Charles Dickens Was a ‘Fascinated Skeptic’ of the Supernatural

A new exhibition explores the writer’s enduring interest in ghosts and other paranormal phenomena

Scrooge in A Christmas Carol
An 1843 illustration for A Christmas Carol by George Leech, in which Ebenezer Scrooge is shown his own tombstone Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Charles Dickens was a master of the spooky story; more than 150 years after the famed author’s death, his tales of phantoms, goblins and ghosts of Christmas past continue to frighten and delight readers around the world. But Dickens’ fascination with spirits and specters transcended the pages of his fiction. Amid the spiritualist craze that gripped Victorian society, he sought out haunted houses and attended séances, even as he scoffed at the idea that ghosts existed.

The author’s multi-faceted relationship with the supernatural is the focus of an upcoming exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum in London. Opening this fall, “To Be Read at Dusk: Dickens, Ghosts and the Supernatural” explores Dickens’ lasting influence on the ghost story genre—he published more than 20 spooky tales in his lifetime—and his dogged interest in the paranormal. 

Among the items on display are original sketches of Dickens’ ghosts by the caricaturist John Leech, an edition of The Chimes that was gifted to Hans Christian Andersen and tickets to Dickens’ readings of his ghost stories. The author often performed his tales for family, friends and the public—his Christmas ghost stories were a particularly important part of his repertoire—and he rather enjoyed eliciting powerful reactions from his audiences. One listener, he bragged in a letter to his wife, Catherine, was “undisguisedly sobbing, and crying on the sofa, as I read.”

From an early age, Dickens was immersed in scary stories. His nanny, one “Miss Mercy,” terrified him with nightmarish bedtime tales, unmoved by his pleas that he was “hardly strong enough and old enough to hear the story again just yet,” the author later recalled. “[S]he never spared me one word of it. … Her name was Mercy, though she had none on me.” 

As an older child, he read a weekly horror magazine called the Terrific Register, acutely aware of the intense and contradictory emotions that scary stories could provoke. While he read the publication religiously, its stories made him “unspeakably miserable, and frightened my very wits out of my head.”

Dickens’ interest in the supernatural persisted into adulthood. “To Be Read at Dusk” features a letter, on display for the first time, that Dickens wrote to the author William Howitt, asking if he knew of “any haunted house whatsoever within the limits of the United Kingdom where nobody can live, eat, drink, stand, lie or sleep without sleep-molestation,” per the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood. Howitt recommended a certain inn, which Dickens’ friend John Hollingshead visited—but he found it simply a “tumbledown pothouse … only haunted by the claims of brewers and distillers.”

Emily Dunbar, the exhibition’s curator, tells the Guardian that Dickens, Hollingshead and the author Wilkie Collins went in search of another supposedly haunted house in Hertfordshire in southern England. The house, it turns out, did not exist.  

According to the museum’s website, Dickens was a “fascinated skeptic,” more interested in the psychological roots of paranormal occurrences than in finding proof of their existence. But many of his contemporaries did believe in the existence of a supernatural realm. Spiritualism, a religious and cultural movement rooted in the belief that the souls of the dead can communicate with the living, swept through America and Europe in the 19th century, counting many prominent figures among its adherents. 

While Dickens attended multiple séances, he remained unconvinced. He wrote of one: “The seer had a vision of stalks and leaves, ‘a large species of fruit, somewhat resembling a pine-apple,’ and ‘a nebulous column, somewhat resembling the milky way,’ which nothing but spirits could account for, and from which nothing but soda-water, or time, is likely to have recovered him.” The writer is also thought to have been a founder of the London Ghost Club, which investigated “supposed supernatural encounters, with the intention of exposing frauds,” as the Paris Review’s Peter Hoskin wrote in 2017

Dickens was not immune to the crazes that captivated Victorian society during his lifetime. He considered himself a skilled practitioner of mesmerism, which purported to cure patients by putting them into trances and manipulating magnetic fluid in their bodies. But the ghosts, goblins and other supernatural phenomena that populate his writing perhaps reflect a keen awareness of what his readers wanted to see, rather than his personal convictions. 

“[H]e loved the idea of people being scared of ghost stories,” Dunbar tells the Guardian. Dickens, she adds, “was a businessman. He knew exactly what he was doing. He liked to be close to his audience. He was in touch with the popular culture of the time, and played into that.”

To Be Read at Dusk: Dickens, Ghosts and the Supernatural” will be on view at the Charles Dickens Museum in London from October 5, 2022 to March 5, 2023.

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