a Phenomenological Deconstruction of the Séance and Talking Board
If easier on the eye, the file can be read here: Meddling Kids essay
KEY WORDS: Séance, Talking Board (AKA Ouija), Embodied experience, Embodied knowledge, Phenomenology, Ocularcentrism, performative rhetoric, the senses, Ideo-motor effect.
This essay explores the séance, with a particular focus on the inclusion of the Talking Board, as an embodied experience. By recontextualising the external world through phenomenology, and thus gaining a better understanding of human embodied experience, the essay focuses on three main factors in order to deconstruct the séance: firstly, the experiences to which a person is exposed, through the environment and otherwise; secondly, a person’s memory, including their past experiences, first-hand and through second-hand media such as the written or spoken word; and lastly, on their felt experience of the present world. The past directly influences the way an environment is interpreted and understood. Embodied experiences are based on a person’s belief in the ritual itself, past experiences, and memories.
Occultism in Victorian society is reinterpreted as an embodiment of the insecurities and discoveries of the time, together with rising access to a plethora of literature and fiction on the subject. The belief of influential figures, and scientific advances were used by authors to add weight to their fictional tales in writing, allowing readers to corroborate the events as true through their own experiences – though now coloured by these second-hand memories. Therefore, even if the events reported as supernatural were not the result of ghosts at all, the experiences of the living remain real nonetheless because it happened to someone, and the event is a real part of their memory and lived experience. While the experience may be deconstructed and explained, this doesn’t mean denying people their belief, and this essay does not set out to debunk or diminish such experiences.
This essay will explore the séance, with a particular focus on the inclusion of the Talking Board (see Figure 1), as an embodied experience; the séance will be deconstructed as such, using the same phenomenological tools one might use to analyse performative rhetoric found in Performance Art. Phenomenology, as defined by Ingold (2013, cited in Woodward, 2014, p.248), recontextualises the external world through human embodied experience: “…a world […] brought forth for and through a body through ongoing social and phenomenal projects [author’s own italics].” Thus, the phenomenological deconstruction in this essay hinges on three main factors: the experiences to which a person is exposed (through the environment and otherwise); a person’s memory (past experiences, first-hand and otherwise); and on their felt experience of the present world. Thus one’s existence is at the very least partially shaped by personal embodied experience. It is this experience which then leads to the way an environment is interpreted and understood sensorially, and later, crucially, to how it is interpreted both consciously and unconsciously. In other words: our past can directly influence the way we experience our present, and even partially dictate the way we will behave in the future. In this way, it is possible for the layperson to understand on an intellectual level the embodied experiences some people have had, based on their belief in the ritual itself, their past experiences, and memories.
This essay does not set out to debunk or dismiss others’ beliefs, but rather to exemplify the depth and breadth of human experience.
The Influence of the Immediate Environment as Agent
When speaking of the séance, this essay refers to a whole set of sensory criteria that make up the experience. These include, but are not restricted to (nor must all of the following be present): a group of people numbering two or more, a table around which the participants could sit – often covered by a (lace) tablecloth, a Medium, candles (paired with dimmed gas lighting, very little natural – or even a complete lack of – light), a closed space (curtains drawn for a sense of intimacy and isolation from the outside world) most likely including a fireplace, incense, and perhaps even a crystal ball or Talking Board – a handful of these items are mentioned by Druchunas (2015, p.47), citing Conan Doyle’s personal experience of the séance (see Figure 2: a contemporary engraving illustrating such an event for a fuller mental image).
The criteria above are described as sensory – this refers to the human senses which they would have stimulated and played upon. To start with, the group of people would have been a complex sensory cocktail: perfumes and colognes, including the heavy scent of smoke from the city, caught in people’s garments; letters being called out by the group in unison if they were practicing table-turning, as well as the sounds made by the movements of their clothes and limbs; the tactile nature of holding hands with the people on either side of a party member, or the act of the whole group placing fingers on the planchette of a Talking Board, as it mysteriously moved from letter to letter without any person’s conscious movement, would have acted upon both a person’s sense of balance and of touch. It is possible that the séance itself, as an excuse for touch, especially hand-holding – an intimate gesture, would have been a charged experience in many ways, but especially spiritually and sexually (Holloway, 2006, pp.183-5).
