John Geiger on the psychology behind the Titanic obsession

By April 14, 2012
OfflinePhoto of John Geiger
April 12, 2012

Why the Titanic has captivated people for a century

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Other maritime disasters claimed more victims with more mystery. But the unsinkable ship took hubris down with it

The sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912 pales alongside some other maritime disasters. The loss of the Dona Paz in the Philippines in 1987 killed more than twice as many people. The 1845 disappearance of the Erebus and Terror in the labyrinthine Arctic Archipelago is a far greater mystery. Even the cause of the Titanic's untimely demise - an iceberg - lacks the sudden horror of the 1915 torpedoing of the Lusitania, or 1917's massive explosion in Halifax harbour aboard the French cargo ship Mont-Blanc.

So what is it about the Titanic that has captivated people for a century? Why does this particular loss of ship and life resonate in a way that no other maritime disaster ever has? For Canada alone, the roster of lost ships is long and the death toll high - the Empress of Ireland, La Bourgogne, the Atlantic. The list goes on. So why, then, only the Titanic?

It is in part because the Titanic represented the very pinnacle of maritime technological achievement. The fact that, on her maiden voyage, she could be sent to the ocean floor by a large chunk of ice savagely shook people's faith in progress.

The Titanic was not only the fastest passenger liner built up to that point, and a ship loaded with state-of-the-art technology, but one which was considered unsinkable. It is that technological hubris that went down, too.

The Titanic evoked the sort of horror, on a mass scale, that a bear attack does at the individual level. We control so much of our world, but at some fundamental level, human beings are vulnerable to the forces of nature. The fact that it was not some sinister human plot, but a placid juggernaut, a mere iceberg, that was the chief villain, is central to the dreadfulness of the loss.

Thus, the major Canadian poet E.J. Pratt ended his poem on the disaster with this:

Silent, composed, ringed by its icy broods,

The grey shape with the palaeolithic face

Was still the master of the longitudes.

But there is more: As the Titanic slipped into the deep, so too in a sense did the old social order, the class system. Class played a role not only in determining the size of staterooms on the Titanic, and the quality of the menu, but also the odds of survival. Lifeboats were on the first- and second-class promenade. No lifeboats were stored on the third-class areas of the ship. Women and children in third class died in far greater proportion than their first-class counterparts.

Add to that the thought that the Titanic was lost crossing from the Old World to the New, with all its meritocratic ideals.

Of course, the class system did not end that night. It is with us even now, in some respects. You can cross the Atlantic today aboard a great ocean liner, and while there are no locked gates, there remain separations in levels of service, in the same way that you can travel first class or economy class on airlines.

But what the Titanic did was to anticipate the social upheaval caused by the First World War, which really did begin a century-long assault on class attitudes. If you want to see what I mean, just check out the second season of the television series Downton Abbey. There is a direct link, then, between two anniversaries being observed this week by Canadians: the Titanic centenary, and the 95th anniversary of Vimy Ridge.

When we look back at the Titanic, when we watch films and read accounts about it, it is that sweeping grand staircase, the men in white tie, the high society, the ostentation, the servants at beck and call, that haunt us. How could something that beautiful - something so exquisitely crafted, so refined and so solid - be cast down to the depths of the Atlantic? Which is the point. The upper class seemed to be all those things.

When we think of the Titanic, we don't think at first of the basic accommodations of the people crammed below decks. That is not what appeals to us. In our imaginations, we travel not in steerage but in first class.

Yet the James Cameron film turns on the contrast between steerage and first class. There would be little plot - or at least little love interest - without the distance to be overcome between the upper-class Kate Winslet and the below-deck Leonardo DiCaprio. Ahead lay the hope of North American equality on the western shore of the Atlantic, frustrated by death, but triumphant in the viewers' self-congratulatory sense of participation in social mobility.

It was the certainty of the old social order that began to go down on April 14, 1912. Perhaps the actor Kenneth More, in his last line in the film A Night to Remember, put it best: "I don't think I'll ever feel sure again. About anything."


