May 17, 2024

Haunted Britain: Spiritualism, Psychical Research And The Great War With Kyle Falcon

Haunted Britain: Spiritualism, Psychical Research And The Great War With Kyle Falcon

The Great War haunted the British Empire. Shell shocked soldiers relived the war’s trauma through waking nightmares consisting of mutilated and grotesque figures. Modernist writers released memoirs condemning the war as a profane and disenchanting experience. Yet British and Dominion soldiers and their families also read prophecies about the coming new millennium, experimented with séances, and claimed to see the ghosts of their loved ones in dreams and in photographs. On the battlefields, they had premonitions and attributed their survival to angelic, psychic, or spiritual forces. For many, the war was an enchanting experience that offered proof of another world and the transcendental properties of the mind. Between 1914 and 1939, an array of ghosts lived in the minds of British subjects as they navigated the shocking toll that death in modern war exerted in their communities.

My Special Guest Is Kyle Falcon

Kyle Falcon is a historian specialising in the British Empire during the First World War. He received his MA and PhD from Wilfrid Laurier University. His doctoral research focused on British spiritualism and psychical research in the Great War. He is the author of 'Haunted Britain: Spiritualism, Psychical Research and the Great War.' Kyle is based in Ontario, Canada.

In this episode, you will be able to:

1. Explore the experiences and trauma and grief on a collective nation.

2. Explore the intersection of Spiritualism and Science during the Great War .

3. Discover some of the psychical experiences reported and explored during this period.

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Michelle: Welcome to Haunted History Chronicles, the podcast where we unravel the mysteries of the past one ghostly tale at a time. I'm your host, Michelle, and I'm thrilled to be your guide on this eerie journey through the pages of history. Picture this a realm where the supernatural intertwines with the annals of time, where the echoes of the past reverberate through haunted corridors and forgotten landscapes. That's the realm we invite you to explore with us. Each episode will unearth stories, long buried secrets, dark folklore, tales of the macabre, and discuss parapsychology topics from ancient legends to more recent enigmas. We're delving deep into locations and accounts all around the globe, with guests joining me along the way. But this podcast is also about building a community of curious minds like you. Join the podcast on social media, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to share your own ghostly encounters, theories, and historical curiosities. Feel free to share with friends and family. The links are conveniently placed in the description for easy access. So whether you're a history buff with a taste for the supernatural or a paranormal enthusiast with a thirst for knowledge, haunted history chronicles is your passport to the other side. Get ready for a ride through the corridors of time where history and the supernatural converge, because every ghost has a story, and every story has a history. And now let's introduce today's podcast or.

Michelle: Guest welcome to haunted history chronicles, where we delve into the mysterious and the unexplained, uncovering the eerie intersections of the past with the supernatural. Today, our journey takes us back to the tumultuous period surrounding world War one, where the boundaries between science and the supernatural blurred in the fog of war. Joining me in this exploration is Kyle Falcon, a distinguished historian of the British Empire and the role of spiritualism and psychical research. He is the author of Haunted Spiritualism, psychical research, and the great War. In this episode, Kyle shares with us the origins and inspirations behind his work. Delving into the nature of the experiences recounted in his book, well uncover the intriguing intersections of science and the supernatural, exploring psychic phenomena on the battlefield, and the profound role of grief and loss. During this tumultuous time. The Great War left an indelible mark on the British Empire, haunting the collective psyche of its soldiers and citizens alike. Shell shocked veterans grappled with waking nightmares, while families sought solace in prophecies of the new millennium and the spectral presence of their loved ones. Join us as we navigate the eerie landscapes of the First World War, where the boundaries between the seen and unseen, the material and the ethereal blur in the haunting echoes of history. Between 1914 and 1939, ghosts roamed the minds of british subjects, offering glimpses of another world and the transcendental properties of the human spirit. So get comfortable as we unravel the threads of the past, illuminating the profound impact of death in modern warfare on the collective consciousness of a nation and where the ghosts of the past await their stories to be told.

Michelle: Hi, Kyle. Thank you so much for joining me this evening.

Kyle Falcon: Hi, Michelle. Thank you so much for having me. Pleasure.

