A seance is a type of ritual conducted to communicate with spirits. It is usually presided over by a medium, a "sensitive" person through whom the spirits are supposed to communicate. A typical seance is conducted by a small group of people, often sitting around a table. The word seance comes from the French for "session" or "sitting." The seance was at its most popular during the Spiritualist movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries, during which many of the current aspects of the ritual were developed.
A seance is usually conducted in the dark, and the participants may join hands in a circle. The medium may use a number of methods to attempt communication with the dead, such as channeling through a trance, automatic writing, writing with a planchette, or thoughtography. Items such as musical instruments may be provided in the hopes of inspiring poltergeist phenomena.
The traditional methods of holding a seance are particularly amenable to fraud on the part of the medium. Both the darkness of the room and the barrier of the table keep participants from closely noting what exactly is going on. The medium may be able to use his or her feet to move the table or to create mysterious sounds, for example. He or she may stealthily free a hand from the circle to make phenomena appear, or blank film may be replaced with previously processed film in the dark. Many fraudulent mediums employed assistants to help them pull off tricks during a seance as well.
In the mid-19th century, sisters Kate and Margaret Fox of Hydesville, New York ushered in the era of the seance. They claimed to be able to communicate with spirits using a system of taps; they would ask yes or no questions, and the spirits would answer by tapping once for yes and twice for no. The sisters became renowned mediums and inspired innumerable imitators.
In 1888, the sisters were paid 1,500 US Dollars (USD) to admit publicly that their seances were a fraud. Margaret demonstrated that she could produce taps by cracking her big toe. A year later, Margaret recanted, but the damage to their reputation was already done.
A great majority of the Spiritualist era mediums were caught committing fraud at some point in their career, and most people today consider seances nothing more than entertainment. Whether they are elaborate magic shows or manifestations of the supernatural, seances have continued to appeal to human imagination and curiosity, though on a declining scale, since their invention.