We’ve all been there, haven’t we? The vaguely Victorian setting, the candles, the card table on which rests a crystal ball or perhaps just the hands—palms down, fingers spread, fingertips touching —of the of the participants... Séances are perfectly suited to the medium of film. They both require a setting of darkness and quiet and rely on concentration, imagination and suspension of disbelief to achieve the desired communion.

" />

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? The vaguely Victorian setting, the candles, the card table on which rests a crystal ball or perhaps just the hands—palms down, fingers spread, fingertips touching —of the of the participants... Séances are perfectly suited to the medium of film. They both require a setting of darkness and quiet and rely on concentration, imagination and suspension of disbelief to achieve the desired communion.

" />

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? The vaguely Victorian setting, the candles, the card table on which rests a crystal ball or perhaps just the hands—palms down, fingers spread, fingertips touching —of the of the participants... Séances are perfectly suited to the medium of film. They both require a setting of darkness and quiet and rely on concentration, imagination and suspension of disbelief to achieve the desired communion.

" />

The obligatory seance scene

Never invite Patrick Magee to your seance

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.

Do not adjust your TV

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.

Jessica does a good job of scaring herself

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.

Who invited Paul Naschy to this seance?

“Concentrate on one thing. Empty your minds of everything except the subject.” From Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

Should have let the machine pick up.

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.

8 Responses The obligatory seance scene
Posted By SeattleMoviegoer : October 13, 2007 7:57 pm

I'm surprised that the writer didn't mention the great seance in THE UNINVITED.But, speaking of great seances, i have to defer to an episode from a TV series from the early 70s. It was called JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN and one segment contained a really scary seance concerning an Indian ghost. It was great. The series was short-lived, but it scared me. It's one of those gems I look for on DVD. 

Posted By SeattleMoviegoer : October 13, 2007 7:57 pm

I'm surprised that the writer didn't mention the great seance in THE UNINVITED.But, speaking of great seances, i have to defer to an episode from a TV series from the early 70s. It was called JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN and one segment contained a really scary seance concerning an Indian ghost. It was great. The series was short-lived, but it scared me. It's one of those gems I look for on DVD. 

Posted By Bob Gutowski : October 17, 2007 4:24 pm

As I am looking over Michael Karol's lovely little book The ABC Movie of the Week Companion (to which I contributed) in order to help prepare a second edition, I am remembering the splendid seance in the 1970 offering The House That Would Not Die.  Let's put it this way: any seance that has Miss Barbara Stanwyck in attendance is worth watching, I'd say!

Posted By Bob Gutowski : October 17, 2007 4:24 pm

As I am looking over Michael Karol's lovely little book The ABC Movie of the Week Companion (to which I contributed) in order to help prepare a second edition, I am remembering the splendid seance in the 1970 offering The House That Would Not Die.  Let's put it this way: any seance that has Miss Barbara Stanwyck in attendance is worth watching, I'd say!

Posted By Jeffrey Allen Rydell : October 20, 2007 9:51 pm

Pamela Franklin. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. Oof. My kinda woman.

Posted By Jeffrey Allen Rydell : October 20, 2007 9:51 pm

Pamela Franklin. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. Oof. My kinda woman.

Posted By Rusty : October 24, 2007 2:06 pm

Hello,Maybe a reader of this blog knows the answer to the following question…A little background.  I did not arrange things this way, but the morning of the day TCM first broadcast Curse Of The Demon…I received (Netflix) a dvd of the movie.  The rented dvd has the  95 minute British  Night Of The Demon and the 83 minute United States…Curse Of The Demon.  I watched the British version first.  Later, I watched TCM's Curse Of The Demon.The only part of the 95 minute version I noticed cut from the 83 minute version was a couple of minutes during the seance scene.  Specifically,  when we hear the medium talk like a child.  As far as I can tell, the rest of the seance scene remains for cut and un-cut versions of this movie.My question…why cut the "channeling child" part of the seance and leave the rest of the scene intact?  Did I miss something about listening to channeling dead kid…something that would require censoring? By the way…your number four posted picture is very cool.My question.   

Posted By Rusty : October 24, 2007 2:06 pm

Hello,Maybe a reader of this blog knows the answer to the following question…A little background.  I did not arrange things this way, but the morning of the day TCM first broadcast Curse Of The Demon…I received (Netflix) a dvd of the movie.  The rented dvd has the  95 minute British  Night Of The Demon and the 83 minute United States…Curse Of The Demon.  I watched the British version first.  Later, I watched TCM's Curse Of The Demon.The only part of the 95 minute version I noticed cut from the 83 minute version was a couple of minutes during the seance scene.  Specifically,  when we hear the medium talk like a child.  As far as I can tell, the rest of the seance scene remains for cut and un-cut versions of this movie.My question…why cut the "channeling child" part of the seance and leave the rest of the scene intact?  Did I miss something about listening to channeling dead kid…something that would require censoring? By the way…your number four posted picture is very cool.My question.   

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