Six Ways Victorian Séances Were Not Like the Movies

Spirit Board Ouija for Spirit Communication
If you watch a lot of supernatural horror or read many gothic novels, you’ve probably encountered your fair share of séance scenes. In modern stories about supernatural terrors or paranormal adventures, a scene with a séance often marks a crucial turning point in the narrative. The séance might result in a terrifying possession, reveal a long-held secret, or unleash an undead evil into the realm of the living.

We inherited séances from the Victorians, who, despite their reputation for rigidity and prudishness, also had a voracious appetite for melodrama, mysticism, and the gothic. The Victorians founded modern spiritualism, collected reports of ghost-sightings, and held the very first séances. However, though the concept of the séance is over 170 years old, the séances that appear in modern horror novels and paranormal television shows often bear little resemblance to their Victorian predecessors. Here are six ways that Victorian séances (which were also known as “spirit circles”) differed from how they are typically represented in our modern media.

Not all séances were private affairs.
When you picture a Victorian séance, you might see a small circle of solemn people seated in a dimly lit parlor. While many Victorian spirit circles were intimate affairs held in private residences, many of the most popular Victorian mediums also demonstrated spirit communication in crowded performance halls in front of rowdy audiences. In fact, in the nineteenth century, there was an active spiritualist lecture circuit, and popular mediums traveled from town to town and venue to venue. While the smaller, private circles were more likely to be for the purpose of contacting familiar spirits, such as the deceased friends and relatives of the attendees, the public performances were usually exhibitions of channeled trance speech. The medium would enter a trance state, invite their spirit guides to speak through them, and then deliver lectures about life, death, morality, religion, politics, and the afterlife. These extraordinary displays whetted the Victorian public’s appetite for mysticism and played a key role in popularizing spiritualism throughout the 19th century, but they are rarely depicted in film or television.

Victorian séances were all about magnetism.
Victorian spiritualists were deeply influenced by 18th century theories of “animal magnetism” (which was also known as “mesmerism”). According to the principles of mesmerism, each person was believed to possess their own unique magnetic energy or vibration. It was theorized that some people’s vibrations were positively charged, while others were negatively charged. Negatively charged people were thought to be more psychically gifted and more naturally suited to mediumship and channeling.

Many of the most prominent Victorian spiritualists held that the key to a successful spirit circle was to achieve the right magnetic balance at the séance table. It was considered crucial to have both negatively and positively charged people present, preferably in equal numbers. Additionally, some influential Victorian spiritualists advised against having more than two highly skilled mediums at the same séance, warning that the intensity of their combined negative charge could overpower the rest of the table, throw off the delicate magnetic balance of the entire group, and doom the séance to failure.

Serious spirit circles were expected to meet regularly.
Serious spiritualist societies were supposed to hold regular séances to hone the group’s magnetism and develop a strong rapport with the spirit realm. Holding weekly séances also gave spiritualist groups a chance to experiment with variables and track patterns. If a spirit circle reported more phenomena on nights when a certain member was absent, then that member might find themselves disinvited from future sessions. On the other hand, if a member brought a guest and then the séance that followed was considered particularly successful, the guest might be invited to attend regularly.

Spiritualists did not always wait in suspenseful silence for phenomena.
Modern representations of séances often show the members of the circle invoking the spirits and then sitting silently in anticipation of dramatic phenomena. However, many Victorian spiritualists advised against waiting in complete silence. Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899), who worked as a professional medium and authored many spiritualist handbooks and pamphlets, suggested opening a séance with prayer or music, and then engaging in light, casual conversation while waiting for the spirits to make themselves known. Spiritualists like Britten were quick to remind their followers that spirits, much like living people, could be very sensitive to the atmosphere in a room. Britten believed that long periods of awkward silence at the séance table would unsettle the spirits and discourage them from making contact.

Séances were not supposed to be scary.
Though today we often associate séances with horror films, haunted houses, and restless spirits, 19th century spiritualist séances were not supposed to be frightening experiences. Many of the people who attended séances were recently bereaved and yearned to speak again with lost loved ones. They were in search of closure and communication, not a good scare. Other Victorians attended séances purely out of curiosity. The Victorians were living in an era of what felt like unprecedented technological transformation, and many nineteenth-century mystics characterized spirit communication as one more scientific advance in an age full of inventions and innovation. Additionally, professional mediums frequently urged curious people to try their own spiritualist experiments at home. Rather than warning off the inquisitive with ominous threats about the dangers of channeling, veteran spiritualists often encouraged amateur investigation.

Spiritualists used planchettes long before the Ouija Board was invented.
It might be hard to believe, but planchettes (the heart-shaped pointers now sold with popular spirit boards like the Ouija Board) predate the invention of the Ouija Board by several decades. Spiritualism’s advent in the late 1840s piqued the public’s interest in all kinds of psychical practices. Automatic writing became very popular, in part because it could be done alone by those who wanted to experiment in solitude. However, as forms of spiritualist inquiry grew ever more varied, some groups of spiritualists wanted to try communal automatic writing within the spirit circle. Thus, the first planchettes were invented. Those early planchettes functioned differently than the ones sold now. They were also roughly heart-shaped pieces of wood, but they were constructed so that a pencil could be mounted to them. During a séance, the members of the circle would position the planchette over paper, put their hands together on the planchette, and then write (or even draw) freehand together. It wasn’t until 1890 that the inventor of the Ouija Board developed the form of the planchette most familiar to us now. 

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