During Victorian times, people sat around in the dark, held hands, and tried to contact the spirits. Many people reported experiencing extraordinary phenomena during these darkroom séances, including the mysterious movement of objects, strange sounds and ghostly manifestations.
Over the years, some skeptics have argued that these reports were due to people either fooling themselves or being deceived by fraudulent mediums. In the late 1880s, psychical researcher Richard Hodgson and magician S. J. Davey held fake séances for unsuspecting participants, and then asked participants to recall the séance. Many people incorrectly recalled what had happened and thought that they had experienced genuine paranormal phenomena. Similar work by parapsychologist Theodore Besterman in the 1930s also revealed that participants often experienced the illusory movements of objects. My research has built on this work.
In 1988, I attended a lecture by American magician Eugene Burger. During the talk, Burger explained that he had just published ‘Spirit Theatre’ – a book about his work faking darkroom séances. I bought the one copy that Burger had with him and it’s still one of my favourite books on the topic. A short time later I attended a magic convention in Bristol and met magician and actor Andy Nyman. The two of us loved the idea of staging a fake séance, and over the next few years we staged several informal séances at various parties.
Then, in 1995, my team and I conducted my first study into the topic.
Manifestations 1 (1995)
This study was carried out at the Fortean Times ‘UnConvention’ with the help of my then research assistant, Matthew Smith. We staged three séances and had twenty-five people attend each one. They first completed a questionnaire about their belief in the paranormal and then sat around in a circle. A small table in the centre of the circle contained various objects, including a book, a slate and a bell. The lights were turned off and everyone could see that the objects had luminous tabs on them. I played the role of the medium, asking participants to imagine the spirits moving the objects. Some of the objects did indeed move (via trickery) whilst others remained stationary. Afterwards, around a third of participants reported the illusory movement of an object and many of them believed that they had experienced genuine paranormal phenomena.
This study is described in: Wiseman, R., Smith, M. and Wiseman, J. (1995). Eyewitness testimony and the paranormal. Skeptical Inquirer, November/December, 19(6), 29-32. Download here.
Manifestations 2 (1997)
In 1997, Matthew and I carried out a second study into the topic at another Fortean Times UnConvention. This experiment involved groups of twenty-five people attending one of eight séances. People completed a questionnaire about their belief in the paranormal, and then sat around a small table containing a hand bell, a maraca and wicker ball. Once again, all of the objects had been treated with luminous paint. This time, Andy Nyman played the role of the medium.
The lights were extinguished and everyone was asked to concentrate on various objects. The ball levitated into the air and gently returned to the table. The table remained completely stationary, but Andy suggested that it was levitating. Two weeks later, everyone was sent a questionnaire about the séance. Again, around a third of people had been influenced by the suggestion and reported seeing the table levitate. Almost one in five people also reported strange experiences including cold shivers, a strong sense of energy flowing and a presence in the room. Finally, believers were more likely than disbelievers to report unusual experiences during the séance.
This work is described in: Wiseman, R., Jeffreys, C., Smith, M. & Nyman, A. (1999). The psychology of the seance, from experiment to drama. Skeptical Inquirer, 23(2). Download here.
The Secrets Of The Psychics (1997)
In 1997, Channel 4 broadcast a now classic documentary about the psychology of the paranormal. Entitled ‘Secrets Of The Psychics’, the show was produced by magician David Britland and featured a version of our séance filmed in infrared. Once again, Matthew Smith was involved and the role of the medium was played by magician Richard McDougall.
An evening of Spirit Theatre (1998)
In 1997, Andy Nyman and I presented a somewhat more theatrical version of the séance at The Magic Circle in London.
The following year we decided to develop the idea into a show for the public. The show was written and performed by Andy and myself, and originally staged as part of British National Science Week.
