Séances, clairvoyance, and telepathy captivated public imagination in the United States from the 1850s well into the twentieth century. Though skeptics dismissed these experiences as delusions, a new kind of investigator emerged to seek the science behind such phenomena. With new technologies like the telegraph collapsing the boundaries of time and space, an explanation seemed within reach. As Americans took up psychical experiments in their homes, the boundaries of the mind began to waver. Common Phantoms brings these experiments back to life while modeling a new approach to the history of psychology and the mind sciences.
Drawing on previously untapped archives of participant-reported data, Alicia Puglionesi recounts how an eclectic group of investigators tried to capture the most elusive dimensions of human consciousness. A vast though flawed experiment in democratic science, psychical research gave participants valuable tools with which to study their experiences on their own terms. Academic psychology would ultimately disown this effort as both a scientific failure and a remnant of magical thinking, but its challenge to the limits of science, the mind, and the soul still reverberates today.
About the author
Alicia Puglionesi is author of the novella Krall Krall (2013) and the poetry chapbook Views from the National Forests (2014). She has published in The Point, Atlas Obscura, The Public Domain Review, and the VICE magazine Motherboard.
"A fresh perspective on the goals and failures, friendships and rivalries, methods and dreams of those who investigated the interconnected powers of the human mind."
—Pamela Klassen, University of Toronto, author of The Story of Radio Mind: A Missionary's Journey on Indigenous Land
"Common Phantoms is sophisticated, engaging, and at times moving. This important book complements recent studies on psychical research but also breaks new ground on topics such as gender, mental illness, empiricism, and race."
—Christopher White, Vassar College, author of Other Worlds: Spirituality and the Search for Invisible Dimensions
"Common Phantoms offers an insightful, entertaining look at America's haunted history and Americans' hunger to understand the invisible forces that shape their lives. Alicia Puglionesi's artful examination of psychic science—its investigators and experiments, its skeptics and true believers—provides a fascinating view of the empirical study of spiritual pursuits."
—Peter Manseau, Smithsonian Curator of American Religious History and author of The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln's Ghost