This article originally appeared on Motherboard.
Fog still lingered in the séance room from the previous performance when Nicholas Wallace, a magician from Beamsville, Ontario, opened the door. “It’s the spirits,” he joked.
Wearing a plaid shirt and holding a Tim Hortons coffee, Wallace didn’t exactly match the gruesome Edgar Oliver character I had expected. He’s not a medium, but he is a magician who has been hosting a live show called Séance since 2013 that puts audiences in “contact” with the dead.
Every show, Wallace chooses a different proxy randomly from the audience as both a catchy hook and a reminder that any Dick and Jane can pull off a “connection.” One evening, a nervous audience member refused to be the one to make contact, starting a startled chain reaction with more declining out of fear, and two audience members leaving before the séance began.
Another evening, an attendee pulled Wallace aside after the show, warning that he should have a professional medium on-hand in case something “goes wrong.”
Wallace wasn’t worried, however. He doesn’t believe in ghosts.
Séance is pure entertainment, and Wallace is still figuring out how to balance the believability of his show. He wants it to be frightening enough to scare his audiences, but not so convincing that someone will try to speak with a grandparent or Marilyn Monroe. Mediums who try to convince audience members that they can really do this are the warped version of his profession, he said.
“Once you see how easy it is, not only to fool people but for people to fool themselves, you’ll either feel responsible to see that people aren’t taken advantage of or fall to the dark side,” he said.
Séances boomed during the mid-19th century. As scientific advancements began to explain evolution, energy and origin, there was increased interest in confirming a life after death, a tension known as the Victorian Crisis of Faith. Science and the soul were by no means rivals, initially. Thomas Edison apparently built a device to communicate with ghosts, while physicist William Crookes and biologist Alfred Russel Wallace repeatedly went to bat for mediums.
There was plenty of room for fraudsters willing to make a buck off both new technology and the classically gullible, however.
William Mumler, a jeweller and amateur photographer in the 1860s, saw a blurry apparition behind in him a self-portrait that he identified as a deceased cousin. Mumler made this his primary business, taking spirit photos of others until being taken to court, with P.T. Barnum of all people testifying against him for taking advantage of people’s grief. Accusations went so far as to claim Mumler broke into the houses of his clients to steal photos of their dead loved ones for source material.
“At the time, photography was pretty new,” said Wallace. “So for a lot of people they’re thinking this could be something about photography they didn’t know. The production of an image was already sort of magic.”
Projections had been popular in the previous century, using magic lanterns to create convincing ghouls, one German practitioner, Johann Georg Schröpfer, killed himself after being driven mad by his own illusions, even though his performances were intended for entertainment. Table-tipping, another popular Ouija-style method, was famously debunked by Michael Faraday, discoverer of electromagnetic induction, when he built a device to show how easily a piece of furniture can be influenced by unconscious muscle movement. (Wallace admits that, growing up, he’d always be the one shamelessly manipulating the Ouija board.)
While you can use gizmos to pull one over on an audience, the biggest part of the sell is merely the psychology, the suggestion. A test held by magician Andy Nyman with levitating a table suggested that even after verbally telling the séance participants to lift the furniture higher, a week later many recalled it was the influence of the dead.
Wallace lost his own faith in phantoms during film school, when a group of paranormal experts he was documenting attributed recorded floating ectoplasm on the supernatural before considering their own chain-smoking habits.
Even if he lacked a belief in the paranormal, Wallace’s interest in horror and bumps in the night predated his tenure as a magician. During a brainstorming session with his director, Luke Brown, who he had worked with previously, he expressed the desire to do a more high-concept performance, and found a séance, for exclusively entertainment purposes, to be a good eclipse between the two. They experimented with some friends in the dark, and found the results effective.
A segment of the show is simply to elaborate on the history and tradition of séances, to further clarify that people in the audience should be there for a good thrill.
Wallace doesn’t want to be confused with “the dark side” of spiritual communication, which is how he views mediums like as the Fox Sisters or John Edward, who made a name in exploiting the insecurities of those who need confirmation of a life thereafter.
Edward, the most popular and recent example of a commercial medium, rose above his critics for a five-year TV run. Even if his methods were nothing new, his plain-clothed presentation and lack of devices gave it a grounding that many could believe in.
That’s why even after hinting the scent of baloney, someone would still approach Wallace afterward asking how he can continue to be a skeptic, despite not only seeing how the sausage is made, but running the whole sausage factory.
Ghosts exist outside of the explainable, which makes them hard to disprove, no matter how many detectors and ectoplasm samples are produced and debunked. They live within the discrepancies of technology, hiccups in audio and video. “It’s the unknown,” says Wallace. “There are no answers.”
All in Your Head is a series that takes a scientific look at all things spooky and scary. Follow along at Motherboard.