An awkward encounter with my dead grandmother at a Spiritualist seance
Yesterday evening I went to a demonstration at the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain. This was the first time I’ve been to such an occasion — I’m not really into psychics, seances, ouija, Tarot, all that jazz. But I’ve been reading the work of a pioneering late Victorian psychologist and psychical researcher, Frederic Myers, and he was very into all of that.
Spiritualism is not a big religious movement in the west today — do you know anyone who’s a Spiritualist? or who’s been to a seance? — but it was huge in the second half of the 19th century, at one point attracting eight million followers in the US and UK. As Ann Taves has written, it was one of several forms of radical Protestantism which emphasized ‘religious experience’, like Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventism, Pentecostalism, the Emmanuel Movement and the New Thought movement. Historians usually suggest the movement began in 1848 with the three Fox sisters, who started to hear ‘rappings’ when they were teenagers living outside New York. The raps responded to questions, and informed the Foxes they were spirits communicating from beyond the grave.
Seances became a popular evening past-time for Victorians, and the centre-piece of a new religious movement, Spiritualism, based on a belief that spirits of deceased family members still communicate with the living through mediums (particularly women). Spiritualism was a comfort to the bereaved, and proved particularly popular after the US Civil War and World War One. At one point Thomas Edison even claimed to have developed a ‘spirit telephone’ to ease (and monetize) communication with the dead. Imagine the roaming charges in the afterlife!
I’m not entirely sure about the Spiritualist conception of the afterlife, to be honest. It depends which spirit you spoke to, but on the whole the Spirits gave comforting and rather bland messages. ‘You’re doing great! We love you!’ It was like a form of self-affirmation projected into the ether (perhaps not so different to other religions in that respect). But it could also be quite Gothic, with flying furniture, ectoplasm, past-life memories, science fiction fantasies, erotic transgressions by randy female mediums and their male interlocutors (it wasn’t me, it was the spirit!), and the occasional diabolical possession. Above all, there was a lot of fraud and chicanery. The Fox sisters themselves confessed to making the rapping noises by cracking their knee-joints (though they later recanted their confession), and other famous mediums like Eusapia Palladino were exposed as tricksters.
By the 1920s, debunkers like Harry Houdini had started to expose the Spiritualist movement, but the occult made a notable revival in the inter-war years. As Kate Summerscale suggests in her excellent new book on the case of a poltergeist in 1930s London, times of political disturbance seem to lead to increases in occult activity, genuine or imagined. People turn to the spirit world for hope and certainty when events on Earth seem particularly bleak or confusing. Indeed, we saw something of an occult revival in the last few years — with Instagram witches, astrology apps and magic for millennials. Will the pandemic and all those sudden deaths lead to a new spate of hauntings?
The Sibyl of Belgrave Road
I wanted to explore Spiritualism first-hand, so off I went, yesterday, to 11 Belgrave Road in Victoria, where the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain is based, on the second floor of an office block, above the Bipolar Association. They do ‘demonstrations’ most evenings, which you can attend for six pounds. I paid and went into the demonstration room, expecting candles, crystal balls, and ladies in crepe holding hands round a levitating table. In fact, the room was rather undecorated, with a piano in the back (no one played alas), and a statue of a man with a beard, who I think was Andrew Jackson Davis, one of the founders of the movement. There were only ten people there, and the medium herself, a lady in her mid 40s dressed in sweatpants, t-shirt and cardigan.
‘So, let’s begin the demonstration’, she said. I suddenly felt rather exposed — I hadn’t bargained for the fact the lady might attempt to communicate with some of my deceased relatives! She was a breezy sort of medium. She didn’t go into a trance or roll her eyes or put on a funny voice, like Eva Green in Penny Dreadful. She was very matter-of-fact. ‘I’m not always right’, she explained. ‘So correct me if I’m wrong. I don’t want to give a message to a wrong person. I’d like to begin over here’, she said, walking to the front-row, and to an old man flanked by two younger women. She spoke to the old man, who it turned out was German and couldn’t speak English, so his grand-daughter translated — the message went from the spirit to the medium to the grand-daughter to the man.
‘Your wife has passed into the spirit world?’
‘She died suddenly. It was an unexpected illness.’
‘You both always thought you would go first. And it’s been difficult.’
‘She says she was proud of being a good wife. She was very good at organizing your life. And so it has been a challenge being more independent. Like cooking for yourself. You can’t always find things in the kitchen. But you have been doing well. She is happy. Is there a special dish you cook with sausages.’
‘It is the only thing he knows how to cook’, replied his daughter.
The medium turned to the daughter.
‘Am I right that you’re an only child? And you were very close to your mother. She used to make coffee a special way, and you enjoyed making the coffee that special way while talking together.’
‘And there was something she would ask you to buy, something that was a secret between the two of you.’
‘Yes.’ We didn’t hear what this was. Cigarettes? Hashish?
The medium turned to the grand-daughter. ‘And she is very proud of you. You have just done some achievement.’
‘Er….I am studying?’ said the grand-daughter uncertainly.
‘Yes. And you’re the first person in your family to go to university?’
‘She’s very proud of you. She loves you all’, said the medium. ‘Thank you for working with me.’
I was impressed — she wasn’t floundering around or cold-reading at all, and it seemed quite specific at times. She seemed tired. ‘Can I go home now!’ she laughed. Next she turned to another woman in the front-row, an East Ender, smartly turned out, in her 60s.
‘I’m hearing someone who is very chatty. Is it your mother? She has a sort of sing-song voice. You were very close. You loved to go to Southend together. Sometimes you stayed for the weekend there?’
‘Yes, if the weather was bad and we couldn’t get back. We went to Southend a lot.’
‘You liked to go for tea there. That was something you treasured. You liked to lift up your little fingers while drinking tea.’
‘Yes, it was a shared joke.’
‘Ye Olde Tea Shop.’
‘Yes….I think there was one called that.’
‘She was a magpie. She liked collecting glittering objects.’
‘Yes, from every place we visited. The house is full of them.’
‘And your father used to leave you two to it.’
‘Yes, he’d say ‘what do you two find to talk about for so long?’ He was a loner.’
‘She says ‘forever…’, no, ‘always and forever’. She made me say it properly.’
‘Yes. We’d always sign our letters with that.’
‘OK. Thank you for working with me.’
I was even more impressed. Southend! Tea shops! Very specific. But to what end? I mean, couldn’t the spirit have given more useful information than mere nostalgia?
Then the medium turned her attention to three people in front of me. ‘There’s a gentleman’, she said to the middle lady. ‘He was rather awkward in this life. He alienated a lot of people. This created separations in the family. It affected you too. He wants to make amends now. And he wants you to help. Good luck with that!’ The woman in front of me didn’t seem entirely sure but she went along with it.
I was really worried she would come to me next. I hoped she didn’t communicate with my recently-deceased grandfather — we weren’t that close, he was rather formal, and frankly I’m not sure a Spiritualist seance would really be his style. And what must he think of the life I lead!
Anyway, the medium did approach me, despite me averting my eyes. ‘Can I come to you sir?’
‘Am I right in thinking you’re wondering whether to change career, if something doesn’t work out?’
‘Well, tell me yes or no,’ she said rather impatiently.
‘But you’re thinking a lot about your work. You’re very absorbed in what you do. It’s all-consuming.’
‘Well…yes, I suppose so.’ I do indeed wake up dreaming about the book I’m writing most days, and think about it a lot (that’s normal for most writers). But I’m also quite a slacker…
‘I’m hearing someone, it’s your father’s mother.’ This was an Irish lady called Deidre, who died in 1999, to whom I was close. ‘She says that you’re unbalanced at the moment. You’re too focused on work and she thinks you don’t have enough fun. She’s ticking you off, in a nice way. Do you go home much?’ ‘To my parents? Yes, a fair amount.’ This may have been a clever way of discovering if I had a family of my own. ‘You think a lot, you ponder a lot’. Well, I’m a philosopher. ‘And you need to balance your life more. You’re so serious now, and when you were a child you used to make everyone laugh so much!’ Now, I suppose everyone was more fun when they were a kid, but this got me. I sort of zoned out, so it seemed like the medium was standing miles away. It was true: I was the family clown when I was a child, and I have changed massively since I went through a period of mental illness in my early 20s, becoming much more thoughtful and serious. I feel proud of having come through that, and that I’m now doing work that helps other people. But here, supposedly, was my dead grandmother telling me to lighten up and have more fun!
‘Do you go to festivals?’ asked the medium.
‘Well, not usually, but I’ve been to a couple this summer’ (Latitude and Wilderness).
‘That’s more like it. She’s going to help you have more fun. Thank you for working with me.’
And so the demonstration ended, and I headed out into Victoria, where I saw a big advert above the entrance to the Tube, saying ‘Go To Festivals!’ The spirit-world was telling me to lighten up. It was a lot to ponder. Why would the spirit of my grandmother still be in heaven, if there was reincarnation? Do our personalities just kick around for eternity, watching the lives of living relatives like rather dull soap operas? It felt a bit creepy, the idea of our ancestors watching us ‘always and forever’ — no wonder cultures that practice ancestor worship are more traditional.
One could go a little nuts if one became too obsessed with the spirit-world. And such seances or demonstrations don’t seem to me the basis of a good religion — this wasn’t a service, it wasn’t worshipping God, it wasn’t really encouraging virtuous behaviour, it was mainly satisfying our curiosity, our loneliness, our hunger for the sensational, and the advice given was on the whole quite bland (‘you’re doing great! she loves you!’) In my case, though, the advice was pretty good — I probably do need more of a life outside work. But the information that the medium produced could have come from the audiences’ own minds rather than spirits, which would explain why it was more reminiscence than active advice. In other words (and this was the conclusion Victorian psychical investigator Frederic Myers came to), many instances of supposed spirit-mediumship could actually be instances of telepathy, for which there is some good scientific evidence. The medium struck me as an extremely sensitive and intuitive person.
Anyway, make up your own minds. However, a word of warning — the world of psychics is full of charlatans looking to prey on the gullible and the unhappy. Even well-intentioned psychics probably get things wrong a lot of the time. Keep your scepticism intact!