A major structure of Spiritualism, the séance is a gathering of a small group of individuals who sit together to obtain paranormal manifestations or establish communication with the dead. At least one member of the group is usually a medium or at least possessed of some mediumistic powers.
In 1848 the Fox family at Hydesville, New York, called in their neighbors to listen to mysterious rapping sounds, which later became famous as the " Rochester rappings " and were responsible for inaugurating the modern Spiritualist movement. The gathering was too informal to be called a séance, although all the necessary elements were present, but within the following two or three years, the concept of spirit communication spread throughout a large part of the eastern states and many Spiritualist séance circles were formed.
In the early stages of the movement these séances were conducted by private mediums who took no fee for their performances; later, professional mediums arose whose séances were open to the public for a fee. Both public and private séances continue to be an indispensable feature of Spiritualism. Unfortunately, much of the common wisdom concerning séances was derived from sittings that later proved to be fraudulent, including the great majority of séances involving physical phenomena, and many of the conditions for a successful séance touted by Spiritualists have little relationship to the manifestation of psychic phenomena or spirit contact. Also, over the years many mediums developed personal peculiarities that they passed on to the mediums they trained. Such mannerisms have no bearing on the success or failure of a séance beyond the medium's belief in them.
The sitters need not have psychic powers, although the phenomena reported are generally more impressive if they do. As a rule séances are held with a single medium, because, according to Spiritualists, a second powerful medium introduces another spirit control and the ensuing conflict between the controls can lead to confusion.
The optimum number of sitters is generally believed to be eight or nine, but many mediums sit in larger circles. The great medium D. D. Home, even at the risk of offending the empress of France, refused to sit with more than eight individuals. However, the number of sitters in Indridi Indridason 's séances sometimes approached seventy. Lujza Ignath demonstrated direct writing before a hundred people.
In isolated instances mediums have been known to demonstrate psychic phenomena onstage, although doubts surround the genuineness of such displays. The Davenport brothers demonstrated before as many as a thousand people, but there is no firm evidence that their phenomena were genuinely psychic. Others who held séances in public halls include the Bangs sisters, for spirit paintings; a Mrs. Suydam, for immunity to fire; Annie Eva Fay, Lulu Hurst, Annie Abbot, and a Miss Richardson, for feats of strength; Etta Roberts and a Mrs. Bliss, for materializations; Mary M. Hardy, for paraffin wax molds (see Plastics ); William Eglinton, for slate writing; and Mary Murphy-Lydy, for direct voice.
Composition and Conditions of the Séance
Ideally, according to Spiritualists, males and females should be about equally represented at séances. The majority of the sitters should not be too old. Young sitters provide favorable conditions if their attitude is serious and not flippant. Persons of questionable moral character should not be admitted into the circle. Those in ill health, preoccupied, or nervous should withdraw. Skepticism does not prevent success, but the effect of a hostile or suspicious mind is not helpful and may be a hindrance.
Strangers should not be introduced frequently into the circle. A series of at least six sittings should be held without modifying the group. New sitters should be admitted one by one at intervals of three or four sittings. No more than two or three sittings should be held a week.
A favorable environment is an essential condition for a séance. Excitement or fatigue before the sitting should be avoided. The medium should not take any stimulants. He or she should be comfortable and maintain a genial frame of mind.
Both the medium and the experimenters have an equal share in success or failure. As the psychical researcher Gustav Geley aptly remarked, "Mediumistic investigations belong to the class of 'collective experiments,' for the phenomena are the result of subconscious psycho-physiological collaboration between the medium and the experimenters." Augustus De Morgan wrote to Alfred Russel Wallace at an early period: "There is much reason to think that the state of mind of the inquirer has something—be it external or internal—to do with the power of the phenomena to manifest themselves. This I take to be one of the phenomena—to be associated with the rest in inquiry into cause. It may be a consequence of action of incredulous feeling on the nervous system of the recipient; or it may be that the volition—say the spirit if you like—finds difficulty in communicating with a repellent organization; or, may be, is offended."
A dark or semi-dark séance room is believed to be favorable for phenomena, according to Spiritualists, because light often interferes with spirit manifestation. Critical observers have often noted that it favors fraud, and the demand for darkness was an early hindrance to discovering the manipulations of fake mediums. However, darkness is by no means essential for the production of psychic phenomena, and many remarkable effects have been produced in good light.
