AskDefine | Define seance

Dictionary Definition

seance n : a meeting of spiritualists; "the seance was held in the medium's parlor" [syn: sitting, session]

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Alternative spellings


(US) IPA: /ˈseɪˌɑns/


  1. see séance

Extensive Definition

For Swedish Death metal band, see Seance (band).
For the album by The Church, see Seance (album).
A séance () is an attempt to communicate with spirits. The word "séance" comes from the French word for "seat," "session" or "sitting," from the Old French "seoir," "to sit." In French, the word's meaning is quite general: one may, for example, speak of "une séance de cinéma" ("a movie session"). In English, however, the word came to be used specifically for a meeting of people who are gathered to receive messages from ghosts or spirits or to listen to a spirit medium discourse with or relay messages from spirits; in modern English usage, participants need not be seated while engaged in a séance.
One of the earliest books on the subject of communication amongst deceased persons was Dialogues with the Dead by George, First Baron Lyttleton, published in England in 1760. Among the notable spirits quoted in this volume are Peter the Great, Pericles, a "North-American Savage," William Penn, and Christina Queen of Sweden. The popularity of séances grew dramatically with the founding of the religion of Spiritualism in the mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps the best-known series of séances conducted at that time were those of Mary Todd Lincoln who, grieving the loss of her son, organized Spiritualist séances in the White House, which were attended by her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, and other prominent members of society. The 1887 Seybert Commission report marred the credibility of Spiritualism at the height of its popularity by publishing exposures of fraud and showmanship among secular séance leaders. . Contemporary séances continue to be a part of the religious services of Spiritualist, Spiritist, and Espiritismo churches today, where a greater emphasis is placed on spiritual values versus showmanship. Generally Spiritualist "message services" or "demonstrations of the continuity of life" are open to the public. Sometimes the medium stands to receive messages and only the sitter is seated ; in some churches, the message service is preceded by a "healing service" involving some form of faith healing.
In addition to communicating with the spirits of people who have a personal relationship to congregants, some Spiritual Churches also deal with spirits who may have a specific relationship to the medium or a historic relationship to the body of the church. An example of the latter is the spirit of Blackhawk, a Native American warrior of the Fox tribe who lived during the 19th century. Blackhawk was a spirit who was often contacted by the Spiritualist medium Leafy Anderson and he remains the central focus of special services in the African American Spiritual Churches that she founded.
In the Latin American religion of Espiritismo, which somewhat resembles Spiritualism, séance sessions in which congregants communicate with spirits are called misas (literally "masses"). The spirits contacted in Espiritismo are often those of ancestors or Catholic saints.

Stage mediumship séances

Mediums who contact spirits of the dead or other spirits while on a stage, with audience members seated before them, are not literally holding a "séance", because they themselves are not seated; however, the term "séance" has been applied to their activities. One of the foremost early practitioners of this type of contact with the dead was Paschal Beverly Randolph, who worked with the spirits of the relatives of audience members, but was also famed for his ability to contact and deliver messages from ancient seers and philosophers, such as Plato.

Leader-assisted séances

Leader-assisted séances are generally conducted by small groups of people, with participants seated around a table in a dark or semi-dark room. The leader is typically asserted to be a medium and he or she may go into a trance that theoretically allows the spirits to communicate through his or her body, conveying messages to the other participants. Other modes of communication may also be attempted, including automatic writing, numbered raps, levitation of the table or of spirit trumpets, apports, or even smell.
This is the type of séance that is most often the subject of shock and scandal when it turns out that the leader is practicing some form of stage magic illusion or using mentalism tricks to defraud clients.

Informal social séances

Among those with an interest in the occult, a tradition has grown up of conducting séances outside of any religious context and without a leader. Sometimes only two or three people are involved, and, if they are young, they may be using the séance as a way to test their understanding of the boundaries between reality and the paranormal. It is in such small séances that the planchette and ouija board are most often utilized.

