Séance: Wikis


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A séance in progress in circa 1920

A séance (pronounced /ˈseɪ.ɑːns/) is an attempt to communicate with spirits. The word "séance" comes from the French word for "seat," "session" or "sitting," 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 spirits or to listen to a spirit medium discourse with or relay messages from spirits; many people, including skeptics and non-believers, treat it as a form of entertainment. In modern English usage, participants need not be seated while engaged in a séance.

One of the earliest books on the subject of communication amongst deceased persons was Communitation With the Other Side by George, First Baron Lyttelton, published in England in 1760.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] Contemporary 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.[4][5]


Varieties of séance

The term séance is used in several ways, and can refer any of four different activities, each with its own social norms and conventions, its own favoured tools, and its own range of expected outcomes.

Religious séances

In the religion of Spiritualism, it is generally a part of services to communicate with the dead. The term "séance" is not often used to describe this, except by outsiders; a preferred term 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 the dead to the living.[4] 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;[6] in some churches, the message service is preceded by a "healing service" involving some form of faith healing. [7]

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 Blackhawk, a Native American warrior of the Fox tribe who lived during the 19th century. Blackhawk 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. [5]

In the Latin American religion of Espiritismo, which somewhat resembles Spiritualism, séance sessions in which congregants communicate with spirits are called misas (literally "masses"). The spirits contacted 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, the term "séance" has been applied to their activities. 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. [8]

Leader-assisted séances

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 automatic writing, numbered raps, levitation of the table or of spirit trumpets, apports, or even smell.

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.

Informal social séances

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.

Séance tools and techniques

Mediumship, trance, and channeling

Mediumship is the term used to describe an act where the practitioner attempts to receive messages from spirits of the dead and 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 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. [9]

"Channeling" is a modern term for mediumship and is found most often in descriptions of stage mediums and leader-assisted séances who convey messages from spirits who are thought to be teachers of wisdom. Channeling is a process by which the medium allows a spirit limited use of his or her physical body to communicate with the sitters present. This is distinct from the concept of possession, which is considered to be the complete, non-consensual takeover of a living being by a spirit. Channeling, on the other hand, is assumed to offer opportunities for more positive and mutually respectful interaction between the living medium and the spirit.

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 table"), which can take the form of a pointer on three legs or magnifying glass on legs; home made 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. [10]

The board is used as follows: One to all 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.

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.[11] brought an end to the first historic phase of Spiritualism. Stage magicians like John Neville 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.[12]

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,[13] while believers have tended to eliminate the use of tools but continued to practice mediumship in full confidence of its spiritual value to them.[4][5]

Critical objections

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.[13]

The Jewish religion strictly prohibits taking part in anything to do with it. Likewise, Islam prohibits this act.

Some Christians believe that spirits can be contacted (as presented in the First Book of Samuel, for example),[14] but that the Bible specifically forbids contact with spirits, and they cite Biblical verses to support their belief.[15]

Critics of channeling—including both skeptics and those who do believe in spirits—state that since the most commonly-reported physical manifestations of channeling are an unusual vocal pattern or abnormal overt behaviors of the medium, channeling is therefore quite easily faked by anyone with theatrical talent.[12]

Critics of spirit board communication techniques—again including both skeptics and those who do believe in spirits—state that the premise that a spirit will move the planchette and spell out messages using the symbols on the boards is undermined by the fact that several people have their hands on the planchette, which allows one of the people to spell out anything they want without the others knowing. They claim that this is a common trick used on occasions such as 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.[16] This theory rests on the embedded premise that human beings actually have a "subconscious mind," a belief not held by all people.[17] Furthermore, regardless of the beliefs (or non-beliefs) of the participants, a scientific explanation of the movement of planchette or drinking glass would have to address the difficulty that participants have at times in "hanging on" to a whirring or rapidly moving object. It has also been noticed by skeptic-participants that the planchette moves while their fingers are resting lightly on the surface; if one of them deliberately tries to push or manipulate the planchette, the other participants will immediately sense this physical forcing and "cry foul." In fact, once a planchette has started moving, it does so in a smooth-skating manner; any attempt at control interferes with this motion or brings it to a halt.

