home. They heard strange noises and began communicating by rapping on the walls of the house. The spirit seemed to answer. Some say it was a hoax, but others give the story credit.

The main crux of the spiritualist movement is that spirits of the dead have the ability and desire to communicate with the living. (This is also a main theme in The Revenant.) Séances by self-proclaimed mediums were very popular, as well as at-home communication devices.

The Talking Board: Better known today as a Ouija board, talking boards were first mass-produced in 1890, making them relatively new to Miss McClure and Miss Adair. About halfway through the book, they use it to try to contact the spirit that seems to haunt the seminary.

It was a wooden board, stained rich brown and lacquered to a gloss …. She dug around in her bag and pulled out one last item–a small triangle with stubby little legs at each corner.” –pp.161-162

It may have looked much like this board,  produced by the Kennard Novelty Company and patented in 1891.

Image courtesy

During their séance, Willie/Angeline blurts out a question and the planchette signals, “Goodbye.” Miss Adair tells her,

You upset the spirit. One should never be confrontational with the talking board …. You shouldn’t have taken your hands off, Willie–we have to do these things properly or there’ll be more trouble.” –pp. 163, 165

Rules about Ouija boards abound, some of them hilarious. For a complete list, see these Ouija superstitions compiled by the Museum of Talking Boards.

Ectoplasm: Nope, we’re not talking the green goop from Ghost Busters, but close. It’s not mentioned in The Revenant, either, but it’s too cool to ignore and has its roots in the spiritualism movement.

It’s a term first coined by French physiologist Charles Richet to describe a smoky, gauze-like substance emitted by mediums and draped over spiritual bodies so they can interact with the physical world. It often shows up in “spirit photography” as the face of a dead loved one floating behind or around the subject.

Spirit photography was recently featured on Syfy’s Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files. Part 1 of 3 is below.

So, what do you think? Fact or faked?

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