Séance tools and techniques

Mediumship, trance, and channeling

Mediumship is the term used to describe the reception of messages from spirits of the dead and other spirits. Some mediums are fully conscious and awake while functioning as contacts; others may slip into a partial or full trance or an altered state of consciousness. Trance-mediums often state that, when they emerge from the trance state, they have no recollection of the messages they conveyed; it is customary for such practitioners to work with an assistant who writes down or otherwise records their words.
"Channeling" is a modern term for mediumship and is found most often in descriptions of stage mediums and leader-assisted séances who convey messages from spirits who are thought to be teachers of wisdom. Channeling is a process by which the medium allows a spirit limited use of his or her physical body to communicate with the sitters present. This is distinct from the concept of possession, which is considered to be the complete, non-consensual takeover of a living being by a spirit. Channeling, on the other hand, is assumed to offer opportunities for more positive and mutually respectful interaction between the living medium and the spirit.

Spirit boards, talking boards, and Ouija boards

Spirit boards, also known as talking boards, or Ouija boards (after a well known brand name) are flat tablets, typically made of wood, Masonite, chipboard, or plastic. On the board are a number of symbols, pictures, letters, numbers and/or words. The board is accompanied by a planchette (French for "little table"), which can take the form of a pointer on three legs or magnifying glass on legs; home made boards may employ a shot glass as a planchette. A most basic Ouija board would contain simply the alphabet of whatever country the board is being used in, although it is not uncommon for whole words to be added.
The board is used as follows: One to all of the participants in the séance place one or two fingers on the planchette which is in the middle of the board. The appointed medium asks questions of the spirit(s) with whom they are attempting to communicate.

Trumpets, slates, tables, and cabinets

During the latter half of the 19th century, a number of Spiritualist mediums began to advocate the use of specialized tools for conducting séances, particularly in leader-assisted sessions conducted in darkened rooms. "Spirit trumpets" were horn-shaped speaking tubes that were said to magnify the whispered voices of spirits to audible range. "Spirit slates" consisted of two chalkboards bound together that, when opened, were said to reveal messages written by spirits. "Séance tables" were special light-weight tables which were said to rotate, float, or levitate when spirits were present. "Spirit cabinets" were portable closets into which mediums were placed, often bound with ropes, in order to prevent them from manipulating the various aforementioned tools.
The exposure of supposed mediums whose use of séance tools derived from the techniques of stage magic has been disturbing to many believers in spirit communication. In particular, the 1870s exposures of the Davenport Brothers as illusionists and the 1887 report of the Seybert Commission . brought an end to the first historic phase of Spiritualism. Stage magicians like John Neville Maskelyne and Harry Houdini made a side-line of exposing fraudulent mediums during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1976, M. Lamar Keene described deceptive techniques that he himself had used in séances; however, in the same book, Keene also stated that he still had a firm belief in God, life after death, ESP, and other psychic phenomena., while believers have tended to eliminate the use of tools but continued to practice mediumship in full confidence of its spiritual value to them. but that the Bible specifically forbids contact with spirits, and they cite Biblical verses to support their belief.
Critics of channeling—including both skeptics and those who do believe in spirits—state that since the most commonly-reported physical manifestations of channeling are an unusual vocal pattern or abnormal overt behaviors of the medium, channeling is therefore quite easily faked by anyone with theatrical talent.
Critics of spirit board communication techniques—again including both skeptics and those who do believe in spirits—state that the premise that a spirit will move the planchette and spell out messages using the symbols on the boards is undermined by the fact that several people have their hands on the planchette, which allows one of the people to spell out anything they want without the others knowing. They claim that this is a common trick used on occasions such as sleepover parties to scare the people present.
Another criticism of spirit board communication involves what is called the ideomotor effect which has been suggested as an automatism, or subconscious mechanism, by which a Ouija-user's mind unknowingly guides his hand upon the planchette, hence he will honestly believe he is not moving it, when, in fact, he is. This theory rests on the embedded premise that human beings actually have a "subconscious mind," a belief not held by all people.