The placement of the sitters appears to be a matter of consequence. The controls often make changes to produce a better combination of "psychic currents." After sitters form a chain by holding hands or placing them on the table with fingertips touching, they are requested to engage in general conversation or to sing. It is said that talking or singing creates vibrations that help produce the phenomena. For the same purpose, phonographs and audio tape players have been used in recent years.
Spiritualist medium W. Stainton Moses believed that the chief merit of music in the séance room was its soothing effect, that it harmonized conditions. In his own circle, music was very seldom asked for by the communicators. Harmony was effected by means of perfume and breezes of cool scented air.
The utility of general conversation, free and easy chatter, is that it prevents the sitters from concentrating too much. Tension, solemnity, eagerness, depression are obstructive. Even with the great medium D. D. Home intense attention often prevented manifestations. When everybody stopped talking and looked at him, he awoke from trance. (Mediums often enter into a trance condition during a séance, although they sometimes retain normal consciousness throughout.)
A natural, easy, relaxed attitude on the part of the sitters is most conducive to phenomena. Fear or terror usually breaks a manifestation. A table, partly levitated, may drop or a phantom may disappear at a scream. During his levitations, Home always asked the sitters not to get excited and to talk of something else because, until he had risen above their heads, any movement or excitement could thwart the force at work. Once in Nice in 1874, Home, in trance, reportedly buried his face and hands in the flames of the open fireplace. On seeing his head encircled by flames, Count de Komar started from his chair, crying, "Daniel! Daniel!" Home recoiled brusquely, and after some moments he said, "You might have caused great harm to Daniel by your want of faith; and now we can do nothing more."
In 1867, Frederick L. H. Willis, professor of the New York Medical College, described his experience with a musical medium in The Spiritual Magazine:
"Scarcely had the medium struck the first note upon the piano when the tambourine and the bells seemed to leap from the floor and join in unison. Carefully and noiselessly I stole into the room, and for several seconds it was my privilege to witness a rare and wonderful sight. I saw the bells and tambourine in motion. I saw the bells lifted as by invisible hands and chimed, each in its turn, accurately and beautifully with the piano. I saw the tambourine dexterously and scientifically manipulated with no mortal hand near it. But suddenly … the medium became aware of my presence … instantly everything ceased…. A wave of mental emotion passed over her mind, which was in itself sufficient to stop the phenomena at once."
Emma Hardinge Britten, testifying before the London Dialectical Society, narrated the case of the medium J. B. Conklin, who was invited to hold a number of séances in Washington:
"The manifestations were very marked and decisive until Mr. Conklin discovered that one of the gentlemen present was no other than President Lincoln, when his anxiety and surprise became so great as entirely to stop the manifestations which were not again renewed till a mutual explanation had restored him to his normal state of mind."
According to Spiritualists, the medium should not be pressured to produce phenomena. Psychical researcher Sir William Crookes wrote of Home:
"I used to say [to Home], let us sit round the fire and have a quiet chat and see if our friends are here and will do anything for us; we won't have any tests or precautions. On these occasions, when only my own family were present, some of the most convincing phenomena took place."
Atmospheric conditions also can have an important bearing on séances. Dry climates are seemingly more favorable than wet ones, and a thunderstorm is believed inimical. Joseph Maxwell observed that dry cold is helpful and rain and wind often cause failure.
The medium William Eglinton kept a careful record of the atmospheric conditions during his séances. He found that during the 170 failures in 1884-85 the weather was either very wet, damp, or dreary in the majority of instances.
Some Spiritualists believe that the location and furnishing of the séance room are also of considerable consequence. A place saturated with historic atmosphere facilitates manifestations, as does one with powerful emotional associations. With the marquis Carlo Centurione Scotto much better results were obtained in the medieval Millesimo Castle than in Genoa. The psychical researcher Harry Price reputedly had striking clairvoyant descriptions of the life of St. Agnes in a séance held in the Roman catacombs (Psychic Research, 1928, p. 665).
The séance room, according to most practitioners, should be plainly furnished. Spiritualists have argued that the table should be entirely of wood and the chairs plain and wooden. Carpets, cushions, and heavy drapes should be dispensed with because they appear to absorb the psychic force, whereas a wooden table apparently stores it up. If possible the same room should be used on subsequent occasions and should not be disturbed in the interval.
