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Oct 17 2012

How to Stage a Séance

“Séance” is a French word meaning “session,” “seating” or “meeting” (depending on your translation), but its most commonly understood meaning is a gathering with the intent to communicate with the dead. Whether or not you believe such things are possible, I think everyone here can agree that a theatrical séance is a great way to have fun. They can be performed at a Halloween party, used as a room in a haunted house or as a magic show/haunted attraction in its own right. What they should not be used for, however, is to convince people that you have supernatural abilities. Be honest about the staged nature of the events. In some cases, like performing one in room in a haunted attraction, the phoniness is clear to all but the youngest of children. At other times, like at a party or as a standalone attraction, distinctions might have to be made. This can range from a disclaimer at the start (or finish) of the show or by using a few effects that are entertaining while still providing a knowing wink to the audience at the staged nature of the events. But even this has its issues. Glow in the dark “spirits” making an appearance are fun for everyone, while trying out the “deceased aviator” trick used in a “real” séance will only result in gales of derisive laughter.

If you’re planning on attending such an event and don’t want to know any spoilers, don’t read the material below.

If you’re going to perform this privately for a gathering of friends, make sure to check that none of your intended guests has recently suffered the death of a loved one. Nothing ruins the fun faster than accidentally upsetting a friend to the point of tears.

Atmosphere is extremely important. Watch a lot of movies and television shows featuring scenes involving séances to figure out the sort of look that you want for the room. In any case, you definitely want to use a room whose windows are covered by dark curtains. You will want to get the room to be as dark as possible.

A levitating table is a great trick for a séance. While there are various methods on how to do so in Chung Ling Soo’s Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena, this method is probably the easiest way to go about it. As an added bonus, that method also doesn’t involve potentially damaging the table.

The Google Books previews for The Halloween Handbook by Ed Morrow and A Halloween How-To by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne have some great tips about how to decorate the room and set the mood. While Morrow’s book does offer a few suggestions on visual effects, the majority of his tips focus on cold-reading techniques, Bannatyne’s suggestions are more visually-oriented. Both are effective, so feel free to pick and choose as you please. I particularly enjoyed the use of audio prior to the séance to help enhance the mood. One of my favorite tricks is to make a recording of ambient silence for a set amount of time, immediately followed by spooky sounds or the voices of spirits and have it play on a hidden speaker. By timing out the start of the seance just right, this can create a great response with the participants. You can even work out a “conservation” with the “spirit” by leaving appropriate gaps in its dialogue. You might want to gather question suggestions during the silent part of the recording.

Speaking of effects that are aided by timing, the self-extinguishing candle trick is great, but you should exercise extreme caution when using real flames. If you are going to “levitate” or shake the table during the course of the events, be sure to do so after the candle has gone out. Or you can skip levitating the table entirely and go for a spooky (but stationary) glowing one like this!

Make sure your hidden assistants are all dressed from head to toe in black clothes, masks, and gloves. They’ll know when to come out and perform based on hidden cues in your rehearsed dialogue. If you paint a ghost on the same sort of black fabric using glow-in-the-dark paint, you can roll it up once it dries. When the assistant unrolls it in the dark, it will look like a spirit has suddenly appeared. Walking around the room with it unrolled will be seen as a ghost floating around. It can be made to “vanish” by suddenly flipping to the unpainted other side. Another fun trick is to blow up a balloon and paint a face on it with glow-in-the-dark paint. Once the paint has dried, untie the balloon so all the air is let out. One of the assistants (pick one who can blow up a balloon as quickly and quietly as possible) can store it in their pocket and make a ghost appear and disappearing by inflating and deflating the balloon. I must confess that I got those ideas from Peter Eldin’s The Spookster’s Handbook, which has a ton of great ideas that could work at a theatrical séance. I highly recommend tracking it down. You can find instructions on creating “Ghost Lights,” a “Spirit Tamborine,” “Floating Hand,” and “Dancing Skeleton” in the effects section of the script for The Great Ghost Chase. If you really want to impress your guests, try setting up a “Pepper’s Ghost” effect. Just remember that “less is more” and the best effects should appear as a grand finale.

If you’re lacking in assistants, try investing in an “Eviltron” to provide voices that can’t be placed as easily as ones issuing from a traditional hidden audio player would. Just be careful where you put it, as it uses a rare earth magnet in its design, which can lead to trouble if placed improperly. Thankfully, that’s not the only effect that can be accomplished without any helpers.

Using one of the “talking with ghosts” methods from “Spooky Magic Tricks” is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Speaking of magic tricks, working in this levitation trick could also have potential. If your seance is going to use the old school method of having the medium perform in a “spirit cabinet” or be bound when the spirits appear, then these two tricks will be of great interest to you.

Gravedigger’s Local 16 is not to be held responsible for the content on or anything that may occur (be it good or bad) as a result of visiting any links on the above sites (or constructing a project that’s detailed on them). This also applies to the suggestions made here. Attempt at your own discretion.

2 pings

  1. avatar
    Music to Haunt By: Shadow’s Symphony - Gravedigger's Local 16

    [...] of all kinds (the older and more majestic looking, the better). It’s also great for use in theatrical séances. Each track can easily fit a variety of scenes while never sounding generic or bland and all but a [...]

  2. avatar
    Music to Haunt By: Sam Haynes » Gravedigger's Local 16

    […] box-like notes at times. You should definitely use this in your haunt’s (or party’s) staged séance. Failing that, it also works wonders with a moving Ouija board. Tolling bells bring us into […]

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