Seance by Scott Moore-Davis

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 1996)


When Eugene Burger's book Spirit Theater hit the dealer's shelves in 1986, the reaction was almost immediately palpable. Within a year, three separate and independent theatrical seance productions appeared in the United States. (I was involved in one of them, in Silver Spring, Maryland.) Spurred on by the growing interest of the period, and similarly inspired by Mr. Burger's volume, a quarterly publication devoted to spirit magic appeared in the fall of 1988, simply and aptly titled, Seance. Twelve issues of the magazine were produced, concluding in the summer of 1991. Since that time, complete collections of the magazine—which was subscribed to by approximately 250 readers, myself included—have already fetched prices in the $200 range. You can now have that entire collection in a single bound volume for less than the price of a complete original subscription. Armed with this book, along with the aforementioned Spirit Theater, you will possess the overwhelming majority of important work concerning seance magic that has been produced in the latter part of the twentieth century.

This means that if you have not yet familiarized yourself with the subject of seance and spirit magic, you can obtain a crash course rather efficiently via these same two books. Such an abridged education, however, will do you little good if you wish to actually mount a theatrical seance show. For that you will need to learn a great deal more about magic, mentalism, and spiritualism. The spirit theater show I took part in was one of the most challenging productions of my life; the form is among the most difficult of all magic styles to present. But it was also a hell of a lot of fun.

Why consider this type of magic? Magic consists largely of tricks in search of a theatrical raison d'etre. Thus magic needs all the presentational strategies it can get, and any presentation is certainly better than none. So spirit magic, like bizarre magick, is merely one more available presentation by which magic may be rescued from triviality and brought to theatrical life and importance for an audience.

"...spirit magic bridges the gap between magic and mentalism. must combine the techniques and misdirection of the magician with the psychology and presentation of the mentalist." —Scott Moore-Davis, Seance Magazine

But spirit magic holds a somewhat specialized place in the catalog of presentational strategies. Consider these remarks from Teller, which appeared last year in the pages of Genii : "Magicians tend to think of themselves as representing omnipotent beings.... I think that once the power is totally under your control, you're confined to demonstrations.... And so it's a little hard for an audience to identify with an omnipotent being, because so few of them are." And therein lies a strong clue: Spirit magic presents us with a way out of the problem Teller so cogently identifies. If you're dealing with spirits, it's easy to propose that the "medium" may not be able to entirely control such forces. That can provide conflict; it may even provide terror. And thus, magic begins to get a lot more interesting.

What's more, a great deal of spirit magic, although far from all, consists of mentalism and mental magic. If there is anything more inherently boring than the average magic trick, it is the average mentalism effect. There is usually little to watch other than the performer; (Readers may fill in their own joke here). Spirits—as a presentational device—can rescue magic, mentalism, and indeed, the audience. And if, like this writer, you are the kind of magician who is troubled by the ethical implication of mentalism claims, then spirits give you a terrific, not to mention quite honest, way out. It can be fun to encourage audiences to suspend their disbelief long enough to be spooked in the dark, but one needn't insist that the spooks be genuine in order for the scares to be.

"I have never created a trick in my life. But I have modified a thousand."—E.Raymond Carlyle, Seance Magazine.

That said, this single volume contains material of a far higher quality than the purchaser of such a collection has any right to expect. The literature of spirit magic is often filled with the kind of useless and untested pipedreams that we tend to associate with bizarre magick. (If you doubt this claim, see Eugene Burger's and Tony Andruzzi's multi-part search [in vain] of the Nixon Ghost Manuscript in the New Invocation as merely one quintessential example.) Surprisingly, then, there is a great deal of terrific material in Seance, and for this I presume we must credit the editorial efforts of Scott Moore-Davis. This is by no means to suggest that every entry is a gem; rest assured, there's an adequate supply of marketeer's junk and armchair filler in here, but the real goods are also present in abundance. In addition to a column by Eugene Burger which appeared in every issue, there is a rich bounty of material from no less than three longstanding performers who have conducted the Houdini Seance at the Magic Castle: original Castle Resident Medium E. Raymond Carlyle (aka Ed Fowler), Leo Kostka, and current Associate Resident Medium, Mark Edward. These are people who have really done this stuff for real audiences, and the briefest reading will instantly demonstrate the import of such qualifications. (An interesting fact that comes to light in these pages is that a number of sitters have died in the Castle Houdini seance, so these guys must be doing something right.) For example, Mr. Carlyle fully explains the "Medium's Grip" in the second issue, and to the rare individual who will actually go out and use this stuff, that one item alone will be worth many times the price of this volume. (If you were as badly fooled by this technique as I was when Mr. Carlyle did me in with it, then you would not for an instant doubt that statement.) Mr. Carlyle's presentations are equally fabulous; his approach to the the rapping hand is a knockout, unlike any other. My only regret in considering the contributions of these gentleman is that there was not more from the beloved and soft-spoken Sandy Spillman, an early Castle medium who followed Ed Fowler.

Of course, most readers won't be going out and doing this stuff, so for them, there are other goodies as well. For those with an academic interest in "real" mediumship— for lack of a better term, and to avoid the less polite ones—there is a column from the pseudonymous Dr. Dees, who is eventually revealed to have been Jeff Payton, who at one time worked as a staff medium at the legendary Camp Chesterfield in Indiana. Terry Tyson provides a complete program, from script to floor plan, for an excellent evening's "seance play," as he calls it. And there are contributions from the likes of Punx, Goldstein, Andruzzi, and other similarly recognizable and respected names.

The book is well-produced on acid-free paper, with an attractive, three-piece cover. We are fortunate that the original magazine was a reasonably simple, desktop publishing production, because other than the cover, a brief introduction from Eugene Burger and a simple table of contents, there are no additions or changes to the content or design of the original. This volume was banged out pretty simply by Kaufman and Greenberg, and I must say it is something of a frustration to see a collected journal rereleased without the addition of a master index, organized at least by title and contributor, and preferably by prop or type of effect as well. The reader can, with some effort, find some of this information by using the provided table of contents, but that is an inconvenient task at best, made all the more so by the fact that there is no master page numbering provided, only the original, issue-by-issue numbering. (My goodness, even the Magic Menu [page 167 ] reprint managed that much.) These complaints aside, this is surely a fun, fine book, of unquestionable value to anyone interested in the subject.

8 - 1/2" X 11-1/2" 3-piece clothbound; 234 pages; illustrated; 1996; Publisher: Kaufman & Greenberg

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