Rocky: Are they friendly spirits?
Bullwinkle: Friendly? Just listen.
A séance is an attempt to communicate with the spirits of the dead, usually involving a gathering of individuals who sit down around a table and led by a medium.
Séances were popular forms of entertainment around the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century, during which time many people became interested in spiritualism and the occult. Usually the medium would attempt to contact the spirits while asking everyone else in the room to concentrate on summoning and welcoming them. Real séances did not require a dark room, just a pleasantly peaceful atmosphere. The darkened room came into vogue when people started trying to produce materialized "phenomena" — most of which you could buy from theatrical supply companies.
The lights may flicker or the room suddenly grow colder, and the medium would either become possessed by the spirit that was summoned or merely speak with it. Objects might start being thrown about the room to show that the ghost is present and active. Once for Yes, Twice for No is another common element (and it's Truth in Television). After that there's usually a lot of dramatic screaming and fainting.
If it's a murder mystery, expect someone to take advantage of the lights being out to kill their target. "But we were all holding hands!"
- In Disney's Robin Hood, Robin, disguised as a Gypsy fortune-teller, stages a fake séance as a distraction while he and Little John rob Prince John.
- Subverted in the opening of Amityville 3-D, where the seance turns out to be a laughable hoax.
- In And You Thought Your Parents Were Weird!, teens perform a séance and accidentally summon the late father of one of the participants.
- In Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, after Bill and Ted get killed, they find somebody they know holding a séance and try to get a message through. They're mistaken for evil spirits, and dismissed.
- The Changeling: (1980) has a particularly spooky séance scene where the medium attempts to contact the ghost in the house, is put in a trance and draws the ghost's answers to her questions on paper. It is absolutely terrifying.
- Full Circle features a disturbingly successful attempt.
- Ghost: Whoopi Goldberg plays a Phony Psychic conducting fake séances for money, who, to her surprise, actually does manage to communicate with the dead.
- The Haunting in Connecticut features one character's psychic flashbacks to a séance that took place in the Haunted House long ago, in which an adolescent boy channels ectoplasm from his mouth.
- A very typical phony séance is shown toward the end of Tony Curtis' 1953 Houdini. Harry Houdini really did expose fake mediums for many years.
- After having accidentally received a MacGuffin from a Nazi spy posing as a Fortune Teller in Ministry of Fear, Ray Milland traces the fortune teller to London. He finds a completely different woman by that same name, who works as a medium, and promptly has her join her spooky seance. Just as the medium is uttering some things that make Stephen really uncomfortable, a shot rings out, and Stephen is framed for murder.
- Night of the Demon features a séance where the medium channels the spirit of a researcher killed in the beginning of the movie, who provides some crucial information to his niece and his co-worker (who dismisses the séance as prearranged bunk).
- The Others has one. The protagonists are being contacted by the very much alive new residents of their house.
- Played for laughs, then chills in Paranormal Activity 2, in which Ali and her boyfriend use a Ouija board to try to contact the spirit haunting Ali's family and her little brother Hunter. When asked what the spirit wants, the planchette first spells out "PUSSY" (the result of the boyfriend being mischievous), and then spells out "HUNT" before Ali calls it off. The implication that the demon was spelling out "Hunter" is clear.
- Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) Dr. Mortimer's wife performs one.
- In The Uninvited (1944), Rick stages a phony séance to convince Stella that her dead mom wants her to leave the house, only to have Mom ( her real mom, that is!) actually show up and explain that she's trying to protect the girl. We see in this picture the old-time spelling glass, a homemade device which was eventually replaced by the Ouija board.
- The Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite, The Wild World of Batwoman, features a séance scene for, quite frankly, no real reason at all. The ethnic slurs incurred make it a scene best not discussed in polite company.
- Happens in the 1940 Kay Kyser musical You'll Find Out. Bela Lugosi is the medium, Prince Saliano. Various weird effects include the use of the Sonovox for spirit voices.
- "Proper" séance techniques are discussed in the "How to Contact the Dead" chapter of The Action Hero's Handbook.
- In a Noodle Incident from Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates, a séance was being conducted at the site of one of the gaps in time. As these gaps cause magic to start working in their vicinity, this séance presumably got results; just what result, no one knows, as the participants were all found dead the next day, sitting around their ouija board with horrified looks on their faces.
