Dickens Christmas Séance: event recap

December 17, 2013 2013, event, ghosts, Uncategorized, victorian, Wendy 63

Dickens Christmas Seance VictorianI love doing very Christmassy types of things, but I never thought I’d be attending a Victorian literary séance. But when I saw the event hosted by the Pomona Historical Society and Pomona Library pop up on Facebook, I just couldn’t resist!

I’m fascinated by the Victorians’ obsession with death and mysticism, particularly after reading Affinity and In the Shadow of the Blackbirds, and of course A Christmas Carol puts a whole new spin on ghosts and the holiday season.

Two things you should know about me:

1. I absolutely believe in ghosts.

2. But I’m also a skeptic and well aware that a large percentage of supernatural phenomena are most likely hoaxes.

Mr. Darling and I signed up for this as a lark with more intellectual curiosity than anything else, so it wasn’t until we were sitting in the library enjoying cookies and punch that it occurred to me that I’d probably be asked if there was anyone in particular I was hoping to contact. The answer was no, but nevertheless, when the young event assistant pulled us aside and chatted with us, I still thought of someone whose death I’ve never been able to forget.  It got me thinking about how painful sudden deaths can be for those who are left behind, and how that might lead to someone seeking out contact with the spirit world. Professor Gallivan, the medium conducting our séance, explained that the average life expectancy in Victorian era was only 37 years of age, so many people wanted that connection with those who had passed on. Because of this, séances were a fairly common occurrence during that time, particularly around Christmas. Another fun fact: apparently Mary Todd Lincoln hosted a number of séances in the White House.

seance signThe event was held in the chilly, dark library basement. I quite enjoyed walking through the maze of rooms, even though I wanted to stop to look at the rows and rows of books, elaborately bound county ledgers, Laura Ingalls Wilder standees, and severed rubber heads that we passed. We were eventually led into a room where chairs were arranged in a semi circle, and we were directed into assigned seats. I was in the front row along with another woman who had also previously spoken to the assistant.

The séance began with some general background on Dickens, as well as the presentation of the “completed” Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was purportedly done through a spirit pen with the help of a medium. (Referenced in this New York Times review of a Dickens play.) This was followed by a series of various parlor tricks, including Professor Gallivan guessing passages of books chosen by the audience, imagined objects, and so on.

Spiritual Visitations?

The first really interesting interaction was with the lady seated to my left; the medium asked her to hold together two slate boards while he bound them with twine. Between the boards was a piece of yellow chalk, chosen by a different person from a bag of different colored chalks. While the slates were being tied together, the medium asked the lady to concentrate on the person who’d passed–and suddenly there was a series of creaking sounds as the medium said he felt something happening. Right after that, he asked for the name of the deceased person, untied the two slates, and revealed the name “Laverne” written in yellow chalk inside. The lady was extremely moved, and tears came to her eyes several times following that revelation.

I have to admit, I sat through most of the demonstrations with wry observations running through my head, but I couldn’t help being touched by the woman’s emotion beside me. I’m pretty sure I gave off a lot of humorously doubtful vibes as I listened to everything that came before, but I was still asked to come up to help with the “talking board.” WHICH IS THE OUIJA BOARD! Channeler of evil spirits! The one thing I didn’t want to do! Gahh. I wasn’t going to be a poor sport, though, so I went up and took a seat across from the medium. This was a lovely old wooden board in a fancy velvet-lined case, and instead of a planchette there was a teacup which both the medium and I placed our hands on. It wasn’t long before the cup started to move (I made sure I was barely touching it), and in the back of my head I was concentrating on different letters other than the real ones I had in mind, as well as different people. But the letters still spelled out the name of the person I was thinking of, and when the medium asked me if the person had passed under unusual circumstances and I responded, “Yes,” the teacup flew violently up into the air and off the board.

