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Frightful Photo Friday: 20th Century Séances

A lot of things have changed since 1901, I think that’s fair to say. But, for the world of Spiritualism and seeking truth in the paranormal, the goals have remained the same, and it’s only the method of contact and recording said contact that has evolved.

On top of that, the paranormal seems to get a bad rap within the 21st century as all being a hoax, a gag, a topic really only suited for questionable reality TV– but in the early days of photography, as we’ve discussed before, capturing the supernatural on film was a full time (not to mention, well-paying) gig.

As spirit photography lost some of its credibility, advocates for the afterlife moved onto something a little more promising: performing séances for willing customers who were desperate to get into contact with a lost loved one, or to simply be wowed by a vision into the world of the dead.

A little history on the séance: the name comes from the French term for sitting or session, and is performed through the use of a Medium, or someone who is known to experience a thinner veil between the land of the living and the dead, more so than average people. Mainstream séance popularity grew with the rise of Spiritualism in the 19th and 20th centuries, and are even continued today. Some of the most notable mediums performing séances in the time include the Fox Sisters, of whom I definitely will find time to write about in the future.

Despite its main popularity occurring in the 19th-20th centuries, the history of contacting the dead goes back even further than just when the Spiritualists made it trendy. So much so, that if you’re interested in getting really in depth into learning about this kind of stuff, I might suggest taking up a university course, where I’ve seen classes ranging from studying global Rituals and Myths under Religious Studies, all the way to the History of Magic and Witchcraft under Anthropology, because I certainly don’t have the time or the means to get into all of it in one article. I mean, also, you might as well, since it’s the closest thing to a comparable Hogwarts education.

According to Wikipedia, there are at least 4 different types of séances:

Stage Mediumship Séances: Mediums who contact the dead while up on stage, performing in front of an audience. While, technically, for it to be a proper séance, the participating members are meant to be sitting, this form of afterlife contact is still referred to as “séance” in the simplest terms.

Leader-Assisted Séances: The séances you might be most familiar with, consisting of a psychic medium and a small group of people seated around a table. The medium is expected to go into a trance or similar state upon contact with the dead, or otherwise act as a proxy. The hoaxes usually stem from this manner of spirit contact.

Informal Social Séances: Performed without a leader or a large group, usually done between 2 or three individuals. Less focused on contacting someone specific, and more on exploring the connections between the living world and the dead. These types usually include proxy devices such as ouija boards, or another game passed down through generations of children. (I imagine Bloody Mary and the Charlie, Charlie pencil game fall under this category. Also, can I just mention that I love how there’s a “Bloody Mary Ritual” wikihow page. The included images are particularly my favorite.)

“Reach out to her”

Spiritualist Séance: Similar to Leader-Assisted Séances, however, there is no designated “kingpin” running the whole show. Psychic mediums are still present, but all members seated around the table have opportunities to make contact, rather than speaking through one designated proxy.

This is where the photography aspect of all of this comes in: Séance circles back in the day just loved snapping pics of their interactions, and probably used them to brag to all of their friends.

PrairieGhosts.com talks about how things usually went down when it was séance time:

Séances were usually held in the home of the medium or that of one of the sitters. To begin, the lights were normally turned down very low or extinguished altogether. The reason for this, Spiritualists believed, was that spirit forms were more easily seen in the darkness. Often they manifested as luminous apparitions or would cause things to move about in ways that would only be done if it could remain unseen. Debunkers and skeptics, of course, offered other reasons for this — that darkened conditions would hide the deceptive practice of fraud.

What kind of fraud, you ask? (Oh, how I wish I could get into a spiel about those Fox Sisters right now!)

Let’s take a second to check out a few photographs reportedly taken during séances, and the claims made to accompany them. First and foremost, I want to present these that leave me the most dumbfounded, though maybe not in the way they originally intended.

Eva Carrière was a well-known medium in the early 20th century, known primarily for instances of exuding “ectoplasm” during séances, as well as summoning “ghostly images” within the same ectoplasm, as pictured above (images taken in 1913).

For a 2017 audience, however, it’s pretty clear to see that the “mysterious” mass escaping her mouth and floating around her head aren’t, in fact, clouds of ghost material, but rather chewed-up paper and strips of gauze (which were popular choices in other ectoplasmic séances as well, amongst a number of supposed mediums).

Albert Von Schrenck-Notzing, The Medium Stanislawa P: Emission and Resorption of an Ectoplasmic Substance Through the Mouth. January 1913.

Along with these photographs purportedly depicting ectoplasm leaking out of the ears of mediums, table tipping/table-turning and other moving furniture were also popular subjects of “proof.” As is common today, however, it’s likely these images were taken using string, or some other method hidden from the camera.

Anonymous, Séance with Eusapia Palladino at the Home of Camille Flammarion,

Rue Cassini. Full Levitation of the Table. November 1898.

Baron von Erhardt, Séance at von Erhardt’s — Table in the Air. circa 1905.

Mentalfloss had this to say about the above image:

[This photo appears] in the New York Times article noted above [see: here]. The séance pictured took place in 1909 at the Rome, Italy studio of Baron von Erhardt, who set up a test for the medium (the article states that the medium is a man named Eusapia Paladino, but Eusapia Palladino was actually a famous female medium; the lone woman of the group might be her).

Whenever the medium was giving a demonstration, the Baron would press a button, which activated both the camera and the flashlight behind it, illuminating Paladino and snapping a picture. “Thus he pictures tables suspended in the air, the medium with his coat removed, apparently by ‘spirit’ hands, and flung against the screen of the cabinet, and a mandolin in the air,” the New York Times said. No word on whether or not the medium passed the test.

Of course, one (or 100) bad apples don’t mean every Medium performing séances during this time period was a fraud, simply that the mainstream population was eating it up and a few people in particular wanted to take advantage of that for some cash. Just like there certainly exist modern examples of paranormal experiences that make you go, “Hmmm… maybe…” the same would have existed back then.

In terms of séances in 2017 and beyond, however, things are a little different. Thanks to modern entertainment, the ghost/witch/halloween all year round aesthetic is booming, and hobbies like contacting the dead are, weirdly, almost fashionable. Black dresses (particularly those with sweeping sleeves, loose-fitting skirts, or gaudy white pilgrim collars… sign me up), wide-brimmed hats, and incense flavors abound, making it seem like the fashion world is slowly sinking into a strange obsession with the Salem Witches.

Nonetheless, it’s opening more and more doors into joining the ranks of those who sincerely want to make contact with those people who have already passed on.

I feel like everyone knows exactly which “modern entertainment” I’m referring to here.

Other modern day-to-days probably necessary for your in-home séances:

  • Stone countertops, seeing as it’s thought spirits can use the stored energy naturally occurring in quartz, granite, and other stones when they’re quarried out of the ground.
  • Running Water, which is said to attract spirits for the same reason as granite, the flowing motion produces energy, which the spirits then absorb like a sponge.
  • Lots of Alcohol, not for the spirits (heh), but for you. Because dabbling in the occult in any way, shape, or form, almost never turns out well. You might consider just avoiding it altogether, and settle on watching it performed on TV. On TV, far away from where you are, safe under your blankets.

If you’re interested in reading up on more 20th-century séances, check out these sites:

Kelsey Morgan
Kelsey graduated from Boise State University with a BA in Visual Arts, and is currently working as a freelance writer, while doodling anime on the side with one hand and petting cats with the other.

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