Spectral Perspectives: Karl Bell

In this series of blog posts, members of the Supernatural Cities project at the University of Portsmouth outline their own research, introducing their different disciplinary and methodological perspectives on the urban supernatural.

Karl Bell is a Reader in Cultural and Social History at the University of Portsmouth, an award-winning author, and director of the Supernatural Cities project. His research explores the fantastical imagination, particularly its relationship with modernity and the environment. He can be found on Twitter @drkarlbell.

The Origins of the Supernatural Cities Project

The Supernatural Cities project grew from my research into urban magical thought and supernatural beliefs in nineteenth-century British cities.[1] Inspired by interests in supernatural fiction and folklore, both my PhD and first monograph, The Magical Imagination, set out to challenge the Weberian notion of modernity as an era of disenchantment.[2] Given that the city was frequently presented as the locus of modernisation, a site of secular and materialistic beliefs, it also became a blind spot for most Victorian folklorists. Taking issue with the rather rigid urban-rural dichotomy constructed by nineteenth-century champions of modernity, my work sought to explore how urban culture was not as disenchanted as previously suggested. Rejecting the idea of magical beliefs as simply lingering, increasingly anachronistic vestiges of older traditions, my research examined the function of magical thinking and supernatural beliefs in terms of individual agency, cultural currency, and communal identity in the growing cities of Victorian England.

An emphasis on ethnographic magical beliefs and ghost lore offered an alternative or an accompaniment to the co-existing development of a more secular urban enchantment that found expression in the works of authors such as Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin.[3] The implicit emphasis on place in folkloric ghost stories, plus the importance of these shared tales in maintaining a sense of community, offered intriguing ways into understanding urban spatial narratives and the cultural construction of locality.

It is these aspects and approaches that inform the ‘narrated geographies’ and ‘spectral histories’ of the project’s subtitle. The Supernatural Cities project explores how stories become a way of mapping and imagining the urban environment, imbuing its mundane spaces and functional places with a sense of supernatural alterity. At the same time, its focus on spectral histories is not just those of the ghosts themselves but also those marginalised urban communities in which such tales circulated. As such, it aims to ground these rich cultural histories and supernatural narratives in the social historical experiences of the past.

It quickly became clear that to develop a more meaningful understanding of the function of supernatural mentalities in historical and contemporary urban cultures and spatial discourses we needed to break down disciplinary barriers and initiate cross-disciplinary conversations. In April 2016 I organised Supernatural Cities: Exploring the Urban Mindscape at the University of Portsmouth, the first of a series of conferences based on the themes of the project. This has been followed by ever larger co-hosted annual conferences at the Limerick School of Art and Design in 2017, and the University of Hertfordshire in 2018. These conferences have led to the creation of a diverse and genuinely multidisciplinary network of academics from a range of backgrounds, including historians, cultural geographers, urban anthropologists, architects, literary, film and theatre scholars, folklorists, and heritage management practitioners.[4]

These multidisciplinary approaches to the urban supernatural will be demonstrated in a forthcoming edited collection of essays on supernatural cities around the world. This book, due to be published by Boydell and Brewer in 2019, investigates the urban cultural function of magic, ghosts and folkloric monsters from late eighteenth-century Paris to twenty-first century Beijing. As indicated here, the scope of the Supernatural Cities project has now grown far beyond my initial focus on Victorian England to embrace much broader geographies and chronologies.

Given its spirit of crossing boundaries and seeking to operate in liminal disciplinary spaces, the Supernatural Cities project has, from its earliest incarnations, reached out beyond academia to collaborate with a range of creative practitioners. Engaging a group of local fiction writers, we continued in the spirit of Victorian folkloric storytellers by weaving new haunting tales into the fabric of our urban surroundings. This led to the production of Dark City, an anthology of short stories of haunting and horror in Portsmouth.[5] Since then, the engagement with artistic practitioners has blossomed into an annual celebration of the urban supernatural and local creativity with Portsmouth DarkFest.

As the above suggests, we are always open to new collaborations, both academic and artistic. If you are interested in getting involved in the Supernatural Cities project please contact me.

Further Reading

Karl Bell, The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England, 1780-1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Karl Bell, ‘Phantasmal Cities: The Construction and Function of Haunted Landscapes in Victorian Cities’ in Ruth Heholt and Niamh Downing (eds), Haunted Landscapes: Super-Nature and the Environment (Rowman International, 2016)

Steve Pile, Real Cities: Modernity, Space and the Phantasmagorias of City Life (Sage, 2005)


[1] The Supernatural Cities project is currently funded by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Portsmouth. I would like to thank the faculty for their generous, ongoing support.

[2] See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. T. Parsons (Allen and Unwin, 1976).

[3] See Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ in Baudelaire, Selected Writings on Art and Literature (Penguin, 2006), 390-435, Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Harvard University Press, 2002), and also Michael Saler ‘Modernity and Enchantment: A Historiographical Review’, American History Review, vol. 111, 3 (2006), 692-716.

[4] See the Supernatural Cities Facebook Page and Discussion Group.

[5] See Karl Bell and Stephen Pryde-Jarman (eds), Dark City: Portsmouth Tales of Haunting and Horror (Life is Amazing, 2016).

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