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Is Spiritualism a Fraud? (1906)


Main image of Is Spiritualism a Fraud? (1906)
35mm, black and white, 388 feet
DirectorW.R. Booth
Production CompanyPaul's Animatograph Works

During a séance, the medium is exposed as a fake.

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The film's main title, Is Spiritualism a Fraud? is followed by the emphatic subtitle The Medium Exposed, and an opening sequence that shows the alleged medium conspiring with his bewigged friend prior to the seance that he'll be masterminding. Mere seconds into the film, the answer to the question is an unambiguous "yes", and the remaining few minutes reinforces this view.

One of the last films made by R.W. Paul in collaboration with the trick-film specialist W.R. Booth, this combines elements of the previous year's The Unfortunate Policeman (with which it shares a studio-bound first half, followed by a chase shot in the streets of Muswell Hill in north London) with a special effects sequence. However, unlike Booth and Paul's other work, here the mechanisms are deliberately revealed: the dramatic centrepiece comes when the medium's methods are exposed to his gullible patrons after the light is switched on to expose his assistant.

Booth was a stage magician himself, so there may well have been an element of professional rivalry at play here. However, the crucial difference between his illusions and those of a medium is that Booth's audience knew that they were being deceived, but were happy to go along with the charade for the sake of both entertainment and the pleasure of working out how it was done. By contrast, the medium is using similar stage effects to fool people into believing that they might be able to contact their dead loved ones.

All this, of course, is conjecture, as we know little of Booth and Paul's actual views (and it's not completely certain that Booth directed the film, as it's also been attributed to J.H. Martin), but it seems likely that their film was intended to be read as an attack on spiritualism in general. The chase scene concludes with a very public humiliation as the fake medium (who has already suffered the indignity of being boxed up and thrown down the stairs) is tied to a chair and placed on a cart to create a makeshift tumbril, on which he is paraded through the streets as a warning to others.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'R.W. Paul: The Collected Films 1895-1908', with music by Stephen Horne and optional commentary by Ian Christie.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (6:57)
Unfortunate Policeman, The (1905)
A Year in Film: 1906
Paul's Animatograph Works: Trick Films