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Séance conducted by John Beattie, Bristol, England, 1872
A séance or seance (//; French: [seɑ̃s]) is an attempt to communicate with spirits. The word séance comes from the French word for "session", from the Old French seoir, "to sit". In French, the word's meaning is quite general: one may, for example, speak of "une séance de cinéma" ("a movie session"). In English, however, the word came to be used specifically for a meeting of people who are gathered to receive messages from ghosts or to listen to a spirit medium discourse with or relay messages from spirits. In modern English usage, participants need not be seated while engaged in a séance.
Fictionalised conversations between the deceased appeared in Dialogues of the Dead by George, First Baron Lyttelton, published in England in 1760. Among the notable spirits quoted in this volume are Peter the Great, Pericles, a "North-American Savage", William Penn, and Christina, Queen of Sweden. The popularity of séances grew dramatically with the founding of the religion of Spiritualism in the mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps the best-known series of séances conducted at that time were those of Mary Todd Lincoln who, grieving the loss of her son, organized Spiritualist séances in the White House, which were attended by her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, and other prominent members of society. The 1887 Seybert Commission report marred the credibility of Spiritualism at the height of its popularity by publishing exposures of fraud and showmanship among secular séance leaders. Modern séances continue to be a part of the religious services of Spiritualist, Spiritist, and Espiritismo churches today, where a greater emphasis is placed on spiritual values versus showmanship.
Varieties of séance
The term séance is used in a few different ways, and can refer to any of four different activities, each with its own social norms and conventions, its own favoured tools, and its own range of expected outcomes.
In the religion of Spiritualism, and the religion of Divine Metaphysics (a federally recognized religious branch out of Spiritualism in the United States), it is generally a part of services to communicate with living personalities in the spirit world. Usually, this is only called "séance" by outsiders; the preferred term for Spiritualists is "receiving messages". In these sessions, which generally take place in well-lit Spiritualist churches or outdoors at Spiritualist camps (such as Lily Dale in upstate New York or Camp Cassadaga in Florida), an ordained minister or gifted contact medium will relate messages from spirit personalities to those here in the physical form. Generally Spiritualist "message services" or "demonstrations of the continuity of life" are open to the public. Sometimes the medium stands to receive messages and only the sitter is seated; in some churches, the message service is preceded by a "healing service" involving some form of faith healing.
In addition to communicating with the spirits of people who have a personal relationship to congregants, some Spiritual Churches also deal with spirits who may have a specific relationship to the medium or a historic relationship to the body of the church. An example of the latter is the spirit of Black Hawk, a Native American warrior of the Fox tribe who lived during the 19th century. Black Hawk was a spirit who was often contacted by the Spiritualist medium Leafy Anderson and he remains the central focus of special services in the African American Spiritual Churches that she founded.
In the Latin American religion of Espiritismo, which somewhat resembles Spiritualism, séance sessions in which congregants attempt to communicate with spirits are called misas (literally "masses"). The spirits addressed in Espiritismo are often those of ancestors or Catholic saints.
Stage mediumship séances
Mediums who contact spirits of the dead or other spirits while on a stage, with audience members seated before them, are not literally holding a séance, because they themselves are not seated; however, this is still called "séance". One of the foremost early practitioners of this type of contact with the dead was Paschal Beverly Randolph, who worked with the spirits of the relatives of audience members, but was also famed for his ability to contact and deliver messages from ancient seers and philosophers, such as Plato.
Leader-assisted séances are generally conducted by small groups of people, with participants seated around a table in a dark or semi-dark room. The leader is typically asserted to be a medium and he or she may go into a trance that theoretically allows the spirits to communicate through his or her body, conveying messages to the other participants. Other modes of communication may also be attempted, including psychography or automatic writing, numbered raps, levitation of the table or of spirit trumpets, apports, or even smell. It was thought spirits of the dead resided within the realm of dark and shadow, making the absence of light a necessity to invoke them. Skeptics were unwilling to accept this required condition. Saying,"You would not buy an automobile if it was only presented in the dark."
This is the type of séance that is most often the subject of shock and scandal when it turns out that the leader is practicing some form of stage magic illusion or using mentalism tricks to defraud clients.
