occult photography spooky

Scary Dolls, Haunted Dolls

So I was listening to an episode of the loopholes podcast when they began discussing haunted dolls. Though I often find old photos of dolls creepy I never realised there was a whole sub-culture invested in haunted dolls. Indeed I was astonished to find a search for “haunted dolls” on Ebay came up with 1600 such dolls for sale. These dolls came with detailed histories of when and where they came from, what their powers were and so on. Cue a discussion with my wife about buying old dolls at car boot sales and making up stories for them before selling them on ebay.

This angry child from my cabinet card collection would be a good basis for a story. Now where can I find a doll that looks like hers?

This girl and her doll look particularly spooky don’t you think?

This doll has such powers it needs six girls to restrain it.

Now this photograph, and it is a photograph not a postcard, has real potential. The Ebay seller I bought this from suggested it could be a post mortem photograph, a “popular” thing to take in Victorian times and commanding high prices for good examples from collectors today.

Ultimately I don’t think this a PM photo even though the Girl’s eyes seem to have been painted on. The doll though – now that’s a different matter.

I don’t really believe in haunted dolls though, after watching a Youtube video of twenty haunted dolls, I noticed the comments were mostly people apologising to the dolls for looking at them without permission. I didn’t apologise so if you don’t hear from me again you’ll know why.

photography Social history Victorian

Maids: real and theatrical

This is probably what most people think of when imagining Victorian maidservants.

“Parlour maids” is written in pencil on the back of this cabinet card but that was probably added recently. I suspect they were a mixture of different types of maid from a household as servants each had different functions – scullery maid, chamber maid etc. The two girls seated at the front look rather young but girls started in service as young as eight.

This is rather more Downton Abbey (not that I’ve ever watched it) and again what you’d expect. Note there’s a dog amongst the maids too.

Being a maid was not a glamorous job. The hours were long, the jobs dirty and demanding and women in service would be miles away from their families and rarely given time off to visit them. Nevertheless some families thought well enough of their maids to have them photographed.

Troupes of “maids” were a popular entertainment in the music halls though they bore little resemblance to real maids.

For some reason there was a mania for dressing as dairymaids.

Maids on stage are popular to this day. Hard to date this one but probably the 1930s or 40s.

And here’s Gladys Cooper attended by her maid in the play Excelsior from 1928. I’ll write about Gladys in a later blog. She was arguably the first woman to exploit her image on postcards and sold hundreds of thousands of them. It was said that nearly every soldier in the first world war trenches had a postcard of her in his tobacco tin.

[There’s a whole subculture of Victorian working women such as pit brow women. There’s also a fascinating book on Victorian Working Women by Michel Hiley which covers pit brow women, women miners, fishergirls, milkwomen, gymnasts etc]

photography Social history spooky Victorian

The Book of the Dead

If something was called The Book of the Dead I’d expect to see something scary like this ventriloquist and his dummy. (If you’ve ever seen the film Dead of Night you’ll know why this scares me!)

What I wouldn’t expect is to see a Victorian photo album like this:

Photo albums, with or without themes, were very popular in Victorian time. This Tennyson themed album has lots of cut outs to contain CDVs and cabinet cards. This one’s rather charming I’d say.

I mention this because some time ago I attended a commercially organised “ghost hunt” which took place overnight. It was at the school I’d attended as a teenager so I was already familiar with the place and had not been aware of anything particularly spooky associated with it. As it turned out the whole event was rather silly with the facilitators trying hard to conjure up supernatural events, cold spots and the like. To put it kindly it was utter nonsense.

At one point in the night I found myself in a small room with several other participants trying to make contact with “spirits”. The organiser of this session gave out roles to each of us. She asked for a volunteer to sit with the “book of the dead.” As everyone else was wary I volunteered only to find that the book was actually a Victorian album full of cabinet cards and CDVs. I was delighted of course and could see nothing negative about sitting with this album. My frustration was that because we were operating in very dim lighting I couldn’t see the contents properly. No spirits were contacted or harmed during the seance.

For the most part I find nothing creepy about my interest in old photographs. I see the process of collecting and preserving these photos as a valuable and worthwhile activity, hopefully ensuring that other people can see and appreciate these wonderful social documents. I am perplexed when my partner or other people think there is something creepy about my hobby and refer to it as collecting photographs of dead people. I think those people should be remembered and celebrated not discarded and forgotten.

On the other hand there are some creepy items in my collection though I suspect what I find creepy is not what everyone finds creepy. The photo at the head of this blog for instance is creepy to me as are all  films and photos of ventriloquists and their dummies.

Dolls are another thing that can be disturbing. I know I share this with many other people from the feedback I get but sometimes I see a photo featuring a girl and a doll and think it’s creepy whereas others find it delightful. The massed dolls with at girl at the centre is a good example. Creepy or endearing? Only you can decide.

This on the other hand is definitely creepy.

