Spiritualism attracted more than 8 million followers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To have a medium or psychic summon spirits into your home was both a fashionable entertainment and a novel way to grieve the loss of loved ones. There was frequent fakery, but now and then something otherworldly could occur ….
Welcome to the late 1800s, when traditional faith was shaken by Darwin and technology. If we could communicate across vast distances with the tap-tap-tap of the telegraph, could we not contact departed souls via similar methods? There have been some crazy stories—like those girls, the Fox sisters in upstate New York, claiming to have contacted a real spirit. You’re curious, too, about the mystery of the afterlife.
Tonight, we’re going to séance—French for both “seat,” or “session.” We are modern humans of the Industrial Age, after all!
Your hosts, Mr. and Mrs. _______, are grieving their 12-year-old son who died from consumption earlier this year. It’s the kind of news that makes you wonder what disease or terrible accident the gods are cooking up for you, and when? You’ve heard how their first attempt at a seance was a total disaster: With the lights dimmed, the medium led her “apparition” around the room: a balloon tied to some violin strings. The medium simply took advantage of this family’s grief. The night turned ugly and ended in unkempt buns, stern eyes, and a broken piece of fine china. This time, the last time, the couple found a real medium: a mutual friend of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Everyone takes a seat around the dining room table. The medium asks to be tied to the chair, so that he cannot sneak around the darkened room making weird knocks and spooky sounds.
“Wait! The curtains! Close them at once! What would the neighbors say?”
There’s just enough light to register an apparition. Everyone closes their eyes and the medium gets to work, asking basic questions such as the hour of the evening counted in knocks. The table bangs violently, seven times. You open one eye to look at the clock and it is, in fact, seven o’clock. Nobody at this table is strong enough to create that kind of rapping.
The medium asks if a spirit is present. Two raps for yes, one for no.
“What is your age,” he inquires comfortably. Twelve knocks.
You open one eye to find everyone intact at the table. The medium has been struck with the hiccups and with each gasp, a light goes out. The room is darker now and you open both eyes, your breath stopped when you see it: a pale forearm reaching between the Mr. and Mrs., retracting and extending, hesitating to touch them. You close both eyes again, tighter this time, telling yourself it’s a dirty hoax and these people are all the same. The medium probably found a boy off the street, an eager accomplice.
“My face!” the Mrs. screams. “Who touched my face?!”
The Mr. takes his hands off the table to comfort her, and now the table is moving. It rotates like music on a phonograph. The Mrs. begins calling out to her son and the table spins faster. A loud thud hits the ground and the table is still again. This is all too much, the Mr. has decided.
Light fills the room again.
That final thud was your friend, falling from her chair as she fainted. Once again, she has managed to make it all about her. This time is different, though. It’s a relief. You’d rather see her in a crumpled heap than to witness what may have come next.
The medium has been untied but remains seated, his eyes rolled back in flutters. The Mr. shakes him out of this peculiar state, thanking him for visiting while exchanging looks with the Mrs., and they send him home with a basket of food. He seems unaffected.
The Mr. was right. No more séances. The medium was clearly a skilled magician. He used a contraption with the table—something to rap on it, turn it ’round. People are inventing new things all the time. You’re won’t be fooled. But when you’re alone with your thoughts, you vividly remember the scene that you can’t explain and felt too real. You’d like to forget about the table, the hiccups, and the hand.
Want to tell ghost stories with us? Join Sanctuary and Catland Books for a night of spirits and scares at our first ever Paranormal Parlor. Get tickets here!