6 March 2023

Call for Papers: Occultism and Popular Culture in Europe

Date:  22-23 November 2023

Location: Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies, University of Copenhagen

There has been a long cultural fascination with the macabre, horrific, and downright creepy across European society. From the early popular novels of writers such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and the incredible visual spectacles of fairground phantasmagoria, to the growth of professional mediumship from the mid-1800s onward, and the telepathic radio experiments of the early twentieth century, Europeans have been entranced by all things spooky and ghoulish. The nineteenth century, in particular, was a tumultuous age of transformation, where conceptions of reality unravelled before people’s eyes. Media and technology unleashed a phantasmagoric panorama of alternate realities and the spectre of invisible agents. Interpretations and encounters at the margins of common understanding of how naturalistic and technological systems work fostered beliefs, superstitions, and myths. The ethereal presence of communications without bodies suggested the possibility of supernatural forces at play. It was within this ever-changing social climate that interests in the occult, the gothic, the extraordinary, and the horrible flourished.

So much of the popular conversations surrounding the rise and growth of occultic media during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries connected to debates surrounding human belief, perception, trust, and the standards of scientific evidence. Stories about exposure and fraud were rife within this context. These issues continue to remain important in our modern age when media sensationalism is so endemic. To a certain extent, a study of popular occulture in Europe around the turn of the twentieth century, and how practitioners and challengers manipulated new media technologies to present carefully crafted stories to a broad public, links to our contemporary discussions in the twenty-first century about media deception and fake news. A study of the rise of popular occulture in Europe, therefore, provides important historical lessons for understanding the continued surgency of media misperception that is rampant today. 

To launch the research program for the newly formed Dark Arts Research Group: Studies in Gothic, Horror and the Occult, 1750-Present in the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies at the University of Copenhagen, there will be a two-day hybrid conference between 22 November and 23 November 2023 titled: ‘Occultism and Popular Culture in Europe.’ The aim is to explore the many ways that horror, gothic and occultic topics have been communicated, presented, and packaged for broad audiences from the late eighteenth century to today. We are especially interested in the ways different kinds of media technology, ranging from print and woodcut illustrations to photography and film have shaped conceptions of horror, gothic, and the occult. 

We are delighted to have two fantastic keynote speakers lined up for the event: Mathias Clasen, Aarhus University; and Richard Noakes, University of Exeter.

Core research questions include:

  • How and why did occultic ideas burst into the popular cultural mainstream from the late eighteenth century onward?
  • What role did the new mass media technologies such as print, photography, radio, etc., play in propagating these extraordinary beliefs and cultural interests?
  • How can digital tools and resources be used to transform the way we research, interpret, and ultimately present topics such as the history of European popular occulture? 

Suggested topics can include:

  • Print culture, publishing, and gothic, horror and the occult
  • Science, perception, and extraordinary belief
  • Magic, illusion, and deception
  • Technologies/objects used in practice, investigation, or in literary/artistic representations of the gothic, horror and the occult
  • Digital studies of gothic, horror, and occultic topics
  • Gothic, horror and the occult in the media

Those interested in presenting at the event in person should submit a 200-word abstract and short biographical statement as a single document to Efram Sera-Shriar by 31 August 2023. We will also accept panel proposals for up to four speakers.

The conference will also host a series of online events. We are interested in receiving submissions for roundtable discussions, ten-minute flash talks based around an image, film or object, or interview-style conversations between scholars. Please submit a 200-word abstract with short biographical statements for each of the participants involved as a single document to Efram Sera-Shriar by 31 August 2023

Please state in your submission if you wish to participate online or in person. 

There are a limited number of small travel bursaries available to early career researchers wishing to participate in the event. If you wish to be considered for one of these grants, please include a short statement in your submission outlining how this event will be of value to your research and career development. 

If you have any questions, please get in touch with either of the project’s co-leading investigators: Robert Rix or Efram Sera-Shriar

The event is funded by a research grant from CEMES at the University of Copenhagen.

We look forward to receiving your submissions.