Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Hmmm

seance1

(Photo: Kzenon/Shutterstock)

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.

More From Katie Heaney

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.