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Séances, Tarot, and Possession: The Occult in Penny Dreadful (Season One)(15 Jun 2016)
By Carey Millsap-Spears, Moraine Valley Community College
When Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) instructs gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett) “not [to] be amazed at anything you see,” it is a pivotal moment in the Showtime series Penny Dreadful’s pilot episode “Night Work.” Mr. Chandler might not admit to being amazed, but he is, and so is the audience. The monsters and terrors are real—living along side the mundane lives of everyday people. This is by design. “The prime directive for the series has always been: ‘make it true,’” says John Logan, the series’ creator (qtd. in Gosling 6). The show’s central characters are mashups from Gothic’s greatest hits: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Portrait of Dorian Grey, and in season three, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also joins the literary catalog.
Being true to the time period, the first season of Penny Dreadful, offers viewers elaborate set design, costumes, and a discussion of spiritualism. The use of the occult, or Spiritualism, as an actuality in Penny Dreadful is the key component in the series; the show’s depictions of supernatural beliefs mirror many practices from the late Victorian period. The series, in season one, uses Egyptian mythology, tarot cards, vampires, vampire hunting skills, demonic possession, apparitions, and even a werewolf to advance the story line. (Season two offers even more horrific and titillating frights.) But unlike many other television shows and films, Penny Dreadful’s positioning of the supernatural as natural keeps the story moving forward in an authentic way.
“The supernatural was an important aspect of the Victorian’s intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and imaginative worlds, and took its place in the domestic sphere of their daily lives…” explains Nicola Bown, Carolyn Burdett, and Pamelea Thurschwell in the introduction to The Victorian Supernatural (2). And when Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) writhes atop a table speaking in hellish voices and conjuring memories of those long lost, she upstages the ‘real’ medium—and season-two monster—in the room: Madam Kali (Helen McCroy). Vanessa Ives’ “Séance” sequence, the first moment of Penny Dreadful that writer/creator Logan actually penned, illustrates the tension within the main characters as Vanessa publically shames Sir Malcolm for the death of his son and his inability to find his lost daughter Mina. This scene gives the partygoers a real encounter with the spirit world.
Held at Ferdinand Lyle’s (Simon Russell Beale) home, the party, lavish and calculated, is not unusual for the time. Séances and ‘table rappers’ were common forms of entertainment. “Most people gained their experience of Spiritualism in the domestic séance…” writes Richard Noakes in “Spiritualism, Science, and the Supernatural in Mid-Victorian Britain” (27). The medium, or Spiritualist, would perform “remarkable phenomena [such] as clairvoyance, tables tapping out coded, messages form professed spirits of the dead, and the levitation of objects by ‘spirits’” (27). Most of these events were dismissed as chicanery, yet within the so-called age of science, there were many who believed in these practices. Lyle, an Egyptologist that Sir Malcolm and Vanessa consult with, is horrified by Vanessa’s display of possession, but says that she “put Madam Kali to shame.”
The Spiritualist movement arrived in Britain from America, and the origins “began humbly, in the hamlet of Hydesville, N.Y. … during the winter of 1847-48… (Stuart 44). The Fox sisters, Maggie and Katy wanted to play a trick on their mother by “creating sounds that echoed through their farmhouse at night. At first, the girls tied strings to apples, then repeatedly and rhythmically dropped them on the stairs…(44). The girls kept up their tricks until 1888 when Maggie admitted their fraud. This history would have been part of the American character Chandler’s life experiences, illustrated by the moment that he asks Vanessa if she is a “table rapper” when she suggests that he draw a tarot card from her deck.
Spiritualist skepticism exists in the world of Penny Dreadful, namely—and ironically—in the character of Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), while the monsters and supernatural situations in the series are real for the characters (and the audience). Overall, the underlying metaphors of haunted minds and spaces remain constant and bring a sense of depth to the characters.
Vanessa, who is psychic, powerful, and possessed, feels responsible for Mina Murray’s (Olivia Llewellyn) disappearance and fall into vampirism. On top of everything else that Vanessa represents, her Catholic faith shows her otherness. She is often shown intensely praying at her crucifix. According to Colin Cruise in “Baron Corvo and the Key to the Underworld,” “Through its emphasis on the ritual of the consecration, Catholicism was already implicated in magical and occult practices,” so Vanessa’s faith frames her character’s story in many ways (129). “Logan adds of her character, “…I created Vanessa Ives, who to me most perfectly personifies what it is to be a ‘monster.’ … [S]he is cursed with something that tears her to pieces inside, but it is that very thing that also makes her strong, powerful, and liberated in a time that women couldn’t be” (qtd. in Gosling 122).
Vanessa lives with Sir Malcolm who embodies the archetypal explorer and upper-class gentleman, yet he tells Frankenstein that he will “murder the world” to save his daughter. His journey seems redemptive and horrifying at the same time. Sir Malcolm uses Vanessa’s gifts to find Mina and employs both Chandler and Frankenstein to help him in his quest. After Vanessa uses her power at the séance, Sir Malcolm makes sure she arrives home safely and even tucks her into bed. Each character, recalling how Vanessa considers Victor: “has a secret,” and, often the alliances are part of the confidences shared among characters.
Penny Dreadful: the name evokes the tawdry periodicals sold on street corners filled with horrors from real life and fantasy. Showtime’s version does much the same thing, yet the depth of characters and the spiritualist history creates a new conversation about classic characters. Ghost sightings, horror stories in street-corner Penny Dreadfuls, and an emerging Modernist age created a historical crucible ripe for the uncanny, and Showtime’s Gothic horror series explores the complexities within that zeitgeist.
Bown, Nicola, Carolyn Burdett, and Pamela Thurschwell, eds. Introduction. The Victorian Supernatural.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 1-19. Print. Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century
Literature and Culture.
Cruise, Colin. “Baron Corvo and the Key to the Underworld.” Bown, Burdett, and Thurschwell 128-48.
Gosling, Sharon. The Art and Making of Penny Dreadful: The Official Companion Book to the Showtime
Series Created and Written by John Logan. London: Titan, 2015. Print.
Logan, John. “Season One.” Penny Dreadful. Showtime. Hollywood, CA, 11 May 2014. Television.
Noakes, Richard. “Spiritualism, Science, and the Supernatural in Mid-Victorian Britain.” Bown, Burdett,
and Thurschwell. 23-43.
Stuart, Nancy Rubin. “The Raps Heard Around the World.” American History 40.3 (2005): 42-78. History
Study Center. Web. 7 June 2016.