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An evening at a Spiritualist demonstration

A scene from the TV show Penny Dreadful

Yesterday evening I went to a demonstration at the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain. This was the first time I’ve been to such an occasion – I’m not really into psychics, seances, ouija, Tarot, all that jazz. But I’ve been reading the work of a pioneering late Victorian psychologist, Frederic Myers, and he was very into all of that. I’ll write more about him later this week.

Spiritualism is not a big religious movement in the west today – do you know anyone who’s a Spiritualist? or who’s been to a seance? – but it was huge in the second half of the 19th century, at one point attracting eight million followers in the US and UK. As Ann Taves has written, it was one of several forms of radical Protestantism which emphasized ‘religious experience’, like Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventism, Pentecostalism, the Emmanuel Movement and the New Thought movement. Like Swedenborg and Theosophy, Spiritualism helped shape the New Age idea of a ‘religion of all religions’. Historians usually suggest the movement began in 1848 with the three Fox sisters, who started to hear ‘rappings’ when they were teenagers living outside New York. The raps responded to questions, and informed the Foxes they were spirits communicating from beyond the grave.

Seances became a popular evening past-time for Victorians, and the centre-piece of a new religious movement, Spiritualism, based on a belief that spirits of deceased family members still communicate with the living through mediums (particularly women). Spiritualism was a comfort to the bereaved, and proved particularly popular after the US Civil War and World War One.

A photo of a seance in the 1920s featuring famous medium Eusapia Palladino
A photo of a seance in the 1920s featuring famous medium Eusapia Palladino

I’m not entirely sure about the Spiritualist conception of the afterlife, to be honest – it depends which spirit you asked – but on the whole the Spirits gave comforting and rather bland messages. ‘You’re doing great! We love you!’ It was like a form of self-affirmation alienated into the ether. But it could also be quite Gothic, with flying furniture, ectoplasm, past-life memories, science fiction fantasies, erotic transgressions by randy female mediums and their male interlocutors (it wasn’t me, it was the spirit!), and the occasional diabolical possession. Above all, there was a lot of fraud and chicanery. The Fox sisters themselves confessed to making the rapping noises by cracking their knee-joints (though they later recanted their confession), and other famous mediums like Eusapia Palladino were exposed as tricksters.

By the 1920s, debunkers like Harry Houdini had succeeded in ridiculing the Spiitualist movement and the wider phenomenon of psychic mediums, and though the occult made a resurgence in the 1960s and 70s, the Skeptic movement since then has succeeded in pushing psychic mediums out of the mainstream and into the classified ads and the furthest reaches of TV.  The tricks of fake-mediums are now well-known: bumping furniture with legs or hidden helpers, sneakily extracting information from sitters, planting helpers in the audience, cold-reading, giving bland and general answers, and above all manipulating people’s desire to be deceived. Making money by fooling the bereaved is pretty bad behaviour, and skeptics like Derren Brown are right to expose it.

Amie Butler and daughter Jolie

And yet…the idea that telepathic connections can exist between loved ones, and the idea that some people have supernormal gifts of empathy, insight, sensitivity, and even clairvoyance or clairsentience, is a lot older than Spiritualism. In ancient Greece, there were very few recognized Sibyls or Oracles, but those that existed were respected by the philosophers – indeed, Plutarch was a priest at Delphos. Is there anything worth exploring amid all the fraud and chicanery? The best way to find out, surely, is first-hand experience.

The Sibyl of Belgrave Road

So off I went, yesterday, to 11 Belgrave Road in Victoria, where the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain is based, on the second floor of an office block, above the Bipolar Association. They do ‘demonstrations’ most evenings, which you can attend for six pounds. I paid and went into the demonstration room, expecting candles, crystal balls, and ladies in crepe holding hands round a levitating table. In fact, the room was rather undecorated, with a piano in the back (no one played alas), and a statue of a man with a beard, who I think was Andrew Jackson Davis, one of the founders of the movement. There were only ten people there, and the medium herself, a lady called Gail Moffat, mid-40s, well-covered, and dressed in sweatpants, t-shirt and cardigan.