Notable séance mediums, attendees, and debunkers


Popular 19th century trance medium lecturers include Cora Scott Hatch, Achsa W. Sprague, Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899), and Paschal Beverly Randolph(1825-1875).

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 United States President Abraham Lincoln, and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln; the social reformer Robert Owen; the journalist and pacifist William T. Stead;[18] 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 Delano Roosevelt;[19] the journalist and author Lloyd Kenyon Jones; and the physician and author Arthur Conan Doyle.[20]

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,[21] the inventor of radio Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of telephony Alexander Graham Bell, and the inventor of television technology John Logie Baird, who claimed to have contacted the spirit of the inventor Thomas Alva Edison [22]


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. [23]

Séances in the media

Several books, movies, and theatrical works have used séances in their plots. Many have presented them negatively, as hoaxes; in several of the examples listed below, an obviously fraudulent medium puts on a séance featuring faked physical mediumship, only to discover, to his or her discomfiture, that spirits do exist—or seem to.


  • Planchette is a 1906 short story by Jack London that deals with the outcome of a secular séance that is held for fun, but has tragic consequences.
  • Séances are a plot device in the Lanny Budd series of novels by Upton Sinclair.
  • Anima is a 1972 novel by Marie Buchanan where an exceptionally receptive woman attends several seances, and eventually orchestrates a car crash so that she can leave her body permanently, and occupy the body of the gifted medium convening the seances. One of the mysteries, however, is whether the medium was possessed years earlier by another spirit.
  • The Girl in the Glass is a 2005 novel by Jeffrey Ford, in which three con-men living during the Great Depression make ends meet by holding séances for wealthy people in mourning.
  • The Séance is a 2007 supernatural detective novel by Heather Graham in which a medium is contacted by the ghost of an ex-police detective who was accused of crimes his spirit says he did not commit. ISBN 0778324656
  • In "The Dreaming" by Queenie Chan, Millie had been using a séance when the spirit of Mary Spector had taken her.
  • The Séance is the name of a character in Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá's ongoing comic book series The Umbrella Academy. In this comic the Séance's power is to channel the powers and skills of the decesed. The first six issues have been collected in a trade paper-back ISBN 1593079788



  • Supernatural is a 1933 horror drama starring Carole Lombard as an heiress, Allan Dinehart as a fake medium who conducts a séance that includes apparitions of Lombard's dead twin brother, and H.B. Warner as a psychologist who is studying life after death.
  • The Thirteenth Chair is a 1937 crime drama in which Dame May Whitty plays a woman in colonial India who holds a séance to prove that her daughter is not a murderer.
  • Religious Racketeers (also released as The Mystic Circle Murders) is a 1939 crime drama that centers around spurious mediumship. It features a cameo appearance by Wilhelmina "Bess" Houdini, billed in the film as "Mrs. Harry Houdini".
  • The Amazing Mr. X (also released as The Spiritualist) is a 1948 thriller, in which Turhan Bey plays a fraudulent medium who is himself subjected to a deadly con game.
  • The Medium is a 1951 drama film written and directed by Gian Carlo Menotti in which a medium, played by Marie Powers, is terrified by events that take place at one of her séances. It received an Academy Award nomination.
  • Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a 1964 horror film in which Kim Stanley plays a corrupt medium in London who tries to convince her husband to kidnap a child so that she can gain fame by solving the crime "psychically". It received an Academy Award nomination.
  • Family Plot is a 1976 Alfred Hitchcock film, in which Barbara Harris plays a fake medium who sets half the plot into motion.
  • A Balinese Trance Séance is a short 1981 documentary on mediumship in Bali, directed by Patsy Asch, Timothy Asch, and Linda Conner.
  • Ghost is a 1990 drama in which Whoopi Goldberg plays a con artist medium conducting fake séances for money, who discovers she really can talk to the dead.
  • The Others is a 2001 horror film about a family who lives on Jersey, an isle off of the coast of France that is a British Crown Dependency, in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The film contains several scenes which séances are shown as part of the main story of the movie.
  • Long Time Dead is a 2002 move where a group of friends looking for the ultimate high try their hands at a ouija board. They don't realise at first that they have summonned a djinn which can only be free once the people who summoned him are dead.
  • The Haunting in Connecticut is a 2009 film about a family who moves into an old funeral home where the chief mortician would conduct séances.

