What Is a Séance? Guide to These Spiritual Gatherings

Updated July 1, 2021

When you think of séances, the concept may seem outdated, either as the elaborate productions of the Victorian-era Spiritualism movement or something a group of tweens did at a slumber party to scare themselves silly. So you might be surprised to learn that séances are still a popular way to communicate with spirits of the dead. That's right...séances are alive and well, serving as a way to bridge the gap between the living and the dead.

What Is a Séance

Séance is French word that means seat or sitting, and in Victorian and modern times, it is a gathering of people who intend to communicate with spirits. Some form of séances has occurred for thousands of years, although they didn't become formerly known as such until the mid-1800s and the dawn of the Spiritualism movement.

History of Séances

In 1848, three sisters in New York, Leah, Margaret "Maggie" and Kate Fox made sensational news with their claims to be communicating with spirits. The sisters reported that a spirit told them a body had been buried in the basement of their family home, although this wasn't proven until 1904.

The two youngest sisters, Maggie and Kate, said spirits communicated with them through rapping sounds. The girls became international celebrities and conducted séances for the rich and powerful. Older sister Leah guided her younger sisters in their mediumship. They are credited for playing a major role in the development of Spiritualism.

The movement embraced séances, and their popularity grew through the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th.

In the mid-1800s, séances were traditionally held within a circle formed by attendees known as sitters. The purpose of the circle was to create an unending field of energy to attract spirits. The circle was typically formed by sitting in chairs placed around a round or oval table. Depending on the medium, sitters could be instructed to hold hands, grasp the wrist of the person sitting to their right, or simply flatten their hands onto the table in front of them. The medium could sit in a spirit cabinet or join those at the table.

Séance Circle

Séances didn't always include a medium, which made them very popular, since most people conducted séances in their homes. These were known as home circles. Usually these were small groups of friends and family who sat around the dining table. The doors and windows of the room were closed and the lights usually turned out or a candle lit to provide some light in the room.

Those sitting in the circle would attempt to contact the spirit world and ask questions. Many people reported raps, moans, and other sounds during the séance. Sometimes, a person within the circle might emerge as a gifted medium.

Early Rules for Holding Séances

How a circle was conducted often depended on the medium. Some required the sitters to hold hands in order to build up the energy in the room for the spirit to use to manifest. Other mediums forbade the sitters from touching each other, requesting that they face the table so they were all looking at the center of the circle.

There were specific guidelines followed for holding a séance:

  • The séance was opened with prayers and hymns.
  • Low lighting was vital to success.
  • The number of sitters should include a balanced mix of males and females.
  • Newbies must be limited in numbers within the group to maintain a good balance of energy and experience.
  • Younger participants were thought to have strong psychic energy.
  • Skeptics were discouraged from attending since their energy decreased the success ratio.
  • Sitters should never grab or do anything to jar the medium (if one was present) out of trance or channeling.

A safeguard against becoming obsessed with spiritual contact was put in place by restricting group meetings to no more than two or three a week, with no more than two hours duration for each one.

Holding a Séance Today

While they are less popular today than they were in the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, people still hold séances today. This is often done in the presence of a medium, but it isn't necessary as long as you've gathered a group of open-minded individuals seeking to communicate. There are methods you can use for holding your own séance.

Séances, Mediums, and Spirits

There is a rich history of mediums communicating with spirits by conducting a séance. While many were outed as fakes, many others rose to celebrity status and were sought out by powerful people. The need to communicate with deceased loved ones is a powerful and driving force that is just as prevalent in modern society as it was during the heydays of Spiritualism and séances.

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What Is a Séance? Guide to These Spiritual Gatherings