‘So, let’s begin the demonstration’, she said. I suddenly felt rather exposed – I hadn’t bargained for the fact Ms Moffat might attempt to communicate with some of my deceased relatives! ‘I feel drawn to…’ we all leaned forward expectantly…’my gin and tonic’. And she produced a large G&T from behind the lectern and took a swig. She was a breezy sort of medium. She didn’t go into a trance or roll her eyes or put on a funny voice, like Eva Green in Penny Dreadful. She was very matter-of-fact. ‘I’m not always right’, she explained. ‘So correct me if I’m wrong. I don’t want to give a message to a wrong person. I’d like to begin over here’, she said, walking to the front-row, and to an old man flanked by two younger women. She spoke to the old man, who it turned out was German and couldn’t speak English, so his grand-daughter translated – the message went from the spirit to the medium to the grand-daughter to the man.

‘Your wife has passed into the spirit world?’


‘She died suddenly. It was an unexpected illness.’


‘You both always thought you would go first. And it’s been difficult.’


‘She says she was proud of being a good wife. She was very good at organizing your life. And so it has been a challenge being more independent. Like cooking for yourself. You can’t always find things in the kitchen. But you have been doing well. She is happy. Is there a special dish you cook with sausages.’

‘It is the only thing he knows how to cook’, replied his daughter.

Gail turned to the daughter.

‘Am I right that you’re an only child? And you were very close to your mother. She used to make coffee a special way, and you enjoyed making the coffee that special way while talking together.’


‘And there was something she would ask you to buy, something that was a secret between the two of you.’

‘Yes.’ We didn’t hear what this was. Cigarettes? Hashish?

Gail turned to the grand-daughter. ‘And she is very proud of you. You have just done some achievement.’

‘Er….I am studying?’ said the grand-daughter uncertainly.

‘Yes. And you’re the first person in your family to go to university?’


‘She’s very proud of you. She loves you all’, said Gail. ‘Thank you for working with me.’

I was impressed – she wasn’t floundering around or cold-reading at all, and it seemed quite specific at times. She seemed tired. ‘Can I go home now!’ she laughed. Next she turned to another woman in the front-row, an East Ender, smartly turned out, in her 60s.

‘I’m hearing someone who is very chatty. Is it your mother? She has a sort of sing-song voice. You were very close. You loved to go to Southend together. Sometimes you stayed for the weekend there?’

‘Yes, if the weather was bad and we couldn’t get back. We went to Southend a lot.’

‘You liked to go for tea there. That was something you treasured. You liked to lift up your little fingers while drinking tea.’

‘Yes, it was a shared joke.’

‘Ye Olde Tea Shop.’

‘Yes….I think there was one called that.’

‘She was a magpie. She liked collecting glittering objects.’

‘Yes, from every place we visited. The house is full of them.’

‘And your father used to leave you two to it.’

‘Yes, he’d say ‘what do you two find to talk about for so long?’ He was a loner.’

‘She says ‘forever…’, no, ‘always and forever‘. She made me say it properly.’

‘Yes. We’d always sign our letters with that.’

‘OK. Thank you for working with me.’

I was even more impressed. Southend! Tea shops! Very specific. But to what end? I mean, couldn’t the spirit have given more useful information than mere nostalgia?

Then Gail turned her attention to three people in front of me. ‘There’s a gentleman’, she said to the middle lady. ‘He was rather awkward in this life. He alienated a lot of people. This created separations in the family. It affected you too. He wants to make amends now. And he wants you to help. Good luck with that!’ The woman in front of me didn’t seem entirely sure but she went along with it.

‘I need another G&T!’ said Gail. The East-Ender went to get her one. So they knew each other…well…then maybe Southend wasn’t such a miracle. The lady came back with another large G&T, and a cough-syrup tablet (‘Madame Sosotris, famous clairvoyant, had a bad cold’.) Gail downed the tablet with a swig. She seemed quite the boozer – if so, she’d be by no means the first boozy medium, in fact the Fox sisters were alcoholics, and many modern shamans in Siberia are also apparently alcoholics. It doesn’t seem entirely good for one, becoming a boarding-house for the spirits.

I was really worried she would come to me next. I hoped she didn’t communicate with my recently-deceased grandfather – we weren’t that close, he was rather formal, and frankly I’m not sure a Spiritualist seance would really be his style. And what must he think of the life I lead!

Anyway, Gail did approach me, despite me averting my eyes. ‘Can I come to you sir?’


‘Am I right in thinking you’re wondering whether to change career, if something doesn’t work out?’


‘Well, tell me yes or no,’ she said rather impatiently.


‘But you’re thinking a lot about your work. You’re very absorbed in what you do. It’s all-consuming.’

