Those who accept the teachings of Spiritualism believe that the varied phenomena associated with a seance, such as the levitation of objects, the materialization of spirit forms, or the acquisition of information beyond the normal sensory channels, emanate from spirits of the dead. Nonspiritualists who attend seances may hold a wide variety of religious and philosophical views, but they are likely to believe that some part of their being survives physical death, and they are willing to base their hope for life eternal on the phenomena of the seance room and the messages that they receive from discarnate beings.
After the sitters have been ushered into the seance room with its subdued lighting, they are invited to be seated, generally forming a circle around a large round table. The successful medium of an established reputation
Mediums usually make it quite clear to neophyte sitters that the best manner in which to secure a demonstration of genuine spiritistic phenomena is to assure the medium of one's good will. The sitter should also let the medium know that he or she is assured of the medium's honesty and abilities. The sitter should not hurry the medium, but keep in mind that the greatest guarantee of a successful seance is the medium's serene state of mind.
Often the spirit voices of the deceased speak through a metal trumpet that has been coated with luminous paint and which floats around the seance room. At trumpet seances—almost invariably conducted in complete darkness—the horn rises, apparently lifted by spirit hands, and the voices of the departed are heard speaking through the instrument. Theoretically, these voices manifest independently from the medium. Trumpet mediums are popular at Spiritualist camps, and husband and wife teams often travel the circle of summer camps giving demonstrations. Skeptics suggest that the reason for such male and female partnerships among trumpet mediums is the simple fact that many more voice tones may be imitated by the mediums during the course of a seance.
The materialization of an old coin, a ring, a bracelet, or a semiprecious stone from the spirit world to a sitter attending a seance is called an "apport" (from the French apporter, "to bring"). According to mediums, spirit friends bring these objects from great distances to lay before the sitters. Sometimes, according to mediums, these objects come from old treasure chests that have lain lost and forgotten beneath the land or sea for ages. On other occasions, the apports are said to be items lost by owners who are now dead and presented as gifts to their living relatives in attendance at the seance.
Spirit photography is one phenomenon of the seance room which seems to function as effectively in a spontaneous situation—such as snapping a photograph in a graveyard or a haunted house—as in the trappings of the sitting room. Psychic photography is nearly as old as photography itself. Since the earliest daguerrotypes, people have been taking pictures that have shown unexplainable objects and figures in the background. The idea that such figures and objects could have originated because of some paranormal influence has been rejected by the great majority of scientists. Hazy, spectral figures have been credited to the faulty processing of film. Clearly discernible and even recognizable features on the ghostly faces have been attributed to deliberate fakery.
In the early days of photography, such skepticism was understandable because of the many steps of processing that a photograph had to undergo before it could be examined. With loading and unloading of the film and darkroom operations that sometimes took hours, the opportunities for switching the plates were so great that even the most open-minded person could not help becoming suspicious if shown the photograph of spirit forms appearing over his or her shoulder after the portrait had been taken.
Technological advances in photography have managed to eliminate many such objections and, at the same time, created many more. With modern 10-second processing of film and the use of an observer's own camera, the opportunity for trickery in the seance room has been greatly lowered. But computer technology has been able to create seamless photographs of an endless array of ghosts, phantoms, and spirit forms. Ghost sites and spirit photographs are popular on the Internet and available for scrutiny by skeptic and believer alike.
Perhaps the ultimate in seance phenomena is the materialization of a spirit form that is in some way recognizable to one or more of the sitters. This is often accomplished through the utilization of a cabinet from which the materialized spirit emerges and communicates with those gathered around the medium. Spirit cabinets may be elaborate wooden structures or they may simply be blankets strung across wires in order to give the medium some privacy while in trance.
"The miracle of materialization," Maurice Barbanell (1902–1981) writes in This Is Spiritualism (1959), "is that in a few minutes there is reproduced in the seance room the birth which normally takes nine months in the mother's womb." Numerous researchers, as well as Spiritualists, have claimed to have seen a nearly invisible cord which links the materialized spirit figure to the medium and have all made the obvious comparison to an umbilical cord.
