‘The Living and The Dead’: Working as a History Advisor for the Upcoming BBC Drama Series

Hearing that I can’t live without quality horror flicks probably won’t come as a shock to you. Imagine therefore my delight when the BBC approached me in November 2014 to discuss an opportunity to get involved in the making of a TV horror drama as a history advisor. Created by Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes maker Ashley Pharoah, The Living and the Dead will air this year in six episodes of 60 minutes each, and as a BBC World project I think the series is going to be broadcast in the UK and the United States simultaneously.


Photo credit: Robert Viglasky (via BBC)

The Living and the Dead (produced by Lookout Point, the company behind Ripper Street and War and Peace) revolves around the characters of Nathan and Charlotte Appleby (played by Colin Morgan and Charlotte Spencer), an English gentleman farmer and his wife living at the end of the nineteenth century. Nathan works at the cutting edge of fledgling scientific psychology but is also downright obsessed with investigations of ghosts, poltergeists, spirit mediums and all sorts of things that go bump in the night. As even the most conservative historian will now acknowledge, this kind of research was much more prominent among Victorian men and women of science than your pre-1970s history books would have it.

Hence, Pharoah and his team were after a historian who could tell them something about the state of the mind sciences in the late nineteenth century, and they specifically sought input from someone who had done first-hand historical research regarding any actual entanglements of Victorian psychology with ghosts and the occult.

After a few emails with the show’s script editor, the BBC sent my Consultancy and Advice contract, followed by Pharoa’s pitch of The Living and the Dead to the BBC with a preliminary overview of all six episodes, and the full script of a draft of episode one. This was the material I was asked to carefully read as a basis for discussions with the creative team. Upon confirming my availability a meeting was promptly scheduled for mid-December 2014, when script editor Katie Kelly, producer Eliza Mellor (of BBC’s Poldark and Death Comes To Pemberley), and executive producer Katie McAleese visited me at Churchill College to discuss the material. The meeting, which lasted about 4.5 hours without a break, was very stimulating and I felt everybody was excited about the dramatic potential of much of the heterodox research some Victorian psychologists were seriously into.

Obviously, my contract prohibits me to spill any plot-related beans, and I think I ought to wait for the show to air before revealing what kinds of suggestions I made. And it goes without saying that the show’s main objective is to make your skin crawl rather than provide a history lesson – unsurprisingly, during our first phone conversation Katie K. was quick to stress that this was a drama show, “not a documentary”.

But she also emphasized that Pharoah and his team were keen to develop the plot as historically accurately as possible. Not only did they want to avoid anachronisms and factual errors, but also possibly draw upon some of the unorthodox research actually produced by real people who were a little like Appleby.

Before and after the meeting, Katie Kelly, whose job as script editor was to secure consistency between the scripts of each episode, even asked me for recommendations of academic literature and accordingly did some serious reading in the British Library. She also read parts of my PhD thesis, which forms the basis of the book on late-19th century psychology and psychical research that I’m hoping to complete this year. And when I heard that filming had commenced in summer 2015, Pharoah assured me in response to a tweet that “every single word” of my feedback had been incorporated.

That the creative team behind The Living and the Dead is committed to historical detail is also indicated by their consulting another advisor, Suzanne F. Cooper, a curator, lecturer, and specialist on Dickens, Ruskin and Victorian women (see her blog and Twitter feed). I understand Suzanne was far more intensely involved in the making of the show than me, though I don’t know on what aspects she gave advice specifically.

So how many millions, I hear thee ask, does one make as a history advisor for a BBC drama that has the potential to become an international hit? Obviously, all of a sudden I am now one of the rich and famous (in fact, as I’m lazily typing this with one hand I’m holding a £1,000 note to snort a line off Emily Ratajkowski’s buttocks with the other).


To be fair, I don’t think I invested more than eight or nine hours of work altogether, and I honestly enjoyed every single minute of readings and discussions. But broken down, the fee I received upon signing my contract would be roughly equivalent to what an average waiter is being paid. Which would be perfectly fine if I had a permanent post, but given how closely postdoctoral positions continue to resemble freelance work these days, the pay is hardly appropriate. (This is of course no complaint directed at the lovely creative team, since I don’t think there’s anything they could have done. But please, dear BBC, rethink your current pay rates for academic advisors not holding permanent positions).

