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The Strange World of Seances

Crystal ball and fortune teller hands

You may have only seen seances in movies, but people host them in real life too. It was a big thing in the U.S. and Europe from the nineteenth century into the early twentieth.

What Is a Seance?

The Séance, getting its name from the French word for sitting, is used as a way to reach out to spirits of the dead (or to dupe people into thinking they are hearing from their dearly departed relatives). While anyone can host a seance, most people enlist a medium, someone who can communicate with spirits, to be the conduit between the seekers and the ghosts.

Seances are usually held in a place with some connection to the person trying to be reached. Of course, there are the experimenters who head out to the graveyard with a ouija board looking to communicate with the dead. Most folks avoid the haunted houses and cemeteries. They do their seances in the safety of their home, where psychic protection can be put into place. (For those unfamiliar with witchcraft and the occult, it’s believed that salt to protects against evil, you can ground yourself for protection, and you can burn sage afterward to chase off the spirits).

If you’re attending a seance with a medium, they may not have any kind of props. If you’re a teenager experimenting with the occult, you’re probably using a spirit board or pendulum. If you’re visiting a psychic at the local fair, they may have a crystal ball to use to commune with the spirits.

Everyone sits around a table or in a circle on the floor (or ground) in the dark. If a prop isn’t being used, everyone will hold hands, and the medium will say some grounding words (asking for protection from the spirits) and then call the spirit forth. You’ll know the spirits are there when they move the table, bang on the walls, or you see mist coming from nowhere.occurrences.

Are Seances Real?

The reality of ghosts hasn’t been proven. Science says that there is no definitive proof, though there are unexplainable events that we attribute to spirits. Some paranormal researchers, like those on television show Ghost Hunters, work to debunk hauntings. They find what is causing the bumps in the night, flickering lights, and strange voices—most often proving that it isn’t ghosts at all.

When it comes to seances, the reality is often in the eye of the beholder. There is still plenty of skepticism around spirits, mediums, and seances. Table-tipping, banging on the walls, mists rising from the table, and even ectoplasm sightings can all be faked, and have been in many seances.

Even mediums can be fake, using the same tricks a mentalist does by reading people and giving them just enough so that they tell on themselves—like saying that someone, a male, is coming to them. The man’s name starts with “S,” and it feels like he’s close to you, and recently passed, maybe in the last couple of decades (even though that’s not really “recent,” but that’s how the game works). The person who is looking to speak to their loved one is sure to have someone in their family whose name starts with an “S’ who has passed away, or maybe it was their nickname.

What Is Table-Tipping?

One of the biggest attractions of seances when they were widely popular was table-tipping. Table-tipping is also sometimes called table-turning, table-tapping, or table-tilting. It’s a specific type of seance in which the attendees put their hands on the table and wait for some kind of movement as a sign that the spirit has arrived.

Much like with a ouija board or a pendulum, the person asking questions and calling forth spirits would say the letters of the alphabet slowly, and the ghost was believed to move, turn, or knock on the table. Some seances using this form of spirit communication have been proven to set up ways to make the table move or to knock on the table without other attendees noticing.

Because there are tricksters out there, it’s sometimes hard to believe that any seances produce actual conversations with ghosts, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t those that do communicate with the dead. With 45 percent of Americans believing in ghosts, there’s got to be a chance they’re real—right?

Some Famous Seances

From famed mediums who lead seances to famous people who hosted them in their homes, here are some seances from history worth knowing about. Oh, and we can’t forget about the skeptics.

The Fox Sisters

The Fox sisters were a group of three sisters that gained notoriety as mediums, both because of their convincing use of table-tapping and that they were proven as frauds. Leah, Maggie, and Kate ) Fox made a life out of mediumship. Leah, the oldest sister, managed the two younger sisters.

It was Maggie who would finally confess that their readings were a hoax, in 1888. Even though they admitted faking it all, people still went to seances (not with the Fox sisters) and followed the spiritualism movement that began with the sister’s popularity.

Arthur Conan Doyle

It was in 1848 that the Fox sisters would start to become well known when they announced they were being communicated with by a spirit, and it was the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who would chronicle the sister’s story.

While you already know that they were frauds, at the time, Doyle was sure that the sisters were the real thing. But they were, in fact, communicating via snaps (Kate would snap her fingers) and knocks (and the entity would knock in return) with a spirit.

Doyle was a self-proclaimed spiritualist. He wrote books on the subject and did lectures. He also clashed with Harry Houdini, who wanted to disprove the authenticity of mediums claiming to speak with the dead.

Harry Houdini

The funniest thing about Houdini being a skeptic of spiritualism is that after he died in 1926, his wife started having seances to try to communicate with him. In a final attempt to prove that there isn’t life after death or that people can’t communicate with the dead, Houdini made a pact with his wife that the first to die would do all they could to reach out to the one still living.

Bess, Houdini’s wife, continued having seances every year on Halloween until finally hosting the final Houdini seance in 1936. Bess died in 1943, never having heard from her deceased husband. They had a secret message that would be proof it was him, which had to do with the inscription in her wedding band, which read “Rosabelle.”

Mary Todd Lincoln

The Lincoln’s lost a young son of the age of 11 shortly after they took up residence in the White House. Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln’s wife, grieved inconsolably over the loss and became obsessed with bringing mediums into the White House so that she could contact her deceased child.

While it may seem cooky to have a medium in the White House, at the time of Lincoln’s presidency, spiritualism was at its height. Many people were trying to commune with the dead, so it wasn’t all that crazy, though, to this day, many learn about Mary Todd as someone who had mental illnesses.

While the craze of spiritualism isn’t as widespread as it once was, there are still people hosting seances, and there are plenty of mediums to help you communicate with deceased loved ones. There are even still people trying to contact Houdini.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »