Dark Realms Magazine - Issue 11
Voices from Beyond
It is perhaps the greatest mystery that has ever confronted mankind: Is there life after death? All the world’s religions claim that there is, but their claims must be taken on faith. That is probably the point of religion-to have the courage to believe in something without evidence or unassailable proof.
But what about those of us hungry for even the faintest evidence of life after death? Can the proof be found? Even though the Bible condemns communicating with spirits of the dead as evil sorcery, history has given us many intriguing methods of speaking to those who have passed over into what Shakespeare called "the undiscovered country."
SEANCES AND MEDIUMS
One of the most familiar, and at times theatrical, methods of after-death communication is the séance, in which a gathering of people led by a psychically-sensitive medium sit in a circle, typically holding hands in order to enhance the psychic forces in the room. Spirits of the dead then manifest themselves through the medium in one or more ways. The spirits can rap against a table or wall in answer to a question, or they can levitate objects or furniture. Sometimes the spirits will actually speak through the medium, who generally lapses into a trance-like state in order to better open the lines of communication with the other side. Much rarer are instances of actual materialization of the spirits or ghosts.
No one knows exactly how long séances and mediums have been present in human history, but after the horrendously senseless slaughter of World War I, séances and other forms of spiritualism crept out of the fringes of culture and gained an unprecedented mainstream acceptance as people tried to contact loved ones lost in the war. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a particularly ardent spokesman for the Spiritualist movement of the time. He had lost a son, Kingsley, as well as other family members to the carnage of the war, and in one memorable séance, Doyle asked his departed son if he was happy in the next world. Through the medium, Kingsley replied, "Yes. I am happy now."
The famous escape artist Harry Houdini was a skeptic on the subject and argued at length with his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Houdini made great efforts to debunk fraudulent spiritualists of his time, even appearing in court to prove his point. Houdini duplicated the same "ghostly" phenomena as the mediums using a specially built "Spirit Cabinet" which he used in the courtroom and for on stage. Despite his skepticism, however, Houdini and his wife Bess devised a secret message that was to be used to validate any so-called spirit message coming from either of them, should one or the other pass.
After the death of Houdini in 1926, Bess began the tradition of holding a séance to see if Houdini could and did escape from death. The shrine of Houdini burned for ten years, and the last séance that Bess conducted was recorded in 1936. "Houdini did not come through," she said. "My last hope is gone. I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me, or to anyone. I now reverently turn out the light."
The primary function of séances and mediums is to reassure and comfort those coping with grief and loss, and it has become an even bigger industry today than in the early 20th century. Mediums and psychics like John Edward and Sylvia Browne have become major celebrities and best-selling authors. One can scarcely turn on the TV without seeing the latest talk show psychic relaying the usual vague messages of comfort from lost loved ones to a credulous studio audience. The more popular mediums of today don’t even need the antiquated structure of a séance anymore; they simply see or hear the spirits of the dead as easily as we see living people. Or so they claim. If one shrewdly examines their televised performances, one can often see how, like con men, they can subtly draw out information from someone in the audience and then try to pass it off as after-life communication. Charlatanism, like belief in life after death, never goes out of style.
THE OUIJA BOARD
Another popular and more readily accessible means of talking with spirits is the Ouija board. The Ouija board is a familiar apparatus comprised of a board printed with the alphabet, the numerals zero through nine, and a few key words. In order to receive messages from the dead, the user places his or her fingers on a sliding pointer, called a planchette, and lightly pushes it across the board, allowing the spirits to guide its path to the letters and numbers, which will then form a message from beyond.
The Ouija board was originally called a "psychograph" and its purpose, ironically enough, was not to commune with the dead. Invented in 1854 by a German music professor named Adolphus Theodore Wagner, the psychograph was designed as a method of discerning a person’s thoughts. Wagner believed that people’s brains were full of "nervous electricity" which could be transmitted by touch to a planchette-like device that would immediately begin to rove about the board, spelling out the operator’s thoughts. From this dubiously scientific beginning, the psychograph evolved into the more common Ouija board that we know today.
The first Ouija board was patented by Charles Kennard and introduced to the American public in 1890 as a parlor game sold in novelty shops. Kennard named the new board Ouija, after the Egyptian word for good luck, though, Ouija is not really an Egyptian word for good luck. But Kennard reportedly arrived at the name during a session, and so it came to be known.
In 1892, Kennard lost his company, and it was taken over by William Fuld. The new owner claimed that he himself had invented the board and that the name Ouija was a combination of the French word "oui" and the German word "ja" meaning "yes." The name may also have had something to do with the board’s printed layout, which contains the words "yes" and "no," or the name may suggest that the user is saying "yes" to the spirit world and allowing his or herself to become a conduit for otherworldly entities.
Today, Ouija boards manufactured by the Parker Brothers game company are sold in toy stores nationwide, yet this seemingly simple device has a dark and controversial reputation. Critics and skeptics say that the operator unconsciously directs the movements of the planchette across the board, and even some believers in the Ouija board’s power aren’t too fond of the device, claiming that emotionally sensitive users can become unhinged by the forces that the board can unleash. Once you open the door to the netherworld, they say, there is no way to tell who or what will come through.
The technique of automatic writing, like the ouija board, works on the premise that spirits can channel themselves into a person’s mind and body and then direct the movement of a person’s hand. In automatic writing, a person sits quietly in a relaxed, meditative, trance-like state, armed with a pen or pencil and a notepad. The person then allows the pen or pencil to drift across the paper, supposedly scribbling out messages from either the person’s unconscious or from dead souls anxious to reconnect with the living. According to experts on the subject, the key to effective automatic writing is bypassing your conscious mind. Once you start examining and thinking about what you’re writing, the trance is broken and the lines of communication will shut down.
