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Séance Fiction

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Séance Fiction

James Riley

“The seances always produced results”, says a character in Gladys Mitchell’s When Last I Died (1941), “Tom never had what you would call a barren seance.” These 6 seminars take this statement as their starting point. The séance – the supernatural meeting place that proliferated across the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century – exists as an intersection of spiritualism, simulation, and science. Debunked but persistent, these darkened rooms and sites of ritual remain productive: challenging belief and catalysing the imagination. The seminar analyses the texts, spaces and objects that variously characterized, informed, and responded to the social role of the séance and its associated discourses. It invites students to consider the extensive cultural history of this international practice in relation to such ideas as performance, race, gender and corporeality.

Selected Topics

1. Meeting in Session This session considers the space of the séance, its role as a room, conduit, portal; its role as a form of domestic and personal performance; a location alternately understood as a ‘safe’ space or site of deception. The aim will be to ‘map’, as far as possible, the co-ordinates – tangible and intangible, symbolic and spatial – of the séance room.


Lettice Galbraith, ‘In the Séance Room’ (1893) 

May Sinclair, ‘The Flaw in the Crystal’ (1912) 

Agatha Christie, ‘The Last Séance’ (1926) 

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black (2006) 


Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852) 

David Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus (1925) 

Noël Coward, Blithe Spirit (1941) 

Ronald Pearsall, Table-Rappers (1972) 

Alex Owen, The Darkened Room (1989) 

Antonio Melechi Servants of the Supernatural (2008) 

Suggested viewing 

Jacques Tourneur, Night of the Demon (1956) 

Bryan Forbes, Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) 

Georgina Starr, Theda (2003)

2. Belief and Scepticism 

Using texts by mediums and their critics, this session will consider the history of Spiritualism and its frames of representation. 


Emma Hardinge Britten, ‘Mrs. Emma Hardinge on Spirit Mediums’ (1868) 

Ruben Briggs Davenport, The Death-Blow to Spiritualism: Being the True Story of the Fox Sisters, as Revealed by Authority of Margaret Fox Kane and Catherine Fox Jencken (1888) 

Elizabeth d’Espérance, Northern Lights and Other Psychic Stories (1899) 


Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, The Gates Ajar (1868) 

Muriel Spark, The Bachelors (1960) 

Christopher Priest, The Prestige (1995) 

C.G. Jung, ‘On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena’ (1902) 

Harry Houdini, A Magician Among the Spirits (1924) 

Georgina Byrne, Modern Spiritualism and the Church of England, 1850-1939 (2010) 

Suggested Viewing 

Zoe Beloff, The Mechanical Medium (1999) 

Zoe Beloff, Shadow Land or Light from the Other Side (2000) 

Rodrigo Cortés, Red Lights (2012)


3. Spiritualism and the Emancipated Voice 

The primary reading for this seminar will consider the rise of American spiritualism, its link to Abolitionist politics and the associated role of the female public speaker. 


Achsa W. Sprague, The Poet (1864) 

Nettie Coburn Maynard, Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist: Or Curious Revelations from the Life of a Trance Medium (1891) 

Cora L. V. Scott, My Experiences While Out Of My Body (1915) 


Robert Dale Owen, Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World (1860) 

Paschal Beverly Randolph, Dealings with the Dead (1861) 

Uriah Clark, Plain Guide to Spiritualism (1863) 

R. Laurence Moore, ‘The Spiritualist Medium: A Study of Female Professionalism in Victorian America’ (1975). 

Suggested viewing 

Bernard Vorhaus, The Spiritualist (1948) 

Peter Medak, The Changeling (1980) 

Alex Mar, American Mystic (2010)


4. Voodoo, Hoodoo, Vodun 

Developing the spiritual contexts explored thus far, this seminar will consider the politics, practices and rituals of the syncretic religion Voodoo, particularly its emphasis on mediumistic forms of group singing. 


Louise Kennedy, ‘Voodoo and Vodun’ (1890) 

Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Hoodoo in America’ (1931) 

Rollo Ahmed, The Black Art (1936) 


William Seabrook, The Magical Island (1929) 

Kameelah L. Martin, Envisioning Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics (2016) 

James S. Mellis, Voodoo, Hoodoo and Conjure in African American Literature (2019) 

Suggested Viewing 

Victor Halperin, White Zombie (1932) 

Edward L. Cahn, Voodoo Woman (1957) 

Richard Stanley, The White Darkness (2002)


5. Visions 

Spirit photographs are among the most enduring historical ephemera relating to the séance context. This seminar draws on a series of fictional and ‘documentary’ materials to examine the symbolic resonance of this potent visual culture. 


Helen F. Stuart, Spirit photographs, circa 1862-1865. 

Harvey Metcalf, Photographs of medium Helen Duncan, 1928. 

Georgina Haughton, Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye (1882) 


Edith Warton, ‘The Eyes’ (1910) 

William Hope, Spirit photographs, 1919-1922. 

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case for Spirit Photography (1922). 

Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria (2006) 

Shannon Taggart, Séance (2019) 

Suggested Viewing 

Peter Newbrook, The Asphyx (1973) 

John Glenister, A Photograph (1977) 

Nick Willing, Photographing Fairies (1997)


6. Haunted Objects: The Tools of the Séance 

This seminar will take place in the drawing room at Leckhampton House, Grange Road, Cambridge. In August 1895 it was the site of a séance organized by the Society for Psychical Research who were attempting to assess the abilities of the medium Miss Eusapia Paladino. Observing Paladino were Henry Sidgwick, professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge, Lord Rayleigh, professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, William Thomson, Glasgow professor of natural philosophy and Oliver Lodge, professor of physics at University College, Liverpool. 

The proceedings were documented by the society’s secretary, Alice Johnson. Johnson’s notes and other materials connected to the séance are held by the Cambridge UL as part of their Society of Psychical Research special collection. These texts and a series of other artefacts (bent spoons, upturned chairs, drapes, the room itself) will form the primary materials for the seminar. The seminar will be student-led, and participants will be invited to perform a ‘reading’ (an interpretation, a recitation and / or another form of ‘measurement’) of the evidence in-situ. 


W.W. Jacobs, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ (1902) 

William Hope Hodgson, ‘The Whistling Room’ (1910) 

H.P. Lovecraft, ‘From Beyond’ (1920 / 1934) 

Martin Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ (1954) 

Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media (2000) 

Graham Harman, Tool Being (2002) 

Eugene Thacker et al. Excommunication (2013) 

Suggested viewing 

Ed Wood, Night of the Ghouls (1959 / 1984) 

Benito Alazraki, Spiritism (1962) 

William Girdler, The Manitou (1978)

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