Séances – Talking with the Dead – plus a Friday the 13th Ghostly Giveaway!

Everyone knows what a séance is – if you haven't participated in one as a nervous teenager, then you've at least seen one in a TV show or movie. But do you know how séances began?  

The term séance comes to the English language from an Old French word meaning “a sitting” or “session”, and usually applied to the legislature. In the mid-1800s, however, the word 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.

Greeks sought advice from ghosts
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 grave sites outside the city walls. And the Greeks weren't the first to seek advice from the netherworld. Humanity has done this since the beginning of recorded history and probably before that.

The séance became extremely popular during the Victorian era on both sides of the Atlantic, with the emergence of the Spiritualist movement. Some séances at the time were frivolous, of course, and entered into purely for entertainment. Some were fraudulent, with fake mediums determined to capitalize on the trend by implementing what we would now call special effects.

Actor Dan Aykroyd
But there were many séance holders who were sincere in their purpose, seeking some sort of harmony between religion and rationality. Séances are also called “sittings” and “demonstrations of mediumship”, and 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 Aykroyd’s grandfather was a Spiritualist, who practiced regular communications with ghosts in his home. Aykroyd's father, Peter, had many childhood experiences with this which he shared with his sons. Not only did Dan and his brother become lifelong paranormal enthusiasts, it helped inspire Dan to write the movie Ghostbusters! (You can read about this unusual family life in A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Séances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters by Peter Aykroyd - See details on how to win a copy at the end of this blog!)

To Medium or Not to Medium

Table Tipping
When spiritualism first came to America in the 1840s, the most common method for connecting with the spirit world was "table tipping". A group of people would seat themselves around a round table, with their fingertips resting on the surface. No medium or psychically-gifted person was required for this procedure. The participants would usually ask a specific question, then call out the letters of the alphabet until the table moved, twitched or tilted. Yes or no questions that could be answered with only one or two movements were the most useful.

Many accounts exist of the table sliding around, standing on two or even one of its legs. Levitations were reportedly witnessed. Some concluded that the phenomena were caused by subconscious movements of the participants. However, that doesn't explain the cold breezes that were sometimes felt, and floating lights said to have been witnessed.

Modern séances often utilize someone with psychic ability or sensitivity to act as a medium, “facilitating” the proceedings. A 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.

Two Way Street 

Dean Winchester
played by Jensen Ackles
How successful a séance is may not depend on the breathing participants, or even the medium, if there is one. It's thought that spirits may have to work just as hard to develop their abilities to communicate with the living, as the living must do to connect with the dead. What kind of effort would it take for a spirit to learn to manifest itself to the living, to speak or become visible? Modern thought compares it to bridging dimensions. The 1990 Patrick Swayze movie, "Ghost", may have right on the money when it showed the hero struggling to affect the physical world. Early spiritualism taught that a spirit might only be able to create subtle effects such as tapping or knocking. 

Spirits may have to make use of a wide variety of communication methods in order to be detected. Sometimes that communication has to be deciphered as well. In an episode of Supernatural titled "The Usual Suspects", character Dean Winchester brought up this concept: “Communicating across the vale, it ain't easy. You know, sometimes the spirits, they, they get things jumbled... You know, it's, uh, maybe word fragments... other times, it's anagrams.”    

Séances in the White House?

Abraham Lincoln with young medium
Nettie Colburn Maynard at a séance
Many notable individuals made use of séances. It’s well documented that Mary Todd Lincoln held several séances at the White House after the death of her son, Willie. Some of these events were attended by her husband Abraham Lincoln, as well as high-ranking members of Washington society. 

Many known Spiritualists spent time at the White House, leading to the rumor that Lincoln was a Spiritualist also and received counsel about government policy as well as the war from spirit presences.

Ulysses S. Grant's household are said to have conversed with the ghost of Willie Lincoln during a seance held in the room in which he died. Calvin Coolidge and his wife were rumored to have 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.

Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison believed that science would eventually play a definitive role when it came to communicating with the dead. In 1920, he said:

“If our personality survives, then it is strictly logical and scientific to assume that it retains memory, intellect, and other faculties and knowledge that we acquire on earth...

“...I am inclined to believe that our personality hereafter will be able to affect matter. If this reasoning be correct, then, if we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected, moved, or manipulated...by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something.”

Edison would no doubt have approved of today's technological efforts to connect with the dead. EMF meters, full spectrum video, laser grids and countless other "delicate" instruments have largely replaced tipping wooden tables.

At least on TV....


Friday the 13th - GHOSTLY GIVEAWAY


Congrats to Pamela K!  

Her name was drawn at random as the winner of the giveaway. Pamela will receive a new hardcover copy of Peter Aykroyd's book:
 A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Séances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters