I’m excited to announce that I am going to attend a séance this Halloween! I’ve never been to one before, though I’ve always been very intrigued by them. It seems like much of the time, we horror fans never have the opportunity to engage with paranormal activity, let alone experience it. So when this opportunity came along, I leapt after it.
All that being said, I’m still a skeptic, albeit an open-minded one. I’ve visited purportedly haunted places as part of my Project Haunted House series. I’ve spoken to people who believe in ghosts and people who do not. I’ve come to the conclusion that the vast majority of ghostly activity is not supernatural has rational explanations. Séances alone are very open to criticism, with a history of fraudulent mediums and numerous public showings where séances were debunked. As Carl Sagan put it, “Seances occur only in darkened rooms, where the ghostly visitors can be seen dimly at best. If we turn up the lights a little, so we have a chance to see what’s going on, the spirits vanish.”
So much of what we think of as ghosts and spirits is just our own projections on unexplained phenomena. We assign an explanation; it doesn’t need to be logical or scientific. It’s the way human beings have coped with the mysteries of the world. We’ve been doing this since the dawn of time, and we’re very good at it.
But I believe there is that slim margin wherein something truly otherworldly happens. I’ve talked to people who swear on everything sacred that they’ve encountered ghosts. And I believe some of them. There are too many really weird and unexplainable events in the world. We cannot possibly know all the mysteries of the universe, so who’s to say that a séance can’t put us in touch with the great beyond? I’ll go in with an open mind and a discerning eye.
As part of my own preparation for the séance, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned about séances. I thought y’all might enjoy it.
What is a séance?
Let’s start with the basics, shall we?
A séance is a ritual performed to contact and communicate with the spirits of the dead. The word séance comes from the French s’asseoir, which means “to sit.” That’s pretty accurate, since a séance involves the participants sitting in a circle. A medium leads the ritual and serves as the channel through which the spirits communicate with the living.
What is the history behind séances?
One of the most interesting things I learned about séances is that they are an American invention. I’d always assumed they were European, but I was wrong.
In April 1848, in Hydesville, New York, Margaret and Kate Fox invented the séance. According to the girls, one night they heard suspicious rapping and knocking sounds in their bedroom. They decided to investigate, answering the raps and talking to no one in particular. Eventually, they claimed, they established a rapport with the source of the sounds and found out that it was ghost of a man who had been murdered in their house, years before their family moved in. These two sisters become a national sensation overnight for their claims of contacting and communicating with the dead. The Fox sisters held public séances on stage, charging ridiculous ticket prices to sit in the audience and watch. They invited participants to ask questions on everything from the state of the stock market to more personal questions about loved ones. The sisters enjoyed their lucrative notoriety for years before Margaret confessed that the sisters had faked everything.
But their lie had grown beyond them. The Spiritualist Movement was in full swing. Spiritualism believes that the spirits of the dead have “both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living.” It does not deny the existence of God; rather, spiritualists fervently believe in God and believe that the spirits can illuminate His mysteries for the living.
Spiritualism quickly spread overseas to Great Britain when medium Maria B. Hayden introduced the séance in London. From there, spiritualist flourished and the séance became wildly popular, integrating itself into British life as an exotic, exciting subculture. It was perfect timing, considering that Victorian Britain became obsessed with all sorts of occult beliefs. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and great progress in scientific and technological advancement, the population began to turn away from the Church. Some turned to science; others turned to the supernatural. Fueled by Britain’s global reach, many tales of strange customs and rituals from Britain’s colonies made their way back to England. It was fashionable to engage in these customs and rituals (or what the British thought were the customs and rituals). The rich and powerful ate it up, and they particularly loved séances. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert attended séances with some regularity.
Séances had numerous detractors. For years, psychologists have claimed that any paranormal phenomena experienced at a séance is actually due to the power of suggestion, something a well-trained medium can and will manipulate to no end. Further still, a medium can train herself to alter her voice and practice theatrics to provoke a frightening, ghostly experience.
Other skeptics worked to publicly debunk and expose mediums as frauds. The most famous debunker was none other than Harry Houdini, magician and entertainer extraordinaire. Houdini’s experience as a stage performer enabled him to see right through the cheap tricks of many mediums and others who professed to have clairvoyant abilities. Houdini himself was a devoted adherent to science and was a member of a Scientific American committee that promised cash prizes for mediums who could prove their abilities. No one ever won a prize.
How do you perform a séance?
A séance needs a minimum of three participants, one of which can be the medium herself. Before the ritual begins, the medium must establish an intent for the séance. Are the participants trying to contact a particular soul? Or are they just casting a line into the waters of another world? The latter can be dangerous, so more care is taken in such situations. But any séance is serious business.
A medium will generally use tools to aid in the ritual. These tools can be a Ouija board, a pendulum, or old-fashioned “Spirit-Rapping,” where the medium asks the spirit to knock on the table to answer yes-or-no questions. Usually the séance will take place around a round table. Beforehand, the medium will prepare the room by placing the table in the center of the room. She will arrange candles on top of the table, as well as food or flowers to attract the spirits (human beings sure like offering food to non-corporeal spirits).
For the ritual itself, overhead lights are turned off. Participants and the medium sit around the table. They should hold hands to create a ring around the table. The medium will direct everyone to close their eyes as she says a prayer to prepare everyone and “cleanse” the energy in the room. From there, the medium will ask the participants to concentrate on summoning a spirit. After a little while, if the medium senses something, she will ask any spirits in the room to signal their presence, either by influencing the Ouija board, swinging the pendulum, rapping on the table, or causing a slight breeze to blow through the room.
Once contact has been established, the medium will ask the spirit questions, beginning with simple inquiries and gradually transitioning to more complicated questions. All the questions should be asked with the utmost respect so as not to provoke a spirit. The participants should not interrupt the medium and should remain calm and quiet.
If at any time the spirit becomes rude or forceful, the medium should ask it to leave. If that doesn’t work, the medium can banish it by blowing out all the candles and turning on the lights, terminating the séance.
What dangers, if any, are associated with a séance?
Above and beyond religious concerns – the Catholic Church expressly forbids involvement in séances, as it regards the practice as necromancy—I’ve found several warnings that focus on the importance of having a professional, experienced medium conduct the séance. As we know from tons of horror movies, demons like to pop into séances. According to these warnings, only an experienced medium can handle such a situation.
Of course, there’s always the danger that the medium is fake and will scam you of your money.
Yes, I bought and paid for tickets to this séance, and they weren’t cheap. I don’t know if anything cool or weird or scary will come of it, but I’ll have the experience. At the very least, I’ll be able to say I’ve attended and participated in a real-life séance.
Have you ever attended a séance? Leave me a comment explaining your experience! I’ll write up my experience shortly afterwards and post it right here! Stay tuned!