THE HAUNTED MUSEUM:
TALKING TO THE DEAD
THE SEANCE IN SPIRITUALIST HISTORY
The séance grips the imagination, lays hold of emotions, causes blood to tingle and hair to rise... allthese combine to play upon our sensibilities creating an effect which no utterance of prophecy, no reading of minds, stars, crystal balls or tea leaves, can produce.
Robert Somerlott from Here, Mr. Splitfoot (1971)
The séance was the most effective way, according to Spiritualist mediums, of communicating with the dead. In this manner, messages from the departed could be passed on to the living and the spirits could announce their presence by manifesting displays of the supernatural.
Séances were usually held in the home of the medium or that of one of the sitters. To begin, the lights were normally turned down very low or extinguished altogether. The reason for this, Spiritualists believed, was that spirit forms were more easily seen in the darkness. Often they manifested as luminous apparitions or would cause things to move about in ways that would only be done if it could remain unseen. Debunkers and skeptics, of course, offered other reasons for this -- that darkened conditions would hide the deceptive practice of fraud.
The sitters were normally divided equally by gender and those who were skeptical were generally excluded. A circular arrangement of chairs worked best, normally around a large table. Their hands were placed flat on the table, sometimes clasped together or merely with their fingers touching.
There were a number of unwritten rules for séances as well. Usually, no more than two or three séances were held in a week and they were to last for no more than two hours unless the spirits asked for an extension. Sitters were not allowed to touch the mediums or any of the manifested spirits, unless the spirits touched them first. It was believed that to come into contact with the medium, one of the manifested forms or the ectoplasm that might be generated by the medium during her trance, could severely injure the medium or perhaps the sitter. In addition, a sudden return to consciousness caused by interfering with the medium could cause illness, insanity or even death.
Another vital ingredient for a successful séance was appropriate music. Most sittings opened with hymns or prayers and on many reported occasions, the spirits chimed in with ghostly music and the creation of melodies though instruments like trumpets, horns and tambourines.
The furnishings of the séance room were normally simple and made of wood. Small tables were often needed for tilting and tapping by the spirits and sitters were normally provided with basic wooden chairs. Many physical mediums also made use of what were called spirit cabinets, an enclosure where the medium could be segregated while entering the trance state. Many of the cabinets were actual wood enclosures, although it was more common for a corner of the room to be hung with a curtain and closed off from view.
The phenomena reported at the séances varied greatly. Sitters often recognized the "arrival" of the spirits by a rush of cold air in the room, followed by rapping and tapping, knocking and perhaps strange lights, sounds and voices. The phenomena would often intensify as the evening progressed. Simple noises and lights were often followed by elaborate messages from the beyond, usually coming directly through the medium. The spirits would make themselves known by the manifestation of ectoplasm, by levitating tables or writing on "spirit slates", which were ordinary chalkboards upon which unexplained writing would appear.
In the most dramatic cases, some mediums, who claimed to be adept at act spirit summoning, were able to cause ghosts to appear in the midst of the sitters. In some of the most famous cases, like that of medium Florence Cook, spirits materialized who could touch, shake hands and even embrace the sitters.
During the heyday of Spiritualism, scientists and psychical researchers investigated hundreds of séances and unfortunately, the majority of the physical mediums were caught hoaxing phenomena at some point in their career. Very few of them came away unscathed by the early investigators of the Spiritualist movement and the few who did remain as mysterious now as they were then.