Similarly, the Medium would have been key to the experience as a whole: the atmosphere instantly achievable through a well-acted ‘possession’ or ‘trance state’, paired with an unearthly voice, brings to the fore the importance of sound in the séance, especially given that participants were to close their eyes. What was supposedly being summoned was purportedly ‘not of this world’ – and thus would not be constrained by the rules of vision and physicality by which mortals are grounded. Echoing this same physicality crucial to embodied experience, the burning of incense, as suggested by Howes (1972, cited in Brook, 2002, p.74) would force participants of a ritual to ingest “…particles of the odour. One cannot not participate in the effervescence (or fellow-feeling) of the situation, because it participates in you.” Howes’s words ring true, whether they are made to refer to widespread religion, or the practice of rituals occult and obscure. In parallel to the use of incense is that of candles, which enable the subconscious to play tricks on the mind of one already concerned with ghosts, shadows, and death. Ambiguity is a fuel that feeds ritual, creating a brighter flame which casts ever larger, dancing shadows. It is no coincidence that semi-darkness was the chosen locus for spirit apparitions, and indeed for the séance: “Bright light […] is used by interrogators to break the will,” Pallasmaa explains (2011, cited by Blackler, 2011, p.31). “Excessive light […] actually restricts our range of vision,” whereas “the human eye is naturally attuned to twilight. It sharpens our vision and engages [the] imagination.” As this essay aims to establish, the mind of a séance participant was likely especially permeable to the notion that the experience was entirely -or at least partially- due to the presence of the supernatural.
The Influence of the socio-economic environment
Victorians were obsessed with progress, and “even as developments in science and technology, conjoined with imperial expansion, made it possible to know and control the physical world in unprecedented ways, [they] were relentless in their efforts to tap into and understand the supernatural” (Mallory, 2006, p.118). Surrounded by priceless artefacts pillaged from ancient Egyptian tombs, the news of historical discoveries powered by advances enabled by steam, and manpower made available through imperialism, a sense of indestructibility of Empire and surreal optimism permeated the upper levels of society. What was once deemed impossible and foolhardy had suddenly become reality – in 1877, Cleopatra’s Needle was flown from its original seat in Egypt to London and installed there. Everything was in a state of flux. It was no wonder that, as Pile (2006, p.312) puts it, “at the very moment when people were figuring out what it meant to define themselves and their cities as modern, London’s high society -its middle classes and aristocracy- […] were swept up in the desire to explore what was often called occultism.” Science and the supernatural had become inextricably linked as the popularity of the latter, and that of parapsychology, grew. In its infancy, even psychoanalysis could not escape the looming influence of the occult on the Victorian mind: Sandor Ferenczi, a contemporary and close associate of Freud, was reportedly always “seeking new and more intimate ways of connecting with his patients, [attempting] occult forms of communication such as telepathy, hypnosis and séances,” writes Mallory (2006, p.121). Phenomenology aids a person’s understanding of another in that it explains how a subject’s lived environment can and will directly affect them (on a conscious and unconscious level). It therefore follows that it can affect their experience of this same environment, but also of an environment alien to them.
The Influence of People
In the 1890s, there were many who would have influenced the way people saw the séance. This would have undoubtedly included the participant themselves, and the extent to which they were familiar with (or interested in) the related literature or magical history of the ritual, including their affinity for ghost stories (see Figure 3 for an example). Those taking part, and the extent of their belief in the ritual itself, including that of the participant, would also have had a bearing on the success of the séance. Equally crucially, the Medium and their reputation would also have been key to a convincing overall experience. An already-famous medium would have been more likely to inspire confidence through their demeanour and level of experience, making the séance a vastly more believable and theatrical spectacle. Finally, it is important to keep in mind that people whose word the participant would have held in high esteem, such as members of literary, scientific or social elite, would also have affected the experience in its own way: there was always someone whose vocal support for the séance would end up influencing the thoughts of another. Pile lists Queen Victoria and Prime Minister William Gladstone, along with poet W. B. Yeats, and author Lewis Caroll, among many others, as lovers of the occult, but “especially séances” (2006, p.313). Belief could then physically manifest itself in the form of the Ideo-motor effect, whereby the hands of those involved (in a séance) would move without conscious effort – the planchette would skitter across the board, seemingly of its own accord, despite the fact its movements were those of a collective certain of their individual immobility. The ideo-motor effect, however, can be better processed through use of a poetically concise explanation of “transduction” by Woodward (2014, pp.246-7): it “describes the manipulation and experience of artefacts not in terms of an interaction but in terms of a conversion of kinetic energy between registers of the organic and inorganic.” This means that the organic (here a person), with the potential energy of the body, would eventually move the inorganic object (here the planchette) simply through interaction with it, as the energy became kinetic. Furthermore, as humans, our being in the world means that we both consciously and unconsciously affect our environment, our movements mixing with “the flows and currents of the animate life of the environment” (Ingold, 2013, as cited in Woodward, 2014, p.250).