Among those with an interest in the occult, a tradition has grown up of conducting séances outside of any religious context and without a leader. Sometimes only two or three people are involved, and, if they are young, they may be using the séance as a way to test their understanding of the boundaries between reality and the paranormal. It is in such small séances that the planchette and ouija board are most often utilized.
Here spiritualists and practitioners (psychic and mediums) hold a seance so that all participants speak with various personalities in the spirit world. This held in a seating manner in a circle.
Séance tools and techniques
Mediumship, trance, and channeling
Mediumship involves an act where the practitioner attempts to receive messages from spirits of the dead and from other spirits that the practitioner believes exist. Some self-ordained mediums are fully conscious and awake while functioning as contacts; others may slip into a partial or full trance or into an altered state of consciousness. These self-called "trance-mediums" often state that, when they emerge from the trance state, they have no recollection of the messages they conveyed; it is customary for such practitioners to work with an assistant who writes down or otherwise records their words.
Spirit boards, talking boards, and ouija boards
Spirit boards, also known as talking boards, or ouija boards (after a well-known brand name) are flat tablets, typically made of wood, Masonite, chipboard, or plastic. On the board are a number of symbols, pictures, letters, numbers and/or words. The board is accompanied by a planchette (French for "little board"), which can take the form of a pointer on three legs or magnifying glass on legs; homemade boards may employ a shot glass as a planchette. A most basic Ouija board would contain simply the alphabet of whatever country the board is being used in, although it is not uncommon for whole words to be added.
The board is used as follows: One or more of the participants in the séance place one or two fingers on the planchette which is in the middle of the board. The appointed medium asks questions of the spirit(s) with whom they are attempting to communicate.
Trumpets, slates, tables, and cabinets
During the latter half of the 19th century, a number of Spiritualist mediums began to advocate the use of specialized tools for conducting séances, particularly in leader-assisted sessions conducted in darkened rooms. "Spirit trumpets" were horn-shaped speaking tubes that were said to magnify the whispered voices of spirits to audible range. "Spirit slates" consisted of two chalkboards bound together that, when opened, were said to reveal messages written by spirits. "Séance tables" were special light-weight tables which were said to rotate, float, or levitate when spirits were present. "Spirit cabinets" were portable closets into which mediums were placed, often bound with ropes, in order to prevent them from manipulating the various aforementioned tools.
Scientific skeptics and atheists generally consider both religious and secular séances to be scams, or at least a form of pious fraud, citing a lack of empirical evidence. The exposure of supposed mediums whose use of séance tools derived from the techniques of stage magic has been disturbing to many believers in spirit communication. In particular, the 1870s exposures of the Davenport Brothers as illusionists and the 1887 report of the Seybert Commission brought an end to the first historic phase of Spiritualism. Stage magicians like John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Houdini made a side-line of exposing fraudulent mediums during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1976, M. Lamar Keene described deceptive techniques that he himself had used in séances; however, in the same book, Keene also stated that he still had a firm belief in God, life after death, ESP, and other psychic phenomena. In his 2004 television special Seance, magician Derren Brown held a séance and afterwards described some of the tricks used by him (and 19th-century mediums) to create the illusion of paranormal events.
Critics of channeling—including both skeptics and believers—state that since the most commonly reported physical manifestations of channeling are an unusual vocal pattern or abnormal overt behaviors of the medium, it can be quite easily faked by anyone with theatrical talent. Critics of spirit board communication techniques—again including both skeptics and believers—state that the premise that a spirit will move the planchette and spell out messages using the symbols on the board is undermined by the fact that several people have their hands on the planchette, which allows any of them to spell out anything they want without the others knowing. They claim that this is a common trick, used on occasions such as teenage sleepover parties, to scare the people present.
Another criticism of spirit board communication involves what is called the ideomotor effect which has been suggested as an automatism, or subconscious mechanism, by which a Ouija-user's mind unknowingly guides his hand upon the planchette, hence he will honestly believe he is not moving it, when, in fact, he is. This theory rests on the embedded premise that human beings actually have a "subconscious mind," a belief not held by all.
The exposures of fraud by tool-using mediums have had two divergent results: skeptics have used historic exposures as a frame through which to view all spirit mediumship as inherently fraudulent, while believers have tended to eliminate the use of tools but continued to practice mediumship in full confidence of its spiritual value to them.
