Calling the Spirits: A History of Seance, by Lisa Morton

Reviewed by Brian C. Wilson

Lisa Morton’s Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances is an ambitious primer on the history of Spiritualism, and while it covers much of the same ground as other popular histories of the subject, such Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1926) History of Spiritualism and Ruth Brandon’s (1983) The Spiritualists, it is engagingly written, well illustrated, and up-to-date. Like Brandon’s book, Calling the Spirits is written from a sceptical point of view, although it tends to be slightly more sympathetic to its subject than this earlier work, at least until its last chapter. After a brief introduction in which the author traces the 19th-century development of the terms ‘seance’ (always, for some reason, lacking the accent aigu) and ‘medium,’ Morton turns back the clock to explore the antecedents of Spiritualism in western culture.

Chapter one, ‘Summoning the Old Spirits,’ surveys the varieties of spirit encounters in the ancient pagan world, while chapter two, ‘Early Necromancy,’ discusses the ambivalent relationship Christians have had with spirit communication, and the processes that led to its literal demonization by the medieval Catholic Church. The chapter also briefly mentions the revival of necromantic practice during the Renaissance as part of the emerging western esoteric tradition. Next, in chapter three, ‘Darkness Across the Enlightenment and the Romantic Gothic,’ Morton discusses how 18th-century Europeans’ growing taste for the macabre and the fantastic created intellectual space for the rise of Swedenborgianism and Mesmerism, followed by the democratization of these systems by such popular mystics as Friederike Hauffe, the ‘Seer of Prevorst,’ and Andrew Jackson Davis, the ‘Seer of Poughkeepsie.’

The following two chapters are the heart of the book, covering the 19th- and 20th-century histories of Spiritualism proper. Much of chapter four, ‘The Victorians and Spiritualism; or, the Seance is Born,’ is given over to capsule biographies of famous mediums, beginning, of course, with the Fox Sisters, and then continuing on through the Davenports, D. D. Home, Florence Cook, Henry Slade, Madame Blavatsky etc. Along the way, Morton carefully delineates the evolution of mediumship from spirit rapping to trances to physical manifestations, and she highlights the changing technology of the séance, from table tipping and spirit cabinets to direct voice trumpets, slates, and spirit photography. A little space, too, is devoted to the organization of Spiritualism as a new religious movement in the U.S. and the U.K., although like most histories of this type, almost no time is spent discussing the philosophy behind this movement. This might leave casual readers with the impression that Spiritualism was remarkably shallow in intellectual content, despite its undeniable impact on the arts and literature of the time, as Morton notes.

Chapter five, ‘Wars and Ouija: Spiritualism in the Twentieth Century,’ narrates the revival of the tradition in the wake of WW1. Here Morton duly rehearses the conflict between true-believer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and arch-sceptic Harry Houdini, as well as the history of the Ouija Board and the discovery of ectoplasm. The chapter also touches briefly on the fascinating subject of African-America ‘Spiritual Churches,’ and ends with a nod towards the metamorphosis of Spiritualist mediums into New Age Channelers at the end of the last century.

Chapter six, ‘How Universal is the Seance?’, briefly surveys the role of spirits in nonwestern religious traditions, ranging from those of the ancient Incas and Polynesians to those of China and Japan. Surprisingly, while spirit possession in the Afro-Caribbean religions of Voodoo and Santería is discussed, the still vibrant Spiritist culture of Brazil is completely ignored. There is no mention of Macumba or Candomblé, nor of the purely Kardecist groups with which that nation abounds. This, I believe, is a major blind spot of the book, as is also Morton’s hasty disposal of Alan Kardec and Kardecism in general, although this is not untypical of Anglophone works on Spiritualism.

Throughout Calling the Spirits, Morton pays much attention to ongoing attempts to study Spiritualist phenomena scientifically. In chapters four and five, for example, she discusses the experiments of such imminent physicists as Michael Faraday, Sir William Crookes, and Sir Oliver Lodge, as well as the psychological theories of William James, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung. She also notes the 1882 creation of the Society for Psychical Research, whose mission was (and is) to seek scientifically credible evidence for psychic phenomena, if such exists. Chapter seven, ‘The Modern Seance,’ follows this thread to America, highlighting J. B. Rhine’s parapsychology laboratory at Duke University and Thelma Moss’s at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Today, Morton argues, psychic ‘research’ is largely in the hands of amateur do-it-yourselfers brandishing cheap EVP recorders or EMF detectors, most of whom have been inspired by the flood of immensely popular TV ‘documentaries’ featuring celebrity psychics and self-appointed ‘paranormal investigators.’ While entertaining, the evidentiary value of such work is nugatory, according to Morton.

As mentioned above, Morton’s attitude towards Spiritualism is largely sceptical. Throughout the book, she devotes many pages to such debunkers as John Nevil Maskelyne, Harry Houdini, and James Randi, and to explanations of the tricks employed by fraudulent mediums, such as cold readings and fake ectoplasm. In the book’s last chapter, ‘(Why) Do We Need the Seance?’ Morton opines that believers in Spiritualism are likely victims of natural psychological processes, ranging from confirmation bias and the human ability to ignore cognitive dissonance, to neurosis, psychosis, and even perhaps epilepsy. And while the author does concede ‘that humans possess an innate desire to believe that they somehow continue after death’ (p. 299), and that many do find solace in Spiritualism’s promises, she remains undecided about whether this alone is enough to tolerate Spiritualist belief. For those comfortable with this skeptical perspective, I can recommend Lisa Morton’s Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances as a readable and fairly thorough introduction to the subject.

Brandon, R. (1983). The Spiritualists. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Doyle, A. C. (1926). History of Spiritualism (2 vols). London: Cassell & Company.

Brian C. Wilson is Professor of American Religious History in the Department of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University.