SEANCES & SCREAMING
When somebody says "seance", what do you imagine?
A genteel setting, commensurate with the rise of Spiritualism in the mid-nineteenth century?
Mustachioed gentlemen and women in high lace collars hold hands around a table, their apprehensive faces lit by a single flickering candle.
The medium speaks.
A few attendees begin to weep.
The table shakes.
The light goes out.
A cornerstone of both Spiritualism and the horror genre, a seance is a type of group ritual for contacting spirits of the deceased. The most commonly recognised type is the leader assisted seance, conducted by a person purporting special powers of communicating with spirits.
What I was off to wasn't strictly speaking a seance but Seance, an immersive art piece based around group fear, cultural superstition and suggestibility. It's the brainchild of Glen Neath, David Rosenberg and Andrea Salazar with Realscape Productions, who are delivering a series of terrifying experiences in Australia called DARKFIELD.
Held in the dark, claustrophobic confines of a shipping container, Seance's website specifically states:
WARNING: SÉANCE IS NOT SUITABLE FOR THOSE WHO ARE PREGNANT, CLAUSTROPHOBIC, UNDER THE AGE OF 15 OR SUFFER HEART OR BACK CONDITIONS.
How can I resist? I re-assembled my ghost hunting team.
Who ya gonna call? This bunch of jerks, apparently.
You may remember my team from our previous overnight investigation of Aradale Insane Asylum (pictured below). if you haven't had a chance to enjoy that particular adventure, you can follow this link or click on the delightful image of my team lollygagging on the asylum's lawn.
Pictured: The ghosthunting team awaiting the chill touch of night on the grounds of Aradale Insane Asylum, Ararat
That sweet forty foot Seance container was parked at the Queen Victoria Market. Just ... waiting ominously for tonight's batch of victims. Sessions run for twenty minutes, with about nine groups cycling through each night. It will be in Melbourne until 6 Feb 2019 before heading off around Australia to spread the fear.
From the look of it I did wonder if it would have the same mechanism as the rather fancy Princes Park automated toilets, which as well as playing twinkly jazz and polite reminders of how much longer you get before the door opens and ejects you into the pitiless stare of the public, also lock at random intervals and then flush their insides down with industrial bleach.
Pictured: Me, outside the Seance container. Only a tiny bit scared.
If I look a little flustered it's not just from extreme anticipatory terror. It reached forty-five degrees Celsius in my end of town on seance day. On my way into the city I actually ended up slumped on a bench in the shadow of a church hoping it would protect me from the devil's breath that I could see literally withering passers-by. Sweat slid off people and skittered around the pavement like tiny beads on a hot griddle.
I emailed the Seance team to check they would still be going ahead with locking a posse into a metal shipping container in forty-five degree heat. I was assured the performance space was air conditioned. We would be perfectly safe.
From heat, that is.
DUN DUN DUUUUUNNNN!
Pictured: A fortress of cold, unforgiving steel.
We took our places to await our turn. Vague, unsettling booms reverberated from those who had gone before. The waiting line seemed nervy, excited. Trying to play it cool and not 100% succeeding.
Previously my team and I have enjoyed in-depth discussion about that process, when you step into an elevator, of evaluating the randomly assigned strangers who join you. In an emergency, are these the people you want to be locked in with? And if it really came down to it, who would you eat? (for my thoughts on this, please feel free to enjoy my short horror story The Elevator Story).
Now we began measuring up the rest of the crowd as to whether THESE would be the people we finally terror-peed in front of.
Pictured: Terror pee.
Then the heavy metal doors groaned open. An antique portcullis in a remote haunted castle couldn't have sounded better. Dock workers must love getting that level of haunted every day.
It was our turn.
We intently scanned the faces of those exiting the shipping container, looking for cues. Small, brave smiles greeted us but I won't lie. Some of them looked awfully pale.
The first thing the guide asks you to do before entering the container is to switch OFF your phone (none of this silent malarkey) and also any other light emitting devices such as smart watches, fitness bands, etc. The Seance experience is conducted in perfect intense darkness.
Our ghost hunting team is about having a good time, not ruining it for others, so instead of taking a photo of the interior I've cribbed the below gorgeous official publicity image from the auspices of the internets.
Pictured: Container interior.
We filed in obediently. I hesitate to say "lambs to the slaughter", but that's what it felt like. We took our places, two rows down a long stark white table in the opulent room. The strangers seated across from us ducked their eyes, giggled nervously.
Yes, well noticed: those are beautiful crimson seats rescued from an old theater. The upholstery glimmered in the low light with suggestions of luxury, privilege. Personally I can't stand touching velvet, it gives me the creeps, but it's the impression that counts.
Also, when I say "old theater" it must have been oolllddd. Like in the good old days when people were just tiny wizened little things. Tim The Filmmaker is a big tall guy and he barely crunched into his seat, knees jammed into the table in front.
Luckily, although no petite fairy creature myself I'm a veteran of being origami'd into the rearmost seat of a lumbering Toyota Tarago. I fold up real small. Ah, I can smell that family road trip now. The nauseating reek of upholstery. The sheeeeeesh-CLUNK of the heavy metal sliding door ramming into place, locking you inside. The hitching sound as my sister begins her pre-vomit warm up. Anyways I was able to squidge over to give him a little more elbow room. The Seance crew aren't kidding when they warn the claustrophobic away.
Each of us took a pair of headphones from a hook over our shoulder and popped them on. After a quick test, the lights strobed out and Seance began.
I'm not going to give away too much but Seance is an immersive masterclass in using very few cues (ASMR and vibration) in a subtle and complex way, in order to place you in the middle of a surprisingly rich story.
You are a guest at a seance and the master of ceremonies strides bombastically up and down the table, bullying and coercing the audience. The sensory input suggests the story to you, and in the depths of utter visual deprivation allows your brain to fill in all the fine detail.
For the best experience I highly recommend sitting in the middle of a row. I was right at the end and it broke the immersion for me when the roaming soundscape extended out beyond my mental map of the container's boundaries. However it certainly wasn't a deal breaker.
And on the terror front it was merely a stroke of luck that Seance didn't push any of my particular buttons, otherwise I would have been terrified. As it was the experience was incredibly enjoyable, exhilarating and utterly unnerving.
All members of the team were skittish and excited on exiting the container. We made a quick pact to do our best to freak out the next line of people waiting to go in, but the exit happened so quickly that Tim the Filmaker was the only one who got away with it.
It was mission critical that we proceed immediately to calm our nerves with spicy Korean fried chicken and beer (pictured below), and to debrief. I wasn't the only one who kept compulsively touching my ear where wet, suggestive voices had whispered just behind my shoulder, suggesting the profane only to me in the chaos and the dark of Seance.
Pictured: Definitely not possessed. Maybe.
We will be monitoring photos of ourselves closely over the next couple of days for distortion that could indicate signs of demon possession. I can highly recommend Seance to anybody who enjoys listening to or is thinking of starting a horror or suspense themed podcast. So much can be achieved using suggestion and selective input!
Would You Like to Know More?
Wikipedia contributors. (2018, December 28). Séance. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 07:32, January 27, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=S%C3%A9ance&oldid=875683258