Survey by Qualaroo

Writing from the Reading Room

For the past few months, Arnolfini volunteer Becky Williams has been exploring texts in the Reading Room. An encounter with Olivia Plender's 'A Stellar Key to the Summerland' (Book Works, 2007) led her on a search for related works from within the library. Here's her response to what she read.

‘The role of medium provided a unique situation in which those without a public voice, such as working women, could give political speeches to large gatherings without being seen to transgress too many social boundaries, in the guise of channeling a spirit.’

– Olivia Plender, A Stellar Key to the Summerland, 2007.

A question I have been considering for a long time is whether the female monster – in her various incarnations in film, literature, mythology and history – can be considered feminist, or in some way valuable to the feminist cause. This is something I feel has often been taken for granted as it usually seems rather simplistically to be boiled down to the idea of ‘powerful women’: women who, rather than representing the traditionally upheld concept of passive, submissive femininity, instead take on a violent and aggressive role more associated with masculinity and therefore power. Olivia Plender’s books on the Victorian Spiritualist movement and suffragettes, therefore, caught my interest as they provide another angle on the relationship between women, the supernatural, and power. The above passage is especially poignant: rather than the violent acts committed by women in rape-revenge slasher films, or by female serial killers of the past who have become romanticized icons of female power, the female mediums of the Spiritualist movement used the performance of supernatural talents to give themselves a voice, and subsequently some modicum of political power. Perhaps, as I will argue in this text, they even played on their perceived passivity in order to facilitate the illusion.

In his book A Voice and Nothing More, Mladen Dolar writes,  

‘…not all voices are heard, and perhaps the most intrusive and compelling are the unheard voices, and the most deafening thing can be silence.’           (2006, p.14)

There are many reasons why a voice may be unheard or silenced: usually it comes down to social and political status, which can depend on gender, race, age, sexuality, class and varying combinations of these and other facets of one’s identity and background. On a practical level, these things can sometimes limit access to channels and media by which those more privileged find means of communication. Even more concerning, however, is that this means the latter group can so easily discredit and silence the voices of the former. Why they would want to is perhaps understandable: what the social/political underclass might bring to our attention – indeed, their very existence - presents a threat to the socially and culturally determined position of power held by the privileged. That which we silence or repress, however, often has a way of coming back to haunt us. Freud described repressed ideas as ‘unwelcome house-guests’ (Buse, Stott, 1999, p.4), framing them as ghosts who will always return until their perpetually unfinished business is done. Perhaps this is why Victorian mediums found spirits such a useful tool in bringing to light ideas that were repressed by wider society at the time.

Not all mediums and figures associated with the Spiritualist movement were female, but women were certainly prevalent within it. Furthermore, I would argue that the image of medium most often conjured up, particularly within the contemporary horror genre, is female. Certainly if we look at a work such as Susan Hiller’s PSI Girls we can see the prevalence of supernaturally gifted women in modern cinema in films such as The Craft and Carrie, in which young women are shown to exhibit abilities such as telekinesis, witchcraft and contact with other spiritual planes of existence, often with destructive results.  Perhaps this is down to the stereotypical and problematic binary gender roles commonly held in our society, which position the female as mystical and hysterical in contrast to the logical and rational male. Yet Hiller, like Plender, also emphasizes the way that these abilities empower these young women even as they inhabit a rather disempowered societal and political position. These characters may be symptomatic of a problematic otherness associated with femininity, but in some ways - like the working Victorian women performing as mediums - an air of the mystical actually gives them a level of control over their circumstances that they otherwise would not have: Carrie seizes possession of her identity back from her fanatically religious mother, while the girls in The Craft get revenge on those who have bullied them and made them feel powerless.

However, in the book Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History (Buse, Stott, 1999), Steven Connor writes of the ‘increased passivity of the female medium’ as Spiritualism progressed in line with the progression of communication technology. While Connor positions the series of alphabetical knocks or rappings used early on to communicate with spirits as a sort of spiritual morse code (p.211), he argues later on, with the introduction of the telephone signal (which only needed directing rather than decoding) that ‘rather than providing a channel or habitation for the spirits and their voices, the medium is placed in the position of the switchboard operator.’ (p.215) Rather than interpreting messages from the dead, this more passive medium seems simply to direct the spirit’s call. Does this then point to a diminishing of the medium’s power? Or, if we accept (as we have so far for the purpose of this text) the act of channeling spirits as a performance rather than genuine contact with the dead, was this simply a performance of passivity, and how would that have served the medium?

