Trick and Treat The hope, dread, and farce of communicating with the dead.

Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances

By Lisa Morton (2020, Reaktion Books) 351 pages including index, bibliography, notes, and photos

As Lisa Morton notes in Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances, there is not a shred of scientific evidence that proves the existence of spirits or any ability on our part or theirs, if they did exist, that we can communicate with them. (298) Despite this, there is hardly a culture or people on earth that has not or does not believe in a spiritual life of some sort after death and that does not have some sort of ritual conducted by a “specialist” to communicate with the dead. Human beings are convinced, and have been throughout history, that there is an afterlife, that death is not the end but simply a gateway to more life, and that this afterlife has some profound effect upon those still living this life. What this pervasive belief shows is:

 

 

• First, that we cannot imagine non-existence or fervently do not want to; for us, life only begets more life, good or gruesome, material or trans-material.

 

• Second, that there is an essential loneliness about human existence that makes us want to be surrounded by ghosts, spirits, gods, and the like who mean us either good or harm; to be alone frightens us more than evil spirits do.

 

• Third, that science has far less influence on our thinking than we might claim, that science has its limits in our understanding and shaping of the real and the unreal, that we believe we live in a world that requires propitiation as much as it does governance and stewardship, a world that remains as much supernatural as it is natural.

 

 

Calling the Spirits is a nifty survey of the western world’s supposed interactions with the spirits of the dead. Necromancy, the art of summoning the spirits, has long fascinated us, and it was common in the ancient world for those with special gifts of some sort to summon the dead or the gods (good, bad, and trickster) or demi-gods, the halfway house between mortal and immortal. I suppose that Jesus would not be considered a necromancer for calling out the evil spirits of the possessed, but he clearly could get spirits to obey his commands. Although Jesus raised the dead, he did not commune with the spirits of the dead or make a claim that they had an active influence on the living. In the ancient world, people summoned the dead to get predictions about the future; presumably the dead, not imprisoned by time, are able to see the past, the present, and the future simultaneously. And they, despite being dead, are still concerned with what goes on among the living.

After wars, such as the U.S. Civil War and World War I, interest in spiritualism grew (as did the sale of Ouija boards, a spiritualist device, and such items) because so many grieving people wanted to communicate with their departed loved ones, particularly grieved because so many of the departed were young and died horrible deaths on the battlefield or from disease.

The rise of the monotheistic religions tended to stamp out necromancy or at least not to endorse it. (Islam, according to Morton, does not have ghosts, nor a belief in the return of the dead. [65]) In fact, with Christianity came the witch burnings and the Inquisition, brutal attempts to end, among other things, necromancy in any form as heresy and deviance. Not a single act of witchcraft, as we understand the term, has ever occurred in the history of mankind, but do not tell that to the judges at the Salem witch trials of 1692-93, a rather late instance of witch-hunting since the practice started in Europe at least 200 years earlier, should you ever encounter their ghosts. They will not take kindly to the denial of wonder-making in this world. We have the oddity of Christians wanting to stamp out necromancy because they thought it was both pagan, apostate, and wicked nonsense and because it was true.

Nothing would stop people from feeling haunted by the idea of death and thus wanting to feel haunted by the dead, as a way of feeling assured that there is a life beyond this one, no matter what it may be. But with the rise of personalities like Count Alessandro di Cagliostro and Franz Anton Mesmer, the figure of the charismatic medium as we understand it today began to emerge. A new type of shaman or magician, but unlike a stage magician, the medium was claiming that he or she was truly magical or supernatural, not just something that looked magical but was done by adept but ordinary means. Coupled with the invention of light shows (and later, photography), the modern séance was born: a small gathering of people who sit around a table, perhaps sing a hymn or two (in the nineteenth century this practice was common), while a medium, man or woman, who may be bound to prevent trickery, calls upon a guide from the dead, sometimes called John King or Katie King, who will allow the medium to contact the dead. There may be floating musical instruments, strange noises, flashing lights, rapping on a table, levitation, automatic writing. The voice of a dearly departed may speak; ectoplasm, a gooey white substance, may be expectorated from the medium’s mouth or body. It has become a highly ritualistic performance. It has become practically a cliché in many horror, mystery, or haunted house movies. (American actress Kim Stanley was nominated for an Academy Award in 1964 for her performance as an unbalanced medium in the British film, Séance on a Wet Afternoon. By this time, the medium was an archetype in the popular imagination.) But there is nothing that a medium does in a séance that a good theatrical magician could not do, which is why once séances caught on in nineteenth-century America and Europe there was always concern about trickery. In fact, Houdini started his career as a medium before he became a séance-buster later in life. His friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle, a staunch believer in séances and spirits and who thought that Houdini’s escapes were done by de-materializing, not trickery, would shipwreck on the shoals of Houdini’s skepticism.

The séance was where the trick met the treat, the trick of gimcrack illusions met the treat of life eternal. After all, just because someone could do what the mediums did by natural means did not signify, for many, that mediums were fake. And what test would ever prove mediums to be authentic that would not beget another test?

What is interesting is that, as Morton relates, nearly every famous medium, from the Fox sisters to D. D. Home to Florence Cook to Helen Duncan, were all exposed as frauds, but it hardly stopped séances from being performed, and it did not adversely affect the careers of these mediums. People needed what they had to offer, and what the mediums sold was not the supernatural but hope that there was life after death, hope for those who lost a loved one that they could still reach out to that person, hope that they would eventually meet the loved one again when they died. The séance was where the trick met the treat, the trick of gimcrack illusions met the treat of life eternal. After all, just because someone could do what the mediums did by natural means did not signify, for many, that mediums were fake. And what test would ever prove mediums to be authentic that would not beget another test?

The séance indeed had become a ritual in the new religion of spiritualism, which rather took the United States and Britain by storm in the nineteenth century. Spiritualism was the belief that not only was there an afterlife, but the living can communicate with the dead, and the dead wish to communicate with the living. After wars, such as the U.S. Civil War and World War I, interest in spiritualism grew (as did the sale of Ouija boards, a spiritualist device, and such items) because so many grieving people wanted to communicate with their departed loved ones, particularly grieved because so many of the departed were young and died horrible deaths on the battlefield or from disease. The quest for ghosts was an expression of humanity, a way to cope with how overwhelmed we are when we lose someone close to us, how unbearable it is to think that the person is gone forever. Spiritualism was our attempt, pathetic yet tenacious, to limit the intensity of the tragedy that so shapes human life. The Marxist materialists are wrong: the biggest struggle in this life is not between the rich and the poor or the strong and weak; it is between the quick and the dead. Ah, if only this could be truly a world without end!

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