Michelle: Would you like to start by just introducing yourself and telling the listeners a little bit about yourself and your background?

Kyle Falcon: Yeah. So I'm a historian of the British Empire. I'm interested in particularly cultural history. Cultural history and cultural experiences of warfare, particularly the first and second world War within the British Empire. Like most people who find themselves gravitated towards these topics, I became interested in studying the history of the first and second world wars due to family history. My great grandfather fought for the British in the First World War, and then my grandfather and his wife also served for the Canadians in the Second World War. So that's kind of what brought me to study in history.

Michelle: And you've written a book called Haunted Spiritualism, psychical research, and the great, great War. Would you like to just elaborate on the kind of the origins and the inspirations behind that book and what drove you to explore that intersection of history and spirituality in the supernatural? Really?

Kyle Falcon: Yeah. So it really began about 16 years ago. I was undergraduate student at Nipsing University in North Bay, Ontario, and it was for a course on war and society, a graduate course, a fourth level course on war and society. And we were reading a memoir called ghosts have warm hands by a canadian soldier, will our bird, written in 1968, and in it he tells this rather strange experience. It's 1917. It's shortly after the Canadians have captured Vimy Ridge. He returns to the front from sick leave, and he's kind of wandering around the battlefield, or the former battlefield, and he's looking for a shelter. And two soldiers wave him into their shelter and he joins them and he falls asleep. And a few hours later, he's awoken by a tug at his arm. And he looks up and he sees his brother, Steve Byrd. And this is peculiar because Steve Bird was reported missing and presumed killed in 1915. So, of course, will our bird has plenty of questions. You know, where have you been? Why haven't you contacted our mother? What happened to you? How did you get here? And Steve doesn't say anything. He just kind of wanders off and kind of signals at will, our bird to follow him. And Will gets out of the shelter and walks around, follows his brother, and eventually his brother kind of vanishes. And will bird thinks, well, you know, I've just got. I've been sick, I'm exhausted. It's. I just woke up. You know, maybe I was just dreaming. He falls back asleep amongst some ruins in a nearby village. And he's awoken in the early morning to frantic shouting. And it's his fellow comrades who are surprised to see him alive because the shelter that he was sleeping in was directly hit by a shell. And all that was found was some body parts and will Arbird's backpack. So will our bird becomes convinced that he's saved from certain death by the ghost of his brother Steve. And that story always just resonated with me. I always found it very peculiar because the first World War, it's kind of the quintessential modern war. It's the first war involving airplanes, it's a first war involving tanks and submarines, a war involving machine guns, chemical weapons, artillery. It was kind of unusual to me that people also saw ghosts, that it was also maybe a supernatural war as well. And so that's really what kind of began it. And when I was studying history in graduate school, looking for a topic to do my PhD on, I just kept coming back to this aspect of the first world War. And in my first year of studying the PhD, Will, our bird's original memoir and we go on, which was published in, I believe, in 1930, was just re released. And it's filled with supernatural and psychic experiences. And so I really wanted to understand that culture that Will R. Byrd was responding to at the time and was really fascinated with just kind of this other side of the first world War.

Michelle: I think it's intriguing just how many examples of this type of experience there are. I mean, I was only speaking to a friend earlier this evening to say that I was going to be speaking to you for the podcast, and she was just bursting at the seams to say, you've got to tell him of this experience. On my mother's side of the family who were German, and they were on the front, and there were two members of the family who experienced this dream where their brother or their son, depending on who it was, experiencing it, but they experienced this same dream of seeing this young man who was only 18, just crying out to them whilst they were sleeping and having this experience and woke up with this profound sense that he was lost. And of course then went on to discover that he was presumed dead. And so, as I say, it's surprising just how many experiences like these, I think many families at the time had or knew someone who had, that have then subsequently been passed down through generations. Just incredible, really, when you think about it.

Kyle Falcon: Yeah, and I'm glad you brought that up, because those types of experiences, they were actually called crisis apparitions at the time. That was the gnomon culture. And basically, that was when somebody's ghost appeared to a loved one precisely at the moment of their death. And they're ubiquitous in the culture at the time, especially within the british empire. There's an 1890s census that estimates that 10% of the british population experiences a crisis apparition at some point in their lives. And so when the war breaks out, there's actually kind of almost this expectation amongst loved ones that if their son or husband or brother were to die in the war, that he would make an attempt to contact them at that moment of death. And indeed, I devote an entire chapter to these crisis apparitions, because there are so many of them, and they continue to be passed on within the family histories. Every time I give a talk on this topic, someone from the audience will come to me and tell me a very similar story.