…and finally: Questions of money, fame and historical accuracy aside, do I think the show will be any good?

Remember, my brief involvement was in the early-ish days of the show’s production, when the scripts were still being developed and not even the casting was confirmed. Apart from the original pitch of the series that included a very preliminary synopsis of all six episodes, the only full script draft I read was of episode one, which was still subject to potentially substantial changes. So there’s a chance that the outcome will differ considerably from what I saw in late 2014.

Having said that, if the material I did read, along with the photographic footage released to date, is anything to go by, I think Pharoah’s new brainchild has massive potential. Reading the script of the first episode honestly gave me the chills, and I very much like the feel of the stills from the set that have been making the rounds on Twitter.

So I’m as curious and excited as you are, and I can’t wait to see Nathan and Charlotte Appleby in action. But in case you’re wondering: If I could bet my advisor fee on The Living and the Dead’s success, I definitely would.

Andreas Sommer

Guest Post: Robert Hare, the Spiritoscope, and Playfulness in Science. By Simone Natale

foto sito 1Simone Natale is a Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies at Loughborough University, United Kingdom. He is the author of Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture, published by Pennsylvania State University Press in 2016. You can follow him on Twitter and Academia.edu.

One of the peculiarities of spiritualism, a religious movement that spread globally since the mid-nineteenth century, was the constant intermingling between scientific and religious inquiry. Spiritualist believers regarded spiritualism as a ‘scientific’ religion that could be experimentally verified. Since belief in spirit communication required the constant confirmation of empirical evidence, devices designed to ensure the clarity and authenticity of spirit messages were soon created and put into practice. Such instruments aimed to avoid trickery and to make sure that séances were conducted under ‘experimental’ conditions.

Among the earliest examples of these pieces of applied technology is the spiritoscope. This instrument was designed by Robert Hare, a chemistry professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose conversion to spiritualism warranted front-page coverage in the New York Times in 1855. Hare created as many as six versions of this mechanical device, in the attempt to avoid all possibilities of trickery and manipulation. His most effective idea was to place a disk bearing the letters of the alphabet, which spirits would use to communicate with sitters, in a position hidden from the eyes of the medium (fig. 1). In this way, Hare reasoned, mediums had no control over the message delivered, “even clairvoyance being nullified,” and the experimenter could collect empirical, unabridged evidence of spirit communication.


Fig. 1. The spiritoscope, an instrument designed by chemist Robert Hare to obtain experimental evidence of spirit communication. From Hare, Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestations etc., 1856.

Hare’s spiritoscope is only one of the earliest examples in a long series of instruments produced to test spirit communication. Among the most famous and successful of these devices were planchettes and ouija boards, whose ease of use helped standardize séances as shared experiences of spiritualist inquiry. Yet, Professor Hare’s scientific endeavour might seem at odds with the playful contexts in which many of the later devices were inserted. In fact, several of them were commercialized as popular games throughout the nineteenth century, inaugurating a tradition of toys inspired by spiritualism and mediumship that reaches to the present day. Companies such as Sears Roebuck in the United States and the Two Worlds Publishing Company in Britain marketed several models of ‘spirit boards’ in the last decades of the nineteenth century, turning spirit communication into a popular game that was advertised as such. These devices were available for two apparently contrasting applications: serious spiritual investigation and titillating party game.


Robert Hare, 1781-1858

But are these two potential applications really in contrast with each other? Is a Robert Hare so different from the amusement-seeking buyer of a ouija board? As I argue in my book, answers to these questions might not be as straightforward as we tend to think. We are used to draw a rigid line between things such us science, religion, and entertainment; yet, as the history of spiritualism reminds us, these are in constant intersection with each other.