‘Well…yes, I suppose so.’ I do indeed wake up dreaming about the book I’m writing most days, and think about it a lot (that’s normal for most writers). But I’m also quite a slacker…

‘I’m hearing someone, it’s your father’s mother.’ This was an Irish lady called Deidre, who died in 1999, to whom I was close. ‘She says that you’re unbalanced at the moment. You’re too focused on work and she thinks you don’t have enough fun. She’s ticking you off, in a nice way. Do you go home much?’ ‘To my parents? Yes, a fair amount.’ This may have been a clever way of discovering if I had a family of my own. ‘You think a lot, you ponder a lot’. Well, I’m a philosopher. ‘And you need to balance your life more. You’re so serious now, and when you were a child you used to make everyone laugh so much!’ Now, I suppose everyone was more fun when they were a kid, but this got me. I sort of zoned out, so it seemed like Gail was standing miles away. It was true: I was the family clown when I was a child, and I have changed massively since I went through a period of mental illness in my early 20s, becoming much more thoughtful and serious. I feel proud of having come through that, and that I’m now doing work that helps other people. But here, supposedly, was my dead grandmother telling me to lighten up and have more fun!

‘Do you go to festivals?’ asked Gail.

‘Well, not usually, but I’ve been to a couple this summer’ (Latitude and Wilderness).

‘That’s more like it. She’s going to help you have more fun. Thank you for working with me.’

And so the demonstration ended, and I headed out into Victoria, where I saw a big advert above the entrance to the Tube, saying ‘Go To Festivals!’ The spirit-world was telling me to lighten up and ponder less. It was a lot to ponder. Why would the spirit of my grandmother still be in heaven, if there was reincarnation? Do our personalities just kick around for eternity, watching the lives of living relatives like rather dull soap operas? It felt a bit creepy, the idea of our ancestors watching us ‘always and forever’ – no wonder cultures that practice ancestor worship are more traditional.

One could go a little nuts if one became too obsessed with the spirit-world. And such seances or demonstrations don’t seem to me the basis of a good religion – this wasn’t a service, it wasn’t worshipping God, it wasn’t really encouraging virtuous behaviour, it was mainly satisfying our curiosity, our loneliness, our hunger for the sensational, and the advice given was on the whole quite bland (‘you’re doing great! she loves you!’) In my case, though, the advice was pretty good – I probably do need more of a life outside work. But the information that Gail produced could have come from the audiences’ own minds rather than spirits, which would explain why it was more reminiscence than active advice. In other words (and this was the conclusion Myers came to), many instances of supposed spirit-mediumship could actually be instances of telepathy, for which there is some good scientific evidence. Gail struck me as an extremely sensitive and intuitive person.

Well, perhaps I will try and interview her for a future blog. Or you could go and check out a demonstration for yourself. However, a word of warning – the world of psychics is full of charlatans looking to prey on the gullible and the unhappy. Even well-intentioned psychics probably get things wrong a lot of the time. Keep your scepticism intact!

On that note, check out this Guardian article about the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain and the dodgy sale of its previous headquarters in Belgrave Square.

And on a slightly different note, regarding that strange ‘zoomed out’ effect that happened to me, when Gail suddenly seemed miles away and much smaller (a strange cognitive effect which some other people online say they experience), the closest thing I can compare it to is the famous ‘dolly zoom’ shot in films, often used to symbolize moments of altered consciousness, numinosity, supernaturalism, horror, or even past-life memory!  Check out this video with some examples of it – it’s an interesting way cinema recreates an altered state of consciousness in its characters and in the viewer:

Evolution of the Dolly Zoom from Vashi Nedomansky on Vimeo.

On pop stars’ alter-egos

bowie-aladdinIn the early years of psychology, there was no hotter topic than multiple selves and their existence in the subconscious. Pioneering psychologists like Jean-Marie Charcot, William James, Frederic Myers, Theodore Flournoy, Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud were all fascinated by how other selves could exist within the same personality, and come out in moments of trance or subliminal consciousness.

The more metaphysically-adventurous researchers, like James, Myers and Flournoy, studied psychic mediums like Leonora Piper, and wondered if discarnate spirits were somehow possessing the mediums through their subliminal mind. Other researchers, like Janet and Freud, put forward the theory that the personality ‘split’ or dissociated during trauma, and that the split-off aspects of the psyche could manifest as alternate selves, voices or identities. What all the researchers shared was the belief in a subliminal self in which multiple potential identities existed – our psyche is fluid, they believed, and can suddenly switch into new formations and constellations, even new personalities – this is why James was interested in religious conversions, in which people claimed their old self was dead and a new self born in a moment.

