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When Was the Last Time You Went to a Real, Live Séance?

As Fox Mulder says, ”I want to believe.”

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The curious history of séances in the United States dates to the 1850s, with two siblings, Kate and Margaret Fox. It all started when they began to manufacture household sounds, or “rappings,” to scare their older sister, Leah. Though they went on to become successful mediums, they eventually confessed that they were not in fact channeling spirits of the dead but instead manipulating people’s minds. The public turned against them and their careers were ruined. Around the same time, the brothers Ira and William Davenport began using magic tricks to pass as the supernatural. To aid in their sleight of hand, they invented the “spirit cabinet,” an armoire-type apparatus used to summon the deceased, which became a pivotal part of séances. Ultimately, they too were seen as frauds.

Though popular through the end of the Victorian era, séances—basically, attempts to make contact with the other side—were spoiled in a big way during the Roaring Twenties. In the summer of 1924 the famous magician Harry Houdini, foiled in the past by attempts to conjure his deceased mother and as a consequence on a crusade to oust mediums, exposed the famous spiritualist Mina “Margery” Crandon, robbing her of prize money that Scientific American magazine intended to bestow on the person who could demonstrate conclusive psychic manifestations.

“It was because he felt that the techniques she used were things that could be replicated by magicians,” said Mr. D, the stage name for the performer who along with his partner, A. Lucio, will host the “Austin Séance Summer Series: Into the Gloom,” composed of eight 1-hour sessions beginning Friday and running through August 6. “Whether that’s what she was doing or not, I guess some questions remain.”

In the Pony Shed, a moderately claustrophobic, fifteen-to-twenty-person space behind the Vortex theater on Austin’s East Side, Mr. D and A. Lucio will continue to blur the line between the arts of stage magic and spiritualism. As they have done at past séances, the pair will first ask who in the audience believes in ghosts. Next they will ask who has had experiences with the paranormal. And finally, they will ask who thinks all of this is pure hokum. Invariably, hands will be raised.

Mr. D and A. Lucio will proceed to talk about the history of American séances, doing a show-and-tell with the tools of the trade, from bells and candles to flashlights and radios. They will highlight the spirit cabinet built for Mr. D years ago for séances he hosted during the Halloween season with his daughter and son. And then the lights will go down: the room will be very dark, with obscured windows and likely just a lone candle.

“It’s pretty creepy,” Mr. D said. “Sometimes we’ll have a radio going, but the radio is set in between stations. And so you’re getting that staticky white noise. But through that white noise sometimes you get what’s called ‘electronic voice phenomena’—EVP. If you listen to that white noise and focus on it, and you’re able to listen to it a little bit, sometimes weird stuff comes out.”

A guided meditation will ensue, and Mr. D and A. Lucio will use their devices to suss out messages in response to yes-or-no questions and various other prompts. Participation from audience members, or “sitters,” is important; the more candid and plentiful a discussion of real individual experiences, the more potential for mystery.

Mr. D and A. Lucio have met sitters that say they have heard or felt unexplained presences during the séance. They’ve had sitters go home afterward and have the same sort of sensation. One sitter had a particularly strong reaction to a Selena song that came out of nowhere on the staticky radio. The authenticity of the séance is in the subtlety; the results can be mixed.

“The experience of the séance is no longer what it used to be,” said A. Lucio, an avid ghosthunter whom Mr. D said is knowledgeable about pretty much everything that goes bump in the night. “Oftentimes, if you go to a public séance, you get a spook show or a theatrical séance. It can feel disingenuous or over the top. The goal we set out was to recreate an authentic séance, as they would have been held, with some modern tools.”

A. Lucio teamed up with Mr. D, inspired to revive the séances Mr. D had conducted with his then middle-school-aged daughter, now a University of Texas student. She went on to become a popular, blindfolded medium on Austin’s South Congress Avenue, known as “Sofia: the Girl Who Knows,” and once impressed the magician David Blaine by guessing he had a jumbo-sized quarter in his pocket.

“There is no trick in my dad’s séance, and every sitting is unique, which means there are always new opportunities for doubt,” Sofia said. “My dad’s goal isn’t to prove or disprove the existence of spirits; it’s to create a stimulating environment that makes the audience raise questions about what they thought they understood.”

Mr. D is a former reporter for the Houston Chronicle and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He’s written two books about the game of pool. He’s reported on hauntings, cult murders, and the upheaval over the return from exile, in 1994, of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president of Haiti. While there, Mr. D became fascinated by the practice of voodoo. Though he hosts séances for entertainment purposes, he says sitters are eager to find connections in the things that they observe and witness. The mix of philosophy, magic, and belief systems can be intoxicating.

“I think that we all live in an increasingly rational, secular age, and I think that there is some nostalgic appeal to a different way of being that leaves open the possibility for the wonder of irrationality,” Mr. D said. “As Fox Mulder says, ‘I want to believe.’ So I think there are a lot of folks, whether they believe or not, they’d like to believe. I would not venture to guess what exists out there, and what’s possible or what’s not possible.”
Austin, The Vortex, July 29 to August 6, austinseance.com

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