What Are Séances? Can You Contact the Dead?

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By: Alex Postrado

Contacting The World Of The Departed

It is no secret that since ancient times, people have long been trying to communicate with the dead.

Proof of that can be found in the Old Testament, in a book called Leviticus — theorized to have been written around the 7th century BCE.

In that book, humans were warned not to seek after mediums and people who claim to have the ability to contact the world of spirits.

However, in the 19th century, humanity witnessed a dramatic turn of events in history.

As if never before, religion and scientific exploration clashed and people were caught in the middle of it.

That was when séances rose to popularity. But, what was all the uproar about?

séance board with candle

What is a Seance?

As opposed to what most people would automatically assume after hearing the word séance, it wasn’t actually meant to be used specifically for spiritualism.

The word — in reality — comes from the French term séance — meaning, “sitting” or “session“. And it was derived from the Old French seoir — meaning, “to sit“.

Nowadays, however, we commonly use this word to talk about a spiritualist meeting where people communicate with ghosts and forces from the afterlife.

This modern take on séances centers on a medium — a person who reputedly can make contact with spirits. And they will serve as the bridge, connecting the physical and spiritual worlds.

Oftentimes, the medium will try to go into a trance and use their body as a “channel” through which spirits may begin to commune. And this is when it gets eerie.

According to accounts, the participants would know that they have been successful in establishing a connection when they start hearing disembodied voices either from somewhere in the room or through the medium.

Occasionally, that would be followed by the appearance of a spectral figure.

But most — if not all — of the reported incidents concerning séances typically involve the unexplained playing of mysterious music, unnatural moving of objects, automatic writing, and even the peculiar forming of a light-colored, viscous substance — known as ectoplasm — into the shape of a face, a limb, or a complete body.

And all of these alleged manifestations were what ultimately caused séances to become the talk of the town in the mid-19th century.

There was a certain mystique surrounding séances that people just couldn’t look away from.

The Start of the Spiritualist Movement

In 1848, two sisters from Rochester, New York — Maggie and Kate Fox, aged 14 and 11, respectively — claimed that their house was haunted by what seems to be a poltergeist, causing disturbances via mysterious rappings — now known as the Rochester rappings.

séance circle

When the supernatural intrusion seemingly got more intense, the sisters decided to call in their neighbor for help. They tried to communicate with a spiritual entity through knocking and they soon learned that the supposed ghost was “the spirit of a peddler who had been murdered for his money by a former resident of the house”.

All would have been just a strange, one-time incident if not for Rochester, being a hotbed of religious activities — cradle to both Millerism and Mormonism.

With that, it was not long for the supposed haunting to catch the attention of the masses and even community leaders Isaac and Amy Post.

And while the communication between the Fox sisters and the presumed spirit was too informal to be considered a séance, as soon as the news of their supernatural encounter started to spread, spiritualist séance circles were formed — opening the door for, perhaps, one of the greatest religious movements of history.

How Do Seances Work?

Séances — at their core — are actually fairly simple.

To perform this practice, one must hold two beliefs: that afterlife or a spiritual realm exists, and that it is possible to contact souls that wander around that world.

Normally, séances would involve six to eight participants, who would gather in an unlit room and hold hands to form a circle.

Led by the medium, they would attempt to contact the dearly departed, through talking boards, spirit boards, and Ouija boards, in sittings that should be held no more than thrice a week.

Ouija board
Ouija Board

Attendees are usually those who wish to speak to a loved one that has recently died.

Throughout history, there has been an unbelievable deal of séances done to help cope — more so, console — surviving families and friends, devastated by a person’s passing.

And famous examples of that would be Bess Houdini’s séances to communicate with her late husband, renowned illusionist Harry Houdini, as well as Mary Todd Lincoln’s White House sittings to contact her deceased child with then-President, Abraham Lincoln.

But skeptics argue that mediums and séance practitioners are just exploiting the vulnerability of the bereaved in order for them to earn a living and gain mass popularity while doing so.

And to this day, séances remain a hot topic in debates across the globe.

Real Spiritual Experience or Distasteful Scam?

In the fall of 1888, forty years after the birth of spiritualism, Maggie Fox admitted in her memoir, The Death Blow to Spiritualism, that the rappings that began in their Rochester house were nothing more than an elaborate prank that blew out of proportion.

By that time, though, the juggernaut of a movement that they had created as kids already had millions of confirmed spiritualists around the world.

Till now, some people are still hosting séances in a more modern, “scientific” approach. But scientific skeptics are not having any of it.

Many séances through the years have — time and time again — been exposed as scams and frauds done by opportunistic individuals, who capitalize on the grief, desperation, and vulnerability of people.

Skeptics argue that the mysterious voices and so-called manifestations during séances can all be easily faked with the help of some specially-made props and a few accomplices — a thing that, ironically, Harry Houdini, himself, firmly believed.

At present, the existence of ghosts and the reality of séances remain yet to be proven by science.

Many have tried to debunk spiritualism as a whole — using anomalistic psychology as a way to signify their point — and with today’s technological advancements, denouncing the authenticity of séances would be more or less simple.

But, while the golden age of séances seems years behind us now, it is possible that the belief in the practice would still survive for decades or even more to come.

After all, there is a saying that people will always believe what they want to believe.

Well, can the same thing be said about you?


Séance - occultism
Medium - occultism
Ectoplasm - occultism
Séance - New World Encyclopedia
The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism’s Unlikely Founders
Rochester Rappings - Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology
Silencing the Dead: The Decline of Spiritualism
The Strange World of Seances
Seance History: When Manipulating The Desperate Was Fun
Science of the seance: why speaking to spirits is talking to yourself
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