There are numerous methods to achieve the proper relaxed mindset necessary to automatic writing, such as deep breathing exercises or performing a long mental countdown. Any method is valid as long as it clears the conscious mind, allowing it to receive transmissions from other sources unimpeded by one’s mundane passing thoughts. The results of automatic writing can vary from meaningless scribbles to comprehensible words to even more elaborate communications. Helene Smith, a noted 19th century medium, believed that her automatic writing sessions produced messages from inhabitants of Mars; her Martian chronicles were even written in what she claimed was a Martian alphabet.
ELECTRONIC VOICE PHENOMENON
Skeptics have convincingly argued that messages obtained through the ouija board and automatic writing are tainted because the messages require direct human intervention. In other words, a person can consciously or unconsciously guide the movement of the planchette or pen. But what about methods of spirit communication that bypass such human interaction?
Electronic voice phenomenon, or EVP, does not depend on the human hand to establish a dialogue with the other side. EVP requires only a tape recorder, a tape, a good quality microphone and a sound source that can generate some sort of ambient background noise, such as a fan, running water or the white noise between radio stations. Why is this sound source necessary? Because without it, a person will end up taping only silence; somehow the spirits of the dead manipulate the mindless static made by the sound source and use it to form words, just as we use air over our vocal chords to create speech.
After setting up the recorder, microphone and sound source in a location that is free of any other noises or human chatter, allow the recorder to tape for several minutes. Then play the tape back at a high decibel level, listening carefully for any variations or anomalies in the white noise or static from the sound source. Experts in EVP say that it may take several taping sessions before you record anything comprehensible. Some researchers have recorded low whispers, strangely accented murmurings, fast-paced gibbering or slow, eerie croaking. Some skeptics believe that the so-called spirit voices are little more than the audio equivalent of Rorschach ink blots, random sound patterns that only coincidentally resemble speech. Other skeptics insist that the voices are actually bits of the hundreds of normal radio transmissions that crisscross the airwaves twenty-four hours a day.
The first serious study of EVP was conducted in the 1950s and 1960s by Raymond Bayless, a parapsychologist, and a psychic with the unfortunate name of Attila Von Szalay. Von Szalay claimed that he often heard disembodied voices in the air, and his friend Bayless constructed a taping system to capture them for posterity. Another EVP researcher was Friedrich Jurgenson, a former Swedish opera singer and filmmaker. In 1959 Jurgenson reportedly recorded the voice of his dead mother calling his name. Perhaps the most famous EVP personality, though, was Konstantin Raudive, whose 1970 book Breakthrough chronicled his experiments with EVP. Raudive recorded a plethora of voices, many of which communicated in a mishmash of languages. Raudive was the first researcher to implement a broad-band diode in his taping system, which he claimed increased the strength and number of discarnate voices. He used the diode to generate white noise, but critics said that the diode actually picked up earthbound radio signals, thus explaining the multilingual character of the voices.
We have looked at the messages of the dead and heard their voices, but what about a technique for contacting spirits that involves seeing the dead, as well?
For that, one need only look into a mirror. Since time immemorial, the method of gazing into a mirror or other reflective surfaces in order to divine the future or communicate with the dead has been a popular, almost cliche form of magic. This technique, also known as scrying (from the Middle English word "descry," which means "to discern"), is familiar to anyone who has read fairy tales about witches looking into crystal balls or asking mirrors who is the fairest in the land. Practitioners of scrying claim that after a period of relaxed, meditative gazing or staring into a mirror or other reflective material, images, patterns and even spirits of departed loved ones appear in the reflection.
There are many variations of scrying. In one variation, a mirror is positioned in a dim room so that you can look into it from a 45-degree angle without seeing your reflection. Lit candles are then placed around the room in such a way that the flames can be perceived in the mirror without the candles themselves being in your direct line of sight. The hypnotic flickering of the flames helps you to achieve a trance-like state, thus making you more susceptible to visitations from entities beyond the human realm.
In ancient Greece, a room or chamber devoted to contacting the spirits of the dead through scrying was called the psychomanteum. Dr. Raymond Moody, a pioneer in the field of near-death and after-life research, has helped bring the concept of the psychomanteum into the modern age. At his Alabama office facility, Dr. Moody assists grieving patients in dealing with the loss of loved ones by letting them sit in his specially designed psychomanteum. In Dr. Moody’s psychomanteum, a person sits in a comfortable chair facing a mirror that is set above the person’s line of sight to prevent the person from seeing his or her reflection. A black velvet curtain partially surrounds the chair, and a low-wattage light behind the chair provides the room’s only illumination. Prior to entering the chamber, several hours of psychological prep work take place in which Dr. Moody encourages the person to relax and remember the departed loved one. Once a calm, receptive mental state is achieved, the person enters the psychomanteum and gazes into the mirror for about an hour. The results have been startling and varied, from the sensation of another entity being present to full-fledged apparitions of those who have passed on.
Skeptics and clinical psychologists ascribe these experiences to the Ganzfeld effect, a mild hallucinatory state that can result from prolonged, concentrated staring. The power of suggestion might also play a role in the psychomanteum experience. Whatever the explanation, there is no denying that many people have been transformed by their visit to this mysterious chamber, and it has become a reliable aid for those struggling with the pain of grief and loss.
The poet Yeats wrote that man has created death, but if that is true, it is also true that man has created a multitude of ways to speak to the dead. Are these methods just fanciful superstitions, or are they authentic portals to the other side? We will never know with any certainty. What is certain, though, is that man’s ingenuity in constructing these mechanisms of otherworldly contact is a testament to his innate belief in the persistence of the soul beyond death.