Otherwise known as ‘Is Spiritualism a Fraud?’, the 1906 short film is a fantastic example of how spirit contact, or rather, perceived spirit contact, has been a source of entertainment and debate since its inception nearly 200 years ago.
Preserved by the BFI, the six minute silent film remains an enjoyable farce and follows the exploits of a small group of suburban spiritualists who, when their resident medium is exposed as a fraud, take revenge. The elaborate séance tricks of the medium were commonplace in the 19thcentury whereby the realm of the dark séance curated prime opportunities for trickery and misdirection; all thanks to a few strings, a stooge and a pot of glow-in-the-dark paint.
By the turn of the century, such overblown ‘performance’ elements of manifestation mediumship and dark seances were already rather old hat, with reports of clear fraudulent practise commonplace in the spiritualist press. This general familiarity with the presence of spiritualism and spiritualist groups in society was prime territory for the film’s director who had professionally worked as a stage magician. Subsequently, he would have known how many mediumistic tricks were conducted and may have indeed felt a little rivalry with the profession that attributed mysticism to their own inventions.
‘However, the crucial difference between his illusions and those of a medium is that Booth’s audience knew that they were being deceived, but were happy to go along with the charade for the sake of both entertainment and the pleasure of working out how it was done.’
Short films such as these were forerunners to the world of visual effects and were known as ‘trick’ films. Directed by trick-film specialist Walter R. Booth (although also credited to J. H. Martin), it was one of the last films made in collaboration with R.W. Paul. Unlike their other films, of which there are many, the mechanisms by which their tricks operated are directly shown to the audience – in this instance, for comedic, not just dramatic effect.
While we may view the film today as a short comedy and a relic of filmmaking history, it is generally believed that the intentions of ‘The Medium Exposed?’ were to attack spiritualism, rather than gently jibe at its known frauds. The final scene where the medium is paraded around the streets of Muswell Hill is somewhat reminiscent of a medieval public humiliation, whereby an individual would be taken about the town and openly punished as a warning to others.
As fraudulent and extortive mediums and psychics are still a familiar sight in modern society, I’m sure many would feel that the Edwardian medium’s fate was very much deserved!
The Haunted Curiosity Shop (Robert W. Paul) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKV7YK_hzBk
The Motorist (1906) (Robert W. Paul) –