Here is another view, from the perspective of a passenger on the Titanic who was a Spiritualist.

On behalf of my friend and colleague Richard Rowley:

 Subject: Titanic Centenary - (2) more contact from beyond - had W.T. Stead listened to previous messages from the spirit world, he would not have sailed.  When the Titanic went down this day 100 years ago for far from land, close to 1500 lives were lost and 700 rescued.

       Thank you Marilyn Auwtry for pointing out that there is a lesson to learn here: 'Since you start off with W.T. Stead I think that in itself is an excellent lesson "Listen to the Spirit Voices." Had Stead listened he would not have been on the Titanic.'

       Stanley Brookes, the Australian actor and researcher tells us in his book 4,000 Ghosts that William T. Stead was one of the spirit helpers in his Melbourne rescue circle.  Shortly after his death he came to encourage Stanley with his spiritual work, and over the years became one of the spirit advisers for his Psychic Research Society.    In 1958 an English documentary-style movie about the Titanic, "A Night to Remember," was released.  It contrasts favourably against the two Hollywood productions which came out in 1953 and 1997. Stanley was attending his regular circle at the time, and Stead came along, unannounced to contact his friend.  A voice suddenly said:

STEAD:  Well Stanley, how did you like the film?

STANLEY:   I am sorry, but I do not know who is speaking.

STEAD:     Can you not see me?

STANLEY:     No.  Sometimes I can.

STEAD:     The "Titanic!"

STANLEY:     Mr. Stead!

STEAD:     Yes, at your service once more, Stanley.

STANLEY:     I can now feel your terrific force. I'm so glad you have come; you are often in my thoughts and prayers.

STEAD:     Now, how did you like the "Titanic" film?

STANLEY:    That remark explains everything.  I did not know the film was in Melbourne - so it was you who made me see it!

STEAD:     Yes.

STANLEY.  I seldom go that way, but that morning, I felt strongly impressed to do so, and as I passed the cinema I saw the poster of the "Titanic", and before I knew what was happening - I found myself inside looking at the film.

STEAD:     I almost had to push you into the theatre, but I wished you to see it for several reasons.   When you go to England to publish this book, I want you to seek out some of those who made the film and played in it, as some will admit that, at times, they said and did things  in a different way from the planning, although most of our alterations were made when the script was being written.  We made them do it our way - because we knew the facts.  Dozens of us who went down in the "Titanic" helped make that film, and we made an historical job of it.  Those who were doing the film on the earth had no idea that they were getting directions and instructions from us here.


Many, of course, would not have believed it had they been told.  As you know, most things done on the earth are created and executed here first. THESE are the creative planes.


One of the reasons I wanted you to see the film was that when a true Spiritualist meets death, he knows no fear.


STANLEY:     Yes, I was tremendously impressed when I saw you calmly reading your Bible, just as you were about to be hurled into Eternity - that awful, cruel liquid, black sea!   It filled me with horror.   It

chilled me to the bone.  You almost materialized on the screen.

STEAD:      I tried to do that as I wanted to show how close I could come to you.  I have so much to tell you tonight that I shall be the only speaker.


STANLEY:     As I watched the film, I was breathless and fascinated at the serenity with which you - and the gambler - waited for that dreadful last moment. It was too much for me, I felt like weeping.  I do not like the sea at night - it seems to me to be one Big, Black Pool of Death.  When I saw you again with the open Bible in your hands, I realized that death had no terrors for you, and you proved yourself a true Spiritualist.


STEAD:     I am only one of many who died like that. I have come to give you some solid matter for your book.  Perhaps I should say our book, as so many hundreds here have a hand or two in it. Our sole or main objective is to cause people to ponder on these subjects of supreme importance - the life to come.  As you will be writing for the masses as I did, my words will be as of old, simple, to the point, and clear to all.   Truth needs no embellishment.  Throughout my life I was told several times that my life would end suddenly, tragically - and perhaps violently. Monsieur W. Dekelor, the noted psychic, one day, looked at my hands just before I left England in the "Titanic", and was so upset at what was revealed in them, that he had difficulty telling me.  He said that all the signs of an abrupt ending to all my activities were there, and that a great tragedy would surely fall upon me.  Also, there was complete chaos around me from which there was no escape.  He was so concerned that he came again in a day or two, with his daughter, for another sitting with me.


