There is perhaps no more famous ghost story than “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas,” the novella better known as “A Christmas Carol” written by Charles Dickens. Published in 1843, the visitations of three ghosts changed the life of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and the tradition of Christmas forever. Dickens wrote other ghost stories and had a fascination – and a skepticism – for the paranormal. A new exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum in central London features a ‘never before seen in public’ letter written by Dickens to fellow author William Howitt seeking advice on locating a haunted house in the UK where he and a friend would be guaranteed to see a ghost – not just any ghost but one that would “molest” him. Did Howitt help find a place to scare the dickens out of Dickens?
“He was fascinated, but we like to term him a fascinated sceptic. Although he was really interested in ghosts, I wouldn’t say he really believed in their existence. But he loved the idea of people being scared of ghost stories.”
Emily Dunbar is the curator of “To Be Read At Dusk: Dickens, Ghosts and the Supernatural,” which opens at the Charles Dickens Museum on October 5. She made the announcement in The Guardian along with sharing some interesting tidbits about the author and his lifelong fascination with ghosts and the paranormal. They began in childhood when his nanny, “Miss Mercy,” told him terrifying bedtime stories. In his teen years, he was known to be a fan of the horror magazine “The Terrific Register,” even though he later confessed that the stories made him “unspeakably miserable, and frightened my very wits out of my head.” However, Dickens was said to be a skeptic – not just of ghosts but of the Spiritualism movement of his time. He looked for scientific explanations for the apparitions allegedly seen in seances and attributed them to the participants being led into a physiological state that was “a disordered condition of the nerves or senses.” As Dunbar notes, that personal skepticism did not stop Dickens from taking advantage of, and the money from, the believers who loved reading ghost stories.
“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.
“I don’t,” said Scrooge.
“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”
“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.
“Why do you doubt your senses?”
“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats.”
That passage from his most famous bestseller is a reflection of Dickens’ true feelings about ghosts, but that didn’t stop him from writing more than two dozen other ghost stories, many of which appeared in collections and novels such as The Pickwick Papers, Bleak House, and Nicholas Nickleby. Instead of Spiritualism, Dickens was fascinated with mesmerism – an early form of hypnosis that was popular in the Victorian era. During that time, this invisible force of ‘animal magnetism’ was an accepted form of medical treatment and Dickens used the idea of mental phantoms and psychological spirits in stories like “A Madman’s Manuscript.”
In the 1860s, Dickens joined the Ghost Club, one of the first paranormal investigation and research organizations, where he and other members discussed ghosts and psychic phenomena and conducted investigations of alleged paranormal phenomena. Besides challenging the validity of the seances of Spiritualism, Dickens likely joined the group in investigating Ira and William Davenport – the infamous magicians known as the Davenport brothers who were caught presenting their “spirit box” illusion as a real way to contact the dead.
“(Please recommend) any haunted house whatsoever within the limits of the United Kingdom where nobody can live, eat, drink, stand, lie or sleep without sleep-molestation.”
In the letter to be displayed in the new exhibit at the Charle Dickens Museum, which is not haunted but was once the home of the author, Dickens asks William Howitt, a well-known history writer who himself was so interested in Spiritualism that he published “The History of the Supernatural in all Ages and Nations, and in all Churches, Christian and Pagan,” to recommend a haunted house where he and John Hollingshead, the writer and theatrical impresario (financier) who brought Gilbert and Sullivan together in 1871 to produce their first joint work, could be guaranteed to have a ghostly encounter or “molestation.” According to Emily Dunbar, Howitt first recommended an inn in the Holborn district of central London.
Hollingshead visited the inn alone and said it was a “tumbledown pothouse … only haunted by the claims of brewers and distillers.” Howitt then sent them to what he thought was a haunted house in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. When Dickens, Hollingshead and the novelist Wilkie Collins arrived at the address, they found there was nothing there. Dunar says the record shows they gave up and had lunch instead at what was likely a non-haunted pub.
The Guardian reports that the exhibition will have other objects, posters, letters and books highlighting Dickens’s connections to the realities and the illusions of the supernatural. One such item is Dickens’s personal, annotated copy of “The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain, A Fancy for Christmas-Time that was better known as “The Haunted Man.” This was the fifth and last of Dickens's Christmas novellas which he read from during public performances. However, the more infamous performance of “The Haunted Man” was made by John Henry Pepper, a British scientist and inventor best known for developing the projection technique known as Pepper's ghost, which he used to create the illusion of a ghost in a Christmas Eve production of the play in 1862 at the Royal Polytechnic Institution.
So, Charles Dickens never had the chance to spend the night in a haunted house where he could have been molested by a ghost, causing him to ironically exclaim, “What the dickens was that?” For those not familiar with that exclamation of surprise, it has nothing to do with Charles Dickens. The phrase was first used in Shakespeare's “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (“I cannot tell what the dickens his name is”) and is a euphemism for the devil.
While Charles Dickens wasn’t the devil, he certainly was a dickens of a ghost story writer. It’s a shame he never had a chance to meet one in person.
Or did he?