**This post is a follow-up to my history of the séance post.**
Part of my enjoyment of horror the genre is how effective scary movies and stories are at suspending my disbelief. Without exposing me to actual threats, a good movie can horrify and terrify me. With just ink and paper, a good ghost story can momentarily convince me that poltergeists exist. It’s the best kind of make-believe. When the credits roll, when I close my book, I can go about my day changed. I’ve been made to confront something illogical and frightening and uncomfortable. And I’m better for it.
That is the kind of experience I expected when I attended a séance a few weeks back. I didn’t expect to really contact a ghost or commune with supernatural entities. But I did expect a good deal of drama and excitement and freaky shit. I was really looking forward to it. I thought I would be treated to a solid ninety minutes of impressively executed tricks and seamless transitions from ghost story to ghostly encounter. I thought I’d be scared, faced with some eerie phenomena I could not rationally explain.
But that is not what happened.
No, this séance was a complete letdown, bereft of all the spooky artistry and deft sleight of hand. And I didn’t witness a single supernatural incident. I didn’t want it to turn out this way.
But I owe y’all a blog post. And instead of the blog post I was planning on writing, I have to recount all about my evening at the séance, and how professionalism and showmanship could have saved the performance. Alas, both of these things were sorely lacking.
Early Warning Signs
One of the worst parts about this whole thing was that the warning signs were there, and several red flags were raised before the séance even started. But I was too committed and too excited to turn back.
Before I get into that, I should first explain what the séance was supposed to be. The goal was for “paranormal investigator” Jamie Salinas to contact the “Willow Witch,” a woman named Florence Curiee who lived in the historic Heights neighborhood in Houston in the late 19th Century.
I couldn’t find any historical accounts of either Florence Curiee or the Willow Witch. Granted, I didn’t go to the courthouse to look up birth and death certificates, and thus my search wasn’t totally exhaustive. However, I’ve lived in Texas my whole life, with six of those years spent right here in Houston, and I’d NEVER heard of the Willow Witch before. I’ve heard tons of uniquely Texas ghost stories and the Willow Witch has never been one of them.
In fact, when I Googled “the Willow Witch,” I got a bunch of hits about Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as a few blogs about a particular type of magick. When I Googled “Willow Witch Houston,” all I got was hits for the séance itself.
Admittedly, this was not a great way start, but I figured the medium would explain more of the legend.
The second warning sign presented itself when I arrived at the séance. I assume the séance organizers wanted to lend some credibility and solemnity to the evening’s proceedings, so they set up a little table where we were supposed to sign a waiver before participating in the séance.
Now, I’m a lawyer, as I’ve mentioned before. An essential part of my job, I interpret and draft contracts all day. I’ve done deals worth millions of dollars for properties spanning multiple states. I know about contracts and liability and exposure to risk. So you can imagine how I might react when greeted with a one-page waiver at a séance. Which is to say I thought it was hilarious. It was the exact form waiver I’ve signed at fitness studios, but with added language about how I couldn’t sue for any injuries sustained from any “Supernatural experience.”
I started questioning the whole thing.
I wondered, if a ghost or spirit were to actually harm someone during the séance, would the organizers try to assert the waiver as a legal defense against liability? Could I, a participant, reasonably and knowingly waive my rights to be protected against ghosts? Do I have such rights? How would that work? The whole thing was silly, because 1) waivers don’t always hold up and 2) if I could prove my hypothetical injuries were caused by an otherworldly spirit, we’d have a lot bigger problems.
Anyway, I signed the waiver just to move things along and chuckled to myself.
The other guests and I were ushered into a comfortable reception room for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. There was a full bar (free too) and a nice spread of appetizers. The organizers had decorated the room with all sorts of grandiose, macabre accoutrements, like skulls and peacock feathers. It was really cool!
