Trance
An altered state of consciousness, either spontaneous or induced,
bearing some analogy to the ordinary sleep state, but
differing from it in certain marked particulars. Among tribal
peoples, trance states have been common since ancient times,
used by the shaman, medicine man, or other religious practitioners
for demonstrations of paranormal knowledge. Such
shamans were forerunners of the modern Spiritualist mediums.
The term is loosely applied to many varied mental states
(e.g., hypnosis, ecstasy, catalepsy, somnambulism, certain
forms of hysteria, and the mediumistic trance). Sometimes, as
in catalepsy, there is a partial suspension of the vital functions;
generally, there is insensibility to pain and to any stimulus applied
to the sense organs. The main distinguishing feature of
the trance is that the subject retains consciousness and gives evidence
of intelligence, either his or her own normal intelligence
or, as in cases of possession and impersonation, some
foreign intelligence.
In hypnosis, the subject, although indifferent to sensory
stimuli, has been known to exhibit a curious sensitivity to such
stimuli applied to the hypnotist’s body (see Community of Sensation).
In ecstasy, which is frequently allied with hallucination, the
subject remains in rapt contemplation of some transcendental
vision, deaf and blind to the outside world. It was formerly considered
to indicate that the soul of the ecstatic was viewing some
great event distant in time or place or some person or scene
from the celestial sphere. Today such a state is believed to be
brought about by intense and sustained emotional concentration
on some particular mental image, by means of which hallucination
may be induced.
The mediumistic trance is recognized as being similar to
hypnosis, for the hypnotic trance, induced many times in the
same subject, may become spontaneous. It then strongly resembles
the trance of the medium.
Some Spiritualists have objected to the term trance being applied
when there is no sign of spirit possession. The entranced
medium (who seems able to produce this state at will) frequently
displays an exaltation of memory (hypermnesia), of the
senses (hyperesthesia), and even of the intellectual faculties.
Automatic writing and utterances are generally produced
in the trance state and frequently display knowledge the medium
does not normally possess, or knowledge that is said to give
evidence of telepathy. Such were the trance utterances of the
medium Leonora Piper, whose automatic phenomena in the
late nineteenth century provided a wide field for scientific research.
Spiritualists believe these phenomena are caused by spirits
of the dead acting through the medium’s physical organism, as
distinct from ancient ideas that trance personalities were all the
result of demonic possession. Moreover, the trance messages of
Spiritualist mediums are said to come from the spirits of deceased
persons, and this assertion is often supported by the medium’s
exhibiting the voice, appearance, or known opinions of
the dead friend or relative.
Such trance representations supply a large part of the evidence
on which the structure of Spiritualism rests. In cases of
fraud, however, the information concerning the deceased was
probably obtained by normal means, or, in some cases, obtained
telepathically from the minds of the sitters. While there
is some strong evidence for a Spiritualist view, there are also
many cases when other explanations seem more appropriate.
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Subjective Aspects of Trance
Some light can be shed on the nature of trance from the reports
of those who have experienced it. The great medium D.
D. Home, for example, described his movement into trance before
a committee of the London Dialectical Society in 1869
‘‘I feel for two or three minutes in a dreamy state, then I become
quite dizzy, and then I lose all consciousness. When I
awake I find my feet and limbs cold, and it is difficult to restore
the circulation. When told of what has taken place during the
trance it is quite unpleasant to me, and I ask those present not
to tell me at once when I awake. I myself doubt what they tell
me.’’
Lord Adare, who studied Home’s mediumship, observed,
‘‘The change which takes place in him is very striking; he becomes,
as it were, a being of higher type. There is a union of
sweetness, tenderness and earnestness in his voice and manner
which is very attractive.’’
W. Stainton Moses, himself a medium, added his observations
‘‘By degrees Mr. Home’s hands and arms began to twitch
and move involuntarily. I should say that he has been partly
paralysed, drags one of his legs, moves with difficulty, stoops
and can endure very little physical exertion. As he passed into
the trance state he drew power from the circle by extending his
arms to them and mesmerizing himself. All these acts are involuntary.
He gradually passed into the trance state, and rose
from the table, erect and a different man from what he was. He
walked firmly, dashed out his arms and legs with great power
and passed round to Mr. Crookes. He mesmerized him, and
appeared to draw power from him.’’
