séance or seance is, on its most basic level, an attempt to communicate with the dead. The séance, or sitting, is led by a person known as a medium who will usually go into a trance that theoretically allows the dead to communicate through him or her.

The word séance comes from the French word for ‘seat’, ‘session’, from Old French seoir, ‘to sit.’ In English, the word came to be used specifically for a meeting of people to receive spiritualistic messages (a sense first recorded in English in 1845). In French, it is much more general: one can say une séance de cinéma.

Séances were conducted in dark or semi-dark rooms with participants seated around a table – the darkness making it easier for the medium to deceive participants with tricks, usually helped in this by an assistant. Sometimes the table would lean and tilt, participants (sitters) might feel a cold breeze on their faces, items could materialize apparently out of thin air and musical instruments might play mysteriously. During the course of the séance, the medium would speak under the apparent control of a spirit, relaying messages from the dearly departed. Other methods of spirit communication included automatic writing, writing on sealed slates, writing with planchettes (similar to the Ouija board), impressing images onto photographic plates which had been kept in sealed enclosures, and painted images which gradually appeared upon a previously blank canvas.

Belief in the ability to communicate with the dead is part of a religious movement called Spiritualism, which flourished from the 1840s until the 1920s and still exists today. Sceptics consider séances to be scams. M. Lamar Keene once practised scam séances but revealed the fraud in his book, The Psychic Mafia (Randi 1995:135).