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Netflix delves into Cambridge University archives about life after death

Does life after death exist? Netflix researchers for the new show Surviving Death searched the archives at the Cambridge University Library for proof.

They went through records at the library of the Society of Psychical research – whose famous members once included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini.

And the researchers examined so-called spirit photographs, as well as letters from the famous men and some of the stranger articles in the collections including moulds of spirit hands and even a “spirit trumpet”.

The documentary series, which is currently being streamed on Netflix, explores the possibility of an afterlife and features the archives
of the The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) which is held at the University Library.

Seance. MS SPR 69//11/6. Picture: The Syndics of Cambridge University Library. (44012903)
Seance. MS SPR 69//11/6. Picture: The Syndics of Cambridge University Library. (44012903)

Sian Collins, from the library said: “It’s very exciting to be part of the programme. The researchers came to the library in September 2019 and looked at around 150 boxes of material.

“They were looking at the archives of The Society for Psychical Research, which is a collection we hold although it is still owned by the society. They were set up in 1882 in Cambridge by scientists, philosophers and academics who were interested by the idea of psychic activity and wanted to investigate it but in a scientific way.”

She adds: “They thought that when people have seen a ghost or believe they can communicate with the dead, maybe there is a scientific explanation for it that we just don’t understand yet.

“The records we have include all sorts of incredible material. We have a lot of their investigation files.

“For example, there are blow by blow accounts of seances in their notes which explain how they would look around the room to check there wasn’t someone next door knocking on the wall and making noises.”

Houdini letter. MS SPR 35/766. Picture: The Syndics of Cambridge University Library. (44012318)
Houdini letter. MS SPR 35/766. Picture: The Syndics of Cambridge University Library. (44012318)

There are records of one famous medium, Eusapia Palladino, who had her wrists and ankles held by the researchers while she carried out her seance to prevent her tricking researchers, or so they thought.

But the Italian woman had been married to a conjuror and was trained as an acrobat.

Sian explains: “She would create a diversion by shrieking or screaming and of course these Victorian men would be totally freaked out by it and under the cover of that she would be able to pull her foot out of her boot and the men would be left underneath the table holding onto an empty boot.

“She was then able to move her foot over her shoulder and tap someone sitting next to her. It’s absolutely incredible.

“The society investigated her a lot because they really did believe she was a fraud. However, there were some other people they seemed to think were genuine or who they couldn’t explain.”

Based on best-selling author and journalist Leslie Kean’s book, Surviving Death explores questions that have been contemplated throughout time: What does it mean to die, and is death the end of our existence? Weaving together research with firsthand accounts from those who’ve been close to death, the series takes viewers on an extraordinary journey.

It is actually a large sheet of material. But it was used within a seance to look as if it was ectoplasm coming from the medium.

Sian says: “The archive is full of incredible material. The Netflix documentary looked at albums of spirit photographs. They are Victorian and they look so false to us these days because we are used to special effects such as double exposure. But if you imagine when photography was new and not many people had seen it, you can understand why they were convincing.

“The pictures show people sitting quite normally while in the background is apparently a spirit. It could be a cloud like image or clearly another person. The show looks at it with an open mind.”

The collection even contains some “real” ectoplasm taken from a seance.

“It is actually a large sheet of material,” says Sian. “But it was used within a seance to look as if it was ectoplasm coming from the medium, coming from the other side.”

And they have several examples of spirit trumpets, which were cardboard cones sold in the 1910s and 1920s to capture “spirit music”. Sometimes in seances they would be seen floating around the room while the music played.

Sian says: “Seances were a form of entertainment – before we had television – and you didn’t have to be special to take part. In fact mediums were usually working class women. You had people in ordinary streets, ordinary towns, just deciding they had these powers and you would get together in the afternoons and hold a seance.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a member of The Society for Psychical research and, surprisingly given his character Sherlock Holmes’s skepticism, was a true believer.

Sian says: “He had a very deep and abiding belief that you could receive messages from the dead.

“He did split with the society eventually because he thought they were too disbelieving. We have letters from him and from Houdini, who was very interested in the society’s research.

“A lot of mediums were conjurers and magicians using tricks to make people think they were hearing messages or being touched from the other side. So Houdini, who understood how these tricks worked, would often try to debunk what these mediums were doing.”

The Neflix show does not take a stance on whether life after death exists or not.

“That’s the right way to go about any research,” says Sian. “It’s important to keep an open mind.”

  • Surviving Death can be streamed on Netflix. Photographs from the records appear in episodes 3 and 5.

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