The Influence of Second-hand Experiences: Literature and Modern Myth
Second-hand experience has always been part of the human story: initially, fact and fiction were shared by way of aural histories, then wall carvings/imagery, writing, eventually books, printed books and illustrations (see Figure 4 for images that might well have played upon the Victorian mind), and radio – these tools allowed for the sharing of information both false and true. This continued with silent film, the Talkies, Technicolor, and eventually, the Internet. The ways that stories were told and passed on to the next person changed over time, as all things do (see figure 5 for a paperback example). With the dawn of the Internet in 1983, and its going live in 1991, a new kind of collective consciousness, or even group experience was made possible. Its effect on a person’s perception of their own reality can be understood as if it were a mirror held at an angle, allowing insight into the lives and stories of others – similar, yet distant, and only ever available within a set frame(work), such as a forum, podcast, or video. What is understood is skewed twice-over: first, by the way it is recounted by those who experienced it, and then again by the way it is interpreted by the reader/viewer. Thus, not even a hundred years after the patent for the Talking Board was filed by Elijah Bond, the film Witchboard (1986) came out. One of few films to centre its plot on the misuse of a Talking Board, the magical (and very much invented) history of the board is brought up as soon as it is introduced, in order to legitimise its otherworldly power to the cast, including new rules. This stems directly from Victorian era occultism (and thus too the Talking Board, as a product of its time) basing many of its obscure rules and beliefs on “invented tradition” (Butler, 2011, p.17). The viewer never sees any ghosts or spirits – only the effects which they wreak upon the living. The result is a feeling of agitation, suspense, and distrust. Jay (1988, p.310) claims that genuine mystery cannot be produced by way of sight, as it “operates on the level of deceptive artifice,” and “can give us nothing but external appearances and behaviour, never inward meaning.” This facilitates an understanding of the unending popularity of written and spoken word on the supernatural, and the way that sound still has a profound effect on the subconscious in a way which vision simply cannot. Famously, the 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Welles’s 1898 classic War of the Worlds caused mass panic: New Yorkers fled their homes, fearing for their lives (an exaggeration of true events). But it is believable: the real tragedy was the less well-known incident in February 1949, when Leonardo Páez, dramatic director of Radio Quito, Ecuador, and Eduardo Alcaraz aired “a Spanish-language version of Welles’s 1938 script,” which caused mass panic (Chilton, 2016). “Quito police and fire brigades rushed […] to fight the supposed alien invasion force. After it was revealed that the broadcast was fiction, the panic transformed into a riot, [resulting] in at least seven deaths.” The supernatural became real through lived experience: hearing about it (unaware of it being a hoax) made it real. Some people, in those moments, experienced an alien invasion – their panic was real, and the invasion was not corporeal, but mental.
The internet, bursting as it is with many forms of information, is littered with innumerable stories. Naturally, this includes tales of the paranormal, many fictional – others personal. It is close to impossible to tell the two apart, however, and this makes it easy to believe, or instead, to harbour scepticism, when reading anything related across the ‘web. There can be no immediately satisfying ‘proof’ except for the existence of the story itself. It is the same for tales of the Talking Board (now most commonly referred to as an Ouija board online).
