Posted by Richard Harland Smith on October 12, 2007
Though I've written the occasional letter, I have no desire to talk to the dead. I was in my youth involved in one spontaneous séance but I’m not one for the occult and don’t keep abreast with the claims of cross-over conman John Edwards or his ghost whisperer counterpart James van Praagh (is it just me or does that surname sound like someone being strangled?). The current mania for speaking to the dead seems to my skeptical, agnostic mind a way of putting a selfish spin on past events. I prefer to leave things as they are. Unfinished business keeps us honest.
I do like séance scenes, though, in movies, when they’re done right. The séance scene has long been to the horror movie what the back alley foot chase was to the crime film or the stage coach attack was to the western… a reliable setpiece particularized by recurring visual motifs and constructed to hold the viewer’s attention, a pleasurable bridge between expository interludes. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? The vaguely Victorian setting (has anyone ever filmed a séance scene in a mobile home?—and if not, why not?), the candles, the card table on which rests a crystal ball or perhaps just the hands of the participants—palms down, fingers spread, fingertips touching. One of my favorite séance scenes is in Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957), where the regulars sing “Cherry Bright” to initiate communion with the spirit world. I always liked the bit in Houdini (1953) were doubter Tony Curtis performs a mock séance, ringing a bell under the table with his toes. I also like the séance in the Abbott and Costello romp The Time of their Lives (1946), officiated by—who better?—Gale Sondergaard. I love the theatre of it all, the tooting trumpets, the gauzy ghosts, the ectoplasmic extrusions and the dour mediums in their black attire and tight chignons. I always find those women sexy, I can’t explain it.
Séance scenes rarely advance the plot. Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) opens in the middle of a séance, with the Count himself (Robert Quarry) acting as emcee (and Manhattan’s Michael Murphy among those gathered) but we know from the title that Yorga is less interested in communing with the dead than turning his guests into the living dead. In Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), a neurotic woman (Zhora Lampert), her long-suffering husband and friends hold hands to call up anyone who has ever died in the very farm house they’ve just moved into. In the Euro-Cult classic Horror Rises from the Crypt (1972), Paul Naschy comes face-to-face with the disembodied head of his evil ancestor, who begins to take over his life and thin the ranks of his friends. In Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980), a “sensitive” (Catriona McColl) seems to drop dead from fright in the midst of a séance and is buried alive… forcing her to scream for her very life from a fresh grave in hopes that she can make contact with… the living.
“Concentrate on one thing. Empty your minds of everything except the subject.” From Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)
Séances are perfectly suited to the medium of film. They both require a setting of darkness and quiet and rely on the concentration, imagination and suspension of disbelief of the participants. One of the earliest cinematic séances was Gaumont’s Séance de Spiritisme (1910); who knows how many times they they’ve been staged for the cameras in the intervening almost century. Movies are a kind of communion, maybe even the best kind shy of actual human contact. They show us what we have not seen, tell us what we do not know, and point us, when they’re done right, from the darkness into the light.
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
Popular terms3-D Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Beer in Film Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Blu-Ray Books on Film Boxing films British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Fan Edits Film Composers Film Criticism film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs Guest Programmers HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Leadership Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Magazines Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals New Releases Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Russian Film Industry Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Spaghetti Westerns Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller Swashbucklers TCM Classic Film Festival Tearjerkers Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood The Russians in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies