The house is darkened, the blinds shut against the moonlight, a solitary candle burns in the center of the table, illuminating a circle of close-eyed guests. The circle of people ranges in age from younger to older, their hands clasped in determination of deed. Tonight, these gathered hope to pierce the veil between this world and the next. They hope to contact those souls which have departed, and they hope to find answers to the questions which elude them. This is the séance or, at the very least, the way the séance is commonly understood. Yet the history of the séance is far more intricate than the simple portrayals on TV or film. The séance can be traced beyond the spiritualist revival, beyond antiquity, and into the distant, hazy, mythic realm of early humanity. For as long as loved ones have passed on to somewhere else, we who survive continue to attempt to contact them. We wait and watch for a sign.
THE HAZY PAST OF SPIRIT CONTACT
Spirit communication stretched back to antiquity, with accounts of ghost stories and hauntings weaving their way into our ancestor’s daily lives. Pliny the Younger, a Roman philosopher, relates the story of a restless spirit located in a house noted for its mysterious and negative history. The story, is as follows:
Athenodorus made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and bent again to his writing, but the ghost rattling its chains over his head as he wrote, he looked round and saw it beckoning as before. Upon this he immediately took up his lamp and followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains; and having turned into the courtyard of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus being thus deserted, marked the spot with a handful of grass and leaves. The next day he went to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. There they found bones commingled and intertwined with chains; for the body had moldered away by long Lying in the ground, leaving them bare, and corroded by the fetters. The bones were collected, and buried at the public expense; and after the ghost was thus duly laid the house was haunted no more.
Pliny the Younger’s story of a spirit seeking something on the physical plane and successfully communicating with the living would lay the foundation for many modern fictional accounts of hauntings. He recognizes the sanctity of burial in accordance with the wishes of the departed, he successfully identifies the association between hauntings and locations, and while no formal ritual is enacted to bring about Athendorus’ visitor, a ritual action still occurs in the form of completing the burial.
Within the book of Samuel, the story of Saul consulting a medium presents us with an early account of intentionally raising the spirits for information. The text reveals that Saul, finding himself politically and militarily opposed, seeks his old master Samuel. As Samuel was quite dead, Saul’s only hope was to consult a medium and gain instruction through the spirit of his former teacher. One can only guess how the witch of Endor summoned the spirit of Samuel, yet the text records that Saul received the vision of the spirit, but not the message he had hoped to hear.
These moments of recorded spirit contact in western antiquity demonstrated the popular notion of the continuation of life after death and spirit communication. However, the idea of the séance as popularly understood would emerge from within a time of heightened American religious experimentation.
By the 1850s a mysterious rapping sound in the home of the Fox Sisters, led to the emergence of a new American religion. The Fox Sisters, inhabitants of western New York or the “burned-over district”, were exposed to a wellspring of new American religious thought including the burgeoning Mormonism, the Universal Friend, and emerging progressive political ideas like women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements. One evening, the young sisters discovered that they could communicate with a spirit they felt within the home. The sounds of clicks emanated from the tables, walls, and floorboards, opening a wellspring of binary communication. Within a matter of weeks, the sisters were regional sensations, calling forth spirits to answer questions and provide accounts of the spiritual plane of existence. As their popularity grew, so did the popularity of a religious experience which offered proof of life beyond death.
As the séance evolved from simple clicks to full trance sessions, techniques arose which integrated spirit boards, pendulums, automatic writing, and physical mediumship. This development allowed for the expansion of spiritualist theology by the likes of noted author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Wizard of Oz creator Frank Baum. The séance craze swept the nation, entrancing notables like Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln who eventually hosted a séance within the White House!
One of the keys of Spiritualism’s popularity grew from providing women with a newfound position of authority within spiritual and public forums. Accordingly, the messages from spirits focused frequently on women’s rights, the abolitionist movement, and many progressive political policies. The spirits often had messages which supported populist movements and demands, advocated for racial justice, and idealist demands for the nationalization of the railyards and the robber barons of the 1900s. Many of FDR’s new deal demands have a lineage that emerges from the powerful mediumistic messages received in the darkened corners of the séance room. In its core, Spiritualism was a “working person’s” religion, that offered proof of the continuation of the spirit. The séance by extension was something that anyone could join, regardless of station or creed, and required no special gift or ordination. Like witchcraft, the occult orders of the era, or folkcraft, the séance was accessible to anyone, but contextualized within Americana and a do-it-yourself spirituality that was comfortable to any creed.
By the time the séance reached its peak in American culture the inevitable backlash was swift and brutal. American politicians became distrustful of the reformist messages of spirits, and the anti-suffragist groups targeted the unprecedented concept of women in spiritual leadership positions. Magicians like Harry Houdini gleefully did the work of these groups for them, buttressing his career with prolonged press coverage for “debunking” the séance, often employing lesser magicians as “fraudulent mediums” he could debunk, or training local mediums in sleight of hand for the same purpose. His press successes guaranteed that many other magicians would attempt the same throughout their career. It is notable that few mediums or spiritualists would engage Houdini (much like Randi some 50 years later). Despite this, the damage was done, and séance would slowly retreat in the American consciousness ultimately becoming fodder for horror movies, excitable ghost hunters, and viewed as a Victorian oddity.
THE SÉANCE RETURNS
Today, the séance has started a slow return to the public, not as a form of spiritualist worship, but as an accessible way to contact the paranormal. Eager listeners gather to contact departed family members, reach the spirits of a place, or simply experience the paranormal with friends and family Some share interests in the occult, new age philosophies, or witchcraft, yet many come from nominally Christian backgrounds looking for encounters with something beyond themselves. The séance has become a place for us to engage with death, process grief, marvel at the mystical world around us and claim our spot at the table of magick.
Kat and I combine the historical aspects of séance, techniques ranging from automatic writing, to spirit board sessions, to physical mediumship. In many ways, we have stripped the séance of the detritus of 70’s B-Horror films, while creating a space that is both empowering and healing.
We wait and watch for a sign.
Author: Daniel Eckhart
Daniel Eckhart is a séance host and expert, obsessed with exploring what lies beyond the veil. Often referred to as a “celebrity occultists”, Daniel and his wife Kat strive to share their love of the paranormal by showing that spirit communication can be exciting, mystical, and ultimately accessible to us all.