Michelle: What would you say the role of trauma influenced by World War one really helped spark this revival in interest in spiritualism in Britain? How did that collective experience of war contribute to that resurgence of spiritual beliefs and practices?

Kyle Falcon: Well, I think a lot of it had to do with the nature of death in the first world War. So, I mean, on the one hand, there's trauma, because so many young men are killed in such a short period of time. But it's also what happens to their bodies that, I think inflicts this mass trauma on british society. And that is that half of the 900,000 men who die from the British Empire have no known grave in France or Belgium, in fact. So that's about 450,000 missing soldiers. But out of those 450,000, only about 180,000 have a grave. So that's about almost 300,000 bodies that are completely missing. They simply vanish. They're either eviscerated by shellfire, or they're swallowed by the earth and consumed and never seen again. And I think that Britain is not prepared for that. A lot of Britons look to the church, and the church don't have really any good answers as to what has happened to these young men, or at least not any answers that are very satisfying. And so that shock of the missing soldiers, they literally haunt the british landscape, right? People see their loved ones in their dreams. They see them in photographs. They have visions of them at nighttime, throughout the day, they're literally haunted by these missing soldiers. And that leads a lot of people to experiment with kind of unconventional mourning practices. So spiritualism was nothing new at the time. It had been around since about the 1850s. But it takes on new life because people are looking for alternative ways to. To kind of respond to this mass vanishing act.

Michelle: So was the rise in spiritualism post World War one unique and exclusive to Britain, or did you see a similar phenomena across other countries affected by the war?

Kyle Falcon: So it's definitely not unique to Britain, but there is a unique story to Britain, if that makes sense. Spiritualism and psychical research are established in the United States. In Canada. In fact, it originates in the United States and Canada. It spreads to Europe in the 1850s. It spreads to France. It spreads to Germany. There's even spiritualists in Brazil. But what happens during the war is these movements are shaped by the war experiences of those particular nations. And in Britain, in France, for example, the war is kind of cut and dried. It's kind of almost black and white. France is invaded. France is victorious. It regains Alsace and Lorraine. In Germany, the war signifies defeat and revolution. But in Britain, the war is kind of a pyrrhic victory in the sense that 900,000 die. And the results of the war are a little ambiguous. It's not necessarily, was it worth that massive of a sacrifice? And so what happens in Britain within the spiritualist movement is as time goes on and as the extent of the sacrifice is laid bare, people start looking for kind of cosmic explanations for the war. And there's this kind of narrative that emerges. And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes, is kind of the biggest advocate for this message, is that, well, the first world war may not have ended war. It may not have been the war to end all wars as some people had claimed it would be. But at least it. This mass death, this mass sacrifice by Britain's youth, at least it brought people towards the seance. It brought people towards spiritualism. And that revelation could prove that the afterlife was real. It could unite science and religion. And what you see in countries like Germany, where the war signifies defeat and revolution, these esoteric movements, these spiritualist movements, these occultist movements, they're much more antisemitic, much more nationalistic. And, in fact, the nazi movement actually originates out of some of these occultist movements. So it's. It's a shared experience, but it's also very different. And those differences are, in a lot of ways shaped by the nation's war experiences.

Michelle: So in your book, you delve into the experiences recounted during the Great War. Could you describe the nature of some of these experiences as well as some of the most compelling or poignant experiences detailed in your book? How do they shed light on this psychological toll of war?