Well. There was a lot of gasping.

dicken's daughter

Then the lights were shut off and we sat in complete darkness as Professor Gallivan recited incantations, and then by candlelight some of the objects on the table next to him appeared to levitate, including the box with Dicken’s daughter’s image on it. The medium moaned as strange lights appeared in different parts of the room, and this went on for a little until the lights came back on and the event came to an end. The lady on the other side of me whispered, “He’s a heavy breather, isn’t he?” which made me laugh. Even though I think most people were there with more historical curiosity than anything else, everyone still seemed somewhat relieved when we were escorted out of the room.

Real or Not Real?

This séance was definitely one of the most interesting events I’ve ever attended, and I quite enjoyed it as an afternoon’s entertainment. While I remained pretty doubtful and amused throughout the whole thing, I admit that there were a couple of moments that were hard to explain.

Here’s where I tell you View Spoiler »

Was this most likely a combinations of skillful sleight of hand, parlor trickery, and careful observation and planning? Probably. Was there a part of me that still wished it was true that both Laverne and the person I was thinking of had somehow crossed metaphysical planes because we were thinking of them? Absolutely. The power of that longing is something I understood intellectually before this, but attending the event added a layer of personal poignancy that I didn’t quite expect. While I never quite let go of my logical thinking brain, being there in that dark room surrounded by strangers really was an unforgettable experience. The next time I read about Victorian séances, it will be with a whole new level of understanding and appreciation.

Have you ever been to a séance, or would you ever consider attending one? I’m already plotting what I’ll do if I ever get the chance to go again!


Wendy signature teal



Further Reading:

Seance at Pomona Library to give glimpse of Victorian era

Haunted Holidays: Dickens & Co.

Was Dickens’ Christmas Carol borrowed from Lowell’ mill girls?

And if you haven’t listened to Patrick Stewart read A Christmas Carol, you’re missing out on one of the best performances of all time.









63 Responses to “Dickens Christmas Séance: event recap”

  1. Kara @ Great Imaginations

    And I forgot to tell you that I HAVE seen a ghost, so you are correct to say that you believe. Though I am not sure it’s a living being (I mean it could be energy or something science has not been able to explain yet), I know what I witnessed and it was definitely PARAnormal.
    Kara @ Great Imaginations recently posted…Introducing…

  2. Kara @ Great Imaginations

    Really cool that you did this, Wendy. I totally would have enjoyed it. You are probably right in that it was just illusions, but it was still brilliant that it was so entertaining regardless!
    Kara @ Great Imaginations recently posted…Introducing…

  3. Deyse

    I love A Christmas Carol by Dickens and I already read a couple of books that had séance in them, but I have to said that yours seems a lot more fun and despite my skeptical brain I would totally love participated in one of these two.
    Deyse recently posted…The Seers, by Julianna Scott

  4. Sarah J

    How interesting! I’ve always wanted to go to a seance or even a haunted bed and breakfast. I’m quite fascinated with the paranormal. I’m not as much of a skeptic as you, but I know that people love to trick other people for money and entertainment. You make an excellent point with how the paper could’ve been a parlor trick. Great post, Wendy! It sounds like a lot of fun!
    Sarah J recently posted…Shadows by Paula Weston

  5. Sam @ Realm of Fiction

    I’d have a hard time believing or accepting that anything that happened at a seance was genuine. And yet, I still believe in the supernatural and ghostly experiences! I guess I am also a bit of a skeptic when placed in a situation like that in reality, but I can see something like this being really fun to attend. It’s so cool that you got to go! I’ve never been aware of any similar event over here, but I’d jump at the chance too if I could. Thanks for sharing, Wendy! :)
    Sam @ Realm of Fiction recently posted…The Best of Books in 2013: The Wrap-Up Post

  6. Lucy

    I love that you did this! I’ve always been fascinated with seances though I’ve never attended one myself. There’s people that I miss that I wouldn’t mind communicating with from beyond but I’d be scared to get my hopes up. Thanks for sharing your cool experience :)

  7. Chel

    Cool post! I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. I’ve had some supernatural-like experience in the past but I don’t want to write them off as work of ghosts because I can’t explain them and until then, they’ll remain as unexplainable events. But that aside, I’d still never call a seance an afternoon entertainment or any form of entertainment for that matter.
    Chel recently posted…[Book Blitz] The Tearings by V.C. Repetto + Excerpt