Research in anomalistic psychology has revealed the role of suggestion in seances. In a series of fake seance experiments (Wiseman et al. 2003) paranormal believers and disbelievers were suggested by an actor that a table was levitating when, in fact, it remained stationary. After the seance, approximately one third of the participants incorrectly reported that the table had moved. The results showed a greater percentage of believers reporting that the table had moved. In another experiment the believers had also reported that a handbell had moved when it had remained stationary and expressed their belief that the fake seances contained genuine paranormal phenomena. The experiments strongly supported the notion that in the seance room, believers are more suggestible than disbelievers for suggestions that are consistent with their belief in paranormal phenomena.
Notable séance mediums, attendees, and debunkers
Among the notable people who conducted small leader-assisted séances during the 19th century were the Fox sisters, whose activities included table-rapping, and the Davenport Brothers, who were famous for the spirit cabinet work. Both the Foxes and the Davenports were eventually exposed as frauds.
Notable people who have attended séances and professed a belief in Spiritualism include the social reformer Robert Owen; the journalist and pacifist William T. Stead; William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Prime Minister of Canada for 22 years, who sought spiritual contact and political guidance from his deceased mother, his pet dogs, and the late US President Franklin D. Roosevelt; the journalist and author Lloyd Kenyon Jones; and the physician and author Arthur Conan Doyle.
A number of artists, including abstractionists Hilma af Klint, the Regina Five, and Paulina Peavy have given partial or complete credit for some of their work to spirits that they contacted during seances. Paulina said that "when she painted, she did not have control over her brush, that it moved on its own, and that it was Lacamo(the spirit) who was directing it."
Scientists who have conducted a search for real séances and believed that contact with the dead is a reality include the chemist William Crookes, the evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, and reportedly, the inventor of radio Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of telephone Alexander Graham Bell, the experimental physicist Oliver Lodge and the inventor of television technology John Logie Baird, who claimed to have contacted the spirit of the inventor Thomas Edison.
Among the best-known exposers of fraudulent mediumship acts have been the researchers Frank Podmore of the Society for Psychical Research, Harry Price of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, the professional stage magicians John Nevil Maskelyne (who exposed the Davenport Brothers) and Harry Houdini, who clearly stated that he did not oppose the religion of Spiritualism itself, but only the trickery by phony mediums that was being practiced in the name of the religion.
The psychical researcher Hereward Carrington exposed the tricks of fraudulent mediums such as those used in slate-writing, table-turning, trumpet mediumship, materializations, sealed-letter reading and spirit photography. The skeptic Joseph McCabe documented many mediums who had been caught in fraud and the tricks they used in his book Is Spiritualism Based on Fraud? (1920).
Magicians have a long history of exposing the fraudulent methods of mediumship. Early debunkers included Chung Ling Soo, Henry Evans and Julien Proskauer. Later magicians to reveal fraud were Fulton Oursler, Joseph Dunninger, Joseph Rinn, and James Randi. The researchers Trevor H. Hall and Gordon Stein have documented the trickery of the medium Daniel Dunglas Home. Tony Cornell exposed a number of fraudulent mediums including Rita Goold and Alec Harris.
- Ann O'Delia Diss Debar ("One of the most extraordinary fake mediums... the world has ever known" -Houdini)
- Bob Nygaard (Psychic fraud investigator)
- Confidence trick
- Con artist
- Flim-Flam! (Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions)
- Fortune telling fraud
- Houdini's debunking of psychics and mediums
- List of con artists
- List of confidence tricks
- List of topics characterized as pseudoscience
- Mark Edward
- Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium
- Psychic reading
- Rose Mackenberg (Historic fraudulent psychic medium investigator)
- Þorbjörg Lítilvölva
- Lyttleton, George; Montegue, Eizabeth (1760). Dialogues with the Dead. London: W. Sandby.
- "Telegrams from the Dead". Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). 1994.
- Preliminary Report of the Commission Appointed by the University of Pennsylvania, The Seybert Commission, 1887. 1 April 2004.
- Wicker, Christine (2003). Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead. HarperCollins. ISBN 9780060086664.
- Barry, Jason (1995). The Spirit of Black Hawk: A Mystery of Africans and Indians. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 0-87805-806-0.
