If you think a séance is all quiet and spooky, think again. In My First Seance, Tamara Pitelen reveals that sitting in a séance can be like going to a nightclub that has a kindergarten in the corner. There’s music, laughter, lots of noise… and of course plenty of dead people.
I may have just chatted with a dead person for the very first time. I don’t mean an imaginary discussion in my head. This was an out-loud, two-way conversation with a dead person – or to put it less bluntly, a person from spirit world. My dead conversationalist was Daniel, a Cockney boy of about nine years old. More on what we talked about in a second; first, let me backtrack to explain how I ended up sitting with a group of people trying to communicate with the dead.
IS THERE ANYBODY THERE?
Before tonight, I’d thought a séance involved very serious people sitting quietly round a table earnestly asking, ‘is there anybody there?’ in a spooky voice. Turns out it’s more like going to a nightclub that has a kindergarten in the corner. There’s a lot of music, laughter, banter and noise.
Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and accept that what I perceived was real. If so, I had spirit children spray me with water from a little water pistol and I watched as these spirit children played with fluorescent toys, making them seemingly dance by themselves in the darkness. These little spirit children also stood (or hovered) at my knee, serenading me as only a six-year-old with a drum can. All ear-splitting vigour, not much rhythm. The spirit children in our midst bashed away on toy pianos, blew harmonicas, banged drums, and rang bells as loudly as they could. Meanwhile myself and about 40 other people sat on chairs in a big circle, all holding hands and singing at the top of our voices along with the child musicians. We belted out songs by Abba, Bon Jovi, One Direction, The Carpenters, Don McLean, Louis Armstrong, Tina Turner and more. Why? The idea is that all the loud singing both lifts our vibrations and raises the energy in the room, which makes it easier for the spirit people to come into our reality.
The séance I just attended was part of a week-long mediumship training course at the Arthur Findlay College for the Advancement of Psychic Studies in Stansted, London. Yes, it is like being a boarder at Hogwarts.
So, what happens at a séance and how does it happen? First, you need a physical medium. This is a person who has the ability to allow spirit people to use his or her body to have a presence in this world – that presence can be heard or seen by everyone present, whether they have psychic abilities or not. I can vouch for the fact that everyone of the 40 or so people in the séance – aka ‘sitters’ – could hear the spirit people talk and sing and play the various instruments that had been left out for them to play with. The physical medium at the Arthur Findlay College is Scott Milligan, 31, who’s been working as a physical medium for about 15 years.
The whole process took about four hours. The first half hour was the preparation lecture where we all sat in another room and Scott told us what we might expect as well as the dos and don’ts. It is a very serious business, this séance sitting. If sitters don’t follow the rules, the medium can be seriously hurt, even killed. Why is it dangerous? Because we’re all energetically linked during a séance and he can effectively be burnt or electrocuted. Scott described it as if he was at the centre of a spider’s web and each of us were at the outside end of a strand. Any movement at the outer edge of the web vibrated through to the centre. He told us about a good friend of his, also a physical medium, who couldn’t eat for two weeks after his esophagus was burnt at a séance where a sitter stood up suddenly, jerked forward and vomited.
A common question is, why does the séance have to take place in total darkness? In this case, it’s because of the level of Scott’s development as a physical medium. His aim is to eventually be able to hold a séance in the light and to advance to the point where spirit people can actually manifest in solid form through him but he’s not ready for that yet and wouldn’t be able to hold a deep trance state for up to three hours with all the lights on.
There is quite a procedure to go through before the séance commences. This is to counter any ‘hoax’ accusations before they come. Of course though, such accusations are inevitable no matter what lengths the mediums go to to show it’s all real.
First, two ‘independents’ are chosen from our group – it’s their job to uncover any fraudulent behaviour. For example, they must check the séance room for anything suspicious, like a team of actors hiding behind the curtain or hidden doors, as well as check the chair to which the medium gets tied. Then they actually tie him to the chair with plastic fasteners and throughout the evening, they check he’s still securely fastened. The independents cut the ends of the plastic ties off when they’ve secured Scott and they keep them in their pockets for verification that, at the end of the séance, the ties on Scott’s wrists and ankles are the same ones as at the start.
For the duration of the séance, Scott is strapped to the chair by his hands, arms, feet and legs, all to prove he could not be manipulating anything. Unless he has Houdini-like talents.
The independents are chosen during the preparation speech. Scott asks two people to stand with their backs to the group and throw a scrunched up paper ball over their shoulders at the class in the same way a bride would throw her bouquet. Whoever catches the paper balls are the independents.