- The Bible: King Saul, after God ignores his inquiries as to how to defeat the Philistines, turns in desperation to a medium (or "witch") in Endor and asks her to raise Samuel's spirit. (The irony was that Saul had previously cracked down on all necromancy within the Kingdom of Israel.) The medium, though recognizing Saul despite his disguise and suspecting entrapment, complies, and Samuel's spirit appears as an elderly man in a robe, none too pleased to be woken from his eternal rest. He curtly tells Saul that the next day he and his sons will die in battle, and sure enough, guess what happens.
- It's intensely argued whether or not it was actually the ghost of Samuel or if it was some other spirit posing as Samuel, but most Biblical scholars agree that the witch of Endor called up something, and the news was not good.
- Angela in Shirley Jackson's never-finished Come Along With Me is a (real) medium. However, because the spirits tend to come to her at random, she isn't always sure that when she holds an actual sit-down seance she's going to be able to talk to the sitters' loved ones. Their messages don't fit the sitters' preconceived notions either, and they leave unsatisfied.
- Willie Connolly in J.R. Lowell's Daughter Of Darkness is being violently haunted by her own mother after casting a Ritual Magic spell that caused her to kill herself (not Willie's intention). She attends a séance to try to apologize, although she's pretty sure the mediums are phonies. They are, but Mom actually shows up and wrecks the place. She later apologizes, repeatedly communicating "Don't hurt Willie".
- A Drowned Maiden's Hair, by Laura Amy Schlitz, revolves around séances conducted by the Hawthorne sisters.
- Elemental Masters: In The Wizard of London the heroes debunk a Phony Psychic, then a real ghost appears at the end of the séance.
- In chapter 4 of The Exorcist (novel), a Jeane Dixon Expy at Chris' party reveals a little-known story (sans names) about a phony medium who had studied to be a Jesuit priest. A French empress at a séance felt what she thought was a spirit child's hand touching her, and someone turned on the lights to reveal the medium "with his naked foot on the empress' arm." It's Truth in Television: the empress was Eugénie Montijonote , and the medium was D.D. Home. This story was buried for over a century; the fact that Blatty found it is testimony to his intense research.
- Good Omens has Madame Tracy, fake medium, and a scene where a séance unexpectedly produces real spirits.
- Zilpha Keatley Snyder has the children hold a séance in The Headless Cupid. Amanda has been teaching her step-siblings the basics of Psychic Powers, witchcraft and ceremonial Ritual Magic. She really attempts to contact the dead, but in case they don't show up, she has a few tricks planned to satisfy the others.
- "Angel Down, Sussex" by Kim Newman begins with the heroine, Catriona Kaye, at a fake séance, which she proceeds to mercilessly deconstruct. (Arthur Conan Doyle makes a guest appearance in the story.)
- Nina Tanleven: An atypical version occurs in The Ghost Let Go when Nine and Chris, who can already see Mrs. Smileys ghost, work to bring Dolores Smiley into the link so she can see and communicate with her mothers spirit and, by making peace with her, allow her to pass on.
- A.S. Byatt's Possession has a kind of sub-subplot devoted to séances and exposure of phonies. Randolph's and Christabel's last meeting is at one of these. While it's possible something psychic did happen, there's also some fakery, which Randolph exposes. He calls this his "Gaza Exploit", comparing himself to Samson tearing down the Philistine temple, and writes "Mummy Possest", a poem about fake mediums. This is based on Truth in Television with Robert Browning (see below).
- A fancy séance is very prominent in Rim Of The Pit.
- In Sword of Truth, the Mud People have the power to call a gathering of ancestors. With a firm grasp on the Idiot Ball, Richard decides to become a Mud Person so he can perform such a ceremony, despite being the son of the first book's villain.
- The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones has a scene where the Ghost tries to get through to her sisters while they're messing around with a ouija board. She has trouble making the board say what she wants, partly because one of the living participants is surreptitiously steering it to say something else.
- In Watersong, Marcy convinces Harper and Alex to try holding a seance to ask the ghosts of the sirens' victims to tell them Gemma's location. She defies a lot of the normal tropes by holding it outside and during daytime, calling the others ignorant when they ask if it shouldn't be done around a table at night. The seance does manage to call some spirits which light a candle with blue flame and move some rocks, but they are unhelpful in determining Gemma's location.