  8. Danielle

    OH! This is *beautiful*! I love this stuff – after I read all about Harry Houdini getting caught up in debunking fraudulent mediums and psychics later on in his life. And I especially love the story that Houdini made a pact with his wife that when he died, he would try and contact her from the other side with the message “Rosabelle believe” – it’s all so deliciously romantic/creepy.
    Danielle recently posted…‘She is Not Invisible’ by Marcus Sedgwick

  9. Giselle

    Omg this sounds so cool! I love stuff like this it always freaks me and and you just never know if it’s real, you know. Also – a library basement: CREEP-Y!!! I’ve never been to a real sceance but we used to have a teacher in high school who was also a psychic/medium and every Friday he would tell us stories that were so freaking freaky! I loved that class! haha.
    Giselle recently posted…Review: Salt by Danielle Ellison

  10. Kate @ Ex Libris

    Fun Fact: (I’m always saying that) I am related to Mary Todd Lincoln.

    I think that the Victorian era saw a lot of huge changes in the way we thought about the world, especially from a scientific standpoint. There were pushes for social reform and this was the era of Darwin, too. It always made sense to me that the things we can’t explain (paranormal things) would also be a part of that. For the record, I totally believe in ghosts, too. Such a cool event. I would totally go!
    Kate @ Ex Libris recently posted…Murder And Moonshine By Carol Miller

  11. Alise

    Wow, Wendy! Sounds like a really interesting experience! I also believe in ghosts having had a few unexplainable events happen to me but have to admit I don’t think I would be able to go to an event like this. I totally understand your hesitation with the Ouija board, THAT is one thing I NEVER want to do, yikes! All that talk of opening doors to the other side-freaky! Glad you had fun, and thanks for sharing with us!
    Alise recently posted…Review: Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas

  12. Traci @ The Reading Geek

    Wow this sounded like such a cool event to attend. I’m really fascinated by the Victorian period as well. Thank you for sharing your recap. I’ve never attended one before but I would have absolutely loved to attend this!
    Traci @ The Reading Geek recently posted…The Best of 2013: Day 4

  13. Kim

    I totally get your dueling nature. I’m probably worse, though, since I consider myself a “capital s” skeptic. I have a subscription to Skeptic magazine, I moderate a skeptical forum, go to skeptical conventions…I’m pretty much a Carl Sagan fangirl if one were to say that such a thing could exist…And yet, I *love* palm and/or tarot card readings. I don’t really believe it, no, but I do find it to be loads of fun. I’m always interested to see what they come up with and it’s almost seductive really just in how much you *want* to believe in something even though the logicbrain is saying “no”.

    I also love anything Victorian so I would totally go. I would probably be looking for ways to foil the medium though :p

    And since you mention Dickens I’m just not going to pass up asking if you’ve ever seen the Horrible Histories Charles Dickens song? I love it so much. Smiths-esque Dickens! whaaaaaat


  14. Candace

    Wow, that is really cool! I don’t think I could have done the Ouija board, I’ve had a very bad experience where someone died after using one and it telling us she would. (I probably shared this story already.) Why would they ask you to write the name? That just sounds suspicious to me. If it was real they wouldn’t need you to, right? I definitely believe in ghosts but things set up like that would also have me suspicious. At the same time it would be very intriguing! I think I wouldn’t mind attending one.
    Candace recently posted…Godsland Series Tour: Review & Giveaway

    • Wendy Darling

      Oh no, really? That’s awful, Candace, I think that would scar me for life. :( I don’t blame you at all for avoiding the Ouija, I’ve always been kind of leery of it myself.

      And the assistant said that she wanted me to fold the name up in my purse so that it could be proved that it really was the person I was thinking of if they were contacted; I assumed they might ask us to do a reveal or something, but that didn’t happen. In hindsight, I think I would just write down a fake name altogether to see what happened, all the while concentrating on the real name. While I was sitting across the table from the medium, one of the deceased I was thinking of was my husband’s childhood pet, hah.

