No Kooks, Please: A Halloween Séance Adventure

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.

My actual plans this Halloween.

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.

Houdini figured if anyone could escape death long enough to to say hey, it would probably be him. By McManus-Young Collection – Library of Congress, Public Domain,via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Seriously, there is a lot of unclaimed bling out there for the person who can give actual proof of the paranormal, which I suppose is pretty good evidence against it. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

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.

I Bet Ghost Stories are Even Scarier in Pig Latin

Sometime near the end of the first century Pliny the Younger, a magistrate of Rome, heard a scary story. Presumably he was no stranger to fear. His father died when Pliny was only eight, and just a little over ten years later he was a witness to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which resulted in the death of the uncle who had been largely responsible for raising him.

Eruption of Vesuvius. Painting by Norwegian pa...
Eruption of Vesuvius. Much scarier, I would I think, than a little old ghost story. Painting by Norwegian painter I.C. Dahl (1826)

But he was also a relatively successful man. Well educated and known as an eloquent speaker who had served as a military tribune before entering into politics, Pliny rose well above his station. History remembers him most as a writer of letters. He wrote to his friends, to influential politicians, and likely with the intention of publication. He wrote about natural curiosities, daily life, and love. And he wrote about ghosts.

He began a letter to Licinius Sura: “I am extremely desirous to know your sentiments concerning spectres, whether you believe they actually exist and have their own proper shapes and a measure of divinity, or are only the false impressions of a terrified imagination?” Of course he didn’t write in English, but my Latin is a little rusty (though I do pretty much ockray at igpay atinlay).

English: illustration from Leech's comic latin...
Pig Latin: The language of the truly well-educated.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first thing I find interesting about Pliny’s letter is that 2000 years later, we are still asking the same question, especially around this time of year. Television programming which within weeks will fill with family friendly specials featuring Santa Claus and good works is right now little more than an obstacle course of blood and terror feeding some fascination with the horrible, and a curiosity about the unexplained.

I’m not exactly complaining. In general I’m fond of Halloween. I enjoy helping the kids carve Jack-o-lanterns while the lightly seasoned pumpkin seeds burn to a crisp in the oven. And I like seeing all of the adorable children turned into begging hyper zombies just as much as the next mom. But I have to admit, I don’t really like scary stories.

It's that time of year once again, Halloween u...
Terrifying, no? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I (very) occasionally see a scary movie or watch a TV special about a haunted house or hear a frightening tale around a campfire, it follows me. My mind lingers over the details of it for sometimes weeks afterwards, returning to me at the most unexpected moments and sending a shiver down my spine. And I think that’s what happened to Pliny, too.

In his letter he relates three separate stories of ghost encounters, but the longest and most detailed is the most interesting to me because it sounds so familiar. The tale begins with an old abandoned house, deemed uninhabitable because of the strange appearance of a shackled specter. Then one day the brave philosopher Athenodorus purchased the house, determined to live peacefully there.

Maybe the rumors got to him because he didn’t head to bed that first night in his new house and instead tried to occupy his time and thoughts with his writing. When at last the chained ghost approached, Athenodorus didn’t look at him, but instead motioned for him to wait a minute (because the best ghost stories have a funny moment to temporarily relieve some of the tension).

Cover of "Groundhog Day/Ghostbusters/Stri...
Athenodorus would have been able to sleep if only he’d remembered who he was supposed to call.

Obviously, the ghost didn’t like being put off and began to rattle his chains more aggressively (singing a rousing chorus of “Marley and Marley,” like a couple of grumpy old muppets) until finally the philosopher sighed and shouted “What!?” A little startled at the blunt response and frankly a little hurt at being ignored for so long, the ghost sheepishly led Athenodorus outside and disappeared.

The philosopher marked the spot where the ghost vanished and the next morning had the place excavated only to find human remains entangled in chains. He gave the remains a proper send-off. And the ghost never bothered him or anyone again.

Of the ghost stories that I haven’t managed to avoid, this is pretty much the plot of most of them. And Pliny’s may have been the first to provide a written description of ghosts as spirits in need of help to complete a task (it’s also likely that Athenodorus was the first to say “I see dead people”).

He claims in his letter that this is a story he heard about and he wants to get to the bottom of it. The concept of ghosts doesn’t fit, it seems, into his well-educated mind, and he’s trying to figure out if the story has merit, the same way we do every time we tune in to one of those ghost hunting shows, read the latest collection of stories about this or that city’s haunted past, or book the hotel room where that grisly murder allegedly took place a hundred years ago.

haunted house in illinois - HDR
I think if you willingly decide to buy a house that looks this creepy, you probably deserve to be haunted.(Photo credit: Jovan 2J)

Pliny ends his letter admitting that Sura is likely to answer with ambiguous logic, but imploring him to offer a true opinion instead. Pliny has heard the prevalent stories that are either conclusive proof of ghosts haunting the mysterious places of earth or wildly imaginative mass hallucinations. Like most of us, especially on Halloween as our thoughts dwell on the frightening, he wants to know for sure.

Unfortunately  we don’t know Sura’s answer or Pliny’s conclusion, but we do have 2000 years of stories to weigh as we puzzle out whether or not ghosts really do exist. And we may never find a conclusive answer. But the one thing I do know for sure is that I would rather watch a heartwarming Christmas special.

Iconic screen shot from the movie It's a Wonde...
Admittedly still a little scary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)