‘‘I feel a cold shivering,’’ stated Annie Fairlamb, ‘‘a sensation
as of water running down my back, noise in my ears, and
a feeling as if I were sinking down into the earth; then I lose
consciousness.’’
Leonore Piper noted
‘‘I feel as if something were passing over my brain, making
it numb; a sensation similar to that experienced when I was
etherized, only the unpleasant odour of the ether is absent. I
feel a little cold, too, not very, just a little, as if a cold breeze
passed over me, and people and objects become smaller until
they finally disappear; then, I know nothing more until I wake
up, when the first thing I am conscious of is bright, a very bright
light, and then darkness, such darkness. My hands and arms
begin to tingle just as one’s foot tingles after it has been
‘asleep,’ and I see, as if from a great distance, objects and people
in the room; but they are very small and very black.’’
It is interesting to note that when the Seeress of Prevorst
(Frederica Hauffe) awoke from trance, she said that the persons
around her looked so thick and heavy that she could not
imagine how they could move.
Objective Aspects of Trance
On awakening from trance, Piper often pronounced names
and fragments of sentences that appeared to have been the last
impressions on her brain. After that, she resumed conversations
at the point where they were broken off before she fell
into trance. It is significant to quote from among the mumbled
remarks during her return to consciousness, ‘‘I came in on a
cord, a silver cord.’’ Before she became conscious she heard a
snap, sometimes two. They were physiological experiences. She
said she heard ‘‘sounds like wheels clicking together and then
snaps.’’ Similar observations have been made by individuals reporting
out-of-the-body travel experiences.
Describing the development in Piper’s trances, Sir Oliver
Lodge writes in his book The Survival of Man (1909)
‘‘In the old days the going into trance seemed rather a painful
process, or at least a process involving muscular effort; there
was some amount of contortion of the face and sometimes a
slight tearing of the hair; and the same actions accompanied
the return of consciousness. Now the trance seems nothing
more than an exceptionally heavy sleep, entered into without
effort—a sleep with the superficial appearance of that induced
by chloroform; and the return to consciousness, though slow
and for a time accompanied by confusion, is easy and
natural. . . . For half an hour or so after the trance had disappeared
the medium continues slightly dazed and only partly
herself. . . . A record was also made of the remarks of Mrs.
Piper during the period of awaking from trance. . . . part of
them nearly always consisted of expressions of admiration for
the state of experience she was leaving, and of repulsion—
almost disgust—at the commonplace terrestrial surroundings
in which she found herself. Even a bright day was described as
dingy or dark, and the sitter was stared at in an unrecognising
way, and described as a full and ugly person. . . .’’
Piper’s trances seemed to have three distinct stages—
subliminal 1, in which the medium was partly conscious of her
surroundings but saw things distorted and grotesque; subliminal
2, in which she was possessed by spirits and lost contact with
the material world; and subliminal 3, a deep trance in which
the loss of consciousness was complete, the body became anaesthetic,
and automatic writing began.
William James found Piper’s lips and tongue insensible to
pain while she was in trance. Richard Hodgson later confirmed
this by placing a spoonful of salt in Piper’s mouth. He also applied
strong ammonia to her nostrils.
James also led what became a series of more intrusive experiments,
once making a small incision in Piper’s left wrist. During
trance the wound did not bleed and no notice was taken of
the action. It bled freely afterward and the medium bore the
scar for life. In England, Lodge pushed a needle into her hand.
At another time, Charles Richet inserted a feather into her
nostril. Harsh experiments in 1909 resulted in a badly blistered
and swollen tongue that caused the medium inconvenience for
several days, while another test resulted in numbness and partial
paralysis of her right arm for some time afterward. Although
these scientific experiments were of great importance,
it is obvious that the experimenters overstepped the mark in
causing inconvenience and pain to the medium.
The trance of the medium Eusapia Palladino was described
by Italian researcher Cesare Lombroso
‘‘At the beginning of the trance her voice is hoarse and all
the secretions—sweat, tears, even the menstrual secretions are
increased. Hyperaesthesia . . . is succeeded by
anaesthesia. . . . Reflex movement of the pupils and tendons
are lacking. . . . Respiratory movements . . . passing from 18
inspirations to 15 and 12 a minute . . . heartbeats increase from
70 to 90 and even 120. The hands are seized with jerkings and
tremors. The joints of the feet and the hands take on movements
of flexure or extension, and every little while become
rigid.
