Psychic Phenomena in my family: #8 Seances.

Down the street from the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where Albert Einstein had been living recently and working, there was a pleasant clapboard house which I visited one Christmas vacation along with my roommate and his girlfriend, who lived there. Clara (I will call her Clara) was a level-headed girl with a scientific bent. She was studying biology, as I remember. My roommate, Robert, also was not credulous. In fact, he did not believe in anything, not in religion, and certainly not in psychic phenomena. But that Christmas, all three of us were planning on participating in a séance. It was Christmas and none of the other students were on campus, and there was nothing else to do.
I have never been entertained particularly by magic tricks or the kind of organized fakery that my brother was to be caught up in many years later, when he was communicating with our dead mother through different mediums in three different countries. Our mother was still alive, and I had just communicated to her by telephone on Friday, as I usually did after mailing my laundry home. (It seems now to be weird and preposterous that I mailed my laundry home to my mother every week, but that is what I did. At the time, I did not think twice about it.)
On this occasion, however, Clara promised me that the séance would not be conducted by a professional. Nobody was going to ask me for money. This was a family séance. It had been going on for months, or longer, at regular intervals, like a poker game.
When we arrived, there were three or four family members, the youngest of whom was seventeen. And there were some other friends. And there was a big round table, not too sturdy, but big. And rickety. Clara explained to me that these séances were not always pleasant affairs. People sometimes got upset by what the spirits were telling them, particularly the seventeen year old boy. I realized that the people I was with were true believers—except Clara and Robert. I reminded myself that you did not have to pay someone to fool you; you could fool yourself for free.
We exchanged pleasantries for a time–It was Christmas, after all—and then we took our places around the table. We sat close to each other and placed our hands flat on the table, fingers outstretched, pinkies just barely touching those of the people sitting on either side. Someone said something to the spirits. I did not pay much attention, since I was trying not to get giddy. And the spirits responded! The table did not give the sort of little bump I had been expecting. It seemed almost to lift off the floor and then give a thump when it landed again. At a regular rhythm it rose up again and thumped. The thumps continued until they reached a certain letter. And then the table was still, until it started counting off the next letter. I looked around to see who was pushing the table, but in the dimly lit room, I could not tell who it was. No one seemed to be leaning on the table. And it was a big table.
Important principle: Psychological phenomena, even unconscious psychological phenomena, can have more dramatic effects than we think. (Consider placebo effects. Everyone knows people can respond psychologically to sugar pills, but they don’t realize how striking those effects can be: dizziness, vomiting, cramps and so on.)
I expected the table to move; I did not expect it to rise and fall and give off a loud thump.
When the final thump came to signal the last letter of the word, no one was surprised. Since everyone at the table could spell, it was pretty obvious after the first few letters what the word was going to be, and, after a while, what phrase was being spelled out No spirits identified themselves, but there were messages directed at certain of the people who were sitting at the table: “John, take care,” that sort of thing. But at one point a strange set of messages started coming through:
“John, leave the table,” then
“Emily, leave the table,” then
“Iris, leave the table.”
I remember John was a little piqued that he was being excluded, but he left the table along with the others. Finally, the only people left were Robert, Clara and me! I began to get nervous. None of the three of us believed in this stuff, so who was pushing the table? At this point the spirits began to jabber. The table kept tapping, but kept going around the alphabet without stopping.
After a while, the others rejoined us, and the spirits went on to talk about some other things, falling silent from time to time.
During one of those times, I decided to try an experiment. I wanted to see if one person (me) could make the table tap despite there being six other people sitting at it. I stared at my fingers. I lifted them very slightly, invisible even to me, in order to get ready to give the table a push. And just lifting my fingers imperceptibly was enough to start the table rocking! I tried a second time later on and the same thing happened.
My theory: After sticking out our fingers rigidly on the table for a long time I think two things happened: some muscles became tense and shaky a little and ready to contract. And the tips of the fingers became just a little numb and unaware of little movements of the table. Very slight movements then turned into bigger movements, without anyone noticing. After a while everyone started acting in concert to give the tappings particular meaning. One person could drive the whole table.
Unfortunately, conscious or not, some of the things someone may feel inclined to say are discomfiting, and so a séance has the potential for being upsetting.
Of course, as has been shown over and over again, séances run by professional soothsayers are just plain fakery.