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Spiritualism and Séances in the Movies

‘The world may or may not be without a purpose but it is not totally without some kind of magic.’ – aunt Vanessa, Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Spirituality as it was understood in the 19th and beginning of the 20th century did not have anything to do with religion. When one talked about Spirituality one would refer to the communication with passed away relatives, friends, or loved ones during a séance.

Séance comes from French and denotes ‘session’ or 'sitting'. In English, the word séance was used to refer to a spiritual séance – a gathering of people who wished to communicate with spirits via a medium or by the means of an ouija board or automatic writing, also referred to as psychographic. The interest towards this kind of communication arose out of the disillusionment with the Church doctrines and religious dogmas. In the Victorian era of the technical and scientific progress (1834 -1914), Church and religious teachings no longer could offer credible explanations to the questions that bothered the minds of ordinary people. These inquisitive ‘ordinary people’ were not quite ordinary. They were scientists, doctors, writers, journalists, artists, upper and middle class women and men, as well as aristocracy, in other words intellectual and social elite, who had money and time to devote to the exploration of Spiritual realms.

First of all, I would say this, which must be obvious to many, however much they deplore it: Christianity must change or must parish. Christianity has deferred the change very long, she has deferred it until her churches are half empty, until women are her chief supporters, and until both the learned part of the community on one side, and the poorest class on the other, both in town and country, are largely alienated from her.’ – Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Revelation (1918)

Churches and religions aside, spiritual séance was an entertaining form of trying to comprehend the imperceptible, pose questions, find answers and establish a link between the physical and non physical. It was in many ways a revelation and revolution in one.

When I had finished my medical education in 1882, I found myself, like many young medical men, a convinced materialist as regards our personal destiny. I had never ceased to be an earnest theist, because it seemed to me that Napoleon’s question to the atheistic professors on the starry night as he voyaged to Egypt: ‘Who was it, gentlemen, who made these stars?’ has never been answered. To say that the Universe was made by immutable laws only to put the question one degree further back as to who made the laws. I did not, of course, believe in an anthropomorphic God, but I believed then, as I believe now, in an intelligent Force behind all the operations of Nature – a force so infinitely complex and great that my finite brain could get no further than its existence.’ - Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Revelation (1918)

For many, the question of whether there is life after death was a gripping one. Scientists could only provide answers where experiments and physical proof were concerned but they were helpless when it came to explaining something that could not be seen or touched or proved with physical evidence. Thus, came in Spirituality.

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

As in any field, spiritual realm was not void of charlatans and ‘magicians’ who exploited the interest of people. Debunking of such ‘spiritualists’ by people of their own ilk is the theme of the Magic in the Moonlight (2014). A magician Stanley, who performs tricks for a living, is invited by his fellow illusionist, Howard Burkan, to a rich American family in Cote D’Azure to uncover the tricks of the clairvoyant and mystic Sophie Baker of whom the family took fancy. So much so, that the son of the family, having been smitten with Sophie, is thinking of proposing to her. While trying to debunk Sophie, Stanley finds himself under her spell. The tricky occurrence that he cannot quite figure out:

Aunt Vanessa: Yes, I understand that you are puzzled and bewildered because your foolish logic tells you that you should love Olivia.

Stanley: Foolish logic?

Aunt Vanessa: And yet how little that logic means when placed next to Sophie's smile...

Stanley: What are you saying?

Aunt Vanessa: That the world may or may not be without a purpose but it is not totally without some kind of magic.

Stanley [thoughtfully]: I have irrational positive feelings towards Sophie Baker. It's like witnessing a trick I cannot figure out.

Aunt Vanessa: I would not try to figure it out. Let's simply move on.

Although there was a bit of trickery in Sophie's 'magic', sometimes, one does not have to look for explanations or logic but simply embrace the unknown and unexplainable. The movie also shows attitudes that existed towards Spirituality, those of believers and those of non believers, as well as depicts magicians and illusionists who made a living, satisfying the need of people for a bit of magic.


Death Comes Knocking - Miss Fischer Murders Mysteries (2012-2015)

The topic of the Spiritualism and mediums is also tackled in Death Comes Knocking episode of Miss Fischer Murder Mysteries (2012-2015) Australian TV series where reality, truth, and imperceptible is intertwined in a murder mystery, the events of which had happened 10 years prior, during the First World War.

