A séance is, on its most basic level, an attempt to communicate with the dead in the afterlife. The word séance comes from the French word for "seat" or "session." In the mid-nineteenth century, the word came to be used in English to refer to a meeting of people trying to receive spiritualistic messages. A séance is usually led by a person known as a medium, who often attempts to go into a trance that in theory, at least, provides a "channel" through which spirits may communicate. Although many such mediums have been exposed as fraudulent, the possibility of such spiritual communication during séance sessions remains open to debate.
At the core of the practice of holding a séance are two beliefs: first, that there exists a "spiritual world," or afterlife, and second, that it is possible to contact the spirits in this world through a medium, a form of necromancy. Séances are frequently attended by people who wish to contact a loved one that has recently died. For many, their experiences at a séance provide comforting knowledge that their loved ones have not ceased to exist, that there is an afterlife, and there is a possibility of being reunited with those who have been lost.
Most séances are conducted in dimly lit rooms with three or more people seated around a table. The séance is led by the medium, who attempts to lead the group in communication with the spirit world. Mediums may go into a trance-like state in an attempt to allow a spirit to take control of their body and speak through them; a process known as "channeling." The concept of channeling is different from that of "possession," which is considered to be the complete, non-consensual takeover of a living being by a spirit or demon, and is usually detrimental to the "victim." The most commonly-reported physical manifestations of channeling are an unusual vocal pattern or uncharacteristic physical behavior by the medium; both of which skeptics point out are easily faked. In addition to channeling, a medium may ask spirits to answer questions with a sign: for example, the well known "rap once for yes, twice for no." Invocations of positive energy may be made at the beginning of a séance; unbelievers and skeptics are often discouraged from participating because of the negative effect their energy has on the success of a session.
During the nineteenth century, séances were extremely popular. Participants might observe a cold breeze on their faces, the tilting of a table, the materialization of items from thin air, or musical instruments playing mysteriously. Hands or figures would appear to float, and participants might feel the touch of a cold hand. Some mediums would use automatic writing, the use of planchettes (similar to the Ouija board) to spell out messages, spirit slates (where the writing on the slate was apparently done by a spirit), or the impression of psychic images onto photographic plates that had been kept in sealed enclosures.
Attempts to communicate with the dead and visions of spirits have been a part of most cultures throughout history; shamans and witch doctors have practiced mediumship, and many religious groups have believed their leaders to be guided by spirits. Séances as they are known today, however, did not become popular until the mid-nineteenth century. On March 31, 1848, two sisters in Hydesville, New York claimed to have made contact with the spirit of a murdered peddler, and thus the Spiritualist Movement was born.
The two girls, Maggie (aged 15) and Kate (aged 11) Fox, were raised devout Methodists and lived with their parents in a small home; older siblings had since left home to start families of their own. As the story goes, the Fox family suffered through a week or so of unusual bangs, raps, and other noises during the night. Intent on finding the source of the noises, the youngest daughter, Kate, began to ask a series of questions, requesting a specific number of raps as an answer. From these "conversations," it was determined that the cause of the noises was the spirit of a murdered peddler. Neighbors were brought in to observe the phenomenon, and the girls soon became locally famous. The Fox family was plagued with visitors who were anxious to see the girls contact the spiritual world, and because of the resulting controversy, the family was asked to leave the congregation of their church.
As news of their experience spread, many flocked to the Fox house to observe the girls' interactions with the spiritual world. Their older sister, Leah, took on the position of manager for the two girls, and they began to conduct numerous séances. As their fame and popularity grew, so did skepticism. The girls were accused of all manner of trickery, including the concealment of lead balls beneath their garments to make the noises. Committees were formed to test the pair, but no evidence of fraud was forthcoming. The girls continued to hold séances, including a séance held for the famous author James Fenimore Cooper, who was thoroughly convinced of the girls' authenticity. The Spiritualist Movement spread, and new mediums appeared throughout the country. By 1852, spiritualist groups were formed in many major American cities, as well as England and Europe. As more mediums fascinated audiences with effects like levitation, the "Rochester Rappers, as the Fox sisters were known, were often pushed out of the spotlight.
In 1888, Maggie Fox publicly declared that the sisters' rapping and spirit conversations had all been a fraud. She described how the sisters had created spirit noises through the use of apples on a string and joint cracking, among other ways. Apparently the fraud had begun as an innocent practical joke, which soon escalated and took on a life of its own. The deeper into deception the girls found themselves, the less willing they were to admit that the entire thing was a hoax. A year later, Maggie recanted her statement, and died four years later. The year before Maggie's death, Kate had also died of end-stage alcoholism. Both sisters had been alcoholics since the mid 1850s, and both died penniless. While most consider the Fox sisters' confession of fraud to be true, others insist that the confession was coerced. Believers in the truth of the Fox sisters' experiences claim that Maggie's admission of fraud was false, and that unscrupulous journalists had bribed the poor alcoholic to make such a statement.
