A seance is a method for communicating with spirits that uses the psychical energies of multiple people to try to establish contact. Seances can be classified as a type of mediumship distinguished by their collaborative nature.
The word seance means “seating” and is derived from the Old French seoir, “to sit.” Seances are called by this name because they usually consist of people sitting together while trying to contact the Other Side.
Humans have been trying to contact the spirits of the dead for the entirety of recorded history, but seances as we think of them today did not become popular until the 1800s.
Seances were one of the characteristic practices of Spiritualism, a religion that exploded in popularity in America in the 1800s that was based on the practice of trying to reach out to spirits.
Before the rise of spiritualism, the art of reaching out to the other side was marginalized and feared, often lumped in with occult practices, witchcraft and Satanism.
The Spiritualist explosion brought seances and mediumship into the American mainstream. Such prominent figures as Mary Todd Lincoln (wife of Abraham), Arthur Conan Doyle, and William T. Stead were adherents of the religion.
The seances of the 1800s were often very theatrical, with practitioners gathering around a table in a darkened room in the dead of night, often surrounded by mystical props. Usually a skilled medium would act as the leader of the communication session, directing the energies of everyone present.
The spirits would make themselves known by moving objects in the room, levitating the table, making various noises, or generating lights and other apparitions. Oftentimes, seance participants would communicate with spirits by asking yes/no questions, with a certain number of knocking noises from the spirit meaning an affirmative answer and a different number meaning a negative.
For more complex questions, the medium would recite the alphabet, and the spirit would knock when the correct letter had been reached to slowly spell out answers.
The most famous seance practitioners during the height of the Spiritualist era were the sisters Margaretta and Kate Fox. The Fox sisters were the first mediums to communicate with entities from the other side through a system of knocks and rapping noises.
They discovered their abilities while playfully attempting to conjure ghosts one afternoon in 1848. To their surprise and shock, the ghost of Charles B. Rosna communicated to them through knocks that he had been killed and buried in the basement of their family home. After the communication, an excavation proved the veracity of the spirit's message.
The Fox sisters became celebrities in their era, touring America giving demonstrations of their special abilities. Many other mediums also became famous during this time.
Unfortunately, the great popularity of Spiritualist demonstrations led to an epidemic of fraudulent mediums who tarnished the good name of genuine spiritual communicators.
A great backlash against Spiritualism was the natural result, and many prominent mediums were exposed as fakes. This backlash proved ruinous for the Fox sisters, who descended into poverty and alcoholism. Margaretta and Kate's third sister, Leah, who acted as their manager and appropriated many of the proceeds from their demonstrations, betrayed them and denounced them as frauds. The sisters eventually accepted $1500 from a corrupt reporter to give false confessions of fakery.
The great Spiritualist boom and bust of the 1800s seriously damaged the reputation of seances in the public eye for decades. However, a newer generation of mediums and people interested in ghostly communication have begun to rehabilitate the practice as a legitimate strategy for reaching out to the dead.
Modern seances eschew the showmanship and theatrics of the Victorian era. The tradition of conducting seances late at night has mostly been abandoned, as spirits who live on other frequencies do not follow linear time. It doesn’t matter at all to them what time it is in our world.
The same goes for most props that are associated with seances in the popular imagination. Some experts swear by the use of candles and insist that people in a seance must sit around a round or ovoid table for ritual purposes, but many successful mediums hold communication sessions without these trappings.
Although spiritually gifted people are able to summon and converse with spirits by themselves, there is always a greater chance of success if multiple people’s spiritual energies are focused together. This is the whole purpose of seances. People who lack exceptional spiritual gifts can still reach out to the Other Side if they work in a group.
To initiate a seance, you must first gather together several people. Many experts think that groups up people divisible by three have the best chance at successful communication. The people must all sit facing each other to encourage maximum transfer of psychical energies.
All distracting forces like music, cell phones and other electronic devices must be turned off. If you are attempting to reach out to a specific person, it helps to have a close friend or relative in the seance group. To reach out to the spirit, everyone must hold them in their mind as clearly as possible, and try to focus all energy on connecting with them.
Frequently prayer or chant is used to summon the spirit to the room. Most of the time, one person in the group, either a trained medium or someone close to the spirit, will be the designated communicator and lead the effort.
The spirit may may its presence known in several ways. You might hear music, get a chill, or feel the unmistakable presence of an extra being in the room with you. You may also see apparitions or hear knocks against the table and walls like Victorian Spiritualists did.
Sometimes several spirits will answer your call, and you will feel multiple entities trying to contact you. It is quite possible that the spirit who appears in the room will not be the specific one you called to, as the energy of the seance attracts dead souls regardless of their identity.
Several methods for communicating the thoughts of the spirit can be used. The knocking system is still frequently used, in both the yes/no and spelling variants. Sometimes Ouija boards are used to translate the spirit’s speech, but for this method to be effective someone skilled at Ouija operation must be present.
In seances involving very skilled mediums, the medium may just listen to the spirit and then translate to the rest of the group verbally. Spirits communicate not through sound but through mental energy. Questions are often asked aloud at seances for the benefit of the people present, but the spirits will respond to whatever is in the minds of the participants.
No one can keep secrets from the dead! To get the spirit to answer the questions you want, everyone must focus on holding the questions in the front of their mind.
Seances have spooky and somewhat ghoulish reputations in popular culture, but in real life they are rarely frightening. Very occasionally an ill-tempered spirit might be contacted, but the chance of this happening is low, especially if you asked your spirit guide for protection before beginning the session.
Speaking with the dead can elicit a wide variety of emotional reactions. The mood may be somber or reflective, especially if a dead relative is summoned. Seances can also be funny, especially if multiple spirits appear and start fighting for attention from the living!
Since the validity of seances is still under attack from skeptics, it is natural to want to capture visual or audio proof of your spiritual communication. You can try to set up cameras and other recording devices to capture your seance, but be advised that your attempts to record proof have a high chance of failure.
Ghosts interfere with the proper functioning of electronics, and many videos of seances show only a wall of static, or fail to record anything at all. You may find more success taking still images, especially with infrared film, but remember that true skeptics will never be convinced, even if shown irrefutable evidence. Your picture will only help you reaffirm the reality of your spiritual experience.