The Phenomena of Séances
Sitters have frequently reported that the advent of different manifestations, especially physical ones, is usually preceded by a current of cold air passing through the hands of the sitters or by a chilling of the atmosphere. Sometimes there are rapping sounds or moving furniture. In some cases there are moving lights.
If there is a medium in the circle, he or she may breathe heavily or groan before becoming entranced. The medium may then speak and deliver messages in the character of a spirit entity, often with a marked change of voice. In some sittings an alleged spirit control takes charge of the proceedings and indicates how the séance may best be conducted or reveals what departed spirit is conveying a message. With certain powerful mediums, messages may be given in direct voice, supposedly without use of the medium's vocal apparatus.
In one simple form of séance, communication is accomplished through raps or audible movements of a table. Questions are asked, and the answers are given by a single rap for "yes" or a double rap for "no," or by some other code of communication agreed upon by the circle. The Ouija board and planchette are more sophisticated forms of such communication, suitable for one to three individuals rather than a full séance sitting. Another mode of communication for a single sitter or a small group is slate-writing, although considerable doubt surrounds the genuineness of communications received via this method because it is most amenable to fraud.
It is convenient to classify parapsychological phenomena such as automatic writing or speaking by a medium as "psychical," as distinct from the "mental" phenomena of, say, telepathy. Such manifestations as raps, table turning, and slate writing are also largely psychical, but also partly "physical." Physical manifestations properly involve more remarkable phenomena, such as the paranormal movement of objects (telekinesis ), the levitation of objects or human beings, the summoning of small objects such as flowers, fruit, or jewels from a distance through closed doors (apports ), the transformation of heavy objects or people into very light ones, or the manifestation of spirits (materialization).
Mediums who regularly manifested materialization phenomena (few have attempted such feats in the last several decades) usually sat inside a small cabinet with a heavy curtain in front. Materialized forms issued from the cabinet. The cabinet was believed to conserve and condense psychic force in the production of spirit forms. Not all materializations were of fulllength spirit forms. Some were only faces or other partial human shapes, in some instances even grotesque forms. Materialization mediums were sometimes securely tied inside the cabinet as a check against fraud, but of course they frequently merely demonstrated their abilities as escape artists.
A few of the more renowned physical mediums of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries demonstrated astonishing phenomena, such as the ability to handle live coals without injury and the manifestation of spirit hands that wrote messages in clear daylight instead of the darkness or subdued light of a séance room. The most talented medium was undoubtedly D. D. Home, who was never detected in fraud. An account of one of his most remarkable séances is given by H. D. Jencken in the journal Human Nature (February 1867):
"Mr. Home had passed into the trance still so often witnessed, rising from his seat, he laid hold of an armchair, which he held at arms' length, and was then lifted about three feet clear of the ground; travelling thus suspended in space, he placed the chair next Lord Adare, and made a circuit round those in the room, being lowered and raised as he passed each of us. One of those present measured the elevation, and passed his leg and arm under Mr. Home's feet. The elevation lasted from four to five minutes. On resuming his seat, Mr. Home addressed Captain Wynne, communicating news to him of which the departed alone could have been cognizant.
"The spirit form that had been seen reclining on the sofa, now stepped up to Mr. Home and mesmerised him; a hand was then seen luminously visible over his head, about 18 inches in a vertical line from his head. The trance state of Mr. Home now assumed a different character; gently rising he spoke a few words to those present, and then opening the door proceeded into the corridor; a voice then said: 'He will go out of this window and come in at that window.'
"The only one who heard the voice was the Master of Lindsay, and a cold shudder seized upon him as he contemplated the possibility of this occurring, a feat which the great height of the third floor windows in Ashley Place rendered more than ordinarily perilous. The others present, however, having closely questioned him as to what he had heard, he at first replied, 'I dare not tell you,' when, to the amazement of all, a voice said, 'You must tell; tell directly.'
"The Master then said, 'Yes; yes, terrible to say, he will go out at that window and come in at this; do not be frightened, be quiet.' Mr. Home now re-entered the room, and opening the drawing-room window, was pushed out semi-horizontally into space, and carried from one window of the drawing-room to the farthermost window of the adjoining room. This feat being performed at a height of about 60 feet from the ground, naturally caused a shudder in all present. The body of Mr. Home, when it appeared at the window of the adjoining room, was shunted into the room feet foremost—the window being only 18 inches open. As soon as he had recovered his footing he laughed and said, 'I wonder what a policeman would have said had he seen me go round and round like a teetotum!'