     Again he saw nothing but disaster and great trouble completely enveloping me, but worse than before.  He did not however, suggest that I would die the way I did, but he saw a guillotine (a symbol of death) over my head.  I told him that Dr. Baraduc, the famous nerve specialist in France, saw the same symbol with me a few months before, and many  symbols and signs of misfortune.  Finally, Monsieur Kerlor saw over my head a tremendous ship all in black, with the forepart missing, and with mourning wreaths in the place where the name of the ship would have been. This was all so real and depressing that I doubted his powers of seeing the future correctly.  "Well," I said to him, "I'm going in that ship next week."  He replied that I would not reach my intended port of call - America.  You know, Stanley, the rest of it - I never did!


STANLEY:     What were you going to America for?

STEAD:     I had been invited to speak on "Universal Peace" in New York.


     I did not feel well the day we started on our last voyage.  There was a strange atmosphere.  I did not understand.  A few hours later when we struck the iceberg, when the end was approaching, the steward put a lifebelt over my head.  But when I found there were not enough to go round, I passed it on, because I was certain I would not need it. [At the enquiry into the tragedy, some witnesses said Stead did not wear a lifebelt.]  The terrible accident was not terrible to me.  My only sorrow was for those poor souls terror-stricken who prayed to God to save them, and became more so when their prayers were not answered.


     I went down exhorting those nearby to be calm, like so many of the other men and women who faced certain death, and told them that many very brave women gave up a place in the lifeboat to others.  I tried to assure others that death had no terrors for me, that soon we would be in a better world, and that our sufferings would soon be over.  I was so happy when I could calm their fears - I knew I was aided by a spirit band in giving them comfort, and bringing peace to my own soul.  Those few that I could speak to went to their doom quite calmly.


     How many acts of unselfish bravery I witnessed. I shall never forget the courage and calmness of the crew, the loving care they bestowed upon the women and children.  The test of the soul is when we stare death in the face.  I remember jumping or falling from the deck, and was only slightly conscious of being in the water.  I did not feel leaving my body.  In a blind kind of way, I struck out and after a few seconds of a frozen feeling I was free - and I remember hearing a few notes of the band on deck, playing  "Nearer my God to Thee", which seemed like a message from the Almighty to me at that moment.  Soon I was alive again and able to help those still in the water nearest me.

Although they could not now see me, I found that by my thoughts I could help them more than when I was alive, because I was no longer hampered by my physical body.

(Note: It will be observed that Stead was only dead a few seconds, and then was alive in the spirit world, but still functioning in the water among the dead and the dying. Later on in this séance you will notice he reiterates "I was no sooner dead than I was alive in a manner that astonished me. Death hardly touched me!")

STANLEY:     Did the ghost ships with their ghostly crews come to the aid of the drowned people from the "Titanic"?

STEAD:     Yes.  No sea wreck is without the aid of these spirit men and ships which rescue every soul drowned at sea.  But I did not see them.  I conversed with some of the phantom crews some time later.

STANLEY:     Spirits have come here to tell me how they - not their bodies, of course - were lifted from the sea by the ghost crews from the ghost ships.

STEAD:     This work is undertaken by men who lived on

the sea when they were alive on the earth, just as spirit miners go down to bring up the spirits of those killed in the mines, and so on.  When we come over here, we are naturally attracted to the things we were familiar with when on earth.

     Well, Stanley, it did not take long to settle down to work here.  It is a sheer delight to be alive again - but alive in a manner so hopeful and useful, which has greatly exceeded my expectations of the life after death.

      Before we go on, one point I have missed about the ship. To everyone it seemed too big and too strong to meet disaster of any kind. So great was the confidence in this monster that for a time a great number refused to take to the lifeboats.  They said they were safer on the ship.