- Subverted in Angel when the Wolfram & Hart psychic is called in to clear their Haunted Headquarters. She turns out to be a pretty blonde griping about missing her pilates class, who says she's going to "mutter a few calming words" to set the mood. When Fred asks if they should be Holding Hands she replies, "Only if you're lonely. Now, zip it and let me do my sweet funky." Then it gets creepy when she starts bleeding from the nose and her head explodes.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer had these in "I Only Have Eyes For You" to exorcise the school from a school ghost who shot his teacher before he met his demise and "Where The Wild Things Are" to exorcise the Lowell House from the Living Memory spirits created from the orphans' negative emotions.
- This was, of course, a staple of Dark Shadows. Resulted in Victoria being sent to the past, having been swapped with a person from that time. Odd result of a séance, but hey.
- Doctor Who:
- In "The Unquiet Dead", they hold a séance to find out what's going on. It turns out to be Energy Beings rather than actual ghosts.
- "The Name of the Doctor": Vastra's psychic cross-time "conference call" has something of this vibe, including an actual ghost (River Song, who's speaking from the Library).
- George Furth conducts one for Ruth Buzzi on The Monkees episode "A Coffin Too Frequent".
- One occurs in the second episode of Penny Dreadful. Somewhat surprisingly, given that it's being put on at a party, the medium turns out to be quite genuine, although she still ends up terrified when it turns serious. Expecting to simply be indulging a few silly Victorian socialites, she's rather overshadowed when Vanessa channels three or four different entities, not all human, none of whom are very happy with the man sitting across from her, and who let that fact be known without regard for the language or content usually expected at a society party.
- Professor Quentin E. Deverill, the protagonist of the early '80s adventure series Q.E.D., debunks a phony séance during the course of his first investigation in London. The "medium" then sics his henchmen on the Professor, which ends badly for them.
- There is one in the third episode of Ravenswood. It doesn't go well.
- A séance (the "Argelian empathic contact") occurs in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Wolf in the Fold".
- In The Suite Life of Zack and Cody episode "The Ghost in Suite 613", the cast investigates a purportedly haunted room in the Tipton and attempt to contact the ghost of a woman who died in there. It takes a spooky turn when the cast minus Zack disappears during the seance and Zack gets scared out of his mind, however it's later revealed to be nothing but a prank on him in revenge for all the pranks he's pulled.
- There is one in The X-Files episode "Closure" in which Mulder finds out what happened to his sister Samantha. In the middle of searching for a missing little girl (not Samantha), Mulder encounters a self-professed psychic, who claims that both girls were taken by "walk-ins" (read: killed) to save them from a horrible fate on earth.note This psychic begins to have visions of Samantha, as Mulder is tracing her whereabouts after her abduction, and holds the séance to help Mulder find resolution with what happened to her. The seance is successful, leading to a touching scene between Mulder and Samantha, who is revealed to be dead. However, being Mulder and Scully, the scene could not escape the show's habitual deadpan snark:
Scully: Oh, yay. A séance. I haven't done that since high school.
Mulder: Maybe afterwards we can play "postman" and "spin the bottle".
- The Beatles in "Cry Baby Cry":
At twelve o'clock a meeting 'round the table for a séance in the dark
The voices out of nowhere put on 'specially by the children for a lark
- The "Séance" mode in The Addams Family, complete with the Power disrupting the movement of the pinball.
- Call of Cthulhu.
- Mysterium: The conceit of the game is that most of the players are psychics holding a seance, while the remaining player is a ghost trying to communicate with them.
- Noël Coward's play Blithe Spirit (no relation) begins with a séance, which causes Charles's first wife to appear. Hilarity Ensues.
- In the opera The Medium by Gian Carlo Menotti, Baba (aka Madame Flora) is a Phony Psychic and alcoholic, who fakes séances with the help of her daughter and a mute boy she took in. During one of her séances, she feels an icy hand grab her throat. It is never revealed whether it was supernatural in nature, or just her imagination.
- She subsequently confesses to her clients that she was faking everything and they refuse to believe her. They think she believes she was faking but actually did contact spirits which is exactly what she's terrified of.
- The play The Thirteenth Chair by Bayard Veiller uses this as a murder mystery setup.