      And all right, then. If I hear of any seances in your area, I’ll put you on alert. ;) It kind of makes me feel better to hear that a number of people on this thread believe in ghosts, too.

  15. Karen

    That is the most awesome/cool Christmas thing to do ever!

    I’m pretty much a skeptic but having said that, I believe I saw a ghost when I was a child so….

    I talked to an old woman in a long white dress in my yard, then went to my neighbors house for lemonade and learned that it was their dead grandmother. Spooky!!
    Karen recently posted…Waiting on Wednesday: The Treatment by Suzanne Young

    • Wendy Darling

      Wasn’t it a crazy thing? It was cool that a decent number of people showed up for it, too–I think just about all of them were curious like I was, not really there to make contact with anyone. I hope so, anyway, because I would hate to think that doubtful old me took someone else’s chance to make a connection.

      And WOW, Karen. WOW! That is really freaky. How old were you? I think it’s fairly common for children to have such experiences, though I’m sure it probably happens even more often than is reported. Also, I might never have lemonade again without thinking of that if it had happened to me, hah.

      • Karen

        I think I was around 8 or 9 maybe.

        I didn’t think much of it myself because I just didn’t understand but the adults were all freaking out lol

        After talking to the woman I went next door for the lemonade and saw a picture of her on their mantle and was like …oh I just talked to her! But she had died earlier that year.

        Our yards were divided by a row of old fashioned rose shrubs and I was playing on my side when she walked over to talk to me.
        Karen recently posted…Waiting on Wednesday: The Treatment by Suzanne Young

  16. melliane

    I confess I never did something like that but it can be interesting and I would love to try to see how it is.

    • Wendy Darling

      After reading so many urban fantasy books with witches and such, it’d be funny to find out all that was real, wouldn’t it? ;)

    • Wendy Darling

      Yay! Another adventurous spirit! Heh. I love getting spooked a bit by ghost stories (although I hate most horror movies, go figure), so this event was right up my alley. I really liked the historical/literary context of this seance, too, I doubt I would have gone otherwise.

  17. Savannah

    Very cool! I would be chicken to ever do such a thing. I know that when you do stuff like that, you are opening doors to God knows what?!? Freaky stuff. You are brave!
    Savannah recently posted…Review: Courage

    • Wendy Darling

      I know, a small part of me was a little nervous about it, too. I kept thinking, I hope this doesn’t turn into some horrible headline like DOUBTFUL WOMAN TURNS BELIEVER AFTER FAINTING AT GHOSTLY VISITATION. My mother (who totally believes in psychics and ghosts and such) would be so upset with me for going. Fortunately it all turned out okay. :P

  18. Tanja

    This sounds so fascinating!!!! I’m also blown away with the whole idea and than you so much about the recap. For the ghost, I’m still that little child and I truly wish and hope that ghost and fae exist there somewhere. I’d probably faint if I ever saw one, but still after this many book I might not. Great post Wendy :)
    Tanja recently posted…Waiting on Wednesday (#75)

    • Wendy Darling

      I totally believe in ghosts, but I don’t know about faeries. Is it blasphemous for Wendy Darling to say that? Hee. Faeries kind of freak me out, though–you just can’t trust them. Stupid Tinkerbell.

  19. Jeann @ Happy Indulgence

    Wow thanks for this account Wendy, I’ve never been to a seance before or thought of attending one but it sounds like this was really fascinating! It would have been so interesting. Like the skeptic, I can imagine most things are staged, I mean how awkward would it be if those attended didn’t see anything at all. I do believe in ghosts though, that they are on a different human plane.
    Jeann @ Happy Indulgence recently posted…Ten Tiny Breaths by K.A. Tucker Review: You’ll be gasping for breath

    • Wendy Darling

      I have to admit, the parlor trick I found hardest to swallow was the one where the medium had people go through an elaborate system of choosing one item from a list and pretend it was lying in their hands, and then he claimed he could see it and told us what it was. If I’d been sitting next to my husband (they separated us!), I would have had a hard time not rolling my eyes. :P

      It was definitely an interesting experience, though. While my brain was racing the whole time, being there definitely made me think about how easily someone during the Victorian era (less educated, less experienced, less widely read/informed, etc) would be susceptible to these kinds of things, given how a part of me rather wishes that the spiritual contact was real.

      Interesting to hear everyone’s take on the supernatural, too–thank you!

  20. Jasprit

    Wow Wendy this was certainly an interesting event you got to go to. I think I would easily believe anything, so wouldn’t have even considered how the ouija board could have come up with the person’s name that you had written down earlier. I usually get freaked out by ouija boards or seances of any sort, so don’t think that I would go to an event like this. But I’m glad that you had a lot of fun, thanks for sharing this great recap with us! :)
    Jasprit recently posted…Roomies by Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando

    • Wendy Darling

      I went into this with a pretty logic-based mindset, but there was a teeny part of my brain that was prepared to run shrieking from the room, hah. It did not help that they said no one would be allowed to leave once the seance had begun! I think these sorts of events do rely on a certain suspension of disbelief or acceptance from their participants when they’re pure entertainment, but I’d be curious to know if there really have been actual successful attempts to contact the dead. I probably wouldn’t like to be there for THOSE.

  21. Diamond Nazaneen

    Wow. Wow! This sounds really fascinating..and yes I’d totally go to a seance. A Victorian Seance, if they had something like this where I. Live I’d definitely go! It sounds like it was a lot of fun, a little creepy too.
    I’m like you. I believe in spirits, but I find it hard to shut off the logical and doubtful part of my brain. I’m sure there was slight of hand and trickery involved..but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any little thing that was genuine that happened. *shrug* I guess it depends but I have had real experiences! although never in a group setting. Perhaps that’s why they were more believable. I know what I saw, and I was alone so no one could’ve fabricated those things. You know? But I think in a group there’s an energy that’s palpable and very exciting.


    • Wendy Darling

      Well, yay! Another adventurous spirit, almost everyone has dodged the question. It was a teeny bit creepy, but mostly just fun to experience.

      I’m very curious about your experiences, I don’t know anyone in real life who has had anything real to report, and I am a total believer, too. Albeit a skeptical one. And yes, supposedly the combined energy and will in a group is what helps serve as a conduit for the spirits to cross. So they say. :)

  22. A Canadian Girl

    Wow, Wendy, this sounds like such an interesting experience! I’d be pretty skeptical attending something like a seance too so I like that you purposely tried to think of different letters and stuff. You’re very sneaky ;) I was a little surprised that the medium still correctly guessed the name of the person you were thinking of but your rationale makes total sense!
    A Canadian Girl recently posted…Review: The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

    • Wendy Darling

      Hah hah, yes, I was determined to do mind tricks if he had the slightest bit of real telepathy going on, but what I should have done was more human tricks! I’ll try to be sneakier next time. ;)

      I am a little surprised by it, too. I’m still sure it was a trick, but I can’t quite figure out exactly how it was done, so I’m going to be wracking my brain for a long time.

  23. Keertana @ Ivy Book Bindings

    Wendy, I honestly had no idea that seances were still done today! I’m almost jealous you got to go to one because it seems so interesting! I definitely think the Ouija board was staged, but then again, my mom is a firm believer in ghosts and multiple members of my family have claimed to have seen the ghost of my great-grandfather haunting our ancestral home in India, reputedly to ensure that no British men bought the land (it worked, at any rate, true story or not, since the house still belongs to my family). Anyhow, thanks for this intriguing event recap, Wendy! :)
    Keertana @ Ivy Book Bindings recently posted…ARC Review: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

    • Wendy Darling

      Wow, that is an amazing story re: your great grandfather haunting your ancestral home, Keertana–practically a book waiting to happen! I can practically write the jacket copy for you.

      And yeah, I’m pretty sure everything I saw was staged somehow, but I am with your mom, I really do believe there are forces which we don’t know in this physical plane. I think there are circles where there are still seances performed, but I don’t think most people see the info unless they’re on the lookout for it. In this case, it was sort of a weird how I came across the event. I was randomly on the Pomona Library Facebook page (they have a lot of Laura Ingalls Wilder stuff, and as you probably know, I am a huge Laura fan) and saw the event listing just a few days before it happened. I could very easily have missed seeing it, as well as missed a really interesting experience.

    • Wendy Darling

      It was really the literary/historical context that interested me, I think it’s very unlikely I’d be interested in going to such an event blindly otherwise. Unless I got together with some girlfriends or something and we were feeling silly, hah.

      Yeah, I had that same attitude–doubting, but keeping the doorway to possibilities cracked open just a teeny tiny bit! Whether it was real or not, it was a lot of fun to attend.

    • Wendy Darling

      You know me, both a fun-lover and a skeptic! I wanted to see who else would admit to believing in ghosts, Julie, so thanks for stepping up to the plate. ;) It was a really cool event.

  24. Kelly @ Diva Booknerd

    Personally, no. But coming from a big family of girls, my older sister’s would have one every so often when I was growing up. There were some major freakouts involved, which lead to my mother sitting in on one. Now 25+ years later, she still swears it was genuine.

    Super creepy.
    Kelly @ Diva Booknerd recently posted…Never Fade By Alexandra Bracken

    • Wendy Darling

      Oh man, that is such a horror movie waiting to happen! A bunch of giggly girls in pyjamas having seances? That is crazy. I really do think that although the vast majority of reported supernatural occurrences are hoaxes or flukes, there IS something out there. And you shouldn’t tease it just in case…

  25. Amber

    My brother (now 26 years old) has been able to see ghosts for as long as he can remember. He chooses not to communicate with him due to a few scary instances, but he sees them on the daily. Including our Great-Grandmother at our Grandmas’s house. It’s always been as comforting as it has been creepy. It’s always weird when he mentions seeing one while we are driving.
    Amber recently posted…Polish Review: Orly Secret Society

    • Wendy Darling

      Really? That is fascinating, Amber, and I totally believe that seeing ghosts can be both comforting and creepy. It’s interesting that he still sees them as an adult, too. I’d love to pick his brain sometime, I haven’t had any personal contact with anyone who is gifted in this way. I think it’s cool, but…*shiver*

  26. Brenda

    Guess I’m the chicken of the bunch, but your event did sound interesting. It’s kinda like watching a magician on stage and wondering how do they do that.

    • Wendy Darling

      Yeah…I told my husband before the event started that I was about 98% humorous and 2% nervous, hah. It’s exactly like trying to figure out magic tricks, and in fact, the medium does events for Magic Castle, too.

    • Wendy Darling

      It WAS fun! I approached it as a fun curiosity, so I got exactly what I wanted out of it, and maybe a little more. I’d love to go to another one sometime, and keep my eyes peeled for more tricks.

      Thanks for stopping by. :)

  27. Andrea @ Bookish

    I’ve never been to a seance, but I’ve seen a physic or two. One told me I’d be married within two years (that was back in 2007 and I am not married). Another told me that I was a very positive person, but I have a black cloud of negativity that follows me around. I have named this black cloud Agnus.

    I think they’re fun to go to (like your seance), but I never take anything they tell me to heart.
    Andrea @ Bookish recently posted…The Trap (The Hunt #3) by Andrew Fukuda (Review)

    • Wendy Darling

      Hah, I’m sorry your psychics have been so wrong/full of bad news, Andrea! Angus is a great name for a black cloud. ;)

      I don’t really take any of this to heart, either. Though I was once dragged to a psychic and a couple of the things she told me did come true.

    • Wendy Darling

      Yeah–I mean, we’re all made of energy and matter, and where does all that go when we pass? It goes somewhere, and I totally believe there are at least vibrations/echoes lingering under certain circumstances. It’s funny you guys did the Ouija thing, for some reason that has always been something I’ve been more wary of than anything else that’s supernatural! I’m glad you made it out okay. :P

      Agreed, though–even if everything was a set-up, and it probably was, it was still a really interesting event to go to. Those Victorians and their weird rituals.