Do you believe in ghosts? Conan Doyle’s “whispering voices of the dead”

“The ghost of Bernadette Soubirous”, 1890, photographer unknown  (Source)

Have you ever heard a creaking floorboard or seen an unexplained apparition in the night? Have you ever played with an ouija board and felt a tug that just seemed a bit too real? Have you ever wondered, “is that a ghost?”

There are some who deny the existence of ghosts outright. There are some who will admit to being just a little bit curious.

Then there are those who believe. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the great author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, was perhaps one of the world’s most passionate and outspoken believers.

In his novel, The Land of the Mist (1826), Conan Doyle wrote that a spectre is as real, and potentially dangerous, as any other living thing:

“Just as an octopus may have his den in some ocean cave, and come floating out a silent image of horror to attack a swimmer, so I picture such a spirit lurking in the dark of the house which he curses by his presence, and ready to float out upon all whom he can injure.”

Source: Wikipedia

But Doyle’s beliefs were controversial and he did not find sympathy amongst some of his closest friends, including great escape artist Harry Houdini and Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie. Barrie believed that ghosts are the product of a very active imagination, as he wrote in his 1891 novel The Little Minister:

“A house is never still in darkness to those who listen intently; there is a whispering in distant chambers, an unearthly hand presses the snib of the window, the latch rises. Ghosts were created when the first man awoke in the night.”

Opposition, and even loss of friendship, did not sway Conan Doyle. He went on to become a passionate advocate of spiritualism. He eventually stopped writing fiction and devoted himself to writing and public speaking on the topic.

1922 brochure for Carnegie Hall lecture, Source

As a spiritualist, Conan Doyle believed that the spirit survives the death of the body and can communicate with people who are still alive. Spiritualism became very popular in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries amongst those looking to reconcile or reconnect with a deceased loved one (through spirit mediums and seances). This was the case for Conan Doyle who longed to find comfort after the death of wife Louisa in 1906, and then his son in the 1918 flu pandemic.

He authored many articles and books on the subject, including “The Wanderings of a Spiritualist” (1926), which starts with a word of caution to the sceptical reader:

“This is an account of the wanderings of a spiritualist, geographical and speculative. Should the reader have no interest in psychic things—if indeed any human being can be so foolish as not to be interested in his own nature and fate,—then this is the place to put the book down.”

And here he writes eloquently about his real-life experiences with the spirit world, those “whispering voices on the dead,” and decision to devote himself to spiritualism (with his second wife by his side):

“For two hours my wife and I had sat within listening to the whispering voices of the dead, voices which are so full of earnest life, and of desperate endeavours to pierce the barrier of our dull senses. They had quivered and wavered around us, giving us pet names, sweet sacred things, the intimate talk of the olden time. Graceful lights, signs of spirit power had hovered over us in the darkness. It was a different and a wonderful world. Now with those voices still haunting our memories we had slipped out into the material world—a world of glaring iron works and of twinkling cottage windows. As I looked down on it all I grasped my wife’s hand in the darkness and I cried aloud, “My God, if they only knew—if they could only know!” Perhaps in that cry, wrung from my very soul, lay the inception of my voyage to the other side of the world. The wish to serve was strong upon us both. God had given us wonderful signs, and they were surely not for ourselves alone.”

Even if you are a sceptic, it’s hard not to be moved by Doyle’s passionate belief in the after-life.

In this wonderful video (what presence this man has!) made in 1930, only a few months before is death, Conan Doyle spoke about Sherlock Holmes, writing and spiritualism:

Ghosts: real or imagined? Are you inclined to agree with Doyle and his spiritualist friends, or are you a non-believer like Houdini and J.M. Barrie?

For my part, I am attracted to the spiritualist viewpoint–to the possibility of connecting to our dear departed. Like Doyle, I take some consolation from the fact that I might come back and haunt all those I left behind.


Photo by Eugène Thiébault, “Henri Robin and a Specter” 1863

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