- A séance is held in the indie Adventure Game Ben Jordan : Case 4: Horror at Number 50.
- Dark Fall: The Journal: Jonathan Boakes's previous game, includes a ouija board through which you can ask ghosts questions.
- One of the levels in Ghost Master has a couple of college students performing a séance in the basement of a frat house. Thanks to you, they get much more than they bargained for.
- The Hound Of Shadow: This Lovecraftian Interactive Fiction game begins with one.
- The Lost Crown: One of Nigel's first experiments is a one-man séance using an upside-down teacup, that rattles around when he asks the spirits questions.
- The Room 2 devoted an entire chapter of puzzles to this concept. You end up in the room of a Phony Psychic who decided it was Real After All and then conducted a seance that probably went horribly wrong. As you solve the puzzles, flickering lights and flying objects let you know when you've hit a solution.
- One of these is part of a puzzle in Sam & Max: Beyond the Alley of the Dolls.
"Mortimer Moleman, your entrance is cued. To conquer your stage fright, just picture us nude."
- The chamber in which a medium regularly performs this trope is the setting for one chapter of The Room 2. The medium herself isn't present, but a box and cards used in her rituals is there, as is a letter scolding her for leaving her accomplice out of her latest scam.
- Ace Attorney: A formal spirit channeling is done this way. However, it's usually unnecessary and Maya often channels Mia with barely a moment's notice.
- New Danganronpa V3: In Chapter 3, a seance is held by the students in an effort to determine who killed the latest victim. It goes awry when the spirit medium gets killed too.
- On Rocko's Modern Life, Rocko and Heffer attend a séance where the fortune-teller summons Mortimer Khan (Genghis' lesser-known brother), who recognizes Heffer as the reincarnation of someone who betrayed him through incompetence and haunts him as revenge.
- On a "Treehouse of Horror" opening of The Simpsons, the titular family is conducting a séance, with Ned Flanders present, summoning the spirit of the late Maude Flanders.
- The SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Séance Schméance" has SpongeBob and Mr. Krabs holding one to uncover a long-forgotten sandwich recipe.
- Spiritualism began as a couple of kids talking to a ghost in their house, and quickly evolved into a political movement allied with the Quakers, advocating the emancipation of women, and strongly abolitionist. It was called Modern Spiritualism to distinguish it from similar practices that are Older Than Dirt. It was extremely popular between 1848 and the early 1900s. So many revolutionary discoveries were made, especially the telephone, telegraph and radio — the "Internet" of that time — that the idea of communicating with the afterlife didn't seem far fetched. Many how-to guides were written: A Guide to Mediumship is one of the most sensible. Spiritualism is also a religion, guided by principles and ideas that will be familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of New Age doctrine.
- Harry Houdini (in Real Life and in the Bio Pic Houdini) went to many Fortune Tellers and whatnot trying to communicate with his mother on The Other Side, but all were bunk and he became a semi-professional debunker.
- Conversely Arthur Conan Doyle was a great believer in spiritualism, including séances.
- Mary Todd Lincoln consulted mediums to talk with her dead children. Abe went along out of curiosity. Contrary to popular myth, Abe did not claim that spirits wrote, or persuaded him to write, the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Teenage trance medium Nettie Colburn Maynard, however, had a sitting with Lincoln in December 1862 concerning when he should sign the Proclamation into law, as advisers were pressuring him to wait. The impressively worded answer, possibly from Daniel Webster, was that Lincoln should stand by his own convictions.
- Other serious investigations of Spiritualism were made by Queen Victoria, Horace "Go west, young man" Greeley, Booth Tarkington (author of Alice Adams), Beethoven, Marie and Pierre Curie and Pierre's brother Jacques, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
- Her husband Robert Browning was less than impressed, having caught famed "rock star" medium D.D. Home red-handed two years before the incident in France described above. Browning's poem about D.D. Home's fraud is "Mr. Sludge, the Medium".
- Dan Aykroyd's family has had several mediums, including his father and grandfather. He is a committed spiritualist himself.
- Today's Spiritualist environments and practices are documented by photographer Shannon Taggert. Her forthcoming book is called Seance: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm. Here, she gives more details about her work and a little history. Christine Wicker's Lily Dale tells the story of the oldest Spiritualist camp town.