Since the beginnings, spiritualism was a space onto which scientific inquiry merged with spectacular performances, and entertainment coexisted with religious and spiritual faith. Even though probably most mediums performed at home for friends and family, others gave séance demonstrations on the stage of theatres and public halls to a paying audience of spectators who understood themselves as such. They had managers, some of whom also assisted performers in the show business. As documented by numerous testimonies, moreover, even private séances were perceived as both uplifting and as entertaining activities. To many spiritualists, it was not a contradiction to regard spirit communication as a pastime and an act of scientific and spiritual inquiry at the same time.

It is through such manifold dimension of the spiritualist experience that one might make sense of the spirit boards’ apparently contradictory nature as experimental devices and popular toys. The use of instruments to facilitate spirit communication suggests that séances had something in common with the ‘rational amusement’ of popular nineteenth-century philosophical toys, such as the phenakistoscope  and the stereoscope. These devices were designed to demonstrate the achievements of rational sciences, especially optics, and at the same time to arouse curiosity and to serve as entertainment for private use.

As David Brewster, who invented the kaleidoscope and popularized the application of the stereoscope for photography, put it, “the toy that amuses the child will instruct the sage.” Likewise, the use of spiritualist devices such as the spiritoscope and the spirit boards coupled leisure with spiritualist inquiry. These devices provided users with standardized practices for conducting spiritualist séances as religious inquiries and as domestic games, allowing for a flexible interpretation of such events.


Brewster, David. 1856. The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory, and Construction, with Its Application to the Fine and Useful Arts and to Education. London: John Murray.

Hare, Robert. 1856. Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestations, Demonstrating the Existence of Spirits and Their Communion with Mortals. New York: Partridge & Brittan.

Herman, Daniel. 2006. ‘Whose Knocking? Spiritualism as Entertainment and Therapy in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco.’ American Nineteenth Century History 7 (3): 417–42.

Lamont, Peter. 2013. Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological Problem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Noakes, Richard. 1999. ‘Telegraphy Is an Occult Art: Cromwell Fleetwood Varley and the Diffusion of Electricity to the Other World.’ British Journal for the History of Science 32 (4): 421–59.

Noakes, Richard. 2004. ‘Spiritualism, Science and the Supernatural in Mid-Victorian Britain.’ In The Victorian Supernatural, edited by Carolyn Burdett and Pamela Thurschwell, 23–43. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

© Simone Natale

Are you Afraid of the Dark?

EJPCLast year I was approached by psychotherapist Nick Totton to contribute an article to a special issue on the ‘occult’, which Totton was about to edit for the European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling. As far as I can tell, my essay will be the only one written by a historian, while all other contributions appear to come from clinicians. The review process is now completed, and I’m pleased to say that the article has been accepted for publication and is likely to see the light of day later this year.

The article is dedicated to the memory of John Forrester, the recently deceased Head of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge. John has been among my most generous supporters since he served as an examiner at my Ph.D. viva, and it was him who had suggested Totton to approach me about a possible essay for the special issue.

I hope to be able to post a link to the full article once it’s published. Meanwhile, here is the abstract.

Are you afraid of the dark? Notes on the psychology of belief in histories of science and the occult

Abstract: The popular view of the inherent conflict between science and the occult has been rendered obsolete by recent advances in the history of science. Yet, these historiographical revisions have gone unnoticed in the public understanding of science and public education at large. Particularly reconstructions of the formation of modern psychology and its links to psychical research can show that the standard view of the latter as motivated by metaphysical bias fails to stand up to scrutiny. After highlighting certain basic methodological maxims shared by psychotherapists and historians, I will try to counterbalance simplistic claims of a ‘need to believe’ as a precondition of scientific open-mindedness regarding the occurrence of parapsychological phenomena by discussing instances revealing a presumably widespread ‘will to disbelieve’ in the occult. I shall argue that generalized psychological explanations are only helpful in our understanding of history if we apply them in a symmetrical manner.

Keywords: historiography, history of science, parapsychology, psychical research, pragmatism, psychology of belief

© Andreas Sommer


Happy Birthday, SPR!

hamiltonToday is the birthday of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), the oldest substantial association founded to investigate in a radical empirical spirit the contested phenomena of animal magnetism and spiritualism. Inaugurated on 20th February 1882, the still existing SPR is now 134 years old. To historians of science and medicine, the Society’s history offers a veritable goldmine of opportunities to investigate some of the links between the sciences and the ‘occult’, which it might not be exaggerated to state have been written out of popular and disciplinary history.

