Knock Once for Yes, Twice for No: The Séance

There are many different methods used to communicate with the dead – whether it’s through a Ouija board, the use of a digital recorder for electronic voice phenomena, or psychics/mediums – to name a few.  But there’s one that requires a group of people with a similar purpose to to sit together, hold hands and transfer energy. This form of spirit communication is called a séance.

The word, séance, came from the French word meaning seat or session.  The word came to the English language in the mid-nineteenth century when groups of people would gather together in a dim, candle-lit room, attempting to receive messages from the deceased.  For many, the main desire for a séance was to have the reassurance that a loved one’s spirit is still present and that there is, in fact, an afterlife.

Formally, a proper séance is led by a medium who falls into a trance/meditative state in order to be vulnerable to the spirit, who will then take over the medium’s body and speak through them in order to deliver messages.  It is important to know that this is not a form of possession, but instead is called “channeling.”  Possession is when an unwanted and harmful demon takes over the body and essentially makes one its prey.  When a medium is channeling a spirit, he or she is giving permission for the spirit to speak through them.  While in this state, the medium is capable of asking the spirit questions and requesting yes or no answers, usually by knocking once for yes or twice for no. It is extremely important to begin the séance with positive energy.  If there is any negativity in the room, that could make for an undesirable experience.

How exactly did this practice come about?

On March 31, 1848 in Hydesville, New York, Maggie Fox, age 15, and sister Kate, age 11, started the Spiritualist Movement when they claimed to have made contact with the spirit of a peddler.  The Fox family lived in a home that experienced activity such as unexplained bangs and other noises.  Determined to figure out the source of the noises, Kate took it upon herself to ask questions around the home.  Throughout her amateur investigation, she requested that the spirit to give her a precise number of taps to answer her questions.  From that, she was able to determine that it was the spirit of a murdered peddler infesting their home.

Word of this communication quickly spread throughout the neighborhood, which made them locally famous.  However, not everyone was amused by their contact with the spirit world.  The Fox family was asked to leave their church.  Along with believers came skeptics, but their popularity and curious minds kept growing.  The eldest sister, Leah, became the sisters’ manager and began scheduling appointments for séances for the public to see the girls in spiritual interaction.

Skepticism grew stronger and the family was accused of faking the communication; that they were fooling the public by banging lead balls that were hidden under the table.  Their authenticity was proven when no one could prove any fraud or foul play.  They continued to conduct their séances, including one for the famous author, James Fenimore Cooper, who was convinced of their credibility.  From then on, the Spiritualist Movement escalated and other mediums throughout the country began coming forward.  By 1852, many spiritual groups developed in American cities as well as in Europe and England.

Unfortunately, there was still a questionable ending regarding the Fox family business.  In 1888, Maggie confessed that what the sisters had done was a fraud.  They used apples on strings to make the banging noises among other tricks.  It started as a simple joke, but once it started to receive recognition, it was much harder for them to admit the truth.  At the time, there were still strong believers of the Fox sisters’ act that were certain they were bribed by the media to say they were a hoax.

The Fox family story reminded me a lot of the 2016 movie, “Ouija” where a poor family owns a séance business, but everything is staged.  They are almost caught until the youngest daughter connects with a spirit, whom she believes is her dad, via the Ouija board.  It is revealed that it’s a demon that she’s speaking with, but before it gains its full power, the demon helps with the séance business, increasing their credibility.  I won’t ruin the ending, but the stories seem similar.

During the last half of the mid-nineteenth century, Cora Scott Hatch became one of the most well-known mediums and spirit lecturers within the Spiritualist Movement.  At a young age, Cora was able to display her capability to fall into a trance, speak in different voices and compose messages from the dead.  When she was 15, her parents took her around the country for public appearances.  She would fall back into her trance-like state while answering the audience’s questions.  Her accuracy was enough to make everyone a believer of her ability to channel spirits.

There are many varieties of séances: religious, stage mediumship, and informal social, just to name a few.

Religious séances take place in a lighted, spiritual church where the minister will deliver the messages to the living.  Once the spiritual communication ends, it is usually followed by a healing service.  This type of séance is more prominent within the Native American culture.  Stage mediumship is exactly how it sounds.  The medium, in this case, is center stage while the audience sits before him/her.  It’s not your typical séance, but is still considered one.  It was developed by Paschal Beverly Randolph, whose claim to fame was having the ability to receive and pass along messages from philosophers such as Plato, along with other ancient seers.  Informal social is the type of séance where the Ouija board is used.  There is no leader, but a small group experimenting with the paranormal and reality.

Overall, séances appear to be a hit or miss topic.  Many conclude that they are a big hoax and they aren’t as prominent as they were in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s.  In our modern day, while technology continues to evolve, researchers are attempting to test the validity of psychic phenomena.  So far, researchers haven’t been able to decipher fact from fiction, leaving skeptics to be skeptics and believers to be believers.

On a personal note, I have never conducted a séance, but my mother has.  On her 16th birthday, she and a group of her friends gathered around the kitchen table with a candle in the center of the table.  They held hands and began channeling the dead by repeating a chant.  Needless to say, their attempt worked.  A pair of skeletal hands appeared crawling across the table toward the girls.  This terrified everyone and they quickly stopped.  She swears by this and to this day will stand firm as to what she experienced.  After hearing that, I know I will stay away from experimenting myself.

Contributed by Rachel Pierce

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