After your next dinner party, instead of breaking out the board games for another round of Boggle, consider piercing the veil between the living and the dead by hosting a do-it-yourself seance instead.
Once a popular post-Victorian parlor pastime, the seance has largely fallen out of the popular consciousness, but it’s due for a comeback, and you can lead the way, whether you want to sincerely try to talk to dead relatives, or you just want to freak your friends out on a Friday night.
What exactly is a seance?
Derived from the Old French word “seoir,” meaning “to sit,” a seance is, in the broadest sense, a gathering of people with the intention of communicating with the dead. The practice is old enough to be mentioned in the Old Testament (specifically, Deuteronomy, thought to have been written around 630 BCE), but seances reached their golden age about 100 years ago, with the rise of the spiritualist movement in the U.S. and England.
“In the 1920s, the craze of of seances took off in America and in England because there were a lot of deaths after World War One,” explains Rob Zabrecky, the resident medium at Los Angele’’s legendary Magic Castle (where the seances are definitely not real.) “People were trying to contact their loved ones, and, lo and behold, these [charlatans] and magicians realised that there’s a plethora of magic tricks that you can perform to seemingly contact a ghost or a spirit.”
As the popularity of seances grew, competition between mediums became fierce, leading to more and more elaborate tricks (or spiritual manifestations, if you’re a believer). Prominent figures like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Edison were believers, as were countless regular people, but the era’s mediums also drew the attention of debunkers. Religious figures (who presumably didn’t like outsiders working their side of the corner), courts of law, scientists, and magicians (including Harry Houdini, whose 1924 book A Magician Among the Spirits remains the last word on the secrets of seances) publicly unravelled the tricks of the medium trade. The classic seance (and spiritualism itself) waned in popularity as the hokum was revealed, but never truly disappeared. As long as people believe in ghosts — and almost half of Americans do — it seems we’re going to try to talk to them.
How to hold a modern seance
The old-school seance was often a spooky affair during which exotic weirdos were invited into people’s homes to practice their arcane craft. That kind of esotericism is pretty much gone these days, but you can give afterlife communication a shot without those trappings. Who says the spirits don’t want to talk to a regular person like you? You just need some likeminded friends, a free evening, and a back-up plan if the spirits don’t feel like gabbing.
A warning before you begin
Many practitioners of the supernatural arts regard holding an ad-hoc seance as a very bad idea. According to California clairvoyant Sansa Asylum, “this not some thing that anyone should do. It absolutely opens a door to ‘God-knows-what,’ and unsavoury spirits can wreak havoc in subtle ways.”
I don’t know about all that, but the social embarrassment that could result from a failed seance is a genuine danger.
The guest list: Who do you invite to a seance?
Like any party, a seance is only as good as the guests who attend, so make sure your spooky soirée is full of people who are open to the experience. The acutely religious are generally not the best guests at a seance, as they bring a lot of baggage and resistance to the process. That said, a dyed-in-the wool sceptic surprisingly might be the best kind of guest at a seance. If anything actually happens (whether real or manufactured), no one’s mind will be blown quite like a non-believer’s.
You don’t want too many people at your seance, lest it become unmanageable. Think about it like a game of Dungeons & Dragons: four to six committed players and you, the spiritual DM.
Create the right mood to talk to the dead
Modern mediums tend to eschew the dark exoticism of the past (a shame, if you ask me) and go for a more gentle approach, and if you’re hosting a seance, this is probably the vibe you should go for in order to make guests comfortable. Think affirmations of love from kindly relatives, versus visions of horrifying phantoms seeking revenge from the bowels of Hell.
“Be very light and have fun with it,” advises Joan Carra, a psychic medium from Connecticut with years of experience.
How to begin your seance
It’s important to start any ritual with a statement of intention, so gather your circle in a comfortable place and set the mood by confirming that you’re trying to see whether you can contact the spirit world. Take this as seriously as you can manage.
Traditionally, seances involved a leader — a medium — through whom guests talked to the dead. But since we’re going for a modern, collaborative seance, think of yourself as the shot-caller, but only because someone needs to say, “let’s get started.” Don’t hog the ghosts for yourself.
Next, do something to separate ritual-time from normal time. Ring a bell or light a candle; it doesn’t matter. You only need something tangible to mark the transition into ghost-talking-time.
How to receive messages from the dead
According to Joan the psychic, once everyone is properly relaxed and in a witchy state of mind, explain to your guests that they should allow themselves to experience any impressions or visions they might receive, and promptly share them with the group. Above all, be patient, and don’t force it.
“Be very open and accept that you’re just receiving [communications from the dead]. It’s a very relaxed state,” explains Ms. Carra. “Ask [the spirit], ‘may I have your permission to have your first initial?’ Then one person may say, ‘Oh, I got the letter S!’ From there, play with the letter. Associate names with it as received. Maybe someone will say, ‘Oh, that’s Sally!’”
From there, you can dig a little deeper to fill in the details on Sally. According to Joan, you may feel a physical sensation in some part of the body. Maybe a twinge in your neck? Bring this up to the group, and you may learn that Sally died from beheading, or had a favourite locket she wore around her neck.