‘‘The passing from this state to that of active somnambulism
is marked by yawns, sobs, perspirations on the forehead, passing
of insensible perspiration through the skin of the hands,
and strange physiognomic expressions. Now she seems a prey
to a kind of anger, expressed by imperious commands and sarcastic
and critical phrases, and now to a state of voluptuous
erotic ecstasy. In the state of trance she first becomes pale, turning
her eyes upward and her sight inward. . . . exhibiting many
of the gestures that are frequent in hysterical fits. . . . Toward
the end of the trance when the more important phenomena
occur, she falls into true convulsions and cries like a woman
who is lying-in, or else falls into a profound sleep while from
the aperture in the parietal bone in her head there exhales a
warm fluid or vapour, sensible to the touch.
‘‘After the séance Eusapia is overcome by morbid sensitiveness,
hyperesthesia, photophobia and often by hallucinations
and delirium (during which she asks to be watched from harm)
and by serious disturbances of the digestion, followed by vomiting
if she has eaten before the séance, and finally by true paresis
of the legs, on account of which it is necessary for her to be
carried and to be undressed by others.
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‘‘These disturbances are much aggravated. . . . if she is exposed
to unexpected light.’’
‘‘My eyes ache a good deal after a séance,’’ said Annie Fairlamb,
‘‘and generally my lower limbs are thin, sometimes very
thin, and usually I feel pain in the left side.’’
Pioneering researcher F. W. H. Myers distinguished between
three successive stages in trance. In the first stage the
subliminal (subconscious) self obtains control. In the next stage
the incarnate spirit, whether or not maintaining control of the
whole body, makes excursions into or holds telepathic intercourse
with the spiritual world. In the third stage, the body of
the medium is controlled by another discarnate spirit.
The first stage is well illustrated by the case of Alabama minister
C. B. Sanders, whose trance personality always called itself
by the name of ‘‘X Y Z,’’ and claimed to represent the incarnate
spirit of Rev. Sanders exercising his higher faculties. He spoke
of Sanders in his normal state of consciousness as his ‘‘casket,’’
but showed no evidence of direct communication with discarnate
spirits.
The nineteenth-century histologist Gaëtano Salvioli, investigating
hypnosis, noticed for the first time that in trance the flow
of blood to the brain is greater than in waking hours, which
might account for the greater psychical activity and an increase
in muscular excitability.
Theodore Flournoy frequently found complete allochiria,
a confusion between the right and left side, with the medium
Hélène Smith. In trance she would consistently look for her
pocket on the left side instead of on the right. If one of her fingers
was pricked or pinched behind a screen, it was the corresponding
finger on the other hand that was agitated. Allochiria
is one of the stigmata of hysteria.
Lombroso also called attention to the fact that Eusapia Palladino,
who was usually left-handed in sittings, became righthanded
in one séance and fellow researcher Enrico Morselli
became left-handed. This observation served as confirmation
of one doctor’s hypothesis of transitory left-handedness in the
abnormal state, and the transference to the sitters of the anomalies
of the medium. The left-handedness seemed to indicate
the increased participation of the right lobe of the brain in mediumistic
states.
Morselli measured Palladino’s left-handedness in dynamometric
figures. He found, after a séance, a diminution of 6 kilograms
for the right and 14 for the left hand. The spirits around
Leonore Piper always communicated on the left side. The
trance, as a rule, began with hissing intakes of breath and
ended with deep expirations.
There is a suggestion in this of pranayama, the yoga system
of breathing. ‘‘Like the fakirs,’’ wrote Morselli, ‘‘when they wish
to enter into trance, Eusapia begins to slacken her rate of
breathing.’’ The seer Emanuel Swedenborg believed that his
powers were connected with a system of respiration. He said
that in communing with the spirits he hardly breathed for half
an hour at a time.
