Victorian Britain was obsessed with hauntings, perhaps because spooky Gothic novels offered up cheap entertainment. In the mid-1800s, a number of high-minded fanatics founded not-so-secret circles devoted to the paranormal. The still-active Society for Psychical Research took a particularly scientific approach: Its main members included physicists, mathematicians, and journalists. In the 1880s and 1890s, the club published papers debunking claimed mediums and telepathic seers. The group’s strict standards led Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to resign in 1930, grouching that his peers were wrong to disbelieve reports of levitation in an Italian mansion.
Not every institution was quite so stringent. Conan Doyle also happened to be a card-carrying member of the Ghost Club, a short-lived band founded by Charles Dickens to investigate séances and reports of people in hypnotic trances. After Dickens died, other associates abandoned any guise of skepticism and turned the group into a haven for “true believers.” They held elaborate rituals and activities like psychography, in which members, while in a “semiconscious” state, held pen to paper and scribbled messages that came to them.