The venue was a disused, underground Victorian prison in the heart of London, and involved two performances each evening. In the first half of the show, the audience was led through the prison corridors and told about the history of the darkroom séance. The audience was then taken along a narrow ventilation shaft into the heart of the prison. Here, they met Andy and the séance began.
Andy related a Victorian ghost story about the murder of a music hall singer named Marie Ambrose. During the story, audience members selected their favourite image from several Victorian photographs, set an old pocket watch to the time of their choice and randomly chose a four-digit number. Andy then revealed a report of the murder from a turn of the century newspaper, and showed that the chosen photograph was a picture of Marie, that the watch had been set to the time of her murder and the four digit number corresponded to the year that she died.
Several luminous objects were examined and placed on the table. In pitch darkness Andy summoned the spirit of Marie and the objects moved and levitated (often to gasps and screams from the audience!).
The show was funded by the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), gained a great deal of media coverage and sold out.
This is described in: Wiseman, R., Jeffreys, C., Smith, M. & Nyman, A. (1999). The psychology of the seance, from experiment to drama. Skeptical Inquirer, 23, (2). Download here.
Manifestations 3 (1999)
The third study took place in 1999, again at the Fortean Times UnConvention. This time, it was a collaborative effort between my then research assistants Emma Greening and Matthew Smith, and myself. Around two hundred people attended one of twelve seances. Once again, each group sat around a table in the dark. Various objects had been treated with luminous paint and placed in the centre of the table, including a handbell, a candlestick, a slate, a tambourine and ball.
I played the role of the medium, and made various suggestions about the movement of the objects. This study was more complex than the early ones, and looked at the impact of suggesting that moving objects actually remained stationary. The results again showed that around a third of people believed the suggestions, and that those who believed in the paranormal were only influenced by the suggestions that a stationary object was moving.
The results of Manifestations 2 and 3 are described in: Wiseman, R., Greening, E., & Smith, M. (2003). Belief in the paranormal and suggestion in the seance room. British Journal of Psychology, 94(3), 285-297. Download here.
Over the years I have staged many different versions of the darkroom séance at various festivals and events, including the Edinburgh International Science Festival, the Liverpool Science Festival, The Science Museum and the DANA Centre. Many of these were devised and staged in collaboration with Professor Caroline Watt. It has featured on several television and radio programmes. The objects themselves appeared on Derren Brown’s television special, ‘Séance’ (2004), and were also featured in The Wellcome Institute’s ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ Exhibition (2019).
In 2011, Caroline Watt and I staged a very different version of the séance at the Cheltenham Science Festival. This show played to an audience of around a hundred people and was staged at the Playhouse Theatre. About ten people from the audience were taken to a dark room and took part in the séance. Meanwhile, an infrared feed from the room was shown to the main audience, allowing them to see how many of the tricks were achieved.
We then teamed up with magician David Britland to create a version of this event for magicians. This was staged to 1500 magicians at Magic Live in Las Vegas (2018), and to 1000 performers at the Blackpool Magic Convention (2020). In Vegas our medium was Jim Underdown and in Blackpool the role was played by Danny Buckler.
So there we have it, a quick summary of over twenty years of séance experiments and shows!
Hodgson, R. & Davey, S.J. (1887). The possibilities of mal‑observation and lapse of memory from a practical point of view. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 4, 381‑495.
Besterman, T. (1932). The psychology of testimony in relation to paraphysical phenomena: Report of an experiment. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 40, 363‑387.
Wiseman, R., Smith, M. and Wiseman, J. (1995). Eyewitness testimony and the paranormal. Skeptical Inquirer, November/December, 19(6), 29-32. Download here.
Wiseman, R., Jeffreys, C., Smith, M. & Nyman, A. (1999). The psychology of the seance, from experiment to drama. Skeptical Inquirer, 23, (2). Download here.
Wiseman, R., Greening, E., & Smith, M. (2003). Belief in the paranormal and suggestion in the seance room. British Journal of Psychology, 94(3), 285-297. Download here.