Sleight of mind

Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Magicians and illusionists have made it their life's work to convince the public that it is — while making a buck or two in the process. But, is it real or illusion? Or perhaps a little of both?

A séance typically involves a congregation of people huddled around a table full of spirit-friendly objects — typically, a bell, a cardboard "spirit" trumpet (poster board rolled into a cone), a chalkboard and mirror. The goal is to harness the collective energy of the participants to make contact. In turn, the spirit communicates back using the objects before them.

The Fox sisters — Kate, Margaretta and Leah — of Hydesville, N.Y., were among the leading forerunners of paranormal communication. In 1848, they made claims of conversation with a spirit that haunted their home. The conversations involved the sisters asking questions and the spirit responding with mysterious taps. The activity gained the sisters national attention and believers including the likes
of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Eventually, however, Margaret Fox admitted that the taps were trickery.

Metro Times decided to investigate the phenomenon, by attending a recent séance at the Plymouth Arts Council. Chased Productions, a joint effort between psychological illusionist George Tait and sleight-of-hand magician Rudy Twomoon, produced the event. About 20 inquisitive people forked over $20 to attend the hour-and-a-half event.

George Tait has been performing psychological mind-reading and magic professionally for the last 10 years, and is certified in hypnosis. He says he's performed countless séances in Ypsilanti and Eastern Michigan over the last four years.

Rudy Twomoon is a sleight-of-hand magician who has been performing publicly for 11 years. He performed at various restaurants throughout metro Detroit before teaming up with Tait to create Chased Productions. The two met at a magic meeting in Garden City and wanted to bring Plymouth a monthly magic and mind-reading show.

The evening of the event, the peculiar and somewhat childlike Tait guides guests two at a time through a dark storage quarter into the main room of the venue, lit only by a single candle and a small red light. The light and its cord are duct-taped to the ceiling, table and floor — this is no flashy David Copperfield production. Tait then positions the first handful of guests in a circle around a small table; the remainder forms an outer semi-circle. Many chairs remain empty due to low turnout.

The evening begins with a simple, tiresome trick. In every other seat lies a stone, which guests are asked to pick up. Tait instructs participants to collaborate with those without a stone. The guests without the stone then close their eyes and focus on their partner's stone. The stone-less then guess which hand the stone is in. Almost everyone guesses correctly — partly because the stones are too large to disguise in a closed fist, partly because it's a 50-50 guess. After the amazing guessing spectacle, Tait fumbles into the backstory of the spirit to be raised tonight.

He offers up a highly rehearsed speech about the Michigan Murders from the '60s — that many may remember as the gruesome tale of serial killer John Norman Collins and his string of female student victims in the Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor area. Overacting, Tait makes it through the speech while he stares intently at the recorder taping the event.

Tait changes the victims' last names in a weak attempt at disguising their identity, but it takes little investigation into the murders to figure out who's who. Tait reads the altered names of Collins' victims aloud to the room as pictures of Collins and the places where he murdered or dumped his victims are passed around the room. Tait asks if any of the pictures spark familiarity with the names he read aloud. Immediately, an elderly woman asks if there is a Joan on the list.

There is. Lucky number four on the list, Joan. Maybe it was because she heard the name read aloud no more than 30 seconds before. Maybe it was a premonition.

Joan Schell was reportedly hitchhiking in front of the Eastern Michigan University student union when she disappeared on June 30, 1968. Her body — raped, stabbed and throat slit — turned up in Ann Arbor one week later. On Aug. 19, 1970, Collins was found guilty of the murder of Karen Sue Beineman. He was never formally charged in the murder of Schell — whose murder is considered unsolved along with many other murders Collins was suspected of committing.

The group is instructed to lock hands and wrists, and the spirit prodding begins.

"Joan, are you there? We mean you no harm," says Tait. "Flicker the candle or tap the glass if you are there."

The glass in question is an antique bottle — something that looks like it once housed absinthe — with a key hanging inside attached by a piece of string. The spirit is to use this to communicate yes or no answers.

The key moves. Yeah, it actually moves. It circles in the bottle as the audience gasps. Tink! It taps against the glass. The air in the stuffy room is much cooler now. Maybe someone turned up the air conditioning.

"The mind makes us believe all sorts of crazy things. Get people in a room, turn the lights off with the power of suggestion people hallucinate and freak out," Tait says later.

Things begin to get intense. A loud bursting sound, much like a light bulb exploding, rings through the darkness. A thorough investigation of the room leads Tait and Twomoon nowhere. Nothing is broken, nothing misplaced. The show goes on.

The séance ends with another crashing sound. This time it causes excessive alarm from the two hosts.

"Lights! Rudy, the lights!" Tait yells.

The mirror in the middle of the table has exploded. Many of the shards are close, if not touching, the hands of the group at the table. Joan Schell's provoked spirit has allegedly shattered the mirror.

"I don't know what's with that one. I'm just so glad no one got hurt," says Twomoon visibly shaken — or making his best attempt for an Academy Award.

"I knew [Tait's] hands were on the table," spectator Laura Sigarto says.

"I have heard the séances on his Web site and I don't think that was something George would have done."

Tait turns to the chalkboard, revealing Schell's final communiqué. The chicken-scratch is an angry epitaph of her wishes to be left alone, topped off with a lightly finger-drawn heart on the other side.

So, was the séance staged? Probably. Did it scare the living — pun intended — shit out of everyone involved? Definitely.

With hands shaking and overwrought with trepidation Tait says, "I've never had anything like that happen. That was a great show."

Dustin Walsh is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to [email protected]
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