The History of Séances and Spiritualism: A Comprehensive Overview

  • By: Timothy Rose
  • Date: 5 February 2024
  • Time to read: 10 min.

Séances and spiritualism have a long and fascinating history, dating back to the mid-19th century. At their core, séances are gatherings of people who attempt to communicate with the dead, often through the use of a medium. Spiritualism, on the other hand, is a belief system that posits the existence of spirits and the possibility of communication with them.

The roots of spiritualism can be traced back to the Fox sisters, who claimed to have communicated with the spirit of a murdered peddler in 1848. Their claims sparked a wave of interest in spiritualism, and soon séances were being held across the United States and Europe. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spiritualism became a popular movement, attracting millions of followers who sought to communicate with loved ones who had passed away.

Despite its popularity, spiritualism has been the subject of controversy and skepticism throughout its history. Many critics have accused mediums of fraud, and some have argued that séances are little more than elaborate parlor tricks. Nevertheless, the practice of séances and spiritualism continues to this day, with believers and skeptics alike seeking answers from beyond the grave.

Origins of Spiritualism

Spiritualism is a religious movement that began in the mid-19th century in the United States. Its origins can be traced back to the experiences of the Fox sisters, who claimed to have communicated with the spirit of a murdered man in their home in Hydesville, New York in 1848. This event sparked a wave of interest in spiritualism, which quickly spread throughout the country and eventually to Europe.

The Fox sisters’ claims were not unique, however. Spiritualism was influenced by various religious and philosophical traditions, including Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism, and Transcendentalism. Mesmerism, which was popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, involved the use of hypnosis and suggestion to induce trance states. Swedenborgianism was a Christian sect founded by Emanuel Swedenborg, who claimed to have had visions of heaven and hell. Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement that emphasized the importance of intuition, individualism, and spiritual experience.

Spiritualism became a popular movement in the United States and Europe during the mid-19th century, attracting people from all walks of life. Mediums, who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead, held séances and other spiritualist gatherings where they would attempt to contact spirits. Spiritualism also became associated with various social and political causes, including abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and temperance.

Despite its popularity, spiritualism was often criticized for its lack of scientific evidence and its potential for fraud. Nevertheless, the movement continued to grow throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, influencing various aspects of culture and society. Today, spiritualism remains a significant religious movement, with adherents around the world.

Famous Figures in Spiritualism

The Fox Sisters

The Fox Sisters, consisting of three sisters, Leah, Margaret, and Kate, were instrumental in popularizing Spiritualism in the mid-19th century. They claimed to have communicated with the spirit world through rapping noises and were known for their public demonstrations of their abilities. Their fame led to the establishment of the Spiritualist movement in the United States and Europe.

Spiritual Pioneers: The Fox Sisters and the Séance that Shaped a Movement
Spiritual Pioneers: The Fox Sisters and the Séance that Shaped a Movement

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the famous Sherlock Holmes series, was a strong believer in Spiritualism. He was introduced to it by a friend and became an advocate for the movement, even writing several books on the subject. Doyle believed that Spiritualism was a way to communicate with the dead and that it offered comfort to those who had lost loved ones.

Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini, the famous magician and escape artist, was initially a believer in Spiritualism but later became a skeptic. He was known for his efforts to expose fraudulent mediums and their tricks. Houdini believed that many Spiritualists were using their abilities to deceive people and make money. He even offered a reward to anyone who could demonstrate genuine supernatural powers, but the reward was never claimed.

Overall, these three figures played a significant role in the development and popularization of Spiritualism. While their beliefs and actions varied, they all contributed to the movement in their own way.

Séance Practices and Tools

Séances are gatherings where people attempt to communicate with the spirits of the dead. Spiritualists believe that the spirits can provide guidance, comfort, and closure to the living. Séances have been conducted for centuries and have evolved over time. In this section, we will explore some of the common practices and tools used during séances.