Kyle Falcon: So I purposely structured the book. The book is about these experiences. The experiences are front and center. Every chapter opens with a story, and each chapter kind of revolves around a certain particular experience. So chapter one, for example, is all about divination and prophecies. Chapter two, it's about experiences on the battlefield. Chapter three is about telepathy and crisis apparitions. Chapter four, about seances. And chapter five is about spirit photography. And the reason why I did it that way was because I wanted to include as many of these experiences as possible. For me, that's really the story here. Or what interests me is, you know, what were the nature of these experiences? Why did people have these experiences, and what do they mean? And what can they tell the historian? That's interesting. The experiences that really stood out to me, I think, were the crisis apparitions. Like I said, I devoted an entire chapter to this. And the reason why is because when we think about trauma in the first world War, we tend to think about the soldier. Right. Of course, shell shock being a very popular topic amongst historians of the first world War. But the war also really impacted the families of the soldiers, and they experienced a type of trauma themselves. And I think, in particular, with the crisis apparition, it's an interesting window into the emotional lives of the people on the home front. We know just from snippets of soldiers letters because the family members letters don't survive. Right. But we have lots of letters from the soldiers. We know just from snippets of these letters, that the people on the home front experience an excruciating anxiety while soldiers were away. And we know they had anxious dreams and had trouble sleeping. And what you get from these crisis apparitions is kind of that side of their story. We have people kind of recounting how they dealt with the anxiety of war, and they did that by kind of trying to establish these telepathic bonds with their loved ones across the channel who are fighting on the battlefields. And these crisis apparitions were kind of a way for them to experience intimacy with the soldiers who were separated from long distances. And there's this kind of consoling notion in the fact that in his last moments, the soldier is able to kind of reach out and give an intimate last goodbye to his loved ones.

Michelle: Yeah, there's something very touching about that, isn't there? And uniting in that moment of, you know, being able to, like you said, just being able to stretch out and have that connection, that psychic connection that plays out in those experiences. And I think, again, I think you're right. I think it speaks very much to the profound sense of grief on both sides that this was something experienced by everybody in terms of this being a real physical loss and a real physical separation that was manifested out in real life. And then somehow in this crisis apparition, there's a unification that bridges that loss that they've been experiencing during that conflict and their time of separation in that moment of death, that somehow there's this moment of connection again which brings, I imagine, some sense of peace. Mm hmm.

Kyle Falcon: Definitely. And there's no, you know, it's not surprising that they were so popular at the time. Right. I mean, one thing we know for sure is that there's a vibrant emotional network during the first World War that's exchanged through letters. Right. Millions of letters are sent back and forth to and from the front and this way. And it's how soldiers and families maintain intimacy throughout the war. But then all of a sudden, when they die, that that communication stops, that intimacy stops. And you receive kind of this plain war office telegram that tells you that someone died. But with telepathy and a crisis apparition, it's much more intimate. It maintains that intimacy. It's personal, and it's very meaningful to the people who experience it.

Michelle: Absolutely. Were these kinds of experiences something that were the same across all social classes, or was it something unique to certain aspects of social classes? How did it kind of. How would you say it kind of presented across the spectrum of every person in terms of their position in society?

Kyle Falcon: Yeah, that's a great question. And there's a really good book by the historian of magic, Owen Davies, called a supernatural war, which looks at kind of the popular use of supernatural practices across all classes, and I highly recommend it. My book is really interested in one segment of the british population, the middle and upper middle class, particularly the social and cultural lead of Britain. And there's. And there's a reason for that. Part of it is sources, but it's deeper than that. The war targets the upper classes disproportionately, and that's because the upper class were more likely to serve as officers, and officers were twice as likely to be killed. Than all other ranks. And there's a real sense, especially after 1916, once Kitchener's armies begin to be slaughtered on the western front in the battle of the Somme and then Passchendaele and the german spring offensive in 1918, there's a real sense that the war is wiping out the children of Britain's elite. And it creates kind of this almost cultural anxiety amongst these classes who are trying to understand what is happening to their children, what's happening to the future of their families. And the future is supposed to belong to the children of Britain's elite. And so one of the things they, one of the ways they respond to this slaughter of their children is they construct this new cosmology in which the deaths of their children will bring about new kind of intellectual revolution. It'll prove the existence of the afterlife, it'll unite science and religion, and it will end human conflict. So that's really the story, that's really the thrust of this book, is that although the supernatural was popular amongst all classes, the spiritualist and psychical movement that emerges out of the, out of the first world War is one that's really centered around the upper classes almost giving.

Michelle: Meaning behind that sense of loss. As you mentioned, this generation of the elite almost providing a reason, a positive outcome, as it, like you said, to prove something beyond just their deaths. So it gives meaning, I suppose, to their deaths and their losses.

Kyle Falcon: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

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Michelle: Your book also touches on psychic phenomena on the battlefield. Do you want to provide some examples of what that kind of phenomena looked like and the significance in terms of the context of wartime experience?

Kyle Falcon: Yeah, and that was one of my favorite chapters to research and write about. My first trip to the, to the archives. My first year as a PhD student, I went to the Imperial War museum, and the first file I opened up, I got about five minutes into reading it, and it's a chaplain's diary, and in it he, he tells this fascinating story about the soldier that he met, who anytime he was under shellfire, a guardian angel would appear next to him. And he was caught in this position where about a dozen or so of his comrades were either wounded or killed. And he was caught in this position, and he felt an instant kind of calm when this guardian angel placed their hand on his head. And he recounts all these stories of bravery that he was able to accomplish because he had this guardian angel. And at the time I went, oh my God, this is, this is going to be easy. My first file, and this is, this is the story I find. I never found really anything quite like that ever again, despite reading many more files. But although stories like that are rare and hard to find, supernational stories on the battlefield are, are really quite legion in particular, premonitions are experienced by. If you open up a memoir from the First World War, chances are you're going to read about a soldier having a premonition. They're ubiquitous, very popular stories, by far the most popular experience or psychic experience at the time of the first World War. And I think of the reasons why that is, is because war was very random and depersonalized. You didn't really. Most of the time, you didn't see the enemy. A shell could fall at a moment's notice and indiscriminately kill. You know, one soldier would survive without. Without a scratch, while others would be killed. A bullet could ricochet, and death could be a matter of inches. And so death was really random. And soldiers didn't really want to think too deeply about mortality or the nature of death in the first world war. But this idea that, you know, the next shell could have your name on it, or the next bullet could have your name on it was very disconcerting. And soldiers kind of just gravitated towards premonitions. A soldier wouldn't have a dream or have this intuition that so and so would be killed. And sure enough, the next day he's struck by a bullet or hit by a shell. And so I think the nature of trench warfare really stimulated kind of these psychic experiences.

Michelle: What you were just saying touches on something that I wanted to ask you that came out of that. And that's really this kind of context of wartime experiences and the perceptions of mortality and whether this tumultuous period, the role of missing soldiers, really helped play a part in people's perceptions of death and mortality and what that looked like and if it changed over the course of the first World war in Europe, in your opinion?

Kyle Falcon: I think one thing that really strikes me about. So one of my chapters is all about seance communications, and we don't really. There's not many studies out there that have kind of looked at do we know that spiritualism saw a resurgence during the first World War? But what was said during these seances, and so that was something that was really important to me when I was writing this book, is I wanted to know what were people being told when they went to these seances? And some of the things that jumped out at me was that there's a real emphasis on the afterlife, what the afterlife was like. The afterlife is this paradise, but it's very similar to earth in the sense that soldiers pass over and they do a lot of the things and say a lot of the things that they would have done while they were alive. They retain kind of their interests. They retain their character, their personality, and it's a very kind of earthly heaven. And I think there's a lot of reasons for that. And one of the reasons is in the after, amidst all this destruction that's occurring on earth, millions of bodies are being mutilated, literally being eviscerated into nothing. Body parts are so mixed up that 180,000 graves are unmarked. They can't identify who that is. Amidst all this earthly destruction, people kind of concoct this new afterlife in which their loved one is still alive. They're not dead. They're enjoying all their earthly pleasures, but they're free from that destruction, right? Their bodies are in full form. They have these with what they call ethereal bodies, a perfect body that exists on the ether, that's untouched by war's destruction. So if there's any kind of change in spirituality that comes out of the first world war, I think that's a big part of it. I think heaven becomes much more earthly. And there's also some historians have argued this, that heaven becomes more democratic. And this is something that kind of clashes with the view of heaven amongst the christian denominations versus the spiritualists, is that, you know, there's no heaven or hell in the traditional sense. If you sinned in life, you still went to the same afterlife that everybody else went to. You just kind of started at a lesser plane of existence, and you had to kind of do work to evolve to greater states of awareness. Paradise. And some have convincingly made the argument that in response to spiritualism, the churches start to be a bit more democratic as well.