Next, we moved into the séance room, which in this case is the Arthur Findlay College library, a large room lined with a circle of chairs. Before we can go in though, we are frisked. You may take nothing into the room other than the clothes you’re wearing. No phones, no jewellery apart from wedding rings, no bags, etc. Shoes are left at the door
Even where you sit in the room is decided by lucky draw. Each chair has a slip of paper with a number on it. A bucket contains a pile of slips with corresponding numbers, you take a number from the bucket and find the chair with the matching number.
Happily, I ended up in a chair up the front near all the action. I was a couple of metres from where Scott was tied to the chair and placed inside a large three-sided cabinet – that is, it had no front. Also sitting in the circle were three of the college tutors, Kitty, Eileen and Maureen. It’s their job to keep Scott safe; to keep the sitters calm, and to ensure proceedings flow smoothly.
All over the floor in front of the cabinet are children’s toys and musical instruments, deliberately put there by humans for the spirit children to play with. There was a Daffy Duck stuffed toy, a teddy bear, two small water pistols, a child’s plastic xylophone, several drums, a large bell, a harmonica, a ball, a tambourine, skipping rope, a couple of funnel-like trumpets and more.
Once everyone is in their seats and the medium is settled in the cabinet, we all holds hands and the lights go off. That’s when the music starts. During the first two songs, one of which was Starry, Starry Nights by Don McLean, we’re told to keep quiet while Scott goes into the altered trance state that allows the spirit people to use his body and energy to enter our world. Very few people have this ability, physical mediums are a rare breed. Just being your regular run-of-the-mill, talk-to-dead-people medium doesn’t mean you’re able to do physical mediumship. The spirit world has told Scott he can do it because of a “defect in your brain”, UK medium Colin Fry is another one with the ability.
After the third song, the tutors Maureen and Eileen tell the group that Scott is in the trance and we all now need to sing loudly and vigorously to build up the energy and vibration that the spirit world needs to move into our world and do things like pick up the toys, bang the drums and so on.
I won’t lie. I’m nervous. We’re sitting in absolute pitch black with only a sliver of light from the flourescent toys visible. Everyone is holding hands and we’ve been told to call out and name and shame anyone who breaks the circle, the idea is to ensure that no living person can get up and move the toys.
About half way through singing the first song, gasps are heard around the room as the fluorescent toys start moving. Not just moving randomly though, they’re dancing around in time with the music then one by one dumped on the ground – just like as if a child has got bored with them, which is exactly what’s happening according to the tutors.
WAKE THE DEAD
Soon, it’s like a circus has kicked off around my feet. Drums are loudly banged, tamborines are shaken and the xylophone is played. “Excellent drumming! What great rhythm! Thank you,” people call out to encourage the little spirit musicians to keep playing. Next, people around me are gasping that they’re being sprayed with water and then I feel it too, a little squirt of water hitting my knee. Soon, people are saying that they can feel and see little fingers touching their shoulders, legs and hair.
At this point, I’m nervous. I don’t want to be touched by spirit children so in my head I ask that they leave me alone. We were told in the preparation lecture that this would be effective. It seemed to work, I wasn’t touched at all during the séance even though both of the women sitting either side of me felt the little fingers.
Before long, a young Cockney voice can be heard out of the dark. “’Ello duckie,” he says, “y’alright?” This is Daniel, one of Scott’s spirit helpers (they don’t like being called guides apparently, they’d rather you called them ‘spirit friends’ or ‘helpers’). Daniel presents himself as a boy for his work with Scott but in fact he was aged in his fifties when he died. Daniel was fond of a drink while on earth but one night as he was leaving the pub he slipped and fell, hitting his head. Unfortunately, because he was a well-known drinker, people just left him on pavement because they thought he was passed out on alcohol. Next thing he knew, his mother was standing over him. “What are you doing here Mum? You’re dead,” he said, “Yes, and now you are too,” she replied. “Come on, come with me…’
Scott says that Daniel presents as a boy so that people can better relate to him. Not everyone has been 56 but most people have been the age of nine.
Daniel is the spirit control who helps the spirits on the other side to communicate with a living person in the room. One of the other spirit children was a little girl that Daniel nicknamed Scrapface, he told us she was in training to do the job of being a control spirit for a physical medium who hasn’t been born yet. Daniel is showing her the ropes.
While chatting, one of the group asks Daniel – for some reason – if there are fish in spirit world. “Of course there are,” Daniel replies before going on to tell us that everything that lives in our world ends up in his world, including fish and flowers. Daniel is the link between the two worlds because it is apparently extremely difficult for the spirit people to alter their vibration and energy to the degree required to be heard or seen in our world. This is something we’d witness for ourselves before the night was over but first there is even freakier stuff for the novice séance attendee to get their head around. Ectoplasm.
