Occultism and Popular Culture in Europe

To launch the research program for the newly formed Dark Arts Research Group: Studies in Gothic, Horror and the Occult, 1750-Present in the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies at the University of Copenhagen, there will be a two-day hybrid conference between 22 November and 23 November 2023 titled: ‘Occultism and Popular Culture in Europe.’

The aim is to explore the many ways that horror, gothic and occultic topics have been communicated, presented, and packaged for broad audiences from the late eighteenth century to today. We are especially interested in the ways different kinds of media technology, ranging from print and woodcut illustrations to photography and film have shaped conceptions of horror, gothic and the occult.

We are delighted to have two fantastic keynote speakers lined up for the event: Mathias Clasen, Aarhus University; and Richard Noakes, University of Exeter.


In-person attendance

Please sign up for in-person attendance at the conference.

Registration for in-person attendance ends on 31 October. 

Online attendance

To register for the online part of the conference on 23 November, please use the following link: https://forms.office.com/e/q9Cagxn0p6



There has been a long cultural fascination with the macabre, horrific, and downright creepy across European society. From the early popular novels of writers such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and the incredible visual spectacles of fairground phantasmagoria, to the growth of professional mediumship from the mid 1800s onward, and the telepathic radio experiments of the early twentieth century, Europeans have been entranced by all things spooky and ghoulish. The nineteenth century in particular was a tumultuous age of transformation, where conceptions of reality unraveled before people’s eyes. Media and technology unleashed a phantasmagoric panorama of alternate realities, and the specter of invisible agents. Interpretations and encounters at the margins of common understanding of how naturalistic and technological systems work fostered beliefs, superstitions, and myths. The ethereal presence of communications without bodies suggested the possibility of supernatural forces at play. It was within this ever-changing social climate that interests in the occult, the gothic, the extraordinary, and the horrible flourished.

So much of the popular conversations surrounding the rise and growth of occultic media during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries connected to debates surrounding human belief, perception, trust, and the standards of scientific evidence. Stories about exposure and fraud were rife within this context. These issues continue to remain important in our modern age when media sensationalism is so endemic. To a certain extent, a study of popular occulture in Europe around the turn of the twentieth century, and the ways in which practitioners and challengers manipulated new media technologies to present carefully crafted stories to broad publics, links to our own contemporary discussions in the twenty-first century about media deception and fake news. A study of the rise of popular occulture in Europe, therefore, provides important historical lessons for understanding the continued surgency of media misperception that is rampant today.


Day 1: Wednesday 22 November 2023

8:45 AM - 9:30 AM Registration
9:30 AM - 9:45 AM Welcome Address with Robert Rix
9:45 AM - 11:00 AM: Session 1

Efram Sera-Shriar, University of Copenhagen

  • Things That Go Bump in the Night: Harry Price, the Crawley Poltergeist, and the Emergence of Paranormal Photojournalism.

Emma Merkling, Durham University/Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

  • Spiritualism, Spectacle, and Stereoscopy: The Case of ‘Margery’ Crandon.

Sam Houlberg, University of Cambridge

  • Spirit Photography and a Spiritual Understanding of Modernity in the United States and Europe, 1869-1925.
11:00 AM - 11:30 AM Coffee Break
11:30 AM - 1:00 PM: Session 2

Martin Babička, University of Oxford / Czech Institute of Contemporary History

  • Politics for All–or Horoscope: Occult Television Programmes and Postsocialist Transformation.

Jennifer Cooke, Newcastle University

  • Coupled Bodies, Distorted Bodies – How Horror Game Mechanics Encourage Propagation of Player Belief in Cultural Folklore.

Gennaro Ambrosino, University of Warwick

  • “The Eyes are a Telegraph of the Soul”: The Emergence of the Concept of Telepathy and Ghostly Thought-Transference in Italian Popular Culture.