Michelle: So you obviously, you know, throughout the book are really kind of trying to make this connection between the science and the supernatural, this intersection and interplay between them. Were there efforts during this period from researchers and scientists to understand the phenomena that was taking place around deathbed experiences or crisis apparitions, the various phenomena that we kind of touched upon, were they debunking it? Were they trying to understand it? What was the kind of. What was kind of the attitude from the researchers and the scientists in this particular timeframe?

Kyle Falcon: So that's a good question. And this whole connection between science and religion and introducing science into spiritual matters, that all begins, of course, decades before the first world War. Psychical research, which is founded to take seriously the claims of spiritualists from intellectuals and scientists, is established in the 1880s. And so by the outbreak of the first world War, there's already scientists who are interested in these sorts of things and who are studying these sorts of things. But what happens is before the first world War, they're much more interested in things like telepathy, you know, proving that it's possible to communicate from one mind to another when the war breaks out. These scientists who are interested in spiritualism, who are interested in psychical research, gravitate more towards the spiritual side of things, more towards questions about the survival of human personality, about, you know, whether or not sales communications are really from discarnate personalities, you know, whether or not there's an afterlife, that sort of thing. There's much more interest in that kind of phenomenon than there was before the first World War. And it creates a lot of interest. Scientific American, for example, popular science magazine, holds a contest in the 1930s, or, sorry, the late 1920s or, no, mid 1920s, to kind of. And they vow to give whoever could prove that spiritualism is real. They vow to give them, you know, thousands of dollars as a prize. And, you know, it attracts Harry Houdini, for example. And there's this pushback eventually in the mid 1920s by skeptics. But interestingly enough, the skeptics aren't necessarily the scientists. The biggest skeptics at the time are the stage magicians, the Harry Houdinis. And it's the debunking. And the skepticism really comes from the stage magician side rather than the scientists. Interestingly enough.

Michelle: It'S interesting, though, how you're able to see that change in terms of prominence, in terms of what they wanted to research and study, how the impact of the first World War also impacted on the nature of what it was they wanted to research that came out of it, in terms of the phenomena. And like you say, this shift away from focusing on certain aspects to really trying to engage with this question of being able to verify and confirm the afterlife and the nature of the spirit after death. It's fascinating that you see this also impacting the group who are the researchers, as well as the people experiencing it, so to speak.

Kyle Falcon: Yeah, and there's. I think there's. I think one of the appeals of spiritualism and psychical research at the time, too, is that you don't have to rely on scripture or faith. You can also point to evidence. Now in reality and in hindsight, a lot of the evidence was very thin and there was a lot of fraud. But at the time, people could point to a piece of evidence and say, it's not just my faith. This is real scientific facts, or I observed this, rather than just again proclaiming that you have faith in something. And I think that's one reason why spiritualism sees a resurgence in popularity at the time and why I think some of the churches feel threatened by it is because it kind of promises facts over faith.

Michelle: And I think you touched on something really important, though, which is we've got this almost something that persists, this resurgence that persists long after the first World War. And I guess you part of that is to do with the profound sense of loss that we've talked about and needing something to cling on to as part of being able to grapple with those experiences and that collective sense of loss. But also the aftermath of the first World War in terms of the living, those that came out of it, the soldiers that came out of it in terms of their experiences. I mean, you mentioned earlier that the shell shocked soldier, I think, you know, that's something we're all very familiar with. But I suppose all of that really then did play into keeping that, keeping spiritualism very much alive well up to the, you know, well, up until the second World War and beyond. Because, again, it gave some. It gave people something that was missing elsewhere. It gave them a direction and a place to explore these very big questions and these big issues that affected so many in different ways.

Kyle Falcon: Yeah, I think you're very right. It has a lasting power, which, like you said, right up until the outbreak of the second world War, and then there is a minor resurgence again after the second world War. But it's not as, it doesn't last as long as the one after the first world War. It's not as enduring people go. I say in my book, people go back into the seance room after the Second World War. They just don't stay as long as they did after the first. Yeah, that's an interesting point.

