I’ll start out by saying that I don’t believe in ghosts. Which I suppose begs the question: Why was I at a seance? I may not believe in the supernatural but the idea of it can still give me the heebie-jeebies.
I grew up reading Goosebumps books before moving on to Stephen King at the definitely inappropriate age of 13. Ghosts and all things spooky are, in my mind, a form of entertainment – not massively different, say, to cats on YouTube, or Jeremy Kyle, but offering something a bit more unusual. A seance, therefore, seemed like a perfectly reasonable way to spend a Tuesday evening.
This particular seance was billed as “a carefully contrived reconstruction of the Victorian Séance by Vienna's master illusionist and former theologian, Philipp Oberlohr” and was hosted by the good people at The Last Tuesday Society in Hackney. My friends Cath and Sarah came along for moral support. Sarah, like me, is a self-proclaimed sceptic; she was there to be entertained and to drink. Cath, less so. “I really hope somebody comes through” she said, on the way to the venue. Sarah and I broke the awkward silence that followed by discussing which cocktail we thought we’d be having.
Philipp (aka “Austria’s Derren Brown”, fantastic) sat at the back of the room in an expensive-looking suit, complete with bow tie. His back was ramrod straight and he stared ahead, interacting with nobody and exuding a sort of unsettling charisma. As we passed him to dump our coats, bags and, most importantly, phones in the back room, I caught his eye and attempted a smile. Nothing.
When Philipp finally rose and began to speak, he was so softly spoken that Sarah, Cath and I had to lean forward to hear him. This seance, it became clear straightaway, wasn’t quite what we’d hoped for. We thought we’d be sitting around a long table, holding hands with strangers while things went 'bump'. The venue, however, didn’t lend itself to this set-up. We were in store for more of a Victorian-parlour seance – spirits were invited, but mainly to help Philipp with mystic readings and visions of the future while we sipped our drinks. It was all rather civilised.
Philipp produced an ominous pile of black and white photographs, all picturing nefarious-looking characters in Victorian dress. Pulling a woman away from her glass of wine, he invited her to sort the photos into two piles, putting people she had a “good feeling” about on one side, and people that gave her the creeps on the other. By some unseen supernatural force apparently working though this lady, the photographs were ordered into two piles: one of people still living, and one of the dead ('Alive' or 'Dead', it was now revealed, was written on the back of each). One of those dead people was Florence Cook, a medium who had lived and died in Hackney. Philipp hoped to summon her forth. The photographs were whittled down further by another volunteer rolling a dice. Guess which picture was selected? Florence Cook, it turns out, really did exist – and there’s Wikipedia proof. So far, so (slightly) spooky.
By some unseen supernatural force, the photographs were ordered into two piles: one of people still living, and one of the dead.
I wanted to be convinced. Or at least scared. As a self-proclaimed fangirl of anything scary, I’m fairly easy to impress. Unfortunately, from our seats at the back of the room, Philipp’s dialogues with the dead were punctuated by an incessant bleeping from the card machine. Occasionally, a passing police car would drown out his voice altogether. Even the dead can’t escape the annoyances of modern life.
Next up, we were all invited to write down a question or a secret, seal it in an envelope and pop it in a big glass bowl at the front of the room. Would Florence retrieve answers from the other side and communicate them to Philipp, thus proving her existence and, subsequently, that of the whole spirit realm?
“I’ve got somebody here with the initials CW,” said Philipp, holding an envelope to his head.
“Oh my god” said Cath.
“Who is Anne?” Philipp wanted to know. He said this instantly, with none of the cold-reading guesswork that makes mediums synonymous with con artists. Anne, we discovered later, is Cath’s auntie, to whom she rarely speaks but who had called her out of the blue earlier that day.
“Your question is about the future. The far future, say 15 years' time, correct?” Correct. “And you’re happy in your life now, correct? But something isn’t permanent? Correct?” Yep.
Cath was suitably unsettled by these uncanny bits of knowledge. “And my middle name is Florence!” she told us later. But if Philipp Oberlohr/ Florence Cook knew this, they didn’t bother to mention it.
For me, it was a bit too hard to suspend disbelief and although I went away entertained, I didn’t go away convinced. The beeping, the sirens, the occasional ping of a text alert, all kept me grounded in the living world of 2017. The fact that Cath – the only believer among us – was the only one to receive a message, did leave me thinking. Maybe the spirits really do exist. Or maybe Philipp’s just really good at Facebook stalking.