"The scene was, however, too terrible—too strange, to elicit a smile; cold beads of perspiration stood on every brow, while a feeling pervaded all as if some great danger had passed; the nerves of those present had been kept in a state of tension that refused to respond to a joke. A change now passed over Mr. Home, one often observable during the trance states, indicative, no doubt, of some other power operating on his system.
"Lord Adare had in the meantime stepped up to the open window in the adjoining room to close it—the cold air, as it came pouring in, chilling the room; when, to his surprise, he only found the window 18 to 24 inches open! This puzzled him, for how could Mr. Home have passed outside through a window only 18 to 24 inches open. Mr. Home, however soon set his doubts at rest; stepping up to Lord Adare he said, 'No, no; I did not close the window; I passed thus into the air outside.' An invisible power then supported Mr. Home all but horizontally in space, and thrust his body into space through the open window, head-foremost, bringing him back again feet foremost into the room, shunted not unlike a shutter into a basement below.
"The circle round the table having re-formed, a cold current of air passed over those present, like the rushing of winds. This repeated itself several times. The cold blast of air, or electric fluid, or call it what you may, was accompanied by a loud whistle like a gust of wind on the mountain top, or through the leaves of the forest in late autumn; the sound was deep, sonorous, and powerful in the extreme, and a shudder kept passing over those present, who all heard and felt it. This rushing sound lasted quite ten minutes, in broken intervals of one or two minutes. All present were much surprised; and the interest became intensified by the unknown tongue in which Mr. Home now conversed. Passing from one language to another in rapid succession, he spoke for ten minutes in unknown languages.
"A spirit form now became distinctly visible; it stood next to the Master of Lindsay, clad, as seen on former occasions, in a long robe with a girdle, the feet scarcely touching the ground, the outline of the face only clear, and the tones of the voice, though sufficiently distinct to be understood, whispered rather than spoken. Other voices were now heard, and large globes of phosphorescent lights passed slowly through the room."
The following extract is taken from an account of a séance held by Cesare Lombroso with the famous Italian medium Eusapia Palladino:
"After a rather long wait the table began to move, slowly at first—a matter explained by the skepticism, not to say the positively hostile spirit, of those who were this night in a séance circle for the first time. Then little by little, the movements increased in intensity. M. Lombroso proved the levitation of the table, and estimated at 12 or 15 pounds the resistance to the pressure which he had to make with his hands in order to overcome that levitation.
"This phenomenon of a heavy body sustained in the air, off its centre of gravity and resisting a pressure of 12 or 15 pounds, very much surprised and astonished the learned gentleman, who attributed it to the action of an unknown magnetic force.
"At my request, taps and scratchings were heard in the table. This was a new cause for astonishment, and led the gentlemen to themselves call for the putting out of the candles in order to ascertain whether the intensity of the noises would be increased, as had been stated. All remained seated and in contact.
"In a dim light which did not hinder the most careful surveillance, violent blows were first heard at the middle point of the table. Then a bell placed upon a round table, at a distance of a yard to the left of the medium (in such a way that she was placed behind and to the right of M. Lombroso), rose into the air, and went tinkling over the heads of the company, describing a circle around our table where it finally came to rest."
At this séance the sitters also felt themselves pinched and their clothes plucked and felt invisible hands on their face and fingers. The accuracy of the account was testified to by Lombroso himself.
The Problem of Verification
It may seem surprising that a group of people sitting together can induce extraordinary phenomena that appear to defy normal physical laws. It has been argued that suggestion may play a part, and it is difficult to rule out the possibility of conscious or even subconscious suggestion as a factor. The important thing is that the paranormal character of phenomena be established, that fraud, chance, unconscious muscular action, and so on should be excluded. In the case of mental phenomena, the possibility of subconscious suggestion should also be examined. It is helpful to use visual and aural recording apparatus to register the objectivity of the manifestations. Experiments have shown that the senses may be deceived in the séance-room atmosphere and that individuals do not always remember accurately things seen or heard.
The availability of modern cameras and film, tape recorders, camcorders, and other highly sensitive electronic surveillance devices greatly simplifies accurate documentation of séances.