Michelle: So could you just elaborate on some of the variety of methods and practices that soldiers and their families engaged in to explore this sense of trauma and spirituality and the afterlife?

Kyle Falcon: Yeah, in some sense, it comes spontaneously. So there's the spontaneous experiences like the crisis apparitions, like the premonitions on the battlefield. Now, those are informed, again, like I said, by expectations. Right. There's this expectation that a soldier can and will communicate if he dies. There's this expectation that something about the proximity to death on the battlefield creates these conditions that are ripe for psychic activity. But then there's kind of the rituals and the practices that people turn to. By far the most popular is the seance, whether it was with a Ouija board, a planchette, or a medium, but the promise of being able to actually engage in some sort of dialogue with a ghost would, of course, very appealing because you could ask them questions. You could maintain the types of relationships that you had while they were alive on earth. But then there were other practices, like spirit photography, which has been around since the 1860s. It's nothing new, but it definitely sees a revival in the 1920s. And, of course, with a spirit photograph, you, you went and saw a medium or a spirit photographer. Sometimes they were the same person. Sometimes they were separate people. You engage usually in a pre photographic ritual. You maybe sang hymns or said a prayer. The medium went into a trance like state, took your photograph, and then when the photograph was developed, lo and behold, a spirit would be hovering above you. And then there was also things like automatic writing, where an individual, the person who was attempting to contact their loved one, rather than seeing a medium, they would kind of go into a trance like state, and they would hold a pencil on either a planchette or in their hand onto a piece of paper, and they would kind of just let the spirits guide their hand, and they would get communications from beyond.

Michelle: Did modernist writers kind of contribute to this discourse surrounding the supernatural? Did they align or diverge with some of the experiences and the thoughts behind the experiences of the soldiers and their families?

Kyle Falcon: Well, one of the arguments I make in the book is that kind of this divide between modernists and traditionalists, or unmodern and modern, it kind of collapses when you take a closer look. And there's definitely overlap, right? I mean, you take, for example, psychoanalysis, which is considered a very modernist movement. Many people who were towering figures in psychoanalysis, members of the Society of Psychical Research. Some modernist writers engaged with spiritualism and psychical research. But the kind of the memoirists, like the Siegfried Sassoons, the Robert Graves, those types, they come kind of later. So. And then when they do, they definitely contrast with kind of the message of the spiritualists. The message of the spiritualists is that the war had purpose, that the deaths were not in vain, that the war could be redeemed. And the kind of cynicism of the modernist writers, that comes in 1929, when kind of the lofty ideals of the first World War failed to take shape. And by then, the spiritualist movement has kind of already suffered a series of embarrassing public feuds and allegations of fraud by 1929 and into the 1930s. That kind of divide is much more clear, I think.

Michelle: So when you were doing your research and obviously compiling your book, were there any particular accounts or stories that challenged your own beliefs or assumptions when it comes to the supernatural or you know, elements of the spiritual realm, etcetera.

Kyle Falcon: Yeah, that's a good question. I get asked that question a lot, and I always have a different answer, and it's because I'm not really sure. I wouldn't say anything's really challenged my beliefs that I've read. I would say that when I first envisioned this study, it was very different, and it was going to be much more of an anthropological study, much more interested in kind of the psychological phenomenon, kind of the psychology behind this phenomenon. And it grew into a much more cultural study that was much more sympathetic of these subjects and their experiences. I would say that the skeptic in me would say, well, there's been decades of research into parapsychology and psychical research and spiritualism, and there's been nothing earth shattering. There's been no kind of hard proof evidence that these things exist. There's been interesting, you know, interesting findings, interesting stories, interesting conclusions and evidence and data, but nothing in the earth shattering, right? That's overturned the way people think about the cosmos and the afterlife and all that stuff. And. And, in fact, you know, as I recount in my book, there's plenty of examples of fraud and deception that are uncovered, especially in the mid 1920s. But there's definitely been stories that have, you know, sent a shiver up my spine, that have, you know, raised an eyebrow, that have definitely made me think. And I. I've definitely come out of this experience much more open and sympathetic than I was before I started it.

