A sйance involves a group of people who come together in order to
communicate with spirits or to produce and witness paranormal phenomena.
A professional medium is usually, but not always, present.
Because of a long-standing association between disembodied spirits
and demons, people regarded sйances as diabolical activities. They
viewed them as situations in which “sitters” (those attending the
sйance) contacted agents of the devil—agents who merely pretended
to be the spirits of departed loved ones.
References to sйance-type communications go back as far as the
third-century neo-Platonist Porphyry; a candidate for the earliest book
to record a sйance may be Meric Casaubon’s A True and Faithful Relation
of What Passed between Dr. Dee and Some Spirits (1659). Few written
works concerned this topic until the time of the mediums Kate
and Margaret Fox and the early Spiritualism movement of the midnineteenth
century, when the popularity of such gatherings boomed.
Sйances are still popular today, although twentieth-century gatherings
usually feature mental mediumship. Nineteenth-century sйances were
often more dramatic, focusing on phenomena associated with physical
mediumship, such as ringing bells and objects floating through the air.
Sйances usually, though not always, take place in the home of one
of the participants or of a professional psychic called a medium. Home
circles were a type of popular sйance in the past. They frequently did
not involve a medium, which helped make Spiritualism a popular
movement in the nineteenth century that extended well beyond spiritualist
denominational boundaries. When mediums were present, certain
guidelines were followed to increase the probability of successful
communications. For instance, sitters, it was believed, should include
an even mix of males and females, and they should sit in a circular
pattern. Younger participants supposedly had more psychic energy,
and the presence of skeptics decreased the likelihood of successful
spiritual communications. Sitters must also respect the medium by not
grabbing or jarring her or him.
Another guideline was that people new to sйances should be limited
in number within a regularly meeting circle. To avoid becoming
too obsessed with spiritual contacts, groups restricted meetings to two
or three per week and, under normal circumstances, they lasted two
hours or less.
Like the ceremonies in contemporary spiritualist churches, such
gatherings often begin with prayers and hymns to set the proper mood.
Low lighting, it is claimed, is also necessary. Skeptics in the early years
naturally felt that this particular condition served only to help the
medium fake phenomena through various tricks. In the nineteenth
century, when the fantastic phenomena associated with physical
mediumship characterized sйances, drafts of cool air, rapping noises (a
specialty of the Fox sisters), and strange lights signaled the arrival of
discarnate entities. Contemporary mental mediums have dispensed
with such dramatic manifestations.