Table-tipping is a technique used to communicate with spirits. Participants sit around a table and place their hands on it. They then ask the spirits to move the table in response to their questions. The table may move in different ways, such as tilting or spinning, to indicate a yes or no answer. This technique was popular during the 19th century and is still used today.

Spirit Cabinet

Whispers from Beyond: Inside the Enigmatic Spirit Cabinet
Whispers from Beyond: Inside the Enigmatic Spirit Cabinet

A spirit cabinet is a small enclosed space used during séances. The medium sits inside the cabinet and communicates with the spirits. The cabinet is usually draped with curtains to create a dark and mysterious atmosphere. The spirits may appear as apparitions or speak through the medium’s voice. This technique was popular during the Victorian era and is still used today.

Ouija Boards

Ouija boards are a popular tool used during séances to communicate with spirits. The board has letters, numbers, and symbols printed on it. Participants place their hands on a planchette, which moves around the board to spell out messages from the spirits. Ouija boards have been controversial, with some people believing that they can attract negative spirits or even demons.

Overall, séance practices and tools have evolved over time, but the goal remains the same: to communicate with the spirits of the dead. While some people believe in the power of séances, others remain skeptical. Regardless of one’s beliefs, séances continue to fascinate and intrigue people around the world.

Scientific Investigation of Séances

The Society for Psychical Research

In the late 19th century, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in London to investigate paranormal phenomena, including séances and spiritualism. The SPR conducted many experiments and investigations, and published their findings in numerous reports and journals.

One of the most famous investigations conducted by the SPR was into the mediumship of Leonora Piper. Over a period of several years, the SPR conducted numerous sittings with Piper and carefully documented the information that was allegedly communicated from the spirits of deceased individuals. While some skeptics questioned the validity of the experiments, many researchers believed that the evidence strongly suggested the existence of an afterlife.

Harry Price’s Work

In the early 20th century, Harry Price became one of the most prominent investigators of psychic phenomena. Price conducted numerous experiments and investigations into séances, and was particularly interested in exposing fraudulent mediums.

One of Price’s most famous investigations was into the mediumship of Rudi Schneider. Schneider was known for producing physical phenomena during séances, such as levitating objects and materializations. However, Price suspected that Schneider was using trickery to produce these effects, and conducted a series of experiments to try to catch Schneider in the act.

The Scole Experiment

In the 1990s, a group of researchers conducted a series of séances in a small village in England known as Scole. The group, which included mediums and scientists, claimed to have made contact with a variety of spirits and entities, and produced a number of physical phenomena, such as levitating objects and materializations.

The Scole Experiment was highly controversial, with some researchers claiming that the phenomena were genuine, and others accusing the group of fraud. Despite the controversy, the Scole Experiment remains one of the most well-known and studied séance investigations in history.

Criticism and Skepticism

Exposure of Frauds

Séances and spiritualism have been criticized for their susceptibility to fraud. Many mediums have been exposed as charlatans who use trickery to deceive their clients. The exposure of frauds has led to a decline in the popularity of séances and spiritualism in the early 20th century.

Magicians on Spiritualism

Magicians have also been critical of spiritualism, as they believe that the tricks used by mediums are nothing more than simple magic tricks. Some magicians, such as Harry Houdini, went as far as to expose fraudulent mediums and their tricks to the public. Houdini even offered a cash prize to any medium who could perform a genuine supernatural feat, but no one ever claimed the prize.

Psychological Explanations

Psychologists have offered various explanations for the phenomena observed in séances, such as the ideomotor effect, where unconscious movements of the body can be attributed to spiritual forces. They also suggest that mediums may be using cold reading techniques to gather information about their clients, which they then use to make vague and general statements that seem to be accurate.

In conclusion, while séances and spiritualism have their supporters, they have also been subject to criticism and skepticism. The exposure of frauds, the criticism from magicians, and the psychological explanations offered by psychologists have all contributed to the decline in the popularity of séances and spiritualism.