I felt, almost as soon as we struck, that it was the end - then for a few moments the horror of it all, the thought of my loved ones, and my unfinished labors overwhelmed me.  Death I did not know; I was between this world and the next for a few moments -but was not conscious during this brief period.  It seemed no time had passed when I saw a vast number of angelic beings, and friends, waiting to welcome me.  I was led to a lovely home which had been prepared for me, although, as you know, each builds his own home here, according to his life on earth.  The beauty of it all bewildered me.  On the walls of my home were pictures of all that I had done in my life.  No, not all, but much of it.

      Many events in my life that I had regarded as important were not represented there, but those which had assisted the spiritual growth of those I had come into contact with - those pictures were on the walls.

       Everything we do on earth is recorded here, in some way or other.  But, oh! How I longed to get back to my loved ones on earth!  I was led to rest by my son, Willie, through whom the reality of the life after death had been proved to me.  I was surrounded by heavenly scenery - and the most glorious music.  Music that we do not hear on earth.  I then rested till I gradually adapted myself to my new surroundings, my new home.

     When I was fully aware of all this, I first noticed the perfect laws by which everything, and everybody here are controlled.  Not all, but most of my  questions were answered by an angelic being, who had been assigned to care for me, and she never left me.  This angelic being was similar to the one whom Trudy, the little London prostitute, described to you as the guide who is helping her - the one who took her on that trip to Paris.  I never ceased wanting to go to my loved ones on the earth.  I was taken there, but could not speak with them.  This was a most terrible disappointment.  It was then explained to me that conditions had to be set up so that I could communicate with those on the earth;  I saw vast numbers being instructed in spiritual knowledge; vast armies of advanced spirits setting out on missions to other planets, and to worlds beyond our solar systems; all these being directed by some unseen Master.  I was told that I would soon know the work I was to do, and how to get in touch with those all over the world, so that I could help the vast army of spirit missionaries teach the truth of the Life after Death.  Here everything is real, but on the earth, there is only the reflection of these heavenly planes.  Truly there is no death.  There is no actual break in our lives when we pass from the earth to the Beyond.  The whole of my earth life was a preparation for this one. Death hardly touched me - I was no sooner dead than I was alive - in a manner that astounded me.  Few souls on the earth are fully alive.

     I was so familiar with death that it was not surprising that I quickly found my right place over here.  Therefore it is a tremendous advantage to know something of the life after death while on the earth. Shortly after the "Titanic" affair, about three days, I wrote automatically through the hand of Anita Bright, the editor of your Melbourne Spiritualist newspaper 'The Harbinger of Light.'   "Tell them," I wrote, "that I am full of delight at my new surroundings;  and that I can help more now than when I was on the earth.  Everything here is so real that I feel I am on an Enchanted Island, having escaped from a ship wrecked on its shores!  So close is this spiritual realm to the earth, that we can understand how those with the gift of vision get glimpses of such beautiful scenery, and the angelic beings here, and at the same time we see the people on earth as in a fog, rushing like mad things after what is of no value. Only those can be happy who are attuned to spiritual things."

     I always said that I would wait till someone in my family passed over here before I would finally declare my conviction in the life after death. Soon after, my son of 33 years passed into the Beyond.  He communicated not through me, but through others, as I thought this would be more convincing.

Most who were drowned with me do not know where they are, as few knew anything about the Hereafter.  For the time being they seem lost, but at the right time, everyone will see the light and sail safely into port.  As no one can escape death on the earth, no one can escape life in the heavens.

Those who went down and have come back to life are helping those still lost in the darkness.  Pray for these, and think for a moment how awful it is, to be suddenly dragged from life and plunged into a world in which they cannot see even a glimmer of light.  Pray for these, and pray for their loved ones who are still on dry land.  Stanley, when you asked Conan Doyle  - as he wrote about it in his poem on the "Titanic" that you recite - if the band really played as the ship went down, yes, they did, and they did it at my request.