Tim Rudbøg, University of Copenhagen

  • The Early Theosophical Society and Occulture.
1:00 PM - 2:00 PM Lunch
2:00 PM - 3:30 PM: Session 3

Eleonora Paklons, University of Antwerp

  • Spectacular Spectres: The Magic Lantern and the Projection of Ghosts in Fin-de-siècle Popular Culture.

Hannah Welslau, University of Antwerp

  • Otherworldly Amusement: Searching for Spirits at Belgian Fairgrounds.

Thibaut Rioult, University of Antwerp

  • The Re-Enchantment of Magic Performing Occulture to Revive Illusionism, the Bizarre Magick Movement (60’s-90’s).

Kurt Vanhoutte, University of Antwerp

  • The Real Dream: Performing Occult Science in Magic Performance.
3:30 PM - 3:45 PM Coffee Break
3:45 PM - 4:45 PM: Keynote 1

Mathias Clasen, Aarhus University

  • On the Appeal of Horror Media and the Benefits of Playing with Fear.
5:00 PM - 6:30 PM

Wine Reception

7:00 PM - 9:00 PM

Conference Dinner

Day 2: Thursday 23 November 2023

8:45 AM - 9:30 AM Registration
9:30 AM - 9:45 AM Welcome Address with Efram Sera-Shriar
9:45 AM - 11:00 AM: Session 4

Robert Rix, University of Copenhagen

  • The Print Medium is the Message: The Prophecies Joanna Southcott.

Daniel Ogden, Uppsala University

  • Frankenstein and the Popular London Theatre of the 1820s

Daniela Lindfors, University of Cambridge

  • A Novel-ish Horror: Contextualising Mike Flanagan's Hauntings Universe
11:00 AM - 11:30 AM Coffee Break
11:30 AM - 1:00 PM: Session 5

Catherine van Reenen, University of Manitoba

  • Photography and the Challenges of Empirical Observation in Psychical Research:   The Technical Apparatus of T.G. Hamilton’s Teleplasm Experiments.

Jens Erik Mogensen, University of Copenhagen

  • The Materialized Hand and Other Kinds of Ectoplasmic Phenomena in 20th-Century Danish Spiritualism.

Matthew L. Tompkins, Lund University

  • Genuine Fake Mind Reading: Using Fraudulent Mediumship Methods to Explore Extraordinary Beliefs about AI and Neurotechnologies.

Kristof Smeyers, University of Antwerp

  • How to Look (Away): Popular Physical Phenomena of Mysticism in Modern Britain and Ireland.
1:00 PM - 2:00 PM Lunch
2:00 PM - 3:00 PM: Keynote 2

Richard Noakes, University of Exeter

  • “They’re Here!!!”: Spirits, Media Technologies, and Packaging the Occult.
3:00 PM - 3:30 PM Coffee Break
3:30 PM - 4:30 PM: Online Lightning Talks 1

Janette Leaf, Birkbeck, University of London

  • The Shapeshifting Scarab on Screen: Did Early Cinema Kill Richard Marsh’s 1897, The Beetle?

Tom Graham, Birkbeck, University of London

  • Unreasoning Terror: Why the More You Know About Ghosts, the Less You Know About the Ghosts.

Avery Curran, Birkbeck, University of London

  • ‘I Again Solicit the Use of Your Friendly Columns’: The New Motor and the Spiritualist Periodical Press.

Maria Vara, Athens School of Fine Arts

  • Magic, Illusion and Deception in Late 18th-Century Europe: Revisiting the Story of the Bleeding Nun.
4:30 PM - 4:45 PM Coffee Break
4:45 PM - 5:30 PM: Online Lightning Talks 2

Miranda Ruth Larsen, University of Tokyo

  • From Lily Dale to London: How Spiritualism’s Intercontinental Flows Shaped Mediumship and Seances in Popular Culture.

Serena Keshavjee, University of Winnipeg

  • The Art of Ectoplasm: 100 Years of Photographing “Ghosts”.

Emily Vincent, Durham University

  • ‘[I]n Constant Touch with My Father’: W. T. Stead Beyond the Grave.
5:30 PM - ONWARD

Post-Conference Drinks at Bar