As the evenings get darker and the first hint of winter hangs in the air, the western world enters the season of the dead.
It begins with Halloween, continues with All Saints’ and All Souls’ days, runs through Bonfire Night – the evening where the English burn effigies of historical terrorists – and ends with Remembrance Day. And through it all, Britain’s mediums enjoy one of their busiest times of the year.
People who claim to contact the spirit world provoke extreme reactions. For some, mediums offer comfort and mystery in a dull world. For others they are fraudsters or unwitting fakes, exploiting the vulnerable and bereaved. But to a small group of psychologists, the rituals of the seance and the medium are opening up insights into the mind, shedding light on the power of suggestion and even questioning the nature of free will.
Humanity has been attempting to commune with the dead since ancient times. As far back as Leviticus, the Old Testament God actively forbade people to seek out mediums. Interest peaked in the 19th century, a time when religion and rationality were clashing like never before. In an era of unprecedented scientific discovery, some churchgoers began to seek evidence for their beliefs.
Salvation came from two American sisters, 11-year-old Kate and 14-year-old Margaret Fox. On 31 March 1848, the girls announced they were going to contact the spirit world. To the astonishment of their parents they got a reply. That night, the Fox sisters chatted to a ghost haunting their New York State home, using a code of one tap for yes, two gaps for no. Word spread and soon the girls were demonstrating their skills to 400 locals in the town hall.
Within months a new religion had emerged – spiritualism – a mixture of liberal, nonconformist values and fireside chats with dead people. Spiritualism attracted some of the great thinkers of the day – including biologist Alfred Russel Wallace and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who spent his latter years promoting spiritualism in between knocking out Sherlock Holmes stories. Even the admission of the Fox sisters in 1888 that they had faked it all failed to crush the movement. Today spiritualism thrives in more than 350 churches in Britain.
The tricks and techniques used by mediums have been exposed many times by people such as James Randi, Derren Brown and Jon Dennis, creator of the Bad Pyschics website.
Last week I spent 40 minutes with a telephone spiritualist who passed on messages from four dead people. Like all mediums, she was skilled at cold reading – the use of probable guesses and picking up of cues to steer her in the right direction.
If she hit a dud – the suggestion that she was in the presence of a 40-year-old uncle of mine – she quickly widened it out. The 40-year-old became an older person who felt young at heart. And then someone who was more of an uncle figure. She was also skilled at the Barnum effect – the use of statements that tend to be true for everyone.
Among dozens of guesses and misses, there was just one hit – the correct name of a dead relative. Their relation to me was utterly wrong, as were details of their health. But the name was right and, even though it was a common name among that person’s generation, it was a briefly chilling moment.
Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist and magician, says my response to this lucky guess is typical. People tend to remember the correct details in a seance but overlook statements or events that provide no evidence of paranormal powers.
Wiseman’s work has also shown that we are all extremely susceptible to the power of suggestion. With colleague Andy Nyman, co-creator of Derren Brown’s television illusions, Wiseman used contemporary descriptions of Victorian seances to recreate an encounter with spirits in a disused prison. Over eight seances involving 152 people, volunteers sat around a table in the dark holding hands while luminous painted bells, balls and maracas moved before their eyes. Surveyed afterwards, a fifth of the volunteers believed they had witnessed the paranormal.
“These things are often very simple,” says Wiseman, author of Paranormality. “We had a man creeping around with a stick. We thought when we read the original accounts of how seances were carried out that they wouldn’t fool anyone. We were wrong. A lot this is do with framing. Once you think you have an explanation for an event you don’t have any other ones. Once you think it’s a spirit you don’t look for another explanation.”
During the seance, Nyman, taking the role of the medium, announced that the spirit would raise the table. Soon afterwards he encouraged the spirit by saying “lift the table higher” and “the table is moving now”. Two weeks later a third of the participants recalled wrongly that the table had moved.
“Suggestion builds over time. If you ask people immediately after the event it is not so effective. You don’t want to solidify the memory immediately after the event,” says Wiseman.
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