Cora Lodencia Veronica Scott (April 21, 1840 – January 3, 1923) was one of the best-known mediums of the Spiritualism movement of the last half of the nineteenth century. Most of her work was done as a trance lecturer, although she also wrote some books whose composition was attributed to spirit guides rather than her own personality.
In early 1852 after her family moved to Waterloo, Wisconsin, Cora first exhibited her ability to fall into a trance and write messages and speak in ways very unlike herself. Her parents soon began to exhibit her to the surrounding country, and in this way she became a part of the network of trance lecturers that characterized the Spiritualist movement. In 1854 she moved to Buffalo, New York and became well-known among the most important Spiritualists in the country. By the age of 15, she was making public appearances in which she spoke with "supernatural eloquence" on almost any topic put forward by the audience, all while claiming to be in a trance. Contemporary audiences found the spectacle itself incredible: a very young and pretty girl declaiming with authority on esoteric subjects; it was enough to convince many people that she was indeed a channel for spirits.
Edgar Cayce (March 18, 1877 – January 3, 1945) was an American mysticist who allegedly possessed the ability to answer questions on subjects as varied as healing, reincarnation, wars, Atlantis, and future events while in a trance. These answers came to be known as "life readings of the entity" and were usually delivered to individuals while Cayce was hypnotized.
Cayce's methods involved lying down and entering into a sleep state, usually at the request of a subject who was seeking help with health or other personal problems. Subjects would not normally be present, and their questions would be given to Cayce, who would then proceed with a reading. Initial readings dealt primarily with the physical health of the individual; later readings might be given on past lives, business advice, dream interpretation, and mental or spiritual health.
When out of the trance, Cayce would not remember what he had said during the reading. The unconscious mind, according to Cayce, has access to information that the conscious mind does not—a common assumption about hypnosis in Cayce's time. After Gladys Davis became Cayce's secretary on September 10, 1923, all readings were preserved and his wife, Gertrude Evans Cayce, generally guided the readings.
Cayce said that his trance statements should be taken into account only to the extent that they led to a better life for the recipient. Moreover, he invited his subjects to test his suggestions rather than accept them on faith.
Arthur Ford (January 8, 1896 – January 4, 1971) was an American psychic, spiritual medium, clairaudient, and founder of the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship (1955). He gained national attention when he claimed to have contacted the dead son of Bishop James Pike in 1967 on network TV. In 1928 Ford claimed to have contacted the deceased spirits of Houdini's mother and later in 1929 Harry Houdini himself.
Around 1921, Ford was a traveling Spiritualist trance medium who professed to be controlled by a spirit guide he referred to as "Fletcher." He eventually settled in New York City as pastor of a Spiritualist church. He developed a popular following, and in 1927 traveled to Great Britain. One of his lectures was attended by veteran Spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who enthusiastically told people the next day, "One of the most amazing things I have ever seen in 41 years of psychic experience was the demonstration of Arthur Ford."
Following her husband's death in 1926, Bess Houdini began attending seances conducted by Ford. Author Andrew Lycett suggests that Arthur Conan Doyle encouraged a "vulnerable" Bess to believe Ford's claims that he could contact the dead in order "to win an important victory for Spiritualism." In 1928, Ford claimed he was able to contact Harry Houdini's deceased mother via his spirit guide "Fletcher." A year later, he claimed to contact the deceased Houdini himself and relay the full text of a secret message Houdini proposed to convey to Bess after his death. Bess initially endorsed Ford's claims, but later repudiated them. Authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman speculate that Bess Houdini was initially supportive of Ford's claims due to the effects of alcoholism, and that she had romantic feelings for Ford. Others such as Milbourne Christopher speculate that the text of the message used a private code between Houdini and his wife that could have easily been broken by Ford or his associates using a number of existing clues.
As séances gained in popularity, they attracted the interest of the scientific community. Respected scientists in both Europe and the United States researched the phenomenon and came to a variety of conclusions.
The chemist Sir William Crookes, who would later invent the cathode ray tube, discover thallium, and pioneer developments in photography, spectroscopy, and electricity, was fascinated by séances. He is perhaps most well known in the world of spiritualism for his investigation of famed medium Daniel Home, who he declared authentic. The Scottish-born Home had moved to the United States at a young age, and had become one of the world's foremost mediums, holding séances for Queen Victoria, Napoleon III, and numerous prominent and royal personages throughout the world. Home often performed séances in good light, and was well known for levitating objects as well as himself, playing musical instruments without touching them, and materializing spirit hands.
