Séances are meetings that center around the work of a medium (a spirit communicator) as he or she attempts to contact spirits of the dead. The word is French for “sittings,” and its use developed from the fact that two of the most famous and earliest mediums, the Fox sisters of the mid-nineteen century, called their private spirit-contacting sessions “sittings.” Most séances have six to eight participants, who sit around a circular table holding hands.

The room generally features extremely subdued lighting because spirits are said to avoid bright lights. During these sessions, the medium might contact several spirits, or only one, known as the control, who relays messages from others in the spirit world. In modern séances, the only sign that a spirit is participating in a séance might be the fact that the medium has begun speaking in an altered voice while apparently in a trance.

In earlier séances, the spirit’s presence apparently often produced unusual effects, such as the levitation of the table, the sudden appearance of objects (also called apports), or the sound of a bell, musical instrument, or knocking coming from an unidentifiable source. During the nineteenth century several mediums were caught faking such effects, though others were never proved to be fakes despite careful, ongoing scrutiny. Nonetheless, skeptics say that darkness was established as the norm for séance rooms in order to conceal mediums’ trickery.

Some modern séances also center around the use of a Ouija board (a tool for relaying spirit messages) and/or automatic writing. In both cases the medium’s hand seems to be under the control of an unseen power, but again, skeptics consider this to be trickery.


  • The Fox sisters
  • Physical and Mental Mediums
  • Ouija Board


The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning