Séance
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
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.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Séance
1373
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
Séance Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
1374
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 surveilEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Séance
1375
lance 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.
Sources
Abbott, David P. Behind the Scenes With the Mediums. La Sale,
Ill. Open Court, 1907.
Bayless, Raymond. Voices From Beyond. New Hyde Park,
N.Y. University Books, 1975.
Britten, Emma Hardinge. Modern American Spiritualism A
Twenty Years’ Record of the Communion Between Earth and the
World of Spirits. London, 1869. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.
University Books, 1970.
Carrington, Hereward. The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism
Fraudulent and Genuine. New York Dodd, Mead, 1920.
———. The Story of Psychic Science. London Rider, 1930.
Flammarion, Camille. Mysterious Psychic Forces. London T.
Fisher Unwin, 1907.
Hints on Sitting With Mediums. London Society for Psychical
Research, 1965.
Holms, A. Campbell. The Facts of Psychic Science. London
Kegan Paul, 1925. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y. University
Books, 1969.
Hyslop, James H. Contact With the Other World. New York
Century, 1919.
Le Bon, Gustave. The Crowd A Study of the Popular Mind.
London T. Fisher Unwin, 1896.
Leonard, Gladys Osborne. My Life in Two Worlds. London
Cassell, 1931.
MacGregor, Helen, and Margaret V. Underhill. The Psychic
Faculties and Their Development. London LSA Publications,
1930.
Maxwell, Joseph. Metapsychical Phenomena. London Duckworth,
1905.
Myers, F. W. H. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily
Death. 2 vols. London Longmans, 1903. Reprint, New Hyde
Park, N.Y. University Books, 1961.
Owen, Iris M., and Margaret Sparrow. Conjuring Up Philip.
New York Harper & Row, 1976.

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