by Andrew Kim Arnett
As a means for communicating with the dead, the séance has a dicey reputation. The history of spirit channeling is mired in controversey and fraud. As a form of entertainment however, few things can surpass the séance for drama and theatrics. This ceremony of spirit-calling combines mysticism, showmanship, audience participation and, when done right, can offer spooky excitement.
Given the chance, we at the Brooklyn Paranormal Society would jump at an opportunity to attend such an event and, recently, we did just that. The “world-renowned” mentalist Jason Suran extended an invite to BKPS to check out “The Other Side,” a microtheater show recreating the Victorian era séance, with requisite mind-reading, rapping and even levitation.
The event’s secret location isn’t revealed until 24 hours prior to showtime. At the allotted time, three of us (a fourth member backed out due to an egregious case of Phasmophobia — go figure) showed up at a Brooklyn walk-up, in formal attire, to join in a group of 13 séance participants.
The space was decked out in plush Victorian era styling, with pictures of famous magicians of the past hanging on the walls. The evening began with a formal cocktail party, giving us the opportunity to interact with fellow guests. Few things, to be sure, are more sublime than sipping mezcal on a plush couch, hearing ghost stories whilst under the steely gaze of Houdini.
Jason Suran kicked things off with an exposition upon the emotion of fear — the subconscious motivation behind our interest in the spirit realm, and death itself. Then, he explored his own Trypanophobia (fear of needles) with a truly suspenseful demonstration (Note: this show is not for the faint hearted).
For the next phase of the event, we are invited down to the basement, where a round table and thirteen chairs await, and the formal séance begins. During the séance, we are treated to a history of the art of mediumship, but with a fictionalized twist. Nothing is as it seems but, one recognizable name — Harry Houdini — keeps popping up.
Houdini: Master of Mystery
Harry Houdini was an illusionist and stunt artist, famous for his ability to escape from ropes, handcuffs, chains and straightjackets while underwater or buried alive. He was also the President of the Society of American Magicians, bent on upholding professional standards in his industry by exposing frauds. He also took aim at fake spiritualists.
A showman of world-renown during his day, Houdini was looked down on with disdain by the spiritualists, a sentiment accorded him for his relentless debunking of mediums and psychics. Houdini was also a member of the Scientific American Committee, which offered cash for any scientifically proven demonstration of supernatural ability. All who attempted, however, failed.
Back in the 1920s, Houdini locked horns with the biggest medium of the day, a blue eyed Flapper named Mina Crandon, a.k.a. the Blonde Witch of Lime Street. Mina. “Margery,” as her followers called her, was famous for calling up the voice of her dead brother, Walter, who would then tip tables, rap messages and play the trumpet. Mina had her own paranormal talents, including the ability to eject a viscous “ectoplasm” from her orifices.
In 1924, Houdini attended one of Mina’s séances, with an eye to debunking it. Once the lights went down, the spirit of Walter appeared, even touching Houdini on the right leg. Then, Walter levitated a megaphone and cried out “Have Houdini tell me where to throw it.” Houdini ordered, “Toward me,” at which the megaphone launched in Houdini’s direction, crashing at his feet.
It was a good show but, Houdini was no slouch. He was catching on. “I’ve got her,” he said afterwards. “All fraud. Every bit of it. One more sitting and I will be ready to expose everything.”
At the second séance, Mina levitated a table, but Houdini reached out in the dark and caught Mina lifting it with her head. Same with the ringing of the bell, which Mina did with her foot. “The slickest ruse I ever detected,” Houdini commented later. In November of that year, Houdini published a pamphlet entitled Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium Margery.
Incensed, the spirit of Walter shouted “Houdini, you goddamned son of a bitch, I put a curse on you now that will follow you every day for the rest of your short life.” Two years later, in August 1926, the spirit of Walter proclaimed, “Houdini will be gone by Halloween.”
Guess what — Houdini died two months later, on October 31, 1926, the result of septic poisoning. Allegedly, this was caused by a punch to the stomach, which Houdini invited. One of Houdini’s acts, to prove his own strength, was to invite people to punch him in his stomach. On this one occasion however, Houdini had not properly braced himself before the blow, and ultimately succumbed.
So, was Houdini correct in believing the paranormal does not exist? Or, were the Spiritualists right? You can be the judge of that. One thing is for sure, “The Other Side” offers solid good fun, and a genuine glimpse into a bygone era. The show is performed each night from October 13th to Halloween. It is located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (near N Seventh Street and Driggs Avenue). For tickets and information go to http://www.facetheotherside.com.
This story by Andrew Arnett was originally published October, 2017 @ The Brooklyn Paranormal Society