Crookes also investigated Florence Cook, a young English medium who would materialize a spirit guide named Katie King. Crookes devised a number of experiments for Cook, including an electrical apparatus to indicate if she left her seat while confined in a "spirit cabinet." Photographs of Crookes with both Cook and her spirit guide Katie were taken. After his investigations, Crookes was convinced of Cook's authenticity. During the investigations, Florence Cook often stayed with Crookes and his pregnant wife, as did her mother and sister Kate, and the experiments were carried out in Crookes' home. Skeptics claim that the investigations were simply a way for Crookes to have an affair with the fifteen year old Cook, and go so far as to suggest that Crookes may have helped Cook find ways to escape detection. This theory seems unlikely, as Florence was married during Crookes' experiments, Crookes' wife was in the house, and an affair would have severely damaged Crookes' reputation.
Other scientists were also converted to spiritualism. John Logie Baird, who developed television, was converted through his own investigations. Prominent and respected figures like Alexander Graham Bell and Guglielmo Marconi, the inventors of telephone and radio, also became avid supporters of spiritualism and séances.
While many of the methods used by mediums impressed those wishing to contact the deceased, many mediums were exposed as frauds. In the late 1800s, a mail order catalog was published that provided customers with specially rigged séance apparatus. Fake hands, rigged "spirit slates," and instructions on creating tilting tables and mysterious sounds were all available to the aspiring medium. A darkened room heightened the effect of these theatrical tricks and slight of hand. With so many fraudulent mediums exposed, others attempted to prove to the skeptics that they were genuine. Many allowed themselves to be bound with ropes and locked in a sealed "spirit cabinet" in order to prove that they were not creating the paranormal activity. Magicians replicated the feats performed by mediums, proving that such feats were just more elaborate forms of trickery.
Harry Houdini, the famous magician and escape artist, was well known for his crusade against fraudulent séances. Early in his career, Houdini and his wife would host séances themselves, but after Houdini's mother passed away, he began a search for an authentic medium through which to contact her. Unsuccessful in his quest, he became convinced that mediums were preying upon the bereaved, and began a crusade to expose them as frauds.
One of the most famous controversies Houdini became involved in was with a medium named Mina Crandon, known as "Margery." Mina purported to be able to contact the spirit world through the aid of her deceased brother Walter. She soon became famous for her abilities, and often held bizarre séances in the nude. In the early 1920s, Scientific American magazine offered a prize of $2,500 to any medium who could show genuine psychic ability. Judges included respected writers, researchers, and scholars, as well as the famous Harry Houdini. Through the course of the investigation, rumors circulated that Houdini was planting evidence of fraud. Though several investigators believed that some genuine phenomena existed, Houdini vehemently insisted Margery was a fraud, and she never received the prize money. Houdini later promised his wife that, upon his death, he would contact her through a séance with a prearranged code and phrase. After his death, séances were held, including with Arthur Ford, but reports as to the success of any contact with the deceased magician were conflicting and potentially suspect. Houdini's wife at times reported both the success and failure of the attempts to contact her late husband, and continued to hold séances for the next ten years.
Others have also attempted to debunk spiritualism and séances. In 1976, medium M. Lamar Keene exposed the tricks he had used to convince people of his spiritualist abilities in his book, The Psychic Mafia. Many skeptics, such as the nineteenth century physicist Michael Faraday, investigated séances and became thoroughly convinced they were fraud.
Proponents of spiritualism have historically had a difficult time supporting their views. In the 1800s, an association with spiritualist beliefs negatively affected the reputation of scientists like William Crookes. Supporters of spiritualism claim many mediums who may have been genuine would resort to fraud and trickery if they felt their abilities were at a low ebb, thus tarnishing their credibility. Skeptics can point to such an example as fraud; supporters then have less influence when claiming another example was not shown to be fraudulent.
While séances are still practiced, they no longer enjoy they popularity they had in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Debate continues to rage about the validity of experiences had in séances. Even devout believers are quick to acknowledge that fraud has historically been a very real part of many so called "psychic" experiences, but they insist that among the many cases of fraud and trickery, there also exist true mediums able to contact the dead.
As technology progresses, more techniques are developed for measuring and testing psychic phenomena. Teams of researchers and institutes for scientific study have been created to separate truth from fiction, and many of these researchers continue to attempt to explore the séance and its related experiences. Thus far, no case has been proven conclusively to be authentic, and dedicated believers remain convinced of the truth in their experiences, eschewing possibility of fraud, while determined skeptics continue to be convinced fraud exists even when no evidence is forthcoming. Modern scientific researchers attempt to hold a position of "critical skepticism," where they remain open-minded to both the potential for fraud and the possibility of actual psychic phenomena.
Séances did, however, experience somewhat of a surge in popularity with the emergence of the New Age movement in the latter part of the twentieth century. Characteristic of this movement is the belief in channeling and various forms of mysticism, with the assumption that communication with beings in the spiritual world or deceased human beings in the afterlife is not only possible but natural and desirable. Rather than relying on particular individuals with the ability to communicate in this way, the expectation and hope of New Age believers is that all people will develop increased awareness of the spiritual realm and develop the ability for such communication themselves.
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