To answer this, it might be useful, further to this idea of ‘passivity’, to more deeply examine the concept of possession. Perhaps another reason why the possessed figure is often female in horror cinema is the historic view of women as the property of men. For example, in The Suffragette as Militant Artist, Plender includes the terms under which women were permitted to enter an art gallery during the spate of attacks by suffragettes on famous works of art – i.e., under the supervision of a man ‘who could vouch for their good behaviour’. This in itself implies ownership and authority of the man over the woman, so Emmeline Pankhurst’s explanation of the logic behind this vandalism perhaps has another dimension to it:

There is something that governments care far more for than human life, and that is the security of property, and it is through property that we shall strike the enemy.’

This of course refers to the destruction of expensive artworks, but we might also read the hunger strikes undertaken by imprisoned suffragettes, or indeed Emily Davison throwing herself under the King’s horse, as an acknowledgement of these women’s own social status as ‘property’ and, through these destructive acts against themselves, a protest against this status.

Here I am inclined to draw another parallel with the spirit world, likening these acts to the destructive behaviour of poltergeists. I do so primarily because poltergeist activity, again, is commonly linked in popular culture with women and especially with young girls. An idea I have encountered several times when reading about poltergeist activity is that the turbulent and anxious mind of the troubled young girl causes energetic disturbances within the household they inhabit. Again, the validity of female emotion is undermined by a link with the fantastical and supernatural. However, again we find cases where this supernatural activity gives young women a voice. Take for example the famous Enfield haunting, during which sisters Janet and Margaret Hodgson, girls aged 11 and 13 respectively, claimed that they were being terrorized by moving furniture, knocking sounds, demonic voices and other paranormal phenomena. Today this case is largely considered a hoax, but at the time the tricks constructed by these ‘imaginative teenagers’ attracted the serious attention of the media and even the police. One particularly impressive feat often cited as evidence for the genuineness of the haunting was the (male) demonic or spirit voice that issued from Janet, believed by skeptics to have been produced by her through the activation of false vocal chords. Like a Victorian medium, Janet – a young, working class girl - channeled the voice of an alleged spirit in order to give herself a voice that would be heard. Furthermore, in Channel 4’s documentary Interview With A Poltergeist (2007), Professor Christopher French points out that this ‘possession’ allowed Janet to say things and behave in ways that she would usually have been scolded for – for example, swearing and shouting at adults. The deep, male-sounding voice she was able to ‘channel’ cleared her of responsibility so that she could safely express herself in ways she may have previously repressed.

Perhaps then, the seemingly passive role of Plender’s mediums worked in the favour of these women: if the audience – fearful of the idea of women having political power – could feel safe that the female medium was only a passive ‘switchboard operator’ in the communication of messages from the beyond, that the voice issuing from her was not her own, the medium herself could feel safe enough to say whatever she wanted by utilizing this ‘other’ voice. Not only this, but by showing themselves to be ‘possessed’, they positioned themselves (for the comfort of the audience) as property; yet, as they were shown to be possessed by something other than their male or more wealthy peers, something outside of the audience’s comfortable idea of reality and how things are, their perceived ownership was implicitly challenged. In this way we can align the women of the Spiritualist movement with the suffragettes: both groups sought political autonomy, and demonstrated personal autonomy, by presenting themselves as property and then forcing others to question: ‘who’s property?’ As it is put in Buse and Stott’s book,  ‘Where there are disputes over property, we find ghosts…where there are ghosts, there are bound to be anxieties about property.’

I have found that many female monsters or supernatural feminine characters in mythology, literature and cinema have a dichotomy of passivity and aggression, as well as a dichotomy of championing feminist principles while, often simultaneously, also undermining them. For this reason I found that Plender’s work on Spiritualism and suffragettes resonated with my previous research into women and feminism in the horror genre. It is an interesting contradiction that an archetype – the female medium or female possessed – which belies several rather patriarchal ideas about women, has roots in a time when women were taking control of their political position and giving themselves a voice, at times through this very archetype.


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Sunday 06 October 2019, 11:00 to 15:00

£2/£1 Book

A magical morning of fantastic stories and fabulous tales, inspired by Still I Rise with Drag Queen Story Time.