- "Sunday Afternoon Message Service at Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp." Archived 2007-10-28 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- "Sunday Services are held at the Healing Temple on East Street in Lily Dale.". Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- Deveney, John Patrick (1996). Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth-Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician. State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780791431207.
- Brown, Slater, The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Hawthorn Books. 1970.
- God's World: A Treatise on Spiritualism Founded on Transcripts of Shorthand Notes Taken Down, Over a Period of Five Years, in the Seance-Room of the William T. Stead Memorial Center (a Religious Body Incorporated Under the Statutes of the State of Illinois), Mrs. Cecil M. Cook, Medium and Pastor. Compiled and Written by Lloyd Kenyon Jones. Chicago, Ill.: The William T. Stead Memorial Center, 1919.
- "The Museum of Talking Boards, a photo-gallery of historical and contemporary spirit boards and planchettes". Museumoftalkingboards.com. Retrieved 22 July 2009.
- Cumerlato, Daniel. "How to use the Ouija Board – A guide to the safe use of this ancient device". Ghost Walks. Archived from the original on 5 October 2014. Retrieved 19 July 2014.
- Randi, James; Clarke, Arthur C. (1997). An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9780312151195. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
- Keene, M. Lamar (1997). The Psychic Mafia. Prometheus Books. ISBN 9781573921619.
- Wegner, Daniel (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will. MIT Press. pp. 99–102. ISBN 0-262-73162-2.
- Carroll, Robert, Todd, The Skeptic's Dictionary "The unconscious or subconscious mind, according to classical Freudian psychoanalysis, is a 'part' of the mind that stores repressed memories. [...] However, there is no scientific evidence (for) unconscious repression [...] The unconscious mind is also thought by some, such as Jung and Tart, to be a reservoir of transcendent truths. There is no scientific evidence that this is true." Retrieved Nov 25 2007.
- "Do You Believe in Ghosts?". Catholic Exchange. Retrieved 2010-03-27.
Ghosts can come to us for good, but we must not attempt to conjure or control spirits.
- Klein, Michele (2003-06-30). Not to worry: Jewish wisdom and folklore. Jewish Publication Society. ISBN 978-0-8276-0753-8. Retrieved 2010-03-27.
Jews have sometimes engaged in conjuring spirits when worried, even though the Bible prohibits this behavior.
- Wiseman, R., Greening, E., and Smith, M. (2003). Belief in the paranormal and suggestion in the seance room. British Journal of Psychology, 94 (3): 285–297.
- Podmore, Frank. (2011, originally published in 1902). Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism. Cambridge University Press. p. 188. ISBN 978-1-108-07257-1 "In the autumn of 1888 Mrs. Kane (Margaretta Fox) and Mrs. Jencken (Catherine Fox) made public, and apparently spontaneous, confession, that the raps had been produced by fraudulent means. Mrs. Kane even gave demonstrations before large audiences of the actual manner in which the toe joints had been used at the early seances. Mrs. Jencken, at any rate, if not also Mrs. Kane, afterwards recanted her confession."
- Lehman, Amy. (2009). Victorian Women and the Theatre of Trance: Mediums, Spiritualists and Mesmerists in Performance. McFarland. p. 87. ISBN 978-0-7864-3479-4 "By the 1880s, Maggie, like her sister Kate who was now widowed after losing her English husband Jenckens, had become a full-blown alcoholic. In 1888, the sisters confessed that they had faked the ghostly rapping which precipitated the age of spirit contact. They claimed to have produced knocking sounds by manipulating and cracking the joints in their feet and knees. For a while they made money giving lectures about this "deathblow" to Spiritualism. However, before she died, Maggie recanted the confession, and Kate began conveying spirit messages to close friends once again. Ultimately, trance mediumship brought the sisters neither wealth nor happiness. Both died in penurious circumstances, essentially drinking themselves to death."
- Christopher, Milbourne. (1990 edition, originally published in 1962). Magic: A Picture History. Dover Publications. p. 99. ISBN 0-486-26373-8 "The Davenports were exposed many times, not only by magicians but by scientists and college students. The latter ignited matches in the dark. The flickering flames disclosed the brothers, with their arms free, waving the instruments which until then had seemed to be floating. The exposures had little effect on that segment of the public which chose to believe the manifestations were genuine. They closed their minds to the truth and sat in awe, sure that spirits had been conjured up in their presence."