Past presidents of the Society include the ‘father’ of American psychology, William James, and other eminent philosophers and scientists (some of them Nobel Laureates) such Henry Sidgwick, Balfour Stewart, Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, Charles Richet, Henri Bergson, the 3rd and 4th Barons Rayleigh (J. W. and R. J. Strutt), William McDougall, Camille Flammarion, Hans Driesch, C.D. Broad, Gardner Murphy, and F.J.M. Stratton.

Whereas the Wikipedia entry for the SPR is almost useless, in my view the still most accurate and balanced histories of the SPR are Alan Gauld’s The Founders of Psychical Research (London, 1986, Routledge & Kegan Paul), the unpublished Ph.D. thesis by  J. P. Williams,  The Making of Victorian Psychical Research: An Intellectual Elite’s Approach to the Spiritual World (University of Cambridge, 1984), and Trevor Hamilton’s Immortal Longings, a biography of one of the founders of the Society, Frederic W. H. Myers.

© Andreas Sommer

Update, 21 February 16: More informative birthday salutations can now be read on Carlos Alvarado’s blog.

Fresh off the Press: Léon Marillier and the Veridical or Telepathic Hallucination in France

I’m pleased to see my joint article on telepathic hallucinations in French psychology and psychiatry with Pascal Le Maléfan came out today in the journal History of Psychiatry.

Le Maléfan, P., & Sommer, A. (2015). Léon Marillier and the veridical hallucination in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century French psychology and psychopathology. History of Psychiatry, 26, 418-432.
Abstract: Recent research on the professionalization of psychology at the end of the nineteenth century shows how objects of knowledge which appear illegitimate to us today shaped the institutionalization of disciplines. The veridical or telepathic hallucination was one of these objects, constituting a field both of division and exchange between nascent psychology and disciplines known as ‘psychic sciences’ in France, and ‘psychical research’ in the Anglo-American context. In France, Leon Marillier (1862–1901) was the main protagonist in discussions concerning the concept of the veridical hallucination, which gave rise to criticisms by mental specialists and psychopathologists. After all, not only were these hallucinations supposed to occur in healthy subjects, but they also failed to correspond to the Esquirolian definition of hallucinations through being corroborated by their representation of external, objective events.

The PDF of the article can be downloaded free of charge for a limited period here.


Two Years of ‘Forbidden Histories’

Today is my second birthday as a blogger. To celebrate, I decided to upgrade my free WordPress account, mainly to get rid of the annoying ads which started appearing as ‘Forbidden Histories’ got more views. Besides, the Premium account comes with its own dinky domain, forbiddenhistories.com (though the old address, forbiddenhistories.wordpress.com, is still working). Whoop.

I also decided it might be time to create and run a dedicated ‘Forbidden Histories’ Twitter account, which, like its cousin on Facebook, focuses on the topics at the heart of this blog, whereas my personal account continues to tweet a much broader range of historical and personal bits and bobs.


What else is new? In terms of my professional life, I’m approaching the end of my first year as a Junior Research Fellow at Churchill College while continuing my association with the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, where I still supervise students and teach my little course, ‘Psychology in History’.

Perhaps most excitingly, last month I got what seems like a good publishing deal with Stanford University Press, who contracted me for a book with the working title Psychical Research and the Formation of Modern Psychology in Europe and the US. Of course I suffer no illusions of expecting to make money publishing an academic book. But I’m glad that Stanford UP are pushing me to write for a broad audience and intend to produce an affordable paperback from the start. In practical terms, this means anybody who really wants to read the book should be able to get hold of a copy.

At any rate, after guest-editing the special section ‘Psychical Research in the History of Science and Medicine’ for Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences last year, I hope the book will mark a second major step in my attempts to further consolidate historical interest in the unorthodox side of modern science.

