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Modern Svengalis: Victorian Psuedoscience and Spiritualism in Contemporary Culture

2011 May 3

Anyone curious about the influence of Victorian pseudoscience and spiritualism in our contemporary entertainment culture should take a stroll down Shaftesbury Avenue in London.  On the side of the Shaftesbury Theatre there currently is a giant sign with the word “Svengali” written on it in large bold letters.  The self-styled Svengali is the illusionist Derren Brown, a British author and performer who has appeared in numerous television series and the sign refers to his 2011 stage tour.  Like George du Maurier’s hypnotic villain, Brown is a consummate showman who often amazes his audience through the “power” hypnotism.  In fact, Brown has made a career out of dipping into the realm of Victorian pseudoscience, and his performances often feature displays of hypnotism, mind-reading, and communing with the spirits.  Brown, however, makes no claims that these “powers” are real; instead he often works to debunk Victorian superstitions that have stubbornly persisted into the twenty-first century.  For example, in one of his television specials, Derren Brown: Séance, Brown reveals some of the deceptive practices employed by Victorian spiritualists.  In the show, he brings a group of undergraduates to a creepy abandoned building in London, and tells them it was the site of a mass suicide.  Through subtle manipulation, Brown gets the group to focus on one of the suicide victims—a girl named “Jane” whose picture they were shown.  After a frightening séance in which they channel the departed spirit of Jane, Brown reveals the “catch”: “ Jane” was alive and well.

For those as interested in the remnants of Victorian supernaturalism in contemporary cultural as I am, Brown has several other shows and specials worth watching.  Yet Brown’s mission of discrediting spiritualists and mind-readers suggests that they are still pervasive enough in our culture to merit the attention.  And indeed, not all of our television entertainment is interested in debunking Victorianesque spiritualism and pseudoscience.  Other shows seem to be actively exploring the potential of nineteenth-century occult sciences.  One such show is Lie to Me, which is currently in its third season on the US station FOX (it was recently announced, however, that there will be no fourth season).  The premise of the show is that its protagonist/Byronic hero Dr. Cal Lightman (played by Tim Roth) can read facial expressions to determine when people are lying or telling the truth.  Lightman relies on his training to read the “micro-expressions” of people in order to determine their emotional state.  Although the science of Lie to Me is supposedly based on the real-life work of psychologist Paul Ekman, the dream of being able to “read” people’s faces is highly reminiscent of Victorian investigations into phrenology and physiognomy—which strove to understand human character through facial features and skull shape.  The Victorians were eager to apply these sciences to fields such as policing, in the hopes of identifying criminals.  This is precisely what Dr. Lightman does; more often than not he is hired to unravel crime through the facial expressions of the accused.  Certainly one of the pleasures of watching the show is the spectacle of the charismatic Lightman “unmasking” the true nature of the people around him. Lightman has an almost supernatural power—and it’s this power, I would argue, that is the draw of the show.

Lie to Me illustrates that, like our Victorian forbearers, we still seem to hold onto the fantasy that it is possible to determine a person’s thoughts, feelings, and character at a glance.  This desire is understandable; for, like the Victorians, we are also living in an age of uncertainty.  In an age of color-coded terrorism warning systems who wouldn’t want to be able to read minds?  It is probably not a coincidence that the spate of shows based on spiritualism and the pseudosciences has been developed in the new millennium.  Since the turn of the century (and the widespread terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and London) “ghost hunter” shows (Ghost Hunters, Most Haunted, Ghost Adventurers, Paranormal State, Ghost Lab), medium shows (Crossing Over with John Edward, John Edward Cross Country) and scripted network series (Ghost Whisperer, Medium) have reflected a need to explore (and control) the invisible worlds.   So it seems that, at least in our television entertainment, we just may need these modern day Svengalis.

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