Circulating Specters: An Excerpt from “Seeing Things”

The following is an excerpt from Seeing Things: Technologies of Vision and the Making of Mormonism by Mason Kamana Allred which is available wherever books are sold.

Allred articulates in this ambitious entry some fascinating connections between Latter-day Saint theology, technology, and identity formation . . . . Deeply conversant in critical theory, the author establishes inventive arguments supported by examples that convincingly show the range of media’s power to change culture. Scholars of religion or media will find much to consider.

Publishers Weekly
Book cover for Seeing Things: Technologies of Vision and the Making of Mormonism by Mason Kamana Allred.

Circulating Specters

I had seen a vision, I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.
Joseph Smith, 1838

Hence it is, that when any vehement passion or emotion hinders the cool application of judgment, we get no distinct notion of an object, even though the sense be long directed to it. A man who is put into a panic, by thinking he sees a ghost, may stare at it long, without having any distinct notion of it; it is his understanding, and not his sense, that is disturbed by this horror.
Thomas Reid, 1785

Joseph Smith led a haunted life. Not only was he constantly shadowed by enemies, but his thirty-eight years were also punctuated with a series of appearances from spirits, angels, and demons. His preternatural ability to “discern things invisible to the natural eye” yielded such spectral encounters, and Smith was adamant about their material veracity. He had “actually seen” these spectacular things.

Despite his initial hesitation in publishing the experience of his “first vision,” versions of the vision eventually circulated and recreated the scene of theophany in countless readers’ minds. The 1838 account that circulated most widely in print stressed the urgency that Smith’s eyes had not deceived him, almost to the point of obsession. The narrative emphasized that it was a “fact” that he “had beheld a vision” of God and repeated three times that he had “actually seen” supernatural beings. The explanation continued that he “saw two personages” and, lastly, reiterated for good measure that he indeed, “had seen a vision.” All that came in two paragraphs.

There was something extraordinary and perplexing about Smith’s vision that prompted the desire to duplicate it through print. A later reminiscent and secondhand account recorded how Smith claimed “God touched his eyes” and “as soon as the Lord had touched his eyes with his finger he immediately saw the Savior.” Even decades later, records like this could inspire and instruct readers, igniting their imagination. And the “first vision” was not the only Smith vision committed to writing and circulated. Early accounts also published his visions of Book of Mormon prophets, deceased loved ones, and evil spirits, underscoring his uncanny ability to recognize them as such. Smith’s accounts of witnessing specters conveyed his spiritual vision and, just as importantly, stored within them the data necessary to disseminate and recreate it, to reproduce it.

A seminal task of Mormonism’s early years was to mediate the vision that brought about these kinds of experiences into a form that was shareable and manageable—one that could both package and provoke such vision. Participating in a booming print network trafficked the information and further circulated the specters, right into the hands and before the eyes of readers scattered abroad. This had particular import, for specters were in texts as much as attending their reception, since modern visions could come in the context of new technological deceptions and reports of false spirits.

There was something extraordinary and perplexing about Smith’s vision that prompted the desire to duplicate it through print.

Print was quite fitting to reproduce spectral appearances and manage their deceptive potential. The medium itself had a haunted origin, as a mistrusted “dark art.” Memento mori and “dances of Death” texts stood as emblems of the craft and adorned the ink-laden sheets floating out the doors of the early print shop. Through the same magic of mechanical reproduction, foundational Mormon texts could translate subjective spiritual vision into objective textual vision and back, for an imagined or projected community of readers across the blossoming faith. The medium could spirit information away to a larger network of readers, viewing the exact same texts across time and space, and thus disseminate a unique Mormon literacy. For Joseph Smith challenged his followers to read scriptures in such a way as to “take away the veil so you may see,” with an eye of faith and deeper understanding. He maintained the material basis for this, explaining that visions were to be trusted only by “what you see by the seeing of the eye.”

This chapter argues that Mormon print practices provided spiritual vision through natural vision. By instructing readers how to see with spiritual eyes through reading with biological eyes, Latter-day Saints used print to store and reproduce the powerful electric shock of Smith’s visions to help readers experience their own. Print helped Mormon readers conjure extraordinary vision beyond the page, even as it helped their leaders discipline it within the coalescing ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Print was quite fitting to reproduce spectral appearances and manage their deceptive potential.

Managing spiritual vision in an age of sophisticated deceptions peppered both early Mormon texts and the contemporaneous and hugely popular ghost stories of gothic literature. In media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s formulation, “the passion of reading” during this period in the early nineteenth century “consisted of hallucinating a meaning between letters and lines.” This suggestive and romanticist realization of the medium illuminates the significance of textual productions around the reliability of eyes in the face of ghostly apparitions. Texts from both Mormon and gothic traditions often sought to transfer the vision of narrators and creators to the reader, inviting them to try on the author’s perspective and “hallucinate” with them between the lines. Smith’s extraordinary vision, which materialized his beliefs and aspirations of “what could be,” in Ann Taves’s estimation, might be shared through textual production. And the superior vision of America’s father of gothic writing, Charles Brockden Brown, might also be experienced through the thrills of the text. Brown even reportedly gained his creative ability in the genre from his own impaired biological vision. Suffering from myopia, “he, therefore, felicitated himself on the thought that he had not the optics of ordinary men,” but rather a “vision superior” to them. Smith and Brown both offered sight through and beyond the natural eyes.

To be sure, the tension between the physical and the spiritual was not new. For instance, the ministerial edits to visionary accounts among American revivalists in the eighteenth century strategically attributed “miraculous sights to the meditative eyes of the mind, to what they called again and again ‘the eye of faith,’” because of the editors’ opposition to “visions seen with the ‘bodily eyes,’” as Leigh Eric Schmidt has shown. Nineteenth-century stories of spectral appearances pushed back against this logic. They further probed the tension between romantic reading and enlightenment rationality, by textually reproducing glimpses of the inexplicable and extraordinary. Literary productions and intellectual explanations for visions were simultaneously problematized and galvanized by spirit-conjuring phantasmagoria shows, which popularized the optical medium of the magic lantern, which projected objectively visible spectral images for audiences. Thus, to understand Mormon visionary accounts and gothic ghost stories, we must first turn to the thrilling technology that dazzled audiences by making images of specters visible.

Mason Kamana Allred is assistant professor of communication, media, and culture at Brigham Young University-Hawaii.