1 July 2024

The Mechanics Behind Seance Room Tricks: A Skeptical Examination


By Jon Donnis

The seance room has long been a place of intrigue and mystery, where spiritualist mediums claim to bridge the gap between the living and the dead. Despite the dramatic and often convincing displays of supernatural phenomena, a skeptical examination reveals a range of tricks and illusions that explain these occurrences without invoking the paranormal. This article will explore some of the common techniques used by mediums to create the illusion of spirit activity, such as making spirit trumpets fly, manifesting apparitions, and creating the effect of disembodied hands.

Spirit Trumpets and Levitation
Spirit trumpets are cone-shaped devices purportedly used by spirits to amplify their voices during seances. Mediums often claim that these trumpets levitate and move around the room on their own, guided by supernatural forces. However, the mechanics behind this phenomenon can be explained through sleight of hand and simple physical principles.

Invisible Threads and Extendable Rods: Mediums often use fine, nearly invisible threads or wires to control the movement of the trumpets. These threads can be attached to the trumpet and manipulated by the medium or an accomplice to create the illusion of levitation. The threads are typically made from materials like nylon, which are difficult to see in low light conditions. Sometimes however it is even easier than that, a simple extending rod, connected to the "Trumpet", can make the Trumpet appear to fly high to the ceiling, and at fast speeds, in a pitch black or near pitch black environment, the Trump will have glow in the dark tape attached to it, which further enhances the illusion. 

Darkness and Misdirection: Seances are typically held in dimly lit if not completely pitch black rooms, which makes it easier to conceal the use of threads or other mechanical devices. The darkness also allows the medium to use misdirection to distract participants' attention away from the true source of the movement.

Mechanical Devices: In some cases, mediums use specially designed trumpets with hidden mechanisms, such as springs or small motors, to create movement and sound. These devices can be activated remotely or through subtle manipulations by the medium.

Apparitions and Manifestations
The appearance of ghostly figures and apparitions is one of the most dramatic elements of a seance. While these manifestations can be highly convincing, they are often the result of clever stagecraft and illusion.

Pepper's Ghost: A classic theatrical illusion known as Pepper's Ghost involves projecting an image onto a transparent screen, creating the appearance of a ghostly figure. This technique can be adapted for use in a seance room, with hidden mirrors and light sources projecting an image of a supposed spirit, although in the modern era this is quiet a rare trick.

Costumes and Props: Mediums or their accomplices may don costumes and use props to create the appearance of a ghost. They may enter the room silently and position themselves in a way that makes them appear to materialize out of thin air. The dim lighting and participants' heightened suggestibility make it easier to pull off this illusion.

Smoke and Mirrors: Using smoke or fog to obscure parts of the room can enhance the illusion of an apparition. Mirrors strategically placed around the room can reflect light and images in ways that make it difficult for participants to discern what they are actually seeing.

Disembodied Hands and Touches
The sensation of being touched by invisible hands or seeing disembodied hands moving objects is another common feature of seances. These effects are typically achieved through physical manipulation and sleight of hand.

Accomplices: Hidden accomplices can be positioned around the room to touch participants or move objects. These individuals are often seated in places where they can easily reach out without being seen, taking advantage of the darkness and participants' focus on the medium.

Fake Hands: Mediums may use fake hands or gloves filled with a lightweight material to create the illusion of disembodied hands. These props can be moved using invisible threads or by the medium's own hands, concealed under a table or behind a curtain.

Psychological Suggestion: The power of suggestion plays a significant role in creating the sensation of being touched by invisible hands. Participants in a seance are often highly suggestible and primed to believe in supernatural phenomena. The medium can exploit this by subtly suggesting that a spirit is present and will touch someone, causing participants to interpret any light touch or breeze as a ghostly encounter.

The Psychic Escape:
One popular seance trick involves the medium being tied to a chair and placed behind a screen or curtain, sometimes this is done to convince the people present that the medium is not the one creating the movement of the spirit trumpet, or manipulating other effects, sometimes the escaping of the bonds and "matter through matter" is done to convince people the psychic has certain powers. Here's a look at some of the techniques that may be used to achieve this illusion.

1. Preparation of the Bonds
The ropes or bindings used to secure the medium are often prepared in advance with subtle modifications. These can include:

Slip Knots: Knots that appear secure but can be easily undone with a quick pull.
Hidden Loops: Extra loops or slack hidden within the bindings that allow the medium to free themselves with minimal effort.

Gimmicked Ropes: Special ropes with internal mechanisms or elastic properties that make them appear tight but can be stretched or manipulated easily.

2. Sleight of Hand and Misdirection
Magicians and mediums alike rely on misdirection to draw attention away from their escape methods. During a seance, the room's lighting, the medium's assistants, or even sudden noises can serve as distractions.

Assistant's Role: An accomplice might create a diversion at a critical moment, allowing the medium to slip free unnoticed.

Subtle Movements: The medium might use small, inconspicuous movements to gradually loosen their bonds without attracting attention.

3. Hidden Tools and Gadgets
Mediums often have access to concealed tools that aid in their escape.

Concealed Keys or Blades: Small, hidden cutting tools or keys can be used to free themselves from handcuffs or ropes.

Fake Chairs or Screens: Specially constructed chairs or screens with hidden openings or compartments can facilitate a quick escape. Ever wondered why the medium likes to sit on an old wooden arm chair? Those arms come loose you know!

4. Manipulating the Environment
The seance room itself is often arranged to support the medium's illusion.

Controlled Lighting: Dim lighting or strategically placed candles create shadows and reduce visibility, making it easier for the medium to move unnoticed.

Sound Effects: The use of sudden noises or music can mask the sounds of the medium's movements.

While the phenomena witnessed in seance rooms can be captivating and convincing, a skeptical examination reveals that these effects are typically the result of clever tricks and illusions. By understanding the techniques used by mediums, we can appreciate the skill and ingenuity involved in creating these supernatural experiences, while also recognizing that they are firmly rooted in the realm of human ingenuity rather than the supernatural.