The advent of occultism in Victorian society was hardly the beginning of a modern understanding of magic; rather, it was an embodiment of the insecurities and discoveries of the time, paired with a far less restricted access to a plethora of literature and fiction on the subject. Scientific advances “opened up new paths into the occult by virtue of [their] exploration of objects and phenomena [which eluded] the limited register of bodily senses”, and “spiritualist claims about ghosts […] suddenly seemed more credible” (Smajić, 2010, p.137). These advances were then in turn used by authors to add weight to their writing, substantiating previous tales through their retelling, and allowing new readers to corroborate the events as true through their own new experiences (coloured, however, by this novel knowledge).
Any experience is as real as you feel it is: Victorian occultism and the existence of the séance are testaments to this. Even if ghosts are not real, or communication with the dead is completely unfeasible, the experiences of the living remain real nonetheless. It happened; someone, somewhere, felt it happen. The event is a part of their memory and lived experience. As an embodied experience, supernatural phenomena will always be real to those who lived it, if they believe it to be the case. The experience may be deconstructed and explained, but that doesn’t mean denying people their belief: that remains, as it was over a hundred years ago for the Victorians, and far earlier for those with religious embodied experiences, a personal choice.
Blackler, Z., 2011, Juhani Pallasmaa in praise of shadows at the Cooper Union in New York, The Architectural Review, May Issue, p.31
Brook, I., 2002, Experiencing Interiors: Ocularcentrism and Merleau-Ponty’s Redeeming of the Role of Vision. Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 33:1, pp.68-77
Butler, A., 2011, Victorian Occultism and the Making of Modern Magic: Invoking Tradition, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Chilton, M., 2016, The War of the Worlds Panic was a Myth, [online], UK: The Telegraph. Available at: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/radio/what-to-listen-to/the-war-of-the-worlds-panic-was-a-myth> [Accessed 6 May 2016]
Druchunas, D., 2015, Socks, Séances and Sherlock Holmes. Piecework, September/October Issue, p.46-47
Holloway, J., 2006. Enchanted Spaces: the Séance, Affect, and Geographies of Religion, Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Vol. 96 (1) pp.182-187
Available at: <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3694153> [Accessed 3 May 2016]
Jay, M., 1988, The Rise of Hermeneutics and the Crisis of Ocularcentrism, The Rhetoric of Interpretation and the Interpretation of Rhetoric. Poetics Today, Vol. 9(2), pp.307-326
Pile, S., 2006, The Strange Case of Western Cities: Occult Globalisations and the Making of Urban Modernity. Urban Studies, Vol. 43(2), pp.305-318
Smajić, S., 2010, Ghost-seers, Detectives, and Spiritualists: Theories of Vision in Victorian Literature and Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Witchboard, 1986 [DVD]. Written and directed by Kevin S. Tenney. USA: Anchor Bay Home Entertainment
Woodward, M., 2014, From Inter-action to Correspondence (a review of Tim Ingold’s (2013) ‘Bodies on the Run’) Available through: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269102319_From_inter-action_to_correspondence_a_review_of_Tim_Ingold%27s_2013_%27Bodies_on_the_Run%27?channel=doi&linkId=5480744d0cf25b80dd72374c&showFulltext=true [Accessed 1 May 2016].
Figure 1: a still of the Talking Board (letters V through to Z obscured by the planchette) from the film Witchboard. From Witchboard, 1986 [DVD], written and directed by Kevin S. Tenney. USA: Anchor Bay Home Entertainment
Figure 2: “Spirits” and Their Manifestations, — An Evening Séance, 1887 [Hand coloured wood engraving, image online] featured in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Available at: <http://www.printsoldandrare.com/occult> [Accessed 29 April 2016]
Figure 3: Haunted Homes and Family Legends: third edition of 1886 (left) and 1912 edition (right). [image online]. Available at: <https://uncannyuk.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/uncanny-book-club-ingrams-haunted-homes> [accessed 2 May 2016]
Figure 4: Aubrey Beardsley, 1919, Two Print Illustrations from Edgar Allan Poe’s collection of horror stories, Tales of Mystery and Imagination [images online]. Available at: <http://io9.gizmodo.com/5907929/illustrations-that-made-edgar-allan-poes-stories-even-more-horrifying> [accessed 30 April 2016]
Figure 5: George Zielezinski AKA George Ziel, 1981, ‘The Séance’ cover [image online]. Available at: <http://wulibraries.typepad.com/mghlnews/2014/03/george-ziel.html> [accessed 6 May 2016]