I mingled with other guests, who represented all types of people—some who seemed to be fervent supporters of the occult, while others seemed a bit more mainstream. Most had never attended a séance. That didn’t stop us from swapping ghost stories or personal experiences of weird occurrences. We were all excited to be there and share what would surely be a memorable night, for better for worse. We all agreed that it probably wouldn’t work and this was just a fun thing to do for Halloween, though we all admitted that there was a tiny part of us that wondered if it would work.
The cocktail hour was, hands down, my favorite part. It’s always nice to meet people who share your same curiosities.
About 15 minutes before the séance started, the organizers started seating the guests in a large room upstairs. Seats were arranged two circles, an inner circle and an outer circle. I was lucky enough to have scored tickets for the inner circle, and we were ushered in first. The room was completely dark, save for a table and lamp set up in the center of the room. Our seats were arranged in two half circles around a table. The outer ring of chairs was set against the wall and circled the whole room. It was also freezing cold.
I couldn’t get very good pictures because it was so dark, but I tried.
Everyone seated in the inner circle received a crystal pendant and a “protection pouch” filled with some kind of sage-herb blend. We were instructed to wear the pouch like a necklace and have our pendants at the ready. At this point, I was keenly aware of how much the organizers were doing to create atmosphere and anticipation, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t working a little bit. As we sat there in the weak light, waiting for the others to find their seats, I wondered what I was getting myself into. I felt the tiniest of knots in my stomach and my memory flipped through a dozen séance scenes from various horror movies.
Once the outer ring took their seats, the master of ceremonies took the podium to deliver a dire warning about the ritual. I had met him during the cocktail hour and he seemed like a nice, sincere man, but halting and somewhat emotional delivery put me off. I was all a bit melodramatic, how he felt an oppressive force in the room with us, how he himself has only ever performed séances for the spirits of children because they aren’t as harmful, and so on. It was too much. That little knot of anxiety in my stomach dissolved.
But again, I tried to stay open-minded.
After all the introductions, all sensational yet vague warnings about malicious forces, Mr. Salinas introduced himself and launched into the evening’s main event. As far as I could tell, it was broken into two halves, and went something like this:
First Half: Magic Tricks
–He started with a brief (literally only 5 sentences) story explaining who the Willow Witch was. According to Mr. Salinas, Florence Curiee had lived in the historic Heights neighborhood in Houston. A smart though poo woman, Florence wanted to attend college but had to forego her own plans in order to care for her sick mother. To supplement their income, Florence sold various home remedies and “potions”, which earned her the reputation of being a witch. Her fiancé, Garrett, loved her dearly, but her witchy reputation was too much for him and he dumped her. In a violent act of revenge, Florence burned down his house, killing Garrett in the process. She may have also killed herself in the fire…(this important plot pint was never explicitly confirmed).
–Then the medium performed a bunch of mentalist demonstrations, such as:
- He instructed us to dangle our crystal pendants and “listen to the good and bad energy.” He swore the pendant would pick up on “positive” energy and move in a linear fashion, while “negative” energy would make it move in a circle. Predictably enough, when he told us to think of something positive, the pendant moved in a line, and so on. This is not magic. This is the ideomotor effect, where a person can unconsciously influence their movements, and anyone who has ever used a Ouija board knows this.
- He told some participants to write down the initials of a person and then asked a random girl use her ideomotor-effect-crystal to divine which sets of initials had negative energy and which possessed positive energy
- He selected a woman, asked her to think about a person who she missed, and then he sort of correctly guessed the person’s name. This was kind of impressive, but I couldn’t figure out what it had to do with séances or the Willow Witch.
- He chose a rather nervous girl to “travel back in time” to “observe” Florence and Garrett. This was, at most, a guided meditation. Seriously, he led her in a relaxation exercise and then told her to see herself in her mind’s eye as she traveled back in time to find Florence and Garrett, sweetly strolling in a park, holding hands and being romantic.
