Halloween is just a couple days away and like most holidays in 2020, it might look a little different than usual. In a lot of places trick-or-treating is unsanctioned (though if my Facebook feed is to be believed, it’ll probably happen anyway) and big parties are (or probably should be) out. But there is still one event happening that has been a Halloween tradition since 1927, exactly one year after the death of famed illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini.
Every year on the anniversary of Houdini’s death, fans and enthusiasts hold séances in an attempt to contact him in the beyond. And if they’re fans who know much about him, then they probably assume nothing is going to happen.
Harry Houdini, born Erik Weisz, was a big skeptic when it came to anything with a whiff of spiritualism. As a man who knew a thing or two about creating illusions for the delight of an audience, he was pretty appalled that others would pass off their own illusions as genuine supernatural experiences to those in a vulnerable state of grief. From about 1920 or so, he made it his professional goal to expose fraudulent mediums.
He wasn’t entirely closed to the idea of communication with the dead. Along with the magazine Scientific American, the magician offered a cash prize of $10,000 to anyone who could conduct a genuine séance. Though no one ever managed to collect the money, and Houdini attended a lot of séances in disguise just so he could announce “I am Houdini! And you are a fraud!” the moment he figured out the trick, he did give it a last good go, just in case.
Prior to his death, Houdini worked out with his wife Bess that if he were to die first, she should enlist a medium and attempt to contact him. They developed a code so she’d know if he was actually passing her a message from beyond and that such a thing was possible.
In honor of his memory, Bess did it, every year on the anniversary of his death, for a full decade, at which point she allegedly said, “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”
But even though she didn’t care to pursue the séance, she did pass on the tradition to author and magician Walter B. Gibson. He eventually handed it down to Houdini expert and escape artist Dorothy Dietrich, and she’s kept it up ever since.
And yes, this Halloween you can be a part of the fun, even from the socially distanced comfort of your own home. The Houdini Museum will be holding an event with Dorothy Dietrich at its location in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which boasts that it’s the world’s only museum dedicated entirely to Harry Houdini.
If you can’t make it to Scranton, the museum is also reaching out to ask everyone, anywhere in the world, to hold a Houdini séance wherever they may be sometime during the 24-hour period of October 31, and report on the results.
I can already hear your concerns. First, séances (or at least the ones in the movies) involve holding hands and spending time within the six-foot bubbles of several fellow participants. I suppose that’s a valid point. You’ll just have to proceed at your own risk and keep your hand sanitizer at the ready. But this is for science, people.
Secondly, you might not know how exactly to conduct a séance. Have no fear on that score. According to Houdini himself, no one else does, either.
Finally, there’s the difficulty that you might actually be successful, and if you are, you’ll definitely have some explaining to do. Because the most dedicated Houdini séance participants do not expect it to work. In fact, the event website even specifies: “No kooks please.” You will, however, be poised to claim a whole lot of standing prize money, long unclaimed, from individuals and organizations all over the world, that like Houdini before them, are looking for evidence of genuine paranormal activity.
And you’ll have had something to do on Halloween. Unless of course it doesn’t work, in which case, I guess you won’t really have done anything at all and you’ll be right back where you started. But at least you won’t be labeled a kook.