The poet Gerald Massey, who published an alternative history
of humankind, wrote of his own mystical vision ‘‘You know
Swedenborg and Blake claimed a kind of inner breathing. I
know that is possible. I have got at times to where I find there
needs to be no further need for expiring, it is all inspiration,
I consider that consciously or unconsciously we all draw life
from the spirit world, just as we shall when we pass into it.’’
‘‘I have tried to simulate the deep and rapid breathing of
Rudi in the trance state,’’ writes psychical researcher Harry
Price in his book Rudi Schneider (1930). He says ‘‘This breathing
has been likened to a steam engine, a tyre being pumped
up, etc. Taking off my collar and tie and with my watch in my
hand, I found that in six and a quarter minutes I was exhausted
and could not continue. I have known Rudi to continue this
hard breathing, interspersed with spasms and the usual clonic
movements, for seventy-five minutes without cessation. And this
while being held and in a most uncomfortable position, while,
of course, I was quite free.’’
Trances did not always come at will and occasionally appeared
when not desired. In Cambridge, England, at the request
of F. W. H. Myers, Piper looked into a crystal before
going to bed. She saw nothing but looked exhausted the next
morning and said that she thought that she had been entranced
during the night. The next time when she went into a
trance, her spirit control ‘‘Phinuit’’ said that he came and
called but no one answered. Piper’s trances generally lasted
about an hour. On one occasion, in Sir Oliver Lodge’s experience,
it lasted only for a minute.
The trance, as a rule, is continuous. In the mediumship of
Mrs. J. H. Conant, much discomfort was caused at an earlier
stage by the medium’s return to consciousness as soon as the
control had left. She had to be entranced again for the next
communicator. Each change took about ten minutes. In the
case of Rudi Schneider, the trance was similarly intermittent
but the same entity, ‘‘Olga,’’ remained in control.
To be roused from trance by a materialized spirit is exceptional.
The spirit form ‘‘Katie King’’ was said to have roused the
medium Florence Cook when the time of her farewell arrived
and a tearful scene was witnessed between the two. The novelist
Florence Marryat, who was present at this séance, describes a
similar experience with the medium Mary Showers in her book
There is No Death (1891) ‘‘The spirit [‘Peter’] proceeded to
rouse Rosie by shaking her and calling her name, holding me
by one hand as he did so. As Miss Showers yawned and woke
up from her trance, the hand slipped from mine, and ‘Peter’
evaporated. When she sat up I said to her gently ‘I am here!
Peter had brought me in and was sitting on the mattress by my
side till just this moment.’ ‘Ha, ha!’ laughed his voice close to
my ear, ‘and I’m still here, my dears, though you can’t see me.’’’
The medium F. W. Monck was once apparently awakened
by the common consent of the materialized spirit and the sitters.
However, controversy surrounds the mediumship of Florence
Cook, Mary Showers, and Monck, and these unusual occurrences
seem to be but further confirmation of the fraud
engaged in by the three mediums.
Usually the medium has no remembrance of what has
passed in the trance. To all intents and purposes he or she is
an entirely distinct being while in that state, with physiological
functions totally different from the normal ones. Florence Marryat
wrote that the medium Bessie Williams ate like a sparrow,
and only the simplest things. ‘‘Dewdrop’’ (her guide), on the
other hand, liked indigestible food and devoured it freely, yet
the medium never felt any inconvenience from it.
About 1846 the limbs of Mary Jane, servant girl of a Dr.
Larkin of Wrentham, Massachusetts, were, under the spirit influence
of a rough sailor, thrown out of joint in several directions
in a moment and without pain. Larkin was often obliged
to call in the aid of his fellow doctors and two or three strong
assistants to replace them. On one occasion the girl’s knees and
wrists were thrown out of joint twice in a single day. These painful
feats were always accompanied by loud laughter and hoarse,
profane jokes.
On the testimony of S. W. Turner of Cleveland, Ohio, in December
1847, the Spiritual Telegraph reported the peculiar adventure
of a medium called William Hume. In a trance state
and under the control of ‘‘Capt. Kidd,’’ Hume threw himself
into the lake to recover a ring and was brought out of the water,
still in trance, after swimming for 15 to 20 minutes, without injury
to his health.
Trance in Animal Magnetism and Hypnotism
The first surgery on a subject in mesmeric trance was performed
in France in April 1829, by M. Cloquet on a Mme. Plantin,
a 64-year-old woman who suffered from an ulcerated cancer
in the right breast. The operation lasted 10–12 minutes.
