A small group of people are sitting at a round table, holding hands, and somewhere in the group sits the medium, invoking the spirit of someone from beyond the grave.
The typical Hollywood séance. But where did the idea come from and how does it work?
Attempting communication with the dead is an idea that is as old as humans themselves, but it would be on March 31, 1848, that two young girls in Hydesville, New York would start an actual movement of spirit communication.
Kate and Margaretta Fox were the daughters of a farmer living in a small wooden house in Hydesville when they heard a strange rapping on their walls. The sisters soon learned that the rapping would respond to questions, and that they were allegedly communicating with the spirit of a peddler who was murdered on the property years earlier.
Kate and Margaretta’s other sister, Leah, was enterprising and began charging the curious public a fee to witness and participate in the phenomenon for themselves. It wasn’t long before the Fox sisters would catch the attention of P.T. Barnum. Barnum encouraged the girls to take their mediumship on the road. Apparently, the girls developed their skills to be able to communicate with spirits anywhere.
As word spread, others also claimed to have this medium ability, and the séance would be born. The actual word "séance" comes from the French séance meaning "seat, session," and from the Old French seoir meaning "to sit." The term was briefly used to mean a gathering of a legislative body, but around the mid-1800s it was adopted as a term to describe communication with spirits.
Séances and the idea of spirit communication have evolved since the days of the Fox sisters. I recently spoke with Jeffrey Wands, a Long Island, New York-based intuitive who can be heard monthly on the radio station 97.5 WALK FM. Wands has been providing psychic readings full-time since 1990, and he had some insight to the practice: "You go from the old-time kind of Hollywood medium where you sit at the table, to the spiritualist churches where the medium goes into what is called the medium box and they’re able to get messages from the box, and then you have trumpet mediumship — all different things.
"Now, because of John [Edward] and people like [James] Van Praagh, it’s more about going into a room with a group of people and just kind of being pulled on a bungee chord to that particular person. That’s how much it’s evolved and changed."
Jeffrey Wands’s clientele includes a wide array of people from many different walks of life. He has done readings for everyone from family members of September 11th victims to celebrities and businessmen. Of course, celebrities and politicians seeking the guidance and comfort of mediums is nothing new. "Abraham Lincoln’s wife was very into the whole idea of contacting the dead because they had lost a child. And they used to have regular séances at the White House," Wands said.
Today, mediums like Jeffrey Wands don’t need to climb into a box or gaze into a crystal ball. He described the way he connects with spirits: "Usually what they [the spirits] will do is give a validation. So they’ll show me a particular date that’s very significant — they’ll show me a birthday, they may give me a name — something that applies to something in my life.
"A classic example: I sat with a woman who lost her son, Christopher. They kept showing me my son. My son’s name is Christopher. In other words, they’ll show me something that I can relate to."
When Jeffrey Wands was on the Maury show, the show’s producers selected three instances of people who suffered a tragic loss. One woman was having a very difficult time with the loss of her children. Wands said, "I did a reading with two children that were burned in a fire, and the mother had this tremendous guilt about the way these kids died. I was able to bring messages through from different relatives to let her know that the kids were okay. You want people to go through some sort of process, because it will help them understand that there is no death in the sense of the way we know it. It helps them come more to terms with things."
Wands’s motivation seems heavily rooted in helping people — whether they are alive or have already passed on. He explained, "With the people [spirits] that I see, I want to make sure that they’re at peace. And I want to make sure that the people that are alive are at peace."
For Wands, the term "séance" is outdated and is not a term he uses. This is because the word conjures up images of the old round table. The reality is, the idea is still the same: spirit communication.
Jeffrey Wands also believes this mediumship ability is in all of us, but we don’t all know how to tap into it. "The idea is connecting with your higher self. I think people have become more aware of signs. Now you’re going to get a lot more signs where before we would ignore them. There are tons of signs that take place with people," Wands said.
I miss my grandfather terribly — he passed on about a year and a half ago — and the day after his death, I asked him out loud for a sign that he was okay. Less than one second later, I heard a car outside honk a friendly toot-toot. My grandfather was notorious for honking and waving to nobody in particular while he was driving. I immediately took that as my sign, and I remember laughing and crying at the same time. If the séance and spirit communication are what some people need for closure with their deceased loved ones, then the practice is as viable as the funeral rites we practice today.