- "Stead on Spiritualism at The William T. Stead Resource Site". Attackingthedevil.co.uk. Retrieved 22 July 2009.
- Levine, Allan (2011). King: William Lyon Mackenzie King: a Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny. Vancouver, British Columbia: Douglas & McIntyre. pp. 2–14. ISBN 978-1-5536-5560-2.
- Doyle, Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism Vol I, 1926.
- Hall, Trevor H. (1963). The spiritualists: the story of Florence Cook and William Crookes. Helix Press.
- Wallace, Alfred Russel (1866). "The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural". Wku.edu. Retrieved 22 July 2009.
- Goff, Hannah (30 August 2005). "Science and the Seance". BBC News. Retrieved 22 July 2009.
- Jim Steinmeyer (2005). Hiding the Elephant. Arrow. pp. 95–96. ISBN 0-09-947664-9.
- Harry Houdini: A biographical essay by staff at the Appleton Public Library based primarily on material provided in the biography Harry Houdini by Adam Woog (Lucent Books, 1995) Archived 2007-11-13 at the Wayback Machine: "Houdini so strongly opposed the phony spiritualists that he testified against them before a committee of Congress. 'Please understand that, emphatically, I am not attacking a religion,' he said. 'I respect every genuine believer in spiritualism or any other religion ... But this thing they call spiritualism, wherein a medium intercommunicates with the dead, is a fraud from start to finish ... In thirty-five years, I have never seen one genuine medium.'"
- Hereward Carrington. (1907). The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism. Herbert B. Turner & Co.
- Joseph McCabe. (1920). Is Spiritualism based on Fraud?: The Evidence Given by Sir A.C. Doyle and Others Drastically Examined. London: Watts & Co.
- Chung Ling Soo. (1898). Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena. Munn & Company. Henry Evans. (1897). Hours With the Ghosts Or Nineteenth Century Witchcraft. Kessinger Publishing. Julien Proskauer. (1932). Spook crooks! Exposing the secrets of the prophet-eers who conduct our wickedest industry. New York, A. L. Burt.
- Fulton Oursler. (1930). Spirit Mediums Exposed. New York: Macfadden Publications. Joseph Dunninger. (1935). Inside the Medium's Cabinet. New York, D. Kemp and Company. Joseph Rinn. (1950). Sixty Years Of Psychical Research: Houdini And I Among The Spiritualists. Truth Seeker.
- Trevor H. Hall. (1984). The Enigma of Daniel Home: Medium or Fraud?. Prometheus Books. ISBN 978-0879752361
- Gordon Stein. (1993). The Sorcerer of Kings: The Case of Daniel Dunglas Home and William Crookes. Prometheus Books. ISBN 0-87975-863-5
- Tony Cornell. (2002). Investigating the Paranormal. Helix Press New York. pp. 400–414. ISBN 978-0912328980
- Charles Richet. (1923). Thirty Years of Psychical Research being a Treatise on Metaphysics. New York, The Macmillan Company. ISBN 0766142191
- Arthur Conan Doyle. (1975). The History of Spiritualism, Volumes I and II. New York, Arno Press. ISBN 9780405070259
- Ruth Brandon. (1983). The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Alfred E. Knopf. ISBN 978-0394527406
- Edward Clodd. (1917). The Question: A Brief History and Examination of Modern Spiritualism. Grant Richards, London.
- Joseph Dunninger. (1935). Inside the Medium's Cabinet. New York, D. Kemp and Company.
- Amy Lehman. (2009). Victorian Women and the Theatre of Trance: Mediums, Spiritualists and Mesmerists in Performance. McFarland. ISBN 978-0786434794
- Walter Mann. (1919). The Follies and Frauds of Spiritualism. Rationalist Association. London: Watts & Co.
- Joseph McCabe. (1920). Is Spiritualism Based On Fraud? The Evidence Given By Sir A. C. Doyle and Others Drastically Examined. London: Watts & Co.
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- A Séance Procedure (courtesy of the Other World Society)
- Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp
- Physical Mediumship today: The home of the "Yellow Cloud Circle of Eternal Illumination". Information, Seance recordings and testimonials.
- National Spiritualist Association of Churches
- eLibrary of ancient books on the subject of spiritualism, séances, development of mediumship in the Western and Oriental Traditions