Those of you who do not receive new blog posts by email (simply subscribe using the box at the upper right if you haven’t already) might have missed last year’s main contributions to ‘Forbidden Histories’. In chronological order, they were a brief recapitulation of the blog’s first year (including a still useful list of previous posts), followed by a guest article from Andrew Manns (a PhD student at the Warburg Institute) on the early modern mathematician Girolamo Cardano and his spirit visions.

Next, I wrote a piece on ancient Greek temple medicine, oracles and voice-hearing, discussing competing uses of their histories during the making of modern psychology and anthropology. This was followed by an article revealing a new source regarding Carl Gustav Jung’s experiments with mediums and clairvoyants, which I unearthed in a now obscure German book on spiritualism from 1921.

The next contribution was on the longer side and addressed a common myth regarding scientific practice. By connecting William James’ futile attempts to get scientific colleagues involved in his radical empirical tests of the medium Leonora Piper with the almost complete lack of interest by modern scientists in recent investigations of alleged memories of past lives in children, it questioned the widespread assumption that the so-called ‘scientific community’ really is guided by an ethos to investigate major scientific anomalies reported by well-qualified and respected colleagues.

Finally, I gave a short overview of my upcoming book (mentioned above) on the historical links between psychical research and psychology, making the bold claim that it will offer a radical revision of the traditional historiography of modern science and its relationship with the ‘occult’.

So what’s in the pipeline for the next 12 months? Besides updates on my book and forthcoming articles, I’m planning to post a note on my work as history advisor for a new BBC drama mini-series, The Living and the Dead. Moreover, I continue to recruit fellow historians to write guest posts. Should you be interested in discussing a brief article related to the scope of ‘Forbidden Histories’ (2-3 pages, written for a broad audience), or know another historian who you think I should pester, simply get in touch by email (as2399 AT cam DOT ac DOT uk).

© Andreas Sommer

It’s Happening: ‘Psychical Research and the Formation of Modern Psychology’

I’m chuffed to report that I just received the contract for my book, preliminary titled Psychical Research and the Formation of Modern Psychology. The study, to be published in late 2016 or early 2017 by Stanford University Press, will respond to a growing trend of historical interest in psychical research, i.e. the radical empirical investigation of reported ‘occult’ phenomena associated with animal magnetism and spiritualism.


Based on a wealth of previously unexplored primary sources in English, German and French (including material from over two dozens archives spread over three continents), the book will identify deep divisions in historical scholarship regarding links between psychical research and professionalized psychology, which emerged simultaneously in the late nineteenth century.

Demonstrating that it was often difficult to draw a clear-cut distinction between elite psychical research and experimental psychology in terms of representatives, research questions and empirical findings, the book will fundamentally challenge the standard way of sketching the historical relationship between these disciplines in terms of an alleged victory of ‘science’ over ‘superstition’.

Grounded in a juxtaposition of conflicting attitudes to psychical research in the men commonly credited as the ‘founders’ of the modern psychological profession, Wilhelm Wundt in Germany and William James in the US, the study captures a wide range of positions regarding psychical research among early leading representatives of psychology in Europe and America. Employing a cross-national perspective, it will sketch the brief but historically significant rise of psychical research as a branch of experimental psychology and analyze the context of its demise.

A central argument is that the repudiation of psychical research by Wundt and other early representatives and popularizers of psychology had surprisingly little to do with the often-assumed intrinsic lack of scientific rigour of psychical research. It will show that as a rule opponents did not engage in constructive methodological discussions, but instrumentalized widespread nineteenth-centuries fears of social, religious and moral corollaries of ‘superstition’, ‘enthusiasm’ and similar shorthands for excessive belief and epistemic deviance.

This study will reconstruct major metaphysical and political debates at a time when the sciences became modern academic professions. Even though these debates have long vanished from public awareness, they continue to shape the limits of permissible scientific inquiry, as well as standard ways of writing the history of the relationship between science and the occult. I therefore hope the book will not only be of interest to historians of the sciences, but a broad audience interested in past and present controversies related to the subject matter of psychical research.

If you’d like to stay in the loop and receive updates about the book and related projects, subscribe to Forbidden Histories using the box on the right!

© Andreas Sommer


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