Video games

  • MySims - In this game, the player can sometimes join spooky characters in a séance to summon a ghost, Cassandra, whom the player can befriend.
  • "Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis" includes a section in which Indiana Jones must convince a skeptic that the séance he is attending is real.
  • "Phoenix Wright" - Phoenix's assistant, Maya Fey, is a medium. She often channels the spirit of her dead sister (who was Phoenix's mentor in life) to aid him. In one case, a séance which Maya was performing turns into a murder case.



  1. ^ Lyttleton, George (First Baron) and Montegue, Mrs. Eizabeth, Dialogues with the Dead, W. Sandby, London, 1760.
  2. ^ Telegrams from the Dead (a PBS television documentary).
  3. ^ Preliminary Report of the Commission Appointed by the University of Pennsylvania, The Seybert Commission, 1887. 2004-04-01.
  4. ^ a b c Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead by Christine Wicker. HarperCollins. 2004. ISBN 006008667X
  5. ^ a b c Barry, Jason (1995).The Spirit of Black Hawk: A Mystery of Africans and Indians'. University Press of Mississippi. 1995 ISBN 0878058060]
  6. ^ "Sunday Afternoon Message Service at Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp.". Retrieved November 25, 2007.
  7. ^ "Sunday Services are held at the Healing Temple on East Street in Lily Dale.". Retrieved November 25 2007.
  8. ^ Deveney, John Patrick and Franklin Rosemont (1996). Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth-Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician. State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-3120-7.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ "The Museum of Talking Boards, a photo-gallery of historical and contemporary spirit boards and planchettes. Retrieved 116 November 2007". Museumoftalkingboards.com. http://www.museumoftalkingboards.com. Retrieved 2009-07-22. 
  11. ^ Preliminary Report of the Commission Appointed by the University of Pennsylvania, The Seybert Commission, 1887 2004-04-01.
  12. ^ a b Keene, M. Lamar; Spraggett, Allen (1997), The Psychic Mafia', Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, ISBN 1-57392-161-0  By M. Lamar Keene, as told to Allen Spraggett. Originally published in 1976 by St. Martin's Press and published by Dell Publishing in 1977).
  13. ^ a b James Randi (1995), An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. St. Martin's Press ISBN 0312151195 (Online Version)
  14. ^ 1 Samuel, chapter 28, verse 7: Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and inquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at Endor.
  15. ^ "A review of Bible verses prohibiting psychic mediums, spiritists, fortune telling, and the occult". Soundwitness.org. http://www.soundwitness.org/pop_culture/psychic_mediums.html. Retrieved 2009-07-22. 
  16. ^ Wegner, Daniel (2002), The Illusion of Conscious Will, MIT Press, pp. pp.99–102, ISBN 0-2627-3162-2 
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ "''Stead on Spiritualism'' at The William T. Stead Resource Site". Attackingthedevil.co.uk. http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk/spiritualism/index.php. Retrieved 2009-07-22. 
  19. ^ Mackenzie King and Spiritualism at Library and Archives Canada (Retrieved Nov 30, 2007.)
  20. ^ Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism Vol I, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1926.
  21. ^ user. "''The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural'', Alfred Russel Wallace, 1866". Wku.edu. http://www.wku.edu/~smithch/wallace/S118A.htm. Retrieved 2009-07-22. 
  22. ^ Goff, Hannah (2005-08-30). "''Science and the Seance'' by Hanish Goff, BBC Bews, Tuesday, 30 August 2005. Retrieved November 23, 1997". BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4185356.stm. Retrieved 2009-07-22. 
  23. ^ 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): "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.'"
  24. ^ Houdini's Halloween from WGN-TV and Red Eye, October 28, 2005
  25. ^ Haunting Tales Fill Late-Night Haunt from the Chicago Tribune, October 27, 2005.

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