"Is there anybody there?"
That's the question asked in the dark since time immemorial, and the séance has become the great American experiment in that realm. Some say that the rite opens doors to the afterlife. Others say it's all a trick. Others still call it a game but enjoy the act. In the eyes of Jake Cordero, co-creator with Albert Lucio of the Austin Séance, "The mystery is what's important."
Lucio had always been fascinated by "things that go bump in the night," he says, and spent three years working with ghost hunters in Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska before dedicating another two to exploring the world of psychics, "learning and understanding how they experience the supernatural." He moved to Austin and was walking down South Congress one day when he spied a mysterious figure: Sofia, the Girl Who Knows, an old-school mentalist.
In fact, that was Cordero's daughter, and her father was working as her assistant. He and Lucio inevitably fell into conversation. That's when Lucio discovered that the Corderos would hold séances at their home "for friends, when she was little, at Halloween parties," says Cordero. "He was interested in those kind of things, so we just decided to take that show on the road."
"It's like how Siegfried and Roy met," says Lucio. "One guy was a magician, the other guy was like, 'Well, I've got cats.'"
The Austin Séance began very much like the Cordero family version, just for friends at parties. However, in 2016 they held their first evening at the Vortex, and it has been the home to their uncanny explorations ever since. Or rather, a home. They've taken the séance around Austin and to San Antonio, performing in historic homes – anywhere they can set up their spirit cabinet or a pendulum or Wilbur Board.
Lucio and Cordero are very clear on what the Austin Séance is not. It's not a haunted attraction or spook show or magic show (per Cordero, anyone expecting floating candlesticks will be disappointed) or theatrical performance. "We wanted a unique experience," says Lucio, "so when we started constructing the séance, we looked back at old books and texts."
"Our demonstrations are very educational in nature," says Cordero, "and that's why we're often invited by museums, because a good part of our presentation is about the history of American spiritualism."
Every culture has had its notion of communing across the gauzy border between the lands of the living and dead, but the séance, with its blend of mysticism and semi-scientific method, was born of the mid-19th century. It was the most resplendent flowering of the spiritualist movement, an amorphous collection of folk religions that grew out of Western and Central New York State. The area became such a hotbed of wild beliefs that it became known as the Burned-over District, because there was no one left to convert. It's where the Mormons got their start; it was home to the millenarian Millerites; and, most importantly for the growth of the séance, it was the birthplace of the Shakers. "They become the first American mystics because they are contacting the dead," Lucio explains.
Spiritualism exploded into the pages of the new tabloid press in the 1840s with the Fox sisters, two siblings in Hydesville, N.Y., who convinced their parents and then the whole world that they could communicate with the dead. Their "one rap for yes, two raps for no" act was later debunked, but by then the fire was lit. At spiritualism's peak, as many as a third of all Americans had some form of spiritualist belief. "There were 60 newspapers and over 300 different clubs, all dedicated to this," says Lucio.
What was special about this era was that it threw out everything earlier religions and superstition had established. It didn't take the seventh son of a seventh son or a child born with the birth caul still over their head or an oracle or priest as interlocutor with the infinite. "You didn't need an innate ability," says Lucio. "You could just be playing a game in the dark and make this contact."
Another part of the puzzle was the Industrial Revolution and the new age of invention. After centuries of science being the restricted domain of academics and clergymen, suddenly it was democratized: If you could trigger a dead frog's kick with electricity or send a message over impossible distances instantaneously by telegraph, was it so strange to believe that some new gizmo could pierce the eternal veil? Lucio says, "It creates this DIY movement of contact, creating your own technology and your own science. So you get hundreds of different kinds of devices to contact the spirits."
That explosion of gadgets and gizmos fascinates Lucio. "First there's the top hat, then you get table-tipping, then you get the planchette, then you get the Ouija board, and then you get into electrical devices, and then the radio becomes part of the séance, and the Victrola. There's all these new technologies, and we're going to see if the spirits can influence them."
Yet the Austin Séance isn't some a traveling exhibition or pseudoscience lecture. While they're respectful of the history, says Cordero, a séance "was considered in the way of parlor games. ... It was a fun way to spend an evening, and with our own presentation we've kept that in mind." Every session of the Austin Séance begins the same, with an opening introduction and an explanation of what tools and techniques are being used. "But," Cordero adds, "once the sitting itself begins, they're all different."
There are no guarantees anything will happen, but some sitters have received messages that seem too precise to be an accident. Of course, the immediate question is whether what's happening is real or fake; for Cordero and Lucio, that's irrelevant. It's not important to them whether it's a spirit moving the pencil on a Wilbur Board or the involuntary muscular motions of the ideomotor effect or if sitters find patterns in randomness. It's about placing the participants in an American tradition. That's why it's vital, Lucio says, "to come from a place of reverence. Much of it is geared to afterwards, when people can sit around and talk about their own experience."
It's that word "experience" again. Even after hundreds of events that they have organized, the pair has not reached a consensus about what is happening when the lights go out (Lucio, still far more skeptical, calls himself the Scully to Cordero's Mulder), and that's never been the point. Instead, Cordero says, "We endeavor to allow people to draw meaning from their own experience in the room. They come out of that space with questions, and they wonder what it is that they just experienced."
The Austin Séance will hold sittings throughout October and November in both Austin and San Antonio. Details at www.austinseance.com.
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