In the episode, Miss Fischer hosts a séance for which her aunt Prudence enlists the famed Mrs Bolkonsky – a Russian medium who travels the world offering her services to the interested. The reason for the séance is the aunt’s wish to contact her dead godson, Lieutenant Colonel Roland Claremont. Mrs Bolkonsky is not an entirely bogus medium as one might expect in the circumstances. During the séance, one of the attendees, a war veteran, telepathically passes to her some information that Mrs Bolkonsky could not have known, since she was not present at the scene that took place on the battle field. However, the séance and the medium are not free of trickery, for unfortunately there are ulterior motives involved. This mixture of truth and trickery makes it difficult to judge Mrs Bolkonsky's psychic talents and thus the validity of Spirituality. However, the episode does not entirely dismiss spirits and the medium abilities as such, leaving it all linger in the grey area.

Warwick Hamilton: Tell me, Miss Fisher, do you discredit everything you cannot see?

Phryne Fisher: No. Not everything. I believe in radio waves and electricity and magnetism.

Warwick Hamilton: Or the current that flows between two people.

Phryne Fisher: I would never discredit that.


Anna - Detektiv TV Series (2016-2017)

Perhaps one of the most successful depictions of séances and putting the medium knowledge to use is a Russian TV series Anna - Detektiv (2016-2017) - can be watched on YOUTUBE with English subtitles. The episodes of the series focus on murder mysteries in a provincial town of Zatonsk. The events take place in the second half of the 19th century. The main heroine, a nineteen-year-old Anna Mironova is a medium who can establish connections with spirits of victims or deceased people. She puts her talent to use by helping Yakov Schtolman, a detective from Saint-Petersburg, to solve local murders. The episodes have many references to dreams, intuitive feelings and premonitions, as well as encounters with spirits and spiritual seances. The series is neither a mockery on Spiritualism nor a comedy about séances, rather, it is a look at how the Spirituality and Physicality can come together and serve the better good. For, Anna and Schtolman cooperate quite successfully and even though Schtolman often pokes at Anna, he does it with kindness and humour, often showing the signs of understanding that there is more to the world that can be seen and accepting those occurrences that he cannot explain.


Blithe Spirit (2020)

Another more accepting, albeit not a very serious one, look at the Spirituality and séances is Blithe Spirit (2020) based on the comic play of the same name by Noel Coward. The story covers the experience of a socialite and novelist, Charles Condomine, with the world of spirits. Hoping to get some material for his book, Charles invites an eccentric medium and clairvoyant, Madame Arcati to hold a séance. She manages to establish the connection but only to summon a dead ex-wife of Charles, Elvira. The spirit of Elvira, who is not willing to leave the physical world, persists in her attempts to destroy the second marriage of Charles. When his second-wife, Ruth, dies in a car accident, Charles is haunted by two spirits – Elvira and Ruth, both adamant to annoy and dismantle him. In hope to get rid of them, he sets multiple séances until, finally, Madame Arcati realises that spirits materialise through a psychic housemaid, Edith, who serves as a conduit for them. Using Edith, she exorcizes the spirits of the two wives.

The movie shows the battle between the rational world and the world of intuition, the psychic abilities and the unperceived outcomes. The battle, which, in the end, leaves the rational to the rational and the otherworldly to the other world with Charles Condomine joining the 'naughty' spirits.

The movie’s plot calls for wisdom of General Drayson, ‘a man of remarkable character and one of the pioneers of Spiritualism’: You have not got the fundamental truth into your head. That truth is, that every spirit in the flesh passes over to the next world exactly as it is, with no change whatever. The world is full of weak and foolish people. So is the next. You need not mix with them, any more than you do in this world. One chooses one’s companions. But suppose a man in this world, who had lived in his house alone and never mixed with his fellows, was at last to put his head out of the window to see what sort of place it was, what would happen? Some naughty boy would probably say something rude. Anyhow, he would see nothing of the wisdom or greatness of the world. He would draw his head thinking it was a very poor place. That is just what you have done. In a mixed séance, with no definite aim, you have thrust your head into the next world and you have met some naughty boys. Go forward and try to reach something better.’ - an excerpt from The New Revelation (1918) by Arthur Conan Doyle

Seraphima Bogomolova

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