Experiencing the Psychomanteum

December 23, 2010

It was my first time sitting in a psychomanteum. A what? you ask. A psychomanteum is a chamber with a mirror into which one gazes in hopes of seeing spirits of the dead. The chamber is dark, save for a dim lightbulb or a candle.

On June 26-27, 2010, my wife Diana Harris and I were visiting the charming spiritualist village on Cassadaga Lake in western New York, the subject of the book Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead by Christine Wicker (2003). There, in the basement of a three-story Victorian dwelling known as Angel House (see photo), is a psychomanteum. Screened off with fabric panels, and containing a mirror that is slightly tipped up so sitters do not see themselves, the chamber is the topic of chapter 18 of Wicker’s book.

Through a spiritualist we had met earlier in the day (and with whom we sat during the evening’s healing ceremony performed by visiting Tibetan monks), we were invited with another couple to visit the Angel House’s psychomanteum. There we five sat for several minutes and looked in vain for the ghostly figures. Christine Wicker had spent longer on two separate occasions with Lily Dale mediums and had similar results, although one medium’s friend reportedly had better luck.

The psychomanteum was popularized by Dr. Raymond Moody—the professor of psychology best known for coining the term near-death experience (NDE)—whose 1993 book Reunions is based on the mirror chamber. He has used his own psychomanteum as a research tool, encouraging persons to contact the dead as a means of resolving grief. Moody’s setup is contained in his rural Alabama facility, The John Dee Memorial Theater of the Mind. Dee (1527-1608) was court magician to Elizabeth I and touted scrying (using an obsidian mirror) as a technique for predicting the future.

Scrying is a method of supposed divination that employs a speculum—a device such as a crystal ball, bowl of water, or mirror—into which one gazes in hopes of seeing visions of the past, the present, or the future. (See my online site, www.skeptiseum.org .) The technique of scrying involves relaxing and placing the mind in an unfocused state, whereupon the shiny surface of the speculum may seem to cloud over as a prelude to the appearance of mental imagery.

Thus, the psychomanteum invites use of the imagination. As Francis X. King cautions in Mind & Magic (1991, p. 151), with scrying, you may not be seeing clairvoyantly but “just getting better acquainted with the contents of your own unconscious mind.”