The patient’s pulse and breathing remained unchanged. She
was not awakened until two days later. The case was reported
to the Section of Surgery of the Academy. In 1836 a Dr. Hamard
invited a member of the academy, M. Oudet, to extract
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a tooth from a somnambulic patient. The operation was a success.
In England the first operation in mesmeric trance took
place in 1842, in Nottinghamshire, on James Wombell, whose
leg was amputated above the knee. W. Topham, a London barrister,
was the mesmerist, and the operation was performed by
Squire Ward, M.R.C.S. James Esdaile records a number of similar
incidents in his book, Mesmerism in India (1846).
There is one instance on record in the mediumship of F. L.
H. Willis, who later acquired a medical degree and became professor
of materia medica in New York, when not the patient,
but the operator was in trance. Controlled by the spirit of ‘‘Dr.
Mason,’’ Willis successfully performed a difficult operation.
Apart from Swedenborg, the first modern conversation with
spirits of the departed through the use of trance was recorded
in May 1778 by the Societé Exegetique Philantropique of
Stockholm. A 40-year-old woman was controlled in trance by
her own infant daughter and another young child of the town,
who gave accounts of both their Earth lives and their existence
in the spirit world.
The somnambulic state in mesmerism was the discovery of
the Marquis Chastenet de Puységur. Franz Anton Mesmer
himself was aware of something unknown in the ‘‘magnetic
sleep’’ and warned against deepening it. The use of animal
magnetism was primarily for healing power, and the possibility
of intercourse with spirits was largely avoided. It cropped up as
early as 1878 in Tardy de Montravel’s writings, but he opposed
it. Kaleph Ben-Nathan admitted the possibility in 1793 but
contended that spirits with which a somnambule might hold intercourse
would be spirits of an inferior order and that magnetists
practiced sorcery and divination.
Dr. Alexandre Bertrand recorded the exclamation of his
young somnambule ‘‘There are no spirits, they are stories, yet
I see them, the proof is perfect.’’ J. P. F. Deleuze conceded in
1818 that the phenomena of clairvoyance established the spirituality
of the soul, but he did not consider spirit intercourse
proven by the phenomena of somnambulic trance. In later
years, however, under the effect of Dr. G. P. Billot’s experiments,
he appeared to have changed his belief. Billot’s somnambules
were mediums in the present-day sense. The spirits
who possessed them proclaimed themselves to be their guardian
angels and on occasion produced physical phenomena.
Louis-Alphonse Cahagnet recorded fully developed trance
communications through the early medium Adèle Maginot.
Before Cahagnet’s appearance, an official acknowledgment of
trance took place in 1831 when an investigating commission of
the Royal Academy of Medicine reported on the phenomena
of animal magnetism and found it genuine and the state of
somnambulism, although rare, well authenticated.
In Germany the theory of spiritual intercourse in trance
took a quicker hold on the imagination of mesmerists. JungStilling
(J. H. Jung) founded the school with the theory of the
psychic body and its elements, based on the luminiferous ether.
Auguste Müller, of Carlsruhe, appears to have been the first
somnambule whose spirit communications and other phenomena
were carefully recorded; Fräulein Römer, the second. Müller
was the first interplanetary traveler, making claimed clairvoyant
excursions to the moon. The most stirring account of
intercourse with the spirit world was the story of the Seeress of
Prevorst, Frederica Hauffe, published in 1826 by Dr. Justinus
Kerner.
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Cahagnet, L. A. The Celestial Telegraph; or, Secrets of the Life
to Come Revealed Through Magnetism. 2 vols. London & New
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Churchill, 1967–68.
Esdaile, James. Natural and Mesmeric Clairvoyance; With the
Practical Application of Mesmerism in Surgery and Medicine. London,
1852. Reprint, New York Arno Press, 1975.
Fahnestock, W. B. Statuvolism, or Artificial Somnambulism.
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Flournoy, Theodore. From India to the Planet Mars. New
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Garrett, Eileen J. My Life as a Search for the Meaning of Mediumship.
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Goodman, Felicitas D., Jeanette H. Henney, and Esther Pressel.
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