The Deep Bias against Mixing Mystery with the Supernatural

It is not too much to say that neither of us believe in praeternatural events. [The victims] were not destroyed by spirits. The doers of the deed were material and escaped materially.

— Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

In 1907, Julian Hawthorne introduced the six-volume Library of the World’s Best Detective and Mystery Stories by saying that resorting to the supernatural to explain a mystery is a cheat. It’s fine if a mystery writer announces up front that a story is to include otherworldly elements, but even so, Hawthorne “would as lief have ghosts left out altogether; their stories make a very good library in themselves, and have no need to tag themselves on to what is really another department of fiction.” A decade later,  in an interview for The Forum, prolific mystery writer Carolyn Wells would whine, “I have no patience with the occult, the psychic, the spiritualistic in detective stories.”

Segregating the supernatural from crime detection was next formalized into rules. In 1928, S.S. Van Dine wrote “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Fiction.” Number 8 makes the matter clear:

The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.

A year later, the Right Reverend Monsignor Ronald Knox pared the rules down to only ten, perhaps to give them the ring of Commandments. One need only go to the second rule to read: “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.”

Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1888–1957)

Significantly, these sentiments were being expressed just as occult detectives were crystallizing as a character type — the very era when John Silence (1908), Sheila Crerar (1920),  Jules de Grandin (1925), and many other occult detectives were debuting.

And yet there’s a long list of mystery stories in which a supernatural agent is prominent among the suspects, even though a physical explanation wins out in the end. Here, by proving that the occult is not involved in the mystery, the detectives become what I’ve come to call “debunking detectives.” Probably the most famous example is Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Ultimately, debunking detective stories illustrate the folly of believing in ghosts or vampires or hounds from Hell.

At the same time, though, these stories tantalize readers with the prospect that maybe — just maybe — paranormal events do take place in our world.

This kind of mystery goes back at least as far as the novels of Ann Radcliffe, who filled her stories with a ghostly fog — but, in the end, burned off that fog with the searing light of rational explanations. Often, Radcliff’s believers and skeptics neatly fit class divisions. For instance, in A Sicilian Romance (1790), we read:  “In the minds of the vulgar, any species of the wonderful is received with avidity; and the servants did not hesitate in believing the southern division of the castle to be inhabited by a supernatural power.”  At the end of that paragraph, though, we learn that the aristocratic Madame de Menon, “whose mind was superior to the effects of superstition,” is determined to investigate why a mysterious glow has been spotted in that abandoned part of the castle.

I’ve come across two interesting collections of ghost stories that very clearly straddle the impulses that helped Radcliffe become a popular novelist: the intrigue of supernatural events and the comfort of rational explanations. The first is Apparitions; or, the Mystery of Ghosts, Hobgoblins, and Haunted Houses, Developed (1814), by Joseph Taylor. As the front page makes clear, this is a collection of stories intended to obliterate “those fears, which the ignorant, the weak, and the superstitious, are but too apt to encourage, for want of properly examining into the causes of such absurd impositions.”

Despite this goal, in his introduction, Taylor says he’s not ready to discount all accounts of ghostly activity:  “I do believe that, for certain purposes, and on certain and all-wise occasions, such things are, and have been permitted by the Almighty. . . .”  The wary Madame de Menon makes a similar claim in A Sicilian Romance, when she says, “I will not attempt to persuade you that the existence of such spirits is impossible. Who shall say that any thing is impossible to God? . . . Such spirits, if indeed they have ever been seen, can have appeared only by the express permission of God, and for some very singular purposes. . . .” Ghosts might occasionally visit the mortal realm, then — but only with permission from on High and only for a really Good reason.

In 1823, another collection of ghostly anti-ghost stories was published with the stalwart title Ghost Stories; Collected with a Particular View to Counteract the Vulgar Belief in Ghosts and Apparitions, and to Promote A Rational Estimate of the Nature of Phenomena Commonly Considered as Supernatural. Without addressing Divine exceptions, Rudolph Ackermann introduces the collection by asking questions designed to poke at the problems underlying reports of ghost sightings. For instance, he asks why ghosts typically are said to be seen wearing clothes and, specifically, how there could possibly be “the ghost of the coat and unmentionables — the ghost of the cocked hat and wig.” (This challenge would be raised repeatedly once Spiritualism rose later in the century.) Ackermann concludes that “the whole theory of ghosts is too flimsy to bear the rough handling of either reason or ridicule,” and the stories that follow reinforce his skepticism.

Ghost Stories to Counteract the Vulgar Belief
The frontispiece from Ghost Stories, Collected with a Particular View to Counteract the Vulgar Belief in Ghost and Apparitions . . .


These works provide insight into the opposition faced by tellers of ghost stories, be they told with conviction or with fiction, in the early 1800s. With Taylor’s and Ackermann’s collections in mind, we can gain a new perspective on other stories dealing with the supernatural — for example, Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) — that were written during those decades. And I’ve crossed paths with at least two more long-forgotten examples of this kind of tale from the 1820s. The first is Rebecca Edridge’s “The Haunted Castle” (1822), wherein what seems to be a haunting is eventually traced to a sleepwalker. A more elaborate and downright ridiculous explanation for ghostly phenomena concludes “The Haunted House,” which is attributed to “Marmaduke” and was published in 1827. An unlikely combination of a drunk guide, a gourd, the phosphorescence of a decaying of a chunk of wood, and a dying goat fool the narrator.

Therefore, the bias in favor of ending a mystery — be it ghostly or otherwise — with a natural explanation was well-established by the time that Edgar Allan Poe and other authors began to pin down some conventions for detective fiction. As a result, we get passages such as the one that opens this post, which is spoken by  Edgar Allan Poe’s sleuth C. Auguste Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). Poe restated the view in Dupin’s second case, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842):

There are few persons, even among the calmest thinkers, who have not occasionally been startled into a vague yet thrilling half-credence in the supernatural, by coincidences of so seemingly marvellous a character that, as mere coincidences, the intellect has been unable to receive them.

Using rational rigor, Dupin confirms that Marie’s murder was, in fact, not supernatural at all. In these subtle ways, then, Poe set a precedence for future fictional detectives to debunk supernatural possibilities.

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