But this avenue of research, so dominant in the early years of psychology, was rapidly walled off as psychology became professionalized and the idea of the unconscious became discredited as too hard to prove and too associated with the occult. While Freud and Janet’s idea of dissociation continued to survive somewhat in studies of trauma and multiple identity disorder / dissociative identity disorder, this was not a mainstream area of research, and it was further discredited by the ‘false memory’ scandal in the 1980s – in which psychoanalysts inadvertently planted false memories of childhood sexual abuse in patients through hypnotic suggestion.

Today, in psychology, there is very little interest in the phenomenon of alter egos or multiple selves in psychology, and even less interest in mediums or psychics. Indeed, few psychologists are even interested in the idea of the subliminal self, although this was in some ways the foundational concept of psychology.

This seems to me a pity. The phenomenon of alter egos seems to me real and worthy of continued research, particularly in relation to creativity, the arts and performance. I want to talk about one aspect of that phenomena that is still alive, well, and part of our mainstream culture, and that’s the use of alter-egos by pop stars.

jyNkgxjMany leading pop stars have alter-egos which they assume on stage or in different songs. The most famous is probably David Bowie’s various alter egos – the Thin White Duke, the Pierrot, and of course Ziggy Stardust. In fact, ‘Bowie’ himself is kind of an alter-ego (his real name is David Robert Jones). Beyonce also has an alter-ego, Sasha Fierce; Marshall Mathers has Eminem and Slim Shady; Lady Gaga has a male alter-ego, Jo Calderone (and Lady Gaga is itself something of an alter-ego); Prince has a female alter-ego, Camille; Bono invented three alter-egos for the Zoo TV tour; Tori Amos invented five for her ‘American Doll Posse’ tour, and so on.

What’s the point of these alter-egos? It often seems to give the artists permission to express an aspect of their personality which is somehow forbidden by their usual socially-constructed self. It is ecstatic – it enables them to step out of their usual self and put on someone else. Beyonce says ‘I’ve created an alter ego: things I do when performing that I would never do normally…I wouldn’t like Sasha if I met her off-stage’. Marshall Mathers invented Slim Shady to be ‘a monster freak who only knew how to say and do what no one was supposed to’. Shakira says of her alter-ego, ‘She-Wolf’, ‘it’s like a more animalistic side of you, a more primitive side … an animal person in a way. So when you understand these things you forgive yourself every time you screw up, you say, ‘It wasn’t me, that was the She-Wolf … that was the animal in me, that wasn’t me, I have nothing to do with that.” OK Shakira!

Snoop's white alter-ego, Todd
Snoop’s white alter-ego, Todd

Rock stars’ alter-egos also let them explore different sides of their gender-identity and sexuality – women can embrace a more assertive and sexually aggressive side, men can embrace a more flamboyant or feminine side, or even different ethnic identities – the lead-singer in of Montreal has a black cross-gender alter-ego called Georgie Fruit. This could be seen as a harking back to blacked-up minstrel days, when performers ‘put on’ black identities to explore behaviour somewhat forbidden by their own white culture. Then again, Snoop Dogg has a white guy called Todd among his various alter-egos.

What these performers seem to have in common is a capacity for controlled dissociation. Their alter-egos enable them to go into trance or dissociative states while they’re performing, which in turn enables them to throw off their inhibitions and really go wild on stage, thereby getting the audience into a trance too. Beyonce has said: ‘I have out-of-body experiences [on stage]. If I cut my leg, if I fall, I don’t even feel it. I’m so fearless, I’m not aware of my face or body’. This dissociative capacity may be related to a sort of schizoid tendency – Bowie, who has this capacity in spades, says: ‘There’s a schizoid streak within the family anyway so I dare say that I’m affected by that. The majority of the people in my family have been in some kind of mental institution, as for my brother he doesn’t want to leave.’ Lady Gaga has said her multiple personalities are ‘how I deal with my insanity. Since I was younger I always had voices in my head, and for the longest time I was drinking and doing a lot of drugs, and it was the clothing and the artistry that saved me.’