Let the guests who knew Sally make the connections and gradually, you may be able to put together a full picture of the apparition, and learn what she has to say to the living.
If everything goes correctly, your guests will feel as if they’ve experienced communication from the other side. And, hey, maybe they have. But maybe something else is going on.
Counterpoint: You can’t actually talk to the dead, because they aren’t alive anymore
Joan the psychic is a sweet person, and she seems sincere in her beliefs, so I feel little bad pointing this out, but her stated techniques for communing with the dead seem a lot like the classic “cold reading” technique of making high-probability guesses, then honing in on anyone who confirms them to buttress them with fine details. Maybe that’s just the preferred communication style among The Dead, but it’s probably our human instinct to find patterns where there aren’t any.
“Mediums say things like, ‘I get the feeling that you like to have fun, but sometimes people kind of annoy you and you want to be by yourself,’” says Dave Cox, an award-winning Los Angeles magician. “Well, yes. Because I’m a person, and every person feels exactly that way all the time.”
“Some mediums know it’s fake and convince themselves they’re doing good anyway, but some probably believe it’s real,” Cox said. “They say, ‘I don’t know how I come up with these things. I just say, ‘I sense someone is having problems with money,’ and it turns out someone in the crowd is having money problems. Amazing, right?”
The Magic Castle’s resident medium, Rob Zabrecky, has a less charitable view, at least of the mediums of the 1920s: “These people were were all frauds. They were all crooks,” Zabrecky said. “Particularly the ones that were taking money from people, saying, ‘oh, Stephen, you lost your brother in the war. For $US5 ($7) you can come sit my dark parlor…’ It’s really messed up. It’s horrible.”
You are not horrible, though, Dear Reader. You are simply a good host who want your seance to be successful, and a seance with no spirits is a flop. Which means if you want to be sure your guests get to talk to a ghost, you have to fake it.
How to fake a seance
There are two kinds of seances. A “light seance” is what Joan the psychic described. It’s what you might see on a TV show like The Long Island Medium — a smiling medium channeling uplifting messages from The Other Side in a well appointed living room.
Dark seances, on the other hand, take place in the dark, and thus have a spookier vibe. I prefer the dark variety, but ether kind of seance will allow an even mildly clever host to fake spiritual appearances with ease.
One simple trick to convince anyone you can talk to their dead relatives
Many/most mediums (and, coincidentally, stage magicians who do mentalism acts) use cold reading techniques to make it seem as if they have supernatural powers. Cold reading isn’t overwhelmingly difficult to learn, but like all stage magic, it take a lot of practice to perfect. Years of dedication is way more prep than your seance probably deserves, but there is an easier way — a never-fails technique that takes no practice and will leave people convinced you’re a gifted medium.
“Just straight up Google people,” Cox advised. “You can look at people’s social media profiles and get a ridiculous amount of information about them, which you can then claim is coming from their aunt Karen or Ulysses S. Grant.”
For optimum effect, research the guests you know the least — a friend-of-a-friend is perfect. Pick out a few, very specific details from their feeds to remember: Maybe the name and colour of their cat that died in 2018, or a physical description of their childhood home. Then, start the seance as advised above, pretending it is a group experiment. Let your guests flounder for a bit, and say, “I’m seeing a grey and white animal…”
Start with the broadest strokes, so that your gradual delve into the specific has more impact. If you set it up right, you can blow ‘em away with a pronouncement as simple as, “Fluffy says she doesn’t blame you for leaving the door open that night.”
How to fake an old fashioned dark seance
Back in the day, seances were generally practiced in pitch-dark rooms, and if you want to go that route, you can create a scary seance with little effort. Old school mediums tried to foil clever sceptics with elaborate preparation and sleight-of-hand, but you don’t need to go to all that trouble — you just need a partner in crime hiding somewhere in the house.
Make sure the room in which you hold your seance is absolutely dark. Have everyone hold hands (so there can be no trickery), then give a prearranged verbal signal to your hidden friend so they can slip out from behind the couch and cause mayhem. Draw attention to yourself with some scary patter to give your hidden confidant more cover, and they can go to town. Be creative, but keep it simple for greatest effect. A gentle touch on the ear of a seated guest, a knock on the table, or a light misting of water from a spray bottle is really all you need to elicit screams.
You could also use a guest as a plant. “If you’ve got a roommate or a wife — somebody that can be on your side — have them say things like, ‘this is just bullshit,’ all night,” Cox suggests, “But they’re the one reaching into their pockets and throwing stuff around when it gets dark and you’re safely down at the other end of the table.”
So are seance real?
On the one hand, what happens after we die is ultimately an unanswerable philosophical questions — no one has ever come back to life (arguably) so there’s no verifiable evidence either way. Believers point to the law of conservation of energy, quantum mechanics, or mankind’s long history of spiritual beliefs to make the case that ghosts are real, or at least that there are mysteries to death that we cannot explain.
On the other hand, ghosts are not real. Neither are seances. But like a lot of fake things, they’re fun anyway.
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