You may have heard of it if you’ve ever seen any of those freaky spiritualist photos from the 1900s. Ectoplasm is the white cotton-wool looking substance that apparently comes out of the medium’s body. In the photos, ectoplasm looks static, as if the person is trying to swallow a tablecloth but in fact, Scott tells us, ectoplasm is in constant motion during a séance.
Ectoplasm is the substance used by the spirit world to show their faces to us and it’s the stuff that is used by spirit to create a voice box that hangs in the air not far from the medium. The ectoplasm voice box is used by the loved ones in spirit to talk to their living relatives because, apparently, not all spirits are like Daniel, they are unable to lower their vibrations enough to be heard in our world.
Before the week’s course at the College, I’d thought ectoplasm was something that had been discredited last century as the stuff of frauds. No, turns out it’s alive and well in the world of modern physical mediumship. Ectoplasm itself has even been scientifically analysed. It’s made up of various substances that can be found in the human body, which can include red and white blood cells, stomach lining, semen and menstrual blood, as well as matter from the nearby environment such as carpet fibres. Ectoplasm exudes from the body of the medium from any orifice, this could be nose, ears, genitals, belly button and mouth, etc. Apparently, if it comes out of the belly button it smells like boiled cabbage. After the spirit world has retreated, the substance goes back into the body of the medium.
At some point in the proceedings, a woman called Cathleen who was sat one over from me asked Daniel a question:
Cathleen: “Daniel, can you see us, even in the dark? What do we look like to you?”
Daniel: “Yes Duckie, I can see you, you look like ghosts.”
Me: “But you’re not scared of us?” [I was joking but Daniel didn’t seem to realise.]
Daniel: “No, course not.”
Me: “How come we can’t see you if you can see us?”
Daniel: “Because you can’t raise your vibration high enough but I can lower my vibration to meet you. I see you as light and colours.”
Cathleen tried to ask more questions but Daniel apologised and said he had to concentrate on moving the huge cabinet that had Scott in it, tethered to a chair. To move that cabinet, complete with Scott, would take about eight or so living people all working in unison. Even then I can’t imagine it being done without a fair bit of commotion, stumbling and creaking. But that cabinet moved several feet – apparently without physical effort, in pitch black darkness and completely silently. When the lights came on at the end of the night, Scott was now in the middle of the room but still tied to the chair and the cabinet had also been shifted about five feet. This is the kind of proof of the spirit world that spirits like to provide through physical mediums.
The main point of a séance though, is for someone to talk to a loved one who has passed over. Forget the dancing toys and water pistols, the real reason for holding a séance is to provide evidence of an afterlife and to give comfort or closure to living people still grieving for dead loved ones.
Daniel introduces the spirit who wants to talk to someone in the group, he starts describing her in the hope that one of the 40 sitters in the room will recognise and claim the spirit person.
“She’s got big glasses,” he says, “and her face went very rosy towards the end. She lost her marbles, she’s telling me her thoughts were not her own… when she had her full bag though she was quite a quick wit, this lady.”
A woman named Carol down the far end of the room says she thinks she might know this spirit person. Daniel continues, “Yeah, she’s telling me you were in two minds about coming tonight,”
“Yes, that’s right”
“You almost decided to give it a miss,”
“But she’s telling me you felt her this afternoon”
“Yes, I did”
“Just about dinner time,”
“Yeah Duckie, she was the little voice in your head telling you you had to come tonight. She’s telling me you’ve got the photos in a carrier bag,”
“What? I don’t know…”
“Yes, she’s saying they’re in the cupboard, in like a supermarket bag”
“Umm… I can’t think…”
Daniel in a theatrical whisper reports back to the spirit person: “She’s doesn’t know what you’re bleeding talkin’ abaht, there’s no use telling me stuff she don’t know… [a pause before Daniel turns back to Carol], she’s telling me you do have them Duckie.”
“Oh, yes! I do, I do have the photos in a bag in the cupboard. Sorry, you’ve got a dozy one!”
“Nah, you ain’t dozy Duckie, I put you on the spot. She’s saying someone’s still got one of her perfume bottles,”
“Yes, that’s my mum.”
“She’s saying that you’ve had quite a bit of strife this year,”
“Yes, I have”
“That the proverbial muck has hit the fan.”
“Yes, that’s very true.”
Daniel goes on to talk about letters that Carol’s aunt wrote in 1976 and where they were as well as newspaper clippings that that family were holding onto as well as a photo of the aunt wearing a fascinator and gloves that Carol had recently been looking at. All the information was confirmed by Carol and she mentions that the medication her aunt was on before she died had caused her face to turn bright red.
Then it was time for Carol’s aunt to attempt to speak to her niece herself, using the voice box that had apparently formed from the ectoplasm exuding from Scott. I couldn’t see this in the pitch black darkness of the room, it’s what Scott had told us happens in the preparation lecture.
“Shove yer face innit,” Daniel said in a loud whisper to the spirit person.
“I’m goading her,” Daniel explains to the living people in the room, “she’s having a bit of trouble with it so I’m teasing her she can’t do it and she’s taking it as a challenge.”
That’s when we hear labored breathing, wheezing and the kind of noise you’d expect to hear from an old person who is having difficulty forming words. The tutors tell Carol to speak to her aunt to encourage her, which is when we discover that the spirit aunt must be French because Carol, a woman from the Channel Islands with a strong English accent, suddenly starts speaking French to the disembodied voice of her dead aunt. I didn’t catch all of the conversation but the gist of it was something like this:
Carol: Tu peux venir Tante… Je sais c’est difficile pour toi…
Carol: Ca va bien?
Spirit Aunty Therese: Ca va. C’est pas mal ici.
Carol: Je t’adore.
Spirit Aunty Therese: Bisou [kiss, kiss, kiss kiss]
We also heard from Scott’s two other spirit helpers including Eric, an older man with a distinguished British accent as well as Morning Star, a native American Indian who spoke half in English and half in his native tongue. Their voices swirled through the air.
Half way through the séance, there was a brief pause while the red light was turned on and the independents were asked to inspect Scott’s fastenings. He was still secured to the chair. I should mention that we can all still hear Daniel’s Cockney accent chatting away in the air while the checking of Scott is taking place. Scott is not speaking, he remains in a half trance. It was also a surprise to see that the toys that had started the evening all neatly in one place were now strewn across the floor.
SCEPTICS AND SPIRITUALISTS
By the end of it all my head was spinning. Did I really just chat with dead people from the spirit world? Did spirit children play musical instruments in front of me, attempting to keep the beat along with our raucous rendition of ‘It’s my life’ by Bon Jovi? And if they did, was it a little insensitive to be belting out lines like, ‘I ain’t gonna live forever, I’m just gonna live while I’m alive…’?
What do I do with this experience now? Either I believe it all happened and it was as real as it seems or, if that is just too outlandish for my brain to cope with, I can dismiss it all as some extremely elaborate hoax.
Is it that physical mediumship is just so far out in left-field for most people that it’s put in the, “nah, it just can’t be true, that’s too insane for my brain to cope with so I’m going to ignore it, la la la la la…”
I’ve tried describing the experience to friends and family in the wake of my week at the Arthur Findlay College and I can hear the words sounding ridiculous as they come out my mouth. And I see in the eyes of whoever I’m talking to betray their thoughts, which range from, ‘wow, she’s unbelievably gullible…’ to ‘Nah, can’t be true, it’s a big hoax,’ and ‘that’s utterly ridiculous’. A couple of people have tried to keep an open mind but even my husband leans on the side of I’ve been bamboozled somehow. His theory is Scott must be some kind of Houdini meets Dynamo character and that a team of people trained in moving silently, all wearing night vision goggles, must be responsible for playing with all the toys and shifting the cabinet with Scott in it. A couple of them must be actors, he reasons, to do the voices of the various spirits we hear in the air.
I don’t blame anyone who hasn’t experienced physical mediumship for dismissing it all as a load of rubbish. And without question, there have been fraudster mediums in the past so Spiritualism – which is an official religion – does have some bad PR to overcome. However, the Spiritualist community isn’t that interested in trying to prove anything to skeptics. If someone is determined not to believe, no amount of evidence will ever be enough, my tutor Maureen tells me. The mediums who tutor at the college are weary of people who are only interested in attending a séance to prove it’s a hoax instead of focusing on the messages of love from Spirit and pondering for a minute how it might change their life and outlook if they did know for sure that there is an afterlife; that death is an illusion. For Spiritualists, the aim of all their work is to facilitate communication between this world and the next in order to bring comfort and hope to the souls on both sides who are grieving loved ones or have things left unsaid.
I was there. It was a privilege to experience it and I sincerely thank everyone at the Arthur Findlay College for making it happen.
My first séance by Tamara Pitelen