The point is that, as with shamans, what could be pathological dissociation becomes controlled dissociation, or the art of trance, although there is always the risk that the artist’s main personality becomes taken over and permanently possessed by their alter ago, particularly if the public demands  they play it all the time. That’s why artists like Bowie, Beyonce or Eminem talk about ‘killing off’ their alter egos at the right time.

tumblr_lxfp218NZO1r9j6pro1_r2_1280This capacity for controlled dissociation – a capacity to enter the liquidity of trance and allow your self to assume new formations or personae – seems to me to be central to other performance arts as well. Actors also sometimes exhibit it – I remember John Le Carre saying that Alec Guinness spookily ‘became’ Smiley, which Le Carre described as ‘controlled schizophrenia’. We also read of actors saying they sometimes become ‘possessed’ by a part, and even have to do exorcism or burial rituals to get rid of personae.  And many artists have also created alter-egos, either of different genders (as with Duchamp) or even animal alter-egos, as Max Ernst did.

This reminds us that the roots of culture (including pop culture) are in cult. We read of ecstatic cults in Bali, or India, or Thailand, or Haiti, where dancers and actors put on masks and feel themselves to be possessed by spirits and gods. And their performance takes their audience into trance states too, which brings the participants release and catharsis from emotional and psychosomatic disorders. The trance enables the release of physical, emotional and sexual energy which everyday civilization requires us to inhibit. Here’s a brief video about one such cult, the theyyam cult in India.

Pop culture still bears some of the functions of these older ecstatic cults. That’s why people in their 50s will still talk about that Ziggy Stardust gig at the Apollo with a faraway look in their eyes. Pop culture, and the arts in general, are a playful space in which we can take off our everyday masks and play with alternate expressions of identity, other selves, other energies.

xtvyt7I could say something about superhero comics, their elaborate exploration of the idea of alter-egos, and how that’s been another important site for 20th century exploration of this theme, but that deserves its own post. I’ll just end by saying that, as superhero comics show us, this creation of alter egos which enable us to express inhibited parts of us is not always a healthy or prosocial thing. Our alter-egos could easily be the dark or destructive aspect of us. Look, for example, at how James Eagan Holmes assumed the alter-ego of the Joker before shooting 82 people in a cinema, or just this month how a young arsonist says he was under the influence of Spiderman’s nemesis, Carnage, when he burned down his brother’s flat.

We need to remember there are good and bad energies down there in the subliminal self. Internet conspiracy theorists get very worked up about Beyonce’s alter-ego and apparent dissociative tendency, claiming she is an occultist literally possessed by a spirit. Well…unlikely. But it is true that many pop stars fond of alter-egos, like David Bowie or Lady Gaga, are also into the occult. This is the malign influence on pop of black magician Aleister Crowley, who had a real thing for alter-egos. The main point, though, is that the connection between spirit possession and cultural performance is very, very old (as old as shamanism, in fact), and Christian artists also talk about being ‘inspired’ or ‘possessed’ by the Holy Spirit.

I think it is possible (and perhaps desirable!) to have an integrated self in which one doesn’t feel one switches between separate constellations, which must be somewhat confusing for the people around you. I felt like two different people when I was traumatized at university – an extrovert and somewhat amoral ‘me’ and an introvert, neurotic ‘me’. I would involuntarily switch between them for days on end, with each self becoming more extreme. But eventually, they more or less coalesced into one relatively stable personality, which is probably a good thing!

For performers, while alter-egos are useful for exploring new aspects of oneself, there’s always a danger that you’re basically ‘giving the fans what they want’, as Beyonce put it. Perhaps it takes more courage to stand up on stage and show who you really are, without a mask.

Pippa as Loretta (left) and herself
Pippa as Loretta (left) and herself

I have a comedian friend, Pippa Evans, who always performed as an alter-ego, an American called Loretta Maine.  Pippa has said: ‘I sometimes see Loretta as the explosion that happens when a young woman is told to keep her feelings to herself and always put her best face on (I was brought up in the 1930s). All the repressed feelings that I have ever felt towards anyone come out in this gruesome, volatile but, for some reason, endearing monster. And then I feel much calmer. It’s like drama-therapy, only it’s cathartic for all of us.’ But, after a sort of ascetic ritual where she wore no make up for a month, Pippa has now started performing as…Pippa! She unveiled her new show as herself at Edinburgh, which took guts, and it went down a storm.