The séance became extremely popular during the Victorian era on both sides of the Atlantic, with the emergence of the Spiritualist movement* in America. Some séances were frivolous, of course, and entered into purely for entertainment. Some were fraudulent, with fake mediums determined to capitalize on the trend (and often people’s grief) by implementing what we would now call special effects. But there were many séance holders who were sincere in their purpose, seeking some sort of harmony between religion and rationality.
Séances in the White House?
Many notable individuals made use of séances. It’s well documented that Mary Todd Lincoln held several at the White House, which were attended by her husband Abraham Lincoln, as well as high-ranking members of Washington society. Calvin Coolidge and his wife were rumored to have also held seances, although they denied it when the press got hold of it.
Author Charles Dickens, poet W.B. Yeats and physicist Sir Oliver Lodge attended séances regularly as members of The Ghost Club – a British organization devoted to paranormal investigation. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attended his first séance in 1887, the same year his first Sherlock Holmes novel was published. He viewed spiritualism as a natural extension of rapidly-emerging science.
Séances (also called “sittings”) and “demonstrations of mediumship” still form a regular part of church services for many practicing Spiritualists today. They believe that existence and personal identity continues after the change called death. To them, contact with those who have moved on to the next life is not only possible, but desirable in order to gain knowledge. Actor Dan Ackroyd’s great grandfather was a Spiritualist, who practiced regular communications with ghosts in his home. (Read about Dan’s unusual family life in History of Ghosts: The True Story of Séances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters )
Origins of the séance
The term Séance comes to the English language from an Old French word meaning “a sitting” or “session”, as in a meeting of a legislative body. In the mid-1800s, séance began to be used to describe a gathering where people sought messages and advice from the unseen world. The concept of contacting the dead, however, is far, far older than the words we use to describe it now.
In ancient Greece and Italy, the practice of necromancy – summoning the dead and asking them questions about the future – was called nekyia. There were a number of Greek and Roman temples devoted to this rite, although the ceremony could be performed in other places such as gravesites. The ancient Persians, Arabians, Chaldeans, Etruscans and Babylonians also contacted the dead for information.
Facilitators for the dead
Nearly all séances depend on someone with psychic ability or sensitivity to act as a medium, “facilitating” the proceedings. Spirits may make use of a wide variety of communication methods; as the character, Dean Winchester, aptly said in Supernatural, “…communicating across the vale, it ain't easy.” The medium may gain impressions of the spirit in question, see the spirit in their mind or with their eyes, hear the spirit’s words or channel the spirit’s words through the psychic’s own mouth, or channel their ideas through automatic writing. The spirit may be skilled enough to able to make itself audible or even visible to more than one person in the room or it may have to utilize rapping and other physical manifestation to communicate at all.
By the way, in recent years a new type of séance has emerged called “stage mediumship”. One of the best examples of this is psychic John Edward, who receives impressions and messages from ghosts associated with audience members. Rather than focus on a specific spirit, he works with whichever spirit would like to communicate at the time.
When to hold a séance
There are two times a year when the veil between worlds is said to be at its thinnest. One is Beltane, about the 1st day of May, and the other is Samhain, which is October 31 or November 1. Communicating with spirits is said to be easier at these times.
It has been claimed by some that connecting with the ghosts of the recently deceased is easier than trying to talk to those who’ve been away from the mortal plane a long time. This is because the spirits of the newly dead are more likely to still be around. The more time that passes, the more likely that the spirit has moved on.
Most mediums prefer to hold séances after dark. Some séances are held on dates that are significant to a particular spirit – a birthday, an anniversary of an event, etc.
Tools for séances
Some mediums do not require tools; others are more comfortable using them. Candles, tarot cards, even crystals and gazing balls may be helpful to the medium, but there are no hard rules about them. So it won’t matter much if you have seven candles or three, a blue tablecloth for your table or no table at all. It’s whatever works best for you and creates an atmosphere where you are receptive and relaxed.
The best tool of all may be your attitude. Not enough is said about respect when dealing with the paranormal. On a number of TV shows, investigators are often shown challenging spirits, even yelling at them to provoke them into manifesting themselves. The spirits you’re seeking are people, and it’s tough to gain anyone’s cooperation on either side of the veil with a belligerent attitude. Any spirit that does respond to this kind of treatment may not be pleasant.
Why perform a séance?
One of the cardinal rules of séances is that there should be a purpose. The group needs to be focused on a goal, either a specific question and/or a specific person. Desiring comfort or closure after a loved one has passed is a common goal. Seeking to know what happened to an individual who has disappeared or lost their life is also common. Often times the living seek counsel and advice for their own lives. By the way, the deceased person is not necessarily privy to the secrets of the universe just because they’re dead. Have realistic expectations.
Calling up spirits “just for the fun of it” is not recommended. This is a good way to get into trouble. Anyone who thinks spirit entities can’t hurt you should read these articles: http://www.examiner.com/x-1001-Ghost-Hunting-Examiner~y2009m2d2-Dangers-of-the-paranormal-a-cautionary-tale-for-ghost-hunters and http://robjo.wordpress.com/2006/12/04/tips-and-tricks-for-your-next-seance/
If you’re genuinely interested in making contact, it’s always a better idea to utilize an experienced and reputable medium than to have your college roommate “wing it” after a few beers. If you want to try mediumship yourself, study up on it until you find a method that feels comfortable to you, know how to protect yourself and your home, and be sure to select sincere people to participate with you. Here’s a place to start – http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/wiccanandpaganrituals/ht/Hold_Seance.htm
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Your turn – Have you ever attended a séance? If you could contact someone from the other side, who would it be?
Posted by Dani Harper, AUTHOR