From table knocking to levitation, a seance during the Victorian era was a grab bag of magic tricks and fakery designed to convince people the spirits of the dead were being summoned.
This month, visitors to Beaconsfield Historic House in Charlottetown are getting to witness seance re-enactments, put on by the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation.
"Many spirit mediums were using magic tricks in the parlour to make it seem as though they were communicating with the dead," said museum guide and actor Caitlyn Paxson, who is hosting the seances.
"Things that to us today seem very obviously like magic tricks really stunned Victorian audiences."
During the theatrical re-enactments, held in Beaconsfield's double drawing room, guests are treated to a short immersive play recreating a seance from the Victorian era. Dressed in an elaborate puffed-sleeve gown, Paxson portrays spirit medium Madame Evangeline Grey.
After the play, there's a conversation about the history of seances.
The events have proved popular and are all sold out.
Paxson, who works as the assistant education and programming officer for the foundation, said she's always been fascinated by Victorian seances.
"These people … were sort of standing on a precipice of changing thought about how the world worked," said Paxson.
"So many things were being developed scientifically and discovered scientifically at the time that were new, and that seemed like magic to people. So that line of what's magic, what's real, was very blurry during this period."
Holding a fake seance in a haunted house is kind of the intro to a horror movie, but I really hope that the spirits will understand.— Caitlyn Paxson
Paxson was careful to point out that some people do believe that you can communicate with the dead through a seance.
"People have different beliefs about seances, and about communication and the afterlife," she said.
"I don't want to cast any question over people's beliefs. However, if we look at the context of Victorian seances, we do know that there were proven cases of fakery going on."
Houdini wrote book on seances
Famous magician Harry Houdini was interested in seances, said Paxson, and wanted people to know they included magic tricks.
"He actually wrote a book where he debunks a lot of the tricks that people were using," she said.
"You would experience everything from … levitation and miraculous, you know, untying of knots and things like that, to more direct communication with spirits."
Table knocking was popular at the time.
"You would ask a question and then you would hear an echo come back like a knocking sound," said Paxson.
"People would practice automatic writing, where they're writing messages from the spirits in a sort of trance-like state. Sometimes people would channel ghosts and speak in their voices and their accents."
Talking to the dead 'very appealing'
For Victorians, the draw of seances was connected to the fact that death surrounded them at every turn.
"Pretty much everyone living in the Victorian period had someone close to them who died, probably recently, because the death rate was so much higher than it is today," said Paxson.
"Death was just a very real presence for people, and I think that that idea of talking to the dead became very appealing to them."
She hopes any spirits haunting Beaconsfield, a historic house originally built for the Peake family in 1877, will understand that these re-enactments are being done with the "utmost respect for them.
"It hasn't escaped my notice that holding a fake seance in a haunted house is kind of the intro to a horror movie, but I really hope that the spirits will understand," she said.