If, indeed, disembodied spirits are capable of fashioning temporary physical bodies for their ethereal personalities, just what kind of substance could be used for such a remarkable materialization? The name that Spiritualists give to such a substance is "ectoplasm," and they contend that it is drawn from the medium's body.
Maurice Barbanell claims that ectoplasm is ideoplastic by nature, which is to suggest that it may be molded by the psychic "womb" of the medium into a representation of the human body. Barbanell gives "spirit chemists" the credit for compounding ectoplasm until it assumes a human form that "breathes, walks, and talks, and is apparently complete even to fingernails."
French researcher Dr. Charles Richet (1850–1935) christened ectoplasm in the 1920s, but Baron Albert von Schrenck Notzing (1862–1929), a German investigator of the paranormal, gained a medium's permission to "amputate" some of the material and to analyze it. He found it to be a colorless, odorless, slightly alkaline fluid with traces of skin discs, minute particles of flesh, sputum, and granulates of the mucous membrane.
Few contemporary mediums attempt to produce ectoplasmic materializations in the seance room. Today, the vast majority of seances conducted by professional mediums fit into the categories of "direct-voice" communication, during which the spirit guide speaks directly to the sitters through a medium who appears in a deep state of trance; "twilight" communication, during which the medium in a very light altered state of consciousness relays messages from the guide in a conversational exchange with the sitters; or a "reading," in which the medium in a fully conscious state presents a series of images and messages that are "shown" or "told" by spirits who have some personal connection to the sitters.
Some parapsychologists who have witnessed a wide range of the phenomena of the seance room under test conditions state that all such manifestations may be the result of conscious or unconscious fraud on the part of the medium. These researchers also point out that the intelligence exhibited by the "spirits" appears to be always on a level with that of the medium through whom they manifest.
Such critics go on to state that the spirits can be controlled by the power of suggestion and can be made to respond to questions which have no basis in reality. Many investigators have discovered that they can as readily establish communication with an imaginary person as with a real one.
Other parapsychologists accept a great deal of the phenomena of the seance room, but they deny that the source of the manifestations comes from spirits. These investigators have found that in many seances conducted under controlled conditions, the information relayed often rises far above the medium's known objective intelligence, but they argue that there are a number of ways by which the subjective mind can be elevated above the threshold of ordinary consciousness to the point where various phenomena may be produced. When mediums induce the trance state which summons the spirit control, they may sincerely believe that their physical body is possessed by an outside intelligence. When the subjective mind is operating under the suggestion that it is being controlled by the spirit of a deceased person, it can become marvelously adept at filling in the details of that person's life on Earth.
For many individuals who hold certain religious views, it is abhorrent for anyone to claim the ability to talk to the dead. At best, in this view, such claimants are frauds and charlatans. At worst, they are committing a grave sin. And if the phenomena of the seance room is really due to as-yet unknown faculties of the human mind, then the sins of mediums are doubled if they claim that manifestations originating in their subconscious come from discarnate entities.
Spiritualists will answer such charges by stating that the more conservative religions promise their congregations a life eternal, but spirit mediums offer tangible proof that the human soul does survive the act of physical death. They will assert that millions of stricken hearts have been healed by the consolation afforded by the conviction that they have truly communicated with the spirits of loved ones who have gone on before. They will argue that the sincere medium is no more a fraud than the sincere pastor, priest, or rabbi. And when parapsychologists claim that the phenomena of the seance room are controlled by the subconscious of the medium, Spiritualists insist that these researchers are basing their conclusions on a hypothesis influenced by mechanistic psychology and a materialistic society.
Parapsychologists counter by stating that the subjective mind of the medium operates under the suggestion that it is being controlled by the spirit of a deceased person. The medium has conditioned his or her subjective mind to that pervading premise by a selective education, environment, and religious beliefs; therefore, any display of paranormal abilities, such as clairvoyance, telepathy, or precognition, will be attributed to the interaction of spirit entities.