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The Science and the Scam of the Séance

• February 20, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: Kzenon/Shutterstock)

It’s surprisingly easy to trick someone into believing they’ve seen something paranormal.

The first time Marthe Béraud was caught faking paranormal activity during a séance, she was 23 years old. She claimed she developed the ability to commune with the dead shortly after her fiancé died, five years earlier, and she began holding séances for the public. During these sessions, a “spirit” named Bien Boa, whom Béraud claimed was a 300-year-old Brahmin Hindu, materialized, sometimes moving about the room and touching people. Photographs of the séances would make Boa look an awful lot like a cardboard cutout, in some cases, and in others, like a living man draped in fabric and wearing a fake beard.

In 1906, a newspaper printed an account of an Arab man known as Areski, then working as a coachman at the villa where Béraud lived and held séances, who copped to having been hired to play the part of Bien Boa. Her hand forced, Béraud admitted to concocting the hoax. Then she changed her name to Eva Carrière (or Eva C) so nobody would know she’d been caught, traveled to Munich, and started holding hoaxed séances again, immediately. She is, without question, my favorite early-20th-century con artist, “fake psychic medium” category.

Like many other so-called spiritualists of the day, Carrière’s credibility relied heavily on her supposed production of “ectoplasm,” or a spiritual energy that oozes from orifices on the medium’s body and takes shape, allowing the medium to interact with said spirit. Peruse the image results for this one (and I cannot recommend doing so enough) and you will see a series of black and white photos of people with a white substance pouring out of their mouths, or their noses, or their ears.

If it sounds like I am jealous of the researchers—and of Eva Carrière too, in a way—that is because I am. As much as I typically resent hoaxers for “ruining” many of the paranormal phenomena I hold dear, I am also impressed by anyone who can pull it off, and I understand the urge.

Soon Carrière met a widow named Juliette Bisson, 25 years her senior, and they started both sleeping together and faking séances together. Or, as Wikipedia puts it: “Juliette Bisson and Carrière were in a sexual relationship together, and they both worked in collaboration with each other to fake the ectoplasm and eroticize their male audience.” These are two things I would not have thought simultaneously achievable! I am so impressed by this information.

Anyway, one of Carrière’s tricks was to give her ectoplasm a face, which she did by cutting faces out of newspapers, drawing on them in an attempt to mask their identities, and attaching them to the typical muslin or a similar white material. But photographs taken during her sessions caught up with Carrière, as some of the faces she used were recognized, and her fraud was again exposed, in a 1913 article in the Viennese newspaper Neue Wiener Tagblatt. Among the famous faces she’d used: actress Mona Delza, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, and Woodrow Wilson.

IT SEEMS LIKE IT should take more, in this modern day and age, to trick someone into thinking she’s seen something paranormal. In a study published in the British Journal of Psychology in 2003, a group of three semi-mischievous researchers aimed to determine what it takes. Participants (who, prior to the experiment, identified themselves as either “believers” or “disbelievers” in the paranormal) were split into groups and made to sit through faked séances in a pitch-black room. In the middle of the room was a table, upon which sat a few objects treated with luminous paint. These were made to move a few inches by researchers, who hid in the dark and prodded the objects with sticks. How they got anyone to believe they’d seen something paranormal this way is beyond me, but somehow, 16 percent of them did. Most of that group identified as believers, but not all.

More interesting still is the fact that roughly 20 percent of the participants (30 percent of believers and a surprisingly high eight percent of disbelievers) reported experiencing additional unusual phenomena during the faked séances, beyond anything that could be attributed to actions taken by the researchers. They reported feeling as though they had entered an “unusual psychological state,” feeling cold shivers running down their bodies, sensing an energetic presence, and noticing weird smells. They were thoroughly spooked, and fairly easily, at the hands of researchers who faked the entire thing.

If it sounds like I am jealous of the researchers—and of Eva Carrière too, in a way—that is because I am. As much as I typically resent hoaxers for “ruining” many of the paranormal phenomena I hold dear, I am also impressed by anyone who can pull it off, and I understand the urge. How satisfying must it be to convince someone, even indirectly, that he should believe in magic?

THE FIRST TIME I faked a séance, I was eight years old. I sat on the floor in the dark with my friend Caitlin, who lived across the street, and we held hands across a lit candle sitting on the floor between us. I told her that we would be calling upon the spirit of an old woman who died several years earlier, named Martha or Agnes or something. After some preliminary chanting, I spoke again. “Martha,” (or Agnes), I said, “Speak to us.” Then one of my little brothers emerged from my bedroom closet, where he’d been told to wait silently until I called for him, wearing a wig, a dress, and makeup that I’d put him in.

We’d play variations on this game many, many times. Because Caitlin was a year younger than me, and because that difference really counts for something when you’re less than 10 years old, she would have to pretend to believe in the entire charade. “Ahhhh,” she’d tepidly scream. “What do you want,” she’d disinterestedly plead of my brother.

Many years later I’d learn that séance-themed con artistry apparently ran in my family. As 16-year-olds, my dad and four of his guy friends decided to prank the girls in their group with a premeditated and falsified haunting. They met in the basement of his friend’s house hours ahead of the event to set up: They tied fishing line to a rocking chair, and to something near the stairs that made them creak, and to books on the shelf with seemingly meaningful titles like The Uninvited Guest. They set the fuse box up so they could flip the TV on to a snowy screen. Then my dad and two other guys hid (having casually shared their alibis for the night with the girls days earlier). The others waited for the girls to come over and eventually brought them downstairs to the table for a séance at which, my dad’s friend said, they’d try to call upon the spirit of Harry Houdini.

The first thing that happened was that my dad pulled the string attached to the stairs, and one of the girls laughed. “That almost sounds like someone coming down the steps,” she said. From there, the situation escalated very quickly. Books started flying off the shelf; one landed open in the middle of the table. The TV flickered on and off. Then the girls started screaming. One of them started repeating the Hail Mary.

“I knew they’d be scared, and maybe irritated if they found out,” my dad tells me now, over the phone, “but none of us knew how insanely afraid they’d be so quickly.” This is my favorite story of his, the one I request most often. He and his friends never told the girls what really happened (“They would kill us”), but especially as one of those girls ended up marrying one of those boys, it seems likely they eventually caught on. If not, this story might finally do it. Even the best cons must come to an end.

Katie Heaney
Katie Heaney is a writer and an editor at BuzzFeed and author of Never Have I Ever. Follow her on Twitter @KTHeaney.

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