Second Half: The “Séance”
The medium moved on the “spooky” tricks next:
- He pulled out a creepy little dummy, chose a volunteer, and told her to close her eyes. As he stood across the table from the volunteer, he touched the dummy in various places on its neck and arms. The volunteer claimed she felt someone touch her in those same places. This was actually a good trick, because it worked most of the time.
- He instructed his assistant to set up a little white box and various slips of paper. We were supposed to write down questions for the spirits. If we had a green slip of paper, we had to write a question for Garrett; for a pink slip, we had to write a question for Florence; and for a white slip, we could ask anything. Then we put all the questions in the box, and the assistant brought it to another volunteer. She was instructed to pull one slip of each color, but not to read the question aloud. Then Mr. Salinas fiiiiiiinally used his Ouija board (by himself!) to answer, inviting the volunteer to read aloud her questions afterwards, like some kind of “Carnac the Magnificent” knock-off act. The biggest response came when he spelled out the word, “YES” as an answer and the question was revealed to be “CAN YOU SEE ME RIGHT NOW?” But this was not, for me, creepy at all, because a) everyone knows you can’t do a Ouija board by yourself and b) I could tell he knew the answers he was supposed to recite, so I spent the whole trick kicking myself for not catching when the assistant switched out the question box.
- He produced a special radio/sensor that was supposed to pick up the sounds of spirits, but nothing ever came through the static. Nevertheless, the medium kept insisting that he heard weird sounds.
- He then propped a wooden block against a wine glass on small wooden podium. Whenever the block fell off, it was supposedly a sign of the Willow Witch’s presence. (I am not even kidding.)
- He introduced a little contraption with a small bell that “rang” whenever the Willow Witch was supposed to be near. I would have been more impressed by this device had it not met its cues so perfectly, almost as if someone was…controlling it via remote control.
- Lastly, Mr. Salinas used the wine glass from earlier, placed it upside down on a small, empty box. When the glass broke, he declared that it was prove that both Florence and Garrett were in the room. This was, by far, the most dramatic and genuinely surprising part of the séance. But by this point, I was more concerned with figuring out he had accomplished the tricks.
The whole thing was weird and random and kind of absurd. On the whole, I suspect that a lot of these tricks were accomplished using some tried-and-true mentalist tricks and classic sleight of hand. Never once did I feel a hint of an otherworldly presence nor was I scared.
As I made my way back to the open bar to get my money’s worth of vodka tonics (my ticket was pricey!), I felt kind of cheated. It wasn’t because of the lack of verifiable ghost activity, but because the whole thing was poorly executed. It wasn’t entertaining, let alone chilling or thrilling. Would it have killed anyone involved to take an acting class or two? Or flesh out Florence’s story? I came into this with an open mind, but let’s be honest—I’m an educated person living in the 21st century. There are certain hurdles a storyteller must overcome to suspend my disbelief, to quiet my rational mind, and draw me into the story.
As in horror movies and novels, if the story is bare, if the characters are shallow, and if the conflict lacks in nuance and meaning, I will have a hard time engaging. If a medium half-asses a séance, both in structure and execution, it’s hard for me to see past the fact that I paid good money to watch a low-energy performer fail to convince me he was communing with ghosts. Even he didn’t seem to believe his own shtick. The Fox sisters would have been ashamed.
But that misses the larger point. I didn’t need to be totally convinced. I didn’t need to believe a ghost had broken the glass. Just as I don’t need to believe that a horror movie really happened to enjoy it.
The enjoyment comes not from producing evidence of a real ghost. The delicious chill on the back of my neck arises from the experiencing a brief moment where I am not sure if what I’m experiencing is real or not. A horror movie becomes real the moment it makes me jump in my seat. A story becomes real when I feel compelled to make sure the front door is locked. The sweet spot is that space between the protection of logic and the uncertainty of fear. If it’s just a movie, then why did I flinch? If it’s just a story, then why was I afraid someone was watching me?
The séance did not accomplish this. I knew what was real the entire time. But hey, at least it was a unique way to spend Halloween.