Michelle: So what would you kind of hope that readers would take away from your book, you know, particularly in terms of maybe understanding those complexities of wartime experiences and just the impact that it had on british society?

Kyle Falcon: Well, I think it's a good reminder that war affects the collective. You know, for every soldier who dies, there's a family that's left behind to pick up the pieces, left behind to grieve and to understand that death and to navigate that death and to navigate that world without their loved ones. And that's something that was really important when I was writing this book, was to share their experience, experiences to show, you know, the book haunted brit the title Haunted Britain, is very deliberate. Britain was literally haunted by the death of 900,000 young men. And how people choose to navigate that or how people deal with their grief will always vary. There is no right or wrong answer to grief. There is no black and white. It really is an individual experience. And I think it's important that we take that for what it is and that we don't judge the way people grieve.

Michelle: So just to kind of bring things together, do you think that there's a lasting legacy of the great war in terms of spiritual and supernatural dimensions that we still see influencing, you know, contemporary attitudes about warfare and trauma and spirituality?

Kyle Falcon: Well, I would argue that we're not that different from the people in my book. I would say that we are still enchanted today. In 2016, I was in the UK doing research for this book, and I stumbled across the public commemoration. We are here because we are here in which actors dressed as soldiers and appeared in places in the UK, and they weren't allowed to interact with anyone or talk to anyone. If anybody came up to them, they just kind of handed a card. And it was inspired by tales of ghost sightings in the First World War. War. And I visited the battlefield several times, the former battlefields, the monuments that we have erected. There's very much this kind of feeling that the soldiers are simultaneously present and absent at the same time. Right? The monuments that list the names of the dead, which serve to kind of be substitute gravesites for the missing, all of these things require some level of enchantment, right? It takes enchantment to believe that actors are the ghosts of the dead or that names chiseled onto stone are gravesites. And I think there's a lot of continuity between what happened after the First World War when, you know, people were literally enchanted by the haunting presence of the missing. So I think that we are not that dissimilar from the people in this book.

Michelle: I was just going to say something because I think something you say there just really echoes something I also agree with. And, you know, you see it in things like, I mean, for example, near where I live, they regularly have these figures that are erected, say, for example, at a very local historic building where they will just fill the grounds with these figures that represent a soldier that was lost during the first world War. And so what you have is a physical, physical monument to that person, their story, almost like a representation of their life lost, their story untold. And I think it kind of echoes this sense of haunted Britain, that we're still haunted by these stories that just stopped, that these lies that just stopped. And we somehow still need that physical, tangible thing to look at, to remind us of that. That collective sense of. Of loss and what that meant and what it still means for us today. The stories that we still create and talk about and experience by just simply looking at, you know, a world war one memorial or one of these. These figures that I mention or something else taking part in a ceremony. It somehow connects us still to these moments of the past.

Kyle Falcon: Yeah. And I think that's very profound and very accurate. And spiritualism, in a lot of ways was, you know, a ritual of remembrance. You know, you conversed with people, you conversed with the spirits of your loved ones through some sort of physical medium. Right. You remembered the dead while engaging in seance communications. I think they're both kind of fulfilling the exact same needs.

Michelle: Yeah, absolutely. Completely agree. It's been so fascinating talking to you. I will make sure that all of your social media links and links to the book, etc, are really readily available as part of the podcast description notes, etc. Because I think for anybody who has been interested in this topic or haven't read your book or found you on Twitter, etc, then they may want to do so, because, as I say, you've been such an interesting guest to talk to about this subject, and I know there's so much more we could go into. And your book is incredibly detailed and thoroughly researched in terms of going into what we've been talking about. And we've really only just touched upon the surface of that. It's a, it's a book I recommend people going and finding if they're interested in.

Kyle Falcon: Thank you so much, Michelle. It's been a pleasure.

Michelle: And I will say goodbye to everybody listening.

Kyle Falcon Profile Photo

Kyle Falcon

Historian, Author

Kyle Falcon is a historian specialising in the British Empire during the First World War. He received his MA and PhD from Wilfrid Laurier University. His doctoral research focused on British spiritualism and psychical research in the Great War. He is the author of 'Haunted Britain: Spiritualism, Psychical Research and the Great War.' Kyle is based in Ontario, Canada.