Spiritualism in Popular Culture

Literature and Film

Uncanny Encounters: The Haunting Mystery of 'The Turn of the Screw
Uncanny Encounters: The Haunting Mystery of ‘The Turn of the Screw

Spiritualism has been a popular theme in literature and film for many years. One of the most famous examples is the book “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, which tells the story of a governess who believes that the children in her care are being haunted by ghosts. Another well-known example is the movie “Ghost,” which tells the story of a man who is murdered and comes back to communicate with his girlfriend through a medium.

Television and Media

Spiritualism has also been featured in many television shows and other media. One of the most famous examples is the TV show “Medium,” which follows the life of a psychic who helps the police solve crimes. Another popular example is the movie “The Sixth Sense,” which tells the story of a young boy who can see and communicate with ghosts.

In addition to these examples, spiritualism has also been featured in many other forms of popular culture, including music, art, and even video games. Its continued presence in popular culture is a testament to the enduring fascination that people have with the idea of communicating with the dead and the supernatural.

Modern Spiritualism

Spiritualism has continued to evolve and adapt in the modern era, with new practices and beliefs emerging alongside traditional ones. Here are some of the ways in which spiritualism is practiced today:

Contemporary Séance Practices

While traditional séances involved a group of people sitting in a dark room waiting for spirits to communicate with them, modern séance practices have become more varied and personalized. Some people choose to hold séances in their own homes, using tools like spirit boards or pendulums to communicate with spirits. Others attend organized séances led by mediums who claim to be able to connect with the spirit world.

Spiritualist Churches

Spiritualist churches have also evolved since their inception in the mid-1800s. Today, they may offer a range of services including healing, meditation, and psychic readings. Many spiritualist churches also hold regular services where mediums deliver messages from the spirit world to the congregation.

New Age Movement

The New Age movement, which emerged in the 1960s and 70s, has also influenced modern spiritualism. New Age beliefs often incorporate spiritualist ideas, such as the existence of an afterlife and the ability to communicate with spirits. Practices like crystal healing, chakra balancing, and aura reading have also become popular among New Age practitioners.

Overall, modern spiritualism continues to be a diverse and evolving movement, with a range of practices and beliefs that reflect the changing attitudes and needs of its followers.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the origins of Spiritualism in the 19th century?

Spiritualism emerged in the United States in the mid-19th century, sparked by the Fox sisters’ claims of communicating with the dead. The movement spread rapidly, with believers gathering in séances to communicate with spirits.

How did Victorian era séances contribute to the practice of Spiritualism?

Victorian era séances, which were often held in dimly lit rooms with participants holding hands around a table, popularized the practice of Spiritualism and helped to establish its rituals and beliefs. Séances became a way for people to connect with their deceased loved ones and receive messages from the spirit world.

What distinguishes Spiritualism from traditional Christian beliefs?

Spiritualism emphasizes the belief in communication with spirits, including the souls of the deceased. It also places less emphasis on traditional religious texts and dogma, instead promoting the idea of individual spiritual exploration and growth.

Why did Spiritualism gain popularity during the Victorian period?

The Victorian era was characterized by a fascination with death and the afterlife, as well as a growing interest in scientific and spiritual exploration. Spiritualism offered a way for people to connect with the spirit world and find comfort in the idea of an afterlife.

How has the practice of Espiritismo evolved from traditional Spiritualism?

Espiritismo, a form of Spiritualism that originated in Latin America, incorporates elements of African, indigenous, and Christian spiritual beliefs. It places a greater emphasis on healing and the use of mediums as a means of communicating with spirits.

What factors contributed to the widespread interest in Spiritism in Brazil?

Spiritism gained popularity in Brazil in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, due in part to the country’s history of syncretism and its embrace of spiritual beliefs from a variety of cultures. Additionally, Spiritism’s emphasis on social justice and its rejection of traditional Catholicism appealed to many Brazilians.

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