The Wider Implications of the Séance
As mentioned earlier, the purposes and aims of a group of people sitting together may influence the result, although little research has been done on the mechanics of séance phenomena. It is clear that the medium and the sitters frequently have reported a drain on their energies, manifested in fatigue and weakness afterward; loss of weight has also been reported.
We do not at present know how nervous energy is related to any psychic forces. There are analogies to be drawn from the séance room to the claimed currents of energy in the human body that may be modified by acupuncture techniques and result in improvements in health. There are also comparable concepts in yoga and in the psychophysical energy popularly termed kundalini, expressed alternatively in either sexual activity or transformations of higher consciousness, sometimes with paranormal side effects. Large groups of people in an atmosphere of emotional fervor may contribute to the spiritual or psychic healing of revival meetings. Analogies can also be drawn to the changed atmosphere that often exist between entertainer and audience at concerts and theaters and even the atmosphere at traditional religious services in churches.
In each case, there is a single individual (or small group of individuals) acting as a focal point for the mass vital energies of the group. Entertainer, actor, minister, or medium: all are involved in vital energy exchanges and transformations. Although the nature of such energy transformations is clearly affected by the established conventions of the group occasion, it is not clear how a street demonstration accumulates and releases the lowest common impulse of the mob, resulting in stone throwing, window smashing, or other antisocial behavior while a revival meeting may result in paranormal healing, or a séance in levitation or telekinetic phenomena.
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The séance is the central ritual in Spiritualism, a religious movement that emerged in mid-nineteenthcentury America. Spiritualism is based on the belief that the spirits of the dead can be contacted in séances through individuals called mediums, that spiritual enlightenment and harmony with the universe can be gained from this experience, and that séance phenomena constitute scientific proof of human immortality.
The early séance was typically held in a quiet and dimly lit room in the home of the medium. There, the medium entered a trance, fell under the control of spirits, and passed messages to the participants, usually a dozen or so in number. Messages in the earliest gatherings came by means of an alphabetic code, but mediumistic speaking and writing quickly became the norm. Messages ranged in purpose from personal consolation to spiritual and moral elevation, and created a religious experience both individual and communal. The religious function of the séance was underscored by the development of regularly meeting groups and orders of ritual, including prayer and the singing of hymns. These features continued to characterize the séance as it became part of the Sunday services established by Spiritualists seeking to institutionalize the religion during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Attendance at séances cut across lines of race and class, but they were especially popular in the 1850s, in the Northeast and the Midwest, and among white middle-class theologically liberal Protestants. The appeal of the séance lay in its ability to address the profound spiritual unease many Americans experienced as a result of theological, social, and cultural change. It allowed believers dissatisfied with the abstract deity of liberal Protestantism to establish contact with a plane of being at once spiritual and human. It assuaged concerns that the increasing cultural authority of science would diminish the importance of things spiritual. Its tranquil domestic setting provided believers with a spatial and a spiritual counterpoint to the increasingly commercial, competitive, and urban society taking shape around them. It provided women with empowerment and authority in a culture that exalted their spiritual qualities while affording them few opportunities for religious leadership. The séance also, of course, eased the grief caused by the common occurrence of premature death in Victorian America, while the more sensational "spirit manifestations" entertained an American public continually hungry for novelty.
The séance aroused hostile as well as favorable attention, in part because orthodox theologians suspected occult activity and in part because mediums were suspected of fraud. Debunking appeared almost at the outset, culminated in a series of damaging exposures during the 1870s, and continues to the present. It has often operated to undermine the religious appeal of the séance.
Yet the séance continues to provide thousands of Americans with religious fulfillment. Most obviously, it persists as the central and defining element of Spiritualist religious worship. It was also incorporated by Universal Hagar's Spiritual Church, a Spiritualistinfluenced African-American organization that was established in Detroit in 1923 and that maintains a significant membership in several eastern and midwestern cities. The closely related practice of spirit "channeling" has become an important element of the contemporary New Age movement. The continuing place of the séance in American religious life suggests the enduring quest for spiritual illumination from a higher spiritual world.
Baer, Hans. The Black Spiritual Movement: A ReligiousResponse to Racism. 1984.
Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women'sRights in Nineteenth-Century America. 1989.
Carroll, Bret E. Spiritualism in Antebellum America. 1997.
Moore, R. Laurence. In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture. 1977.
Bret E. Carroll
se·ance / ˈsāˌäns/ • n. a meeting at which people attempt to make contact with the dead, esp. through the agency of a medium.