Notable séance mediums, attendees, and debunkers


Popular 19th century trance medium lecturers include Cora Scott Hatch, Achsa W. Sprague, Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899), and Paschal Beverly Randolph(1825-1875).
Among the notable people who conducted small leader-assisted séances during the 19th century were the Fox sisters, whose activities included table-rapping, and the Davenport Brothers, who were famous for the spirit cabinet work. Both the Foxes and the Davenports were eventually exposed as frauds.


Notable people who have attended séances and professed a belief in Spiritualism include the United States President Abraham Lincoln, and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln; the social reformer Robert Owen; the journalist and pacifist William T. Stead ; Mackenzie King, the Prime Minister of Canada for 22 years, who sought spiritual contact and political guidance from his deceased mother, his pet dogs, and the late US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ; the journalist and author Lloyd Kenyon Jones; and the physician and author Arthur Conan Doyle.
Scientists have conducted a search for real séances and believed that contact with the dead is a reality include the chemist William Crookes, the evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, the inventor of radio Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of telephony Alexander Graham Bell, and the inventor of television technology John Logie Baird, who claimed to have contacted the spirit of the inventor Thomas Alva Edison


Among the best known exposers of fraudulent mediumship acts have been the researchers Frank Podmore of the Society for Psychical Research, Harry Price of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, the professional stage magicians John Nevil Maskelyne (who exposed the Davenport Brothers) and Harry Houdini, who clearly stated that he did not oppose the religion of Spiritualism itself, but only the trickery by phony mediums that was being practiced in the name of the religion.

Séances in the media

Most books and movies that have used séances in their plots have presented them negatively, as hoaxes; in several of the dramas listed below an obviously fraudulent medium puts on a séance featuring faked physical mediumship, only to discover, to his or her discomfiture, that spirits do exist -- or seem to.


  • Planchette is a 1906 short story by Jack London that deals with the outcome of a secular séance that is held for fun, but has tragic consequences.
  • The Séance is a 2007 supernatural detective novel by Heather Graham in which a medium is contacted by the ghost of an ex-police detective who was accused of crimes his spirit says he did not commit. ISBN 0778324656


  • Supernatural is a 1933 horror drama starring Carole Lombard as an heiress, Allan Dinehart as a fake medium who conducts a séance that includes apparitions of Lombard's dead twin brother, and H.B. Warner as a psychologist who is studying life after death.
  • The Thirteenth Chair is a 1937 crime drama in which Dame May Whitty plays a woman in colonial India who holds a séance to prove that her daughter is not a murderer.
  • Religious Racketeers (also released as The Mystic Circle Murders) is a 1939 crime drama that centers around spurious mediumship. It features a cameo appearance by Wilhelmina "Bess" Houdini, billed in the film as "Mrs. Harry Houdini".
  • The Amazing Mr. X (also released as The Spiritualist) is a 1948 thriller, in which Turhan Bey plays a fraudulent medium who is himself subjected to a deadly con game.
  • The Medium is a 1951 drama film written and directed by Gian Carlo Menotti in which a medium, played by Marie Powers, is terrified by events that take place at one of her séances. It received an Academy Award nomination.
  • Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a 1964 horror film in which Kim Stanley plays a fake medium in London who tries to convince her husband to kidnap a child so that she can gain fame by solving the crime "psychically". It received an Academy Award nomination.
  • A Balinese Trance Séance is a short 1981 documentary on mediumship in Bali, directed by Patsy Asch, Timothy Asch, and Linda Conner.
  • Ghost is a 1990 drama in which Whoopi Goldberg plays a con artist medium conducting fake séances for money, who discovers she really can talk to the dead.

Video games

  • MySims - In this game, the player can sometimes join spooky characters in a séance to summon a ghost, Cassandra, whom the player can befriend.
seance in German: Séance
seance in Italian: Seduta spiritica
seance in Hebrew: העלאה באוב
seance in Japanese: 交霊術
seance in Swedish: Seans
seance in Turkish: Seans
seance in Yiddish: אוב
seance in Chinese: 降神会

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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