Sometimes the subjects of photographs have a rather haunted look about them. This could be caused by the fact that early photographic techniques required the subjects to be still whilst the exposure was taken but sometimes the subjects look haunted anyway. Taken in Malta this military man and his daughter have a decidedly haunted look.

And sometimes there’s just something wrong or odd about a photograph that makes you wonder what was really going on.

Does the man behind the children look menacing to you?Haunted or cute?

Considering most of these photographs come from the early nineteenth century it is almost certain that the subjects are all now dead but I prefer to think of these old photographs not as items in “The Book of the Dead” but as a celebration of people’s lives.

photography Victorian

Carte de Visite

Or Visiting Cards to you and me. Popular from the 1860s they were mostly replaced by cabinet cards in the 1870s and onwards. CDVs were smaller than the later cabinet cards so could easily be given as visiting cards. They were cheap to produce, hence a person could have a photo taken in a studio and then have multiple reproductions made. There was a mania for collecting CDVs and albums were produced for collections to be stored.

Often the elaborate backs of CDVs can be more interesting than the photographs themselves.

Look past the girl and the dog and you can see that the chair has a jugenstil design and the reverse of the card is clearly influenced by art nouveau.

I’m not sure many of the CDV portraits did justice to their subjects. Many men in particular come out looking stern and rigid. (They had to stay very still for exposures so this goes some way to explaining why they come out the way they do).

CDVs were also used to illustrate national costumes and what were then referred to as “racial types,” a topic perhaps for another discussion. The Dutch lady at the head of this post is a good example of national costume.

[All these CDVs are from my personal collection]

occult photography Victorian

An Update on the Heretics Series

In the original Darkness Begins blog I shared details of my writing. The first novel in a projected trilogy is Alchemists of Time. Here’s some information about the first two books and an update on what’s happening with book three.

In Alchemists of Time:

1859 Benjamin Strutt and Jane Taylor practice the occult sciences and conjure demons. Daisy is trying to escape from the squalor, the violence and life as a prostitute in the dangerous rookeries and backstreets of a Victorian town.

1959 When Alex and Maxine move into an old house, Alex finds himself transported back to the time when Benjamin Strutt lived in the house. Unless he can learn the alchemical and occult arts that Benjamin teaches him he can never go home to his own time. And Bella Nightingale is already threatening the stability of time itself with a killing spree lasting more than a hundred years.

In Ghosts of Time:

Ghosts are just people lost in time….

After ten years living as a Victorian, Alex Harrison is not sure whether he wants to return to his own time of the 1960s. Maxine, Alex’s girlfriend, can’t even remember him after her timeline was altered. When an old enemy reappears the life of Alex and everyone he holds dear comes under threat and he must unite his Victorian family and his friends in the 1960s to defeat an evil that threatens to warp the very fabric of time.

What to expect in book 3 Well of Time*

It’s six months since the apocalyptic events at the end of book 2 and all is not well. Two of the Victorians find themselves transported to the late 1960s, Benjamin Strutt has disappeared from the 1869 house and those remaining are in disarray and under siege from fresh enemies. Meanwhile Alex and friends find they need to revisit their assumptions about time paradoxes to ensure their survival.

It’s early days in the writing process for book 3 so don’t hold your breath! I’ll try not to do a George RR Martin and leave it hanging for years and years.

I’ll update you on Loake and Patel book 3 in a later blog.

(*Potential for confusion with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time I know).


About Cabinet Cards

I’ll be posting examples of my own collection of old photographs starting with cabinet cards. Cabinet cards were first produced in the 1860s but did not reach peak popularity until the 1880s by which time they had largely replaced the smaller carte de visite. Soon cabinet cards would also be overtaken by the introduction of the Box Brownie in 1900 making it possible for everyone to make their own photos.

The cabinet card shown at the top of this post is a fairly typical example of the ever-popular family group. I used this as part of the back cover design for my book Alchemists of time. Tracking down details of the studios and photographers who made these cards is not an easy job. Even when we have  the name of the studio on the card it’s more likely than not that the studio disappeared many years ago and often without trace. There are resources that can help but that’s a topic for another post.

It’s always nice to find cards from your own locality, in my case Derby and Nottingham, though the same problems of provenance apply. These two are from Derby, one a portrait of a girl, the other a “candid” shot of a woman sprawled out over chairs. Who said all Victorian portraits involve someone standing straight and with a serious expression?

Rabbit man is one of my personal favourites, this time from a Nottingham studio. I suspect the rabbits were bred to eat rather than being pets but we’ll never know.

Black for mourning is often to be seen as is white (for purity?)

And what’s this dog thinking?

And finally I couldn’t resist inserting myself into a cabinet card, the surround being from a Victorian photo album designed to take cabinet cards.

( If you think you’ve seen or read some of this before it’s quite possible as my former blog imploded so I’ll be recreating entries here).