     I refer to the hymn.  Before that, they played lively music to stimulate the morale of all on board, and what that did for the souls on deck, and in the water, cannot be suitably described. Now a word about Julia before I finish with the "Titanic".   She was there to meet me and help me "Cross the Bar." She asked me about my son, and I was so happy to say that he was there with me. [Julia of the famous "Letters from Julia" transcribed automatically through Stead's hand and published before the turn into the 20th century.]

     There are very many things I would like to tell you but the medium will soon begin to tire, so time is running out.  A few words about the position of woman in the spirit world.  On earth, she is generally considered to be inferior to man, but over here there is absolute equality regarding the sexes.  Here male and female are given equally important work, of all kinds, to do.  Each is given equal power and equal rank, provided they are qualified to perform the tasks allotted to them.  Also, all depends upon the spiritual attainments of each one - man or woman. There is no such thing as a superior sex.  Here we have groups of men and women meeting on equal terms in every way.  This foolish idea of man being the superior animal is a barrier that must be broken down - one of the many - before any real progress can be made in your earthly social structure.  It is wrong, unfair and demoralizing.  It is as certain as sunlight, that woman will gain her rightful place by her own efforts, in spite of the almost universal opposition to what is incorrectly termed the weaker sex.  I am referring now to the advancement she will make on your earth plane.  The time has come for these earthly changes, and nothing you can do can stop them, as they are a cog in the Wheel of Progress.  Signs of this coming equality are clearly evident in some other countries.

     Spiritualists and others, when they arrive here from the earth, are surprised to find how hard and rare it is to have direct and true spiritual communication with those they have left behind.  Often you people sitting in circles on the earth are victims of lower spirits, but this happens only when the spirituality of the sitters is on a low plane. Like attracts like.  When sitters have progressed to a higher spiritual plane, it is almost impossible for deception by lower orders of spirits, or for impersonation to take place.  People have visions that are positively misleading , because they are in  low grade of spiritual development, and actually believe all they are told - and many want to be directed in practically all they do. These people are not Spiritualists, they are 'Egyptian mummies!'

      In the Bible we are told to "Try the spirits and prove them."  Too few do this.  We should ever be at the door to check those spirits who come through who claim to speak with such positive authority.  I think our Spiritualism is scoffed at so often because of those who TRADE on it, and it becomes mixed up with outright fortune-telling, which certainly is not any part of our religion and philosophy.  What we know as fortune-telling must be completely separated from our movement, if we are to expect a greater degree of respect from the people at large.  People get one or two correct messages, and they believe that they must forever be guided by those who conveyed the messages.

This is wrong - terribly wrong and stupid.  But those who seek truth and honesty, will receive guidance from the Beyond according to their entitlement.  To watch the ordinary low type of uninformed and irresponsible Spiritualist meeting is enough to make the angels weep.  Not by sitting in circles and ever seeking "tests" will man develop spiritually, but he can do this only by growing closer, day by day, to the Giver of all Light.  Each man must be his own savior - there is no other way - and we all more or less have the power within us to do this.  Even angels are powerless to raise up a spirit - every man is  spirit, here and now.  We must first learn to do this ourselves.

     As your father told you years ago, soon after he found himself in the Beyond, spiritual advancement comes from trying to lift others to something higher - and there it is.  When you on earth become sufficiently civilized to do away with war, then and then only, will you begin to evolve out of the slimy mess that, to our vision here, covers your earth. Your world is filled with men in high places who want war.  War is the greatest cause of all the troubles on your earth.  If your warmongers could see the millions of lives here blasted by wars, some from wars fought hundreds of years ago, they would freeze with horror. For some reason or other, I had to tell you of these heart-breaking things. Now we will end on a brighter note.

     Materialized forms on the earth are more common than is known.  Many spirits walk your streets and would not be distinguished from an ordinary person. Photos of these have been taken, as you know . without a camera.  The ordinary mind would not understand this, because it would try to understand a spiritual thing, with a material mind.  Man makes the mistake of looking for spiritual realities in material things. This is the answer to a question asked at your last sitting, I am informed.

Greetings - and good night!"


   -   and good-night from me too, and God Bless!

Richard R.




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April 14, 2012

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