How Seances Really Work

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet
People who believe in spirits, for the most part, belong to one of two groups: those who delight in ghost stories but run at the first signs of a haunting and those who want nothing more than to encounter a ghost firsthand. For the latter group, seances are likely the best way to contact the other side.
Nowadays, a seance may refer to any number of spiritual processes, from automatic writing to playing with a Ouija board, and it's part of a long history of humans trying to speak to the dead (see Shamanism in its countless iterations). But, according to the original definition, a seance is a guided conversation with a single spirit, held at a candlelit table. Most importantly, it should always be led by a medium or someone who knows their way around the spirit world. More on that later.
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The images commonly associated with seances — levitating tables, wisps of smoke, orbs of light — entered the public imagination in the U.S. and U.K. during the Victorian era, the practice’s height. Modern spiritualism, in which seances played a major role, promoted the idea that life did not end when someone’s physical form died. Instead, it was believed that their spirits lingered around, waiting for someone with the supernatural skills necessary to reach them.
And boy, did those skills vary. Some mediums claimed they could contact ghosts in song, while others said they needed only a glass of water to sense any spirits present. The most common means of communication, however, was through a process called table rapping, in which the medium would enter a quiet, trance-like state, ask any spirits present to come forward, and pose a question, and then the spirit would respond by knocking on the underside of the table (with, for example, one knock meaning “yes” and two knocks meaning “no”).
Whether or not these mediums were actually able to speak to the dead, they ended up providing a unique service to the people of the notoriously buttoned-up Victorian society. During a seance, participants were allowed to express themselves freely — grief, shock, and fear are totally permissible (and justifiable) reactions to believing you’re speaking to a ghost, after all. Accounts of people crying out, laughing, or even weeping upon contacting a deceased loved one weren’t uncommon.
Despite the valuable outlet seances provided to some, their quick rise turned them into somewhat of a parlor trick. It didn’t take long for con artists to come up with “spiritual” gimmicks that did nothing more than take people’s money and sour their belief in spiritualism.
But we can still look at seances as a powerful moment in spiritual history. In a time of immense and rapid change, when scientific progress was accelerating at a quick speed, people craved a sign that some things were made to last — in this case, the human spirit. And beyond that, anything seemed possible. If Dinosaurs could walk the earth, why wouldn’t we be able to talk to ghosts?
As we mentioned before, we do not recommend that you conduct a seance on your own, unless you feel good about it — and, even then, we suggest you think twice. Going into a seance with doubts or concerns nearly guarantees something will go wrong, or you'll truly regret reaching out. Just about everyone on Reddit who's messed with a Ouija board on a hunch has a creepy story to tell. Sure, you might be dealing with a friendly entity, but if you aren't absolutely certain, it's best to leave it be.
If you’re still curious about what it’s like to deal with a ghost (but don't want to risk getting haunted yourself), check out these stories of real-life ghost encounters.
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