In the April 29 Netflix release Things Heard and Seen, a young professor and his wife (George and Catherine Claire) move from New York City to the Hudson Valley, where he has just landed a job at the fictional Saginaw College. George promptly runs into a professor who declares that he is a believer in Emanuel Swedenborg, one of a group of people in the area who follow Swedenborg’s teachings.
Later in the movie, we see the professor’s group conducting a séance to try to contact the restless spirits that Catherine Claire has seen in their house. There’s a clear connection drawn in the movie between the idea of spirits surviving after death and the presence of ghosts in the Claires’ house. But how much of what’s in the move reflects what Swedenborg actually wrote? Are Swedenborgians actually real-life “ghost whisperers?” We break it down below.
So who was this Swedenborg guy?
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) was a Swedish nobleman and scientist who began having vivid experiences of the spiritual world in his fifties. He published more than twenty-five books detailing the things he saw and heard and the spiritual lessons that he learned from his encounters.
Are there churches based on Swedenborg’s teachings? What do they believe?
There are indeed! There are denominations, independent groups, and individuals all over the world who practice a spirituality based on Swedenborg’s teachings. Two of the biggest denominations in the United States are the Swedenborgian Church of North America and the General Church of the New Jerusalem.
While theological interpretations and teachings can vary widely between groups, in general, Swedenborgian practice emphasizes spiritual growth through experiencing and expressing divine love and doing good works in the world.
Do Swedenborgians do séances?
In the movie, a group identified as Swedenborgians come to Catherine Claire’s house to perform a séance in an effort to contact the spirit that Catherine has encountered. One of the characters in the film asserts that “We embrace [haunted] houses as a blessing. Portals between the two realms with guides to shepherd us when the time comes.” Another suggests that the ghost in the house was the result of a portal to the spiritual world opened by a Swedenborgian, and a third jokes, in reply, that “We are good at that.”
This might make for a fun story, but it is not an accurate representation of Swedenborgian beliefs and practices. Although there are stories of Swedenborg communicating with the spirits of the departed, Swedenborg himself described this as the result of being able to travel to the afterlife in spirit form. And as he was careful to stress, this was something that he was allowed to do only with the Lord’s permission and protection, and only so that he could bring knowledge of spiritual principles back to earth. Swedenborg actively discouraged others from attempting to do the same, warning that it would be easy for people to be deceived by what they experienced and become spiritually damaged as a result. For that reason, Swedenborgian groups tend to discourage attempts at spirit contact among their members.
However, that scene does have a grain of historic truth: in the nineteenth century, when the Spiritualism movement was at its height, Swedenborg’s description of the survival of souls after death was an inspiration to those who used séances to try to contact the dead. Many Swedenborgians were also Spiritualists, and during that time period, it wouldn’t have been at all unusual to encounter a group of Swedenborgians who were at least familiar with Spiritualism and séances, or who maybe even attempted to contact ghosts themselves. In modern times, though, a group like the one in the movie would be an anomaly.
In the movie, the characters were reading from a book called Heaven and Hell. Is that a real book? What is it about?
Not only is it a real book, but the title Things Heard and Seen is taken from the original long-form title of the book: Heaven and Its Wonders, and Hell, Drawn from Things Heard and Seen.
Heaven and Hell is a detailed description of the afterlife based on Swedenborg’s own spiritual experiences. The book is divided into three parts. The first and longest part is about heaven, including everything from the structure of heaven to details about what it looks like, what life is like for the angels that live there, and what kind of work they do. The second part, “The World of Spirits,” starts with a description of the transition from the living world to the afterlife and explains how souls go through a process of education and self-discovery that reveals their true selves. If their inner self is fundamentally good, they will go to heaven. However, if their inner self is focused on self-gratification and holds no love for others, they will be drawn to hell. In the final section of the book, which is about hell itself, Swedenborg describes the kinds of people who end up there and contrasts hellish society with heavenly society. He is careful to emphasize that for those who are evil, hell is the place where they feel happiest and most at home. So it is not a punishment; instead, it is but the most loving way for God to keep evil people separate from those who are good so that they don’t do others harm.
If you’d like to read Heaven and Hell, you can download a copy for free from our bookstore. If you’d like to start with something shorter, our book Afterlife is an abridged version of Heaven and Hell, and Our Life after Death consists of excerpts specifically from the part on what happens immediately after we die. Those two volumes are also available for free download.
Does Swedenborg write about ghosts helping the living?
Swedenborg writes that when people transition to the afterlife, it’s the whole person that does so; the body, however, is just a shell that is left behind. He doesn’t describe spirits lingering behind to help the living, but he does describe two categories of spirits who help people in this world from beyond: angels and evil spirits.
If angels are helping us, it’s usually because they’ve been assigned to follow a person and to try to guide them on the right path—yes, the original guardian angel! Evil spirits, on the other hand, are able to contact living people who have the same kinds of destructive impulses. As Swedenborg puts it, our choices in life put us in community with the people we’ll live with after death, even if we’re not aware of it.
In the movie, this connection is made personal: the spirit of an abused wife helps Catherine as her marriage dissolves, while George seems to be increasingly driven to violence by the spirit of a murdering husband. But that’s a creative interpretation on the part of the author, rather than a straight-on representation of what Swedenborg says.
Was artist George Inness really influenced by Swedenborg?
He was. George Inness (1825—1894) was considered a painter of the Hudson Valley River School, and so his inclusion in the film was a reference not only to the setting of the movie but also to his interest in Swedenborg. Inness attended a Swedenborgian church in Brooklyn (where he was baptized in 1868), and many of his later paintings use Swedenborg’s system of correspondences as they relate to color.
One of the pivotal images in Things Heard and Seen is Inness’s painting Valley of the Shadow of Death, one of the three-part series of paintings that represents the act of spiritual pilgrimage from a Swedenborgian perspective. The first in the series, Valley of the Shadow of Death, represents a time of trial and the faith that can carry a person through it; the last painting in the series, The New Jerusalem, depicts a peaceful, heavenly landscape.
You can learn more about Swedenborg’s view of the afterlife on our page about the spiritual world and through the videos on our Off The Left Eye YouTube channel, which include these more accurate takes on Swedenborg and the spirits of the departed: “Do Ghosts Exist?” and “Is It Safe to Talk to Spirits?”