Seasonal seance offers spooky look back in time

Caitlyn Paxson and Cameron MacDonald in costume for a reenactment of a 19th century seance at Beaconsfield Historic House. (Submitted by Erin Docherty - image credit)
Caitlyn Paxson and Cameron MacDonald in costume for a reenactment of a 19th century seance at Beaconsfield Historic House. (Submitted by Erin Docherty - image credit)

During some of the 19th century, holding a seance was against the law. And, until as recently as the last decade, pretending to have powers of the supernatural could get you in trouble, too, though actual charges were rare.

That may be why seances in P.E.I. and the rest of the country were kept pretty quiet.

"Here in Canada, seances tended to be private affairs," said Caitlyn Paxton, a programmer at the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation. "They tended to be hosted in people's homes."

Which makes the chance to pull back the curtain on the history of seances on the Island  — both genuine and fraudulent — all the more compelling, and the setting of a Victorian-era seance performance this weekend at Beaconsfield Historic House all the more appropriate.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

The event will be a reenactment of the sort of seances hosted by 19th-century spirit mediums. It will showcase tricks and illusions that captivated Islanders in years gone by. The program includes a fake seance and then a bit of a history lesson about them.

Paxton said this sort of thing was more commonplace in the 19th century.

"Death was just something that was more prevalent in people's everyday lives at the time," she said. "People died of things that we can prevent and cure now."

She said those losses created a void and a longing where people wanted a connection to those who had died. That, coupled with the enormous change in science and technology, created an environment where people believed that the impossible might be possible.

'100 per cent fake'

Paxton will play Madame Evangeline Grey, a fraudulent spirit medium and "conduit to the other worldly," and will use tricks that fake mediums of the time would have used.

It's "100 per cent fake," she said. "We are not trying to weigh in on whether it is possible to communicate with the dead. Your mileage may vary."

Different kinds of mediums used different kinds of tricks back then — knocking to spell out words, automatic writing, different kinds of mind reading, card tricks, and more physical displays.

Kevin Yarr/CBC
Kevin Yarr/CBC

"I don't want to give away too much," she said of the event. "But I tried to put in a selection of things so you can see a kind of buffet of different tricks that could have been employed by mediums at the time."

Then, she will explain the tricks and their significance.

"It definitely is something that intrigues people," she said. "People are always looking for atmospheric things to do to get into the right mood for Halloween."

It is also the first time the exhibition ropes will be down to the drawing room so guests can take a seat around the table during the event.

"People don't normally come into, they normally stand in the doorway and look at it," Paxton said, but with a little shifting around of things "we can actually let people in and inhabit the space."