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|Fails from the crypt|
A séance is a spiritual or psychic event involving many people and hosted by a psychic leader for the "benefit" of the participants. The aim is usually to contact the dead through the medium that is hosting the event. Séances can be sedate affairs with the medium putting on a funny accent and talking to the dead, or it can be a more intense affair with naughty spirits manipulating objects in the room. On several occasions, even naughtier skeptics have turned on the lights during a séance and shown these spirits to be the medium's assistants moving things with long sticks. These sticks can also be used to assault the spirits if the séance gets out of hand.
Messages can be received from the dead in many ways. In channelling, a spirit supposedly takes control of the medium's body and speaks through them. There are various techniques for producing a written message including planchettes and automatic writing (where the medium scribbles supposedly under the influence). Apparitions (like ghosts) can appear alongside the medium. And there are phenomena which don't really communicate but just look cool, involving a variety of wonderful toys.
Tools and toys
Séances often are far more than just talking to the dead and often come complete with magical happenings, a practice known as physical mediumship. In early séances of the late 19th and early 20th century, the audience could go home covered in ectoplasm and could often be shocked by flying objects that were picked up and moved about the room. Going back to the Fox sisters at the birth of spiritualism there is a long tradition of physical mediums who supposedly allow the dead to manifest through a wide range of physical phenomena, including noises, objects moving or levitating on their own accord, things appearing or disappearing, ectoplasm, lights, messages appearing, and apparitions. The movement of the pointer on the ouija board is perhaps the best known example of spirits manipulating physical objects, although it was invented as a toy not as a device for mediumship and can be easily explained by science.
Many of these methods appear ridiculously obvious and pathetic, but they were typically done with people who had a strong predisposition to believe, with a lot of skillful misdirection and patter, and in an entirely dark room or under flickering candlelight. Stage magicians often use similar techniques to produce effects such as levitation, objects appearing and disappearing, or written messages, and they are capable of fooling many audiences.
From the mid 20th century there was a decline in the popularity of special-effects-heavy séances and physical mediumship; modern mediums focus on channeling messages from the dead without the accompanying theatrics of things appearing and disappearing. In part this was due to debunking by rationalists like Harry Houdini and Harry Price in the early 20th century, and later the likes of James Randi. It may also be because you make more money in a big theater than a small darkened room.
Knocks and banging
The Fox sisters convinced people they were contacting the afterlife mainly through making mysterious knocks and bangs. Later they confessed that they were able to crack the joints in their toes incredibly loudly. Knocking and banging remained a mainstay of physical mediumship, but could be done in many ways. They could also be used for communication, with the medium calling out options and the "spirit" knocking to select one.
One of the more curious items of ephemera from the early boom in spiritualism was a 1851 novelty song, "Spirit Rappings" by J. Ellwood Garrett (lyrics) and W. W. Rossington (music). It declares, "Rap - tap - tap lost friends are near you; / Rap - tap - tap they see and hear you; / In their mystic converse rappy, / They declare good spirits happy."
One particular toy was a ball that would rise from a table and move about the room; this was used to effect on Derren Brown's televised Séance. On casual inspection, the ball is not solid, but actually a light wicker-type object with plenty of holes for a stage hand to insert a dark stick, picking it up by perfectly natural means. The relatively light-coloured ball creates the illusion that it's flying — much like Japanese Kuroko (黒子) but with the lights turned out for an even better effect.
Musical instruments are also used, ranging from bells to keyboards. These are a popular choice as the audience do not need to see them as clearly to know they are being manipulated. Medium Colin Fry, while working under the stage name 'Lincoln', was once caught playing a séance trumpet himself after the lights were accidentally switched on for a few seconds.
Various methods were used to get messages from ghosts. These included planchettes, often small pieces of wood with a pencil attached. They would be operated like the pointer of a ouija board by one or more hands, and would spell out messages. They work similarly to ouija boards, via the ideomotor effect.
Spirit slates normally come in pairs, and are placed together so that nothing can get between them and write on the slate. However there are many ways of making a message appear, and they are a staple of the stage magician's repertoire, which should indicate that the solution is conjuring not extrasensory forces. Tricks include using a small piece of chalk hidden in the hand or under the fingernail; sprinkling chalk dust on a surface marked with a sticky invisible ink; swapping the slates while people aren't looking.
The appearance out of thin air of small objects supposedly brought by the ghost, such as flowers, books, and other tokens of the deceased. Any magician can do this with ease.
Actual figures of dead people would appear in the seance room. Often they appeared suspiciously like the medium dressed in a funny old costume. However this was explained by the medium supplying some of their physical matter or ectoplasm for the spirit to manifest with. And the medium definitely wasn't nipping off to their dressing-up box and reappearing pretending to be a ghost.
One medium, Mrs Guppy, specialised in having arms and legs appearing from nowhere after she was apparently locked in a sealed cabinet. It isn't hard to see how this could be done using concealed doors and holes.
Human levitation was a mainstay of the classic era of physical mediumship, and in a darkened room could easily be faked by jumping in the air or standing on tiptoes, as well as other cleverer methods.
It was also possible for mediums to levitate and move objects such as tables. Sometimes this was done by a complex network of pulleys and levers, although it could also be done by lifting with one's knees. There are reports of tables being turned upside down, which again would be easy to fake. As early as 1851, the scientist Michael Faraday conducted a scientific investigation and blamed the ideomotor effect, but this did nothing to dampen the fascination of a table that moves a bit in the dark; by 1853 it had become a craze enjoyed both by grieving relatives and carefree people looking for some light entertainment.
One of the most commonly cited pieces of "research" on séances is the Scole experiment. This was conducted in Scole, England in the late 1990s and involved numerous séances masquerading as a scientific study. Because the experiment failed to find any sources of trickery or fraud, it is often taken as proof of supernatural occurrences. However, the Scole experiment failed to impose any scientific controls, being performed in complete darkness with the mediums in control of the experiment — rather than the investigators imposing their own controls. For example, many of the objects used in the séances were provided by the mediums and not subject to any rigorous testing before or after. The investigators repeatedly stated that they could not find evidence of fraud in the mediums, but having their investigative powers restrained by the mediums themselves severely limits the validity of that statement. Brian Dunning of Skeptoid explains the problem with the experimental parameters by analogy to analysing stage magic:
“”If I go to Penn and Teller's magic show to look for evidence of deception, but I impose the rule that I have to stay in my seat and watch the show as presented, and I'm not allowed to go onstage and examine the performers or the equipment, or watch from behind, or observe the preparations, I guarantee you that I also will find no evidence of deception.
So the fact that the investigators were severely limited in their ability to examine the mediums would have made it impossible to determine any fraud in the séances. Indeed, the laws of misdirection may have made fraud easier to get away with in this case.
- Physical mediumship, Ghost Circle, accessed July 10, 2019
- The Death of Physical Mediumship As We Know It, Sue Farrow Psychic News
- In the Joints of Their Toes, Edward White, The Paris Review, November 4, 2016
- Ghosts in the Machines: The Devices and Daring Mediums That Spoke for the Dead, Collectors Weekly, Oct 29, 2014
- Spirit Rappings, "Weird Jon", Gravediggers Local 16, Sep 30, 2011
- Spirit Rappings, 1853, Historic American Sheet Music, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University
- Psychic News -Medium caught holding trumpet
- Spirit Slates Mentalism Trick, MagicTricks.com
- Seeing is Believing: Spiritualism in the Victorian Era-Part 3, Julie Mathias, Curious Histories (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), January 26th, 2017.
- The Scole Experiment