Capturing the secret world of the séance – photographs of the other side


Ectoplasm, spirit trumpets, and Elvis all help connect people with dead loved ones.

MYSTERY WIRE — More than a century ago, some of the greatest scientific minds in the world believed in spiritualism, the ability to communicate with the dead. Science is no longer open minded about seances and psychic mediums, but the traditions continue to thrive in some circles.

An exhibition of striking photos, now on display at the University of Maryland, documents a 20-year research project that explores the intersection of spiritualism and photography.

The beginning of American spiritualism

Writer and photographer Shannon Taggart took a deep dive into the world of spiritualism by immersing herself in the practice of seances and spirit communication at one of the best-known enclaves of spiritualism, Lily Dale, New York.

In 1848, in upstate New York, not in Lily Dale, but not far away outside of Rochester, New York, two young girls Kate and Margaret Fox, claimed to be in contact with the spirit of a deceased man who was haunting their home, their small cottage in upstate New York. So they could communicate using coded raps with this spirit. And the neighbors came and everybody, lots of people in the town started witnessing this what they said was spirit communication. And then they went to Rochester and publicly demonstrated this form of spiritual communication, which was nicknamed the spiritual telegraph. And then it kind of sprang up into a movement and Lily Dale became like a summer camp for spiritualists and people interested in this movement to go and gather. And so that’s how the town initially was started.

Shannon Taggart

Taggart even tried it herself while taking classes in Lily Dale and Arthur Findlay College near London, England. “Even though I’m not a medium myself, as I was involved in classes, or sessions of different types, I was asked to participate,” Taggart explained.  “And I did go through the exercises and although I did not become a medium, I found it really inspiring creatively.”

Her creativity is seen in her photographs. People have been trying to photograph spirits for almost as long as cameras have been around. So when Taggart became interested in this topic, she studied many of the old photos of seances.

Some of those old photos were clearly manipulated while others could not be explained. When asked if her photographs were meant to capture spirits or depict what people believe they are seeing she said, “The more I tried to play with visuals to try and describe what you couldn’t see I did have a lot of strange synchronicities with my camera. Meaning, if I did long exposure, or different types of light flare, a lot of times I was getting accidental pictures that spoke to the actual experience people were reporting.”


Her photos show, among other things, a weird substance known as ectoplasm that pops up from time to time in photographs taken during seances.

The images of ectoplasm are really very absurd and very shockingly strange,” Taggart said. “I mean, some of the strangest images I think I’ve ever encountered in the history of photography are the early ectoplasm images. I mean, some of them are very like the mediums will be half naked with these gooey-like things popping out all over. And so ectoplasm is a symbol of life and death meeting and some spirituals believe the ectoplasm in those pictures is absolutely real. Others believed it was fake for the camera, but it’s still a real substance.

Shannon Taggart
Photo property of Shannon Taggart

She admits most people today only know ectoplasm from the movie Ghostbusters. “The first time I ever heard the word ectoplasm was through Ghostbusters,” Taggart said. “I came to find out that Dan Ackroyd is actually a fourth-generation spiritualist and so he’s drawing the term ectoplasm from spiritualist history.”

Aykroyd wrote the foreword in Taggert’s book titled “SÉANCE” and got his interest in the spiritual world from his father. “His father was a spiritualist researcher,” Taggart said. “He wrote a great book called “The History of Ghosts” that I was a big fan of before I even met them. But they were up in Lily Dale and I met the family there. They were exploring a research trip. And so that’s how we connected there. And I got to meet his father Peter, who knew just about everything in the history of spiritualism.”

Dead celebrities

Other celebrities show up in seances quite often. Lately many have been visited by the spirits of Freddie Mercury, Louis Armstrong, and Michael Jackson.

Some spiritualists use to channel dead celebrities is by using a spirit trumpet. The trumpets are modeled after early hearing aids and spiritualists believe that if a spirit comes, they can speak through the cone to it. Many even paint the face of the celebrity they are trying to reach on the cone.

Even Elvis Presley makes an appearance in Taggart’s book, or at least his words do. 

There is a photograph of a note signed by Elvis. Taggart said she met with a medium who said that Elvis takes control of her hand and writes notes through her.

Is death the end?

No, death is not the end according to many spiritualists. Taggart said most believe death is a “mere transition, not the end.”

“If you’re a spiritualist, medium, all of your efforts would be to prove that there is a connection between life and death and that we don’t really die, we just evolve on or go into another state of being and that that state of being is accessible, like our ancestors are dead are there they’re around us and they’re, we remain connected.”

While some seances and spiritualism get all the attention on reality television shows, Taggart said from her experiences and research, most mediums are honest and try to connect people to the other side.

“There are a small number of people who go around and do dark room seances and make things move and make spirits appear and that element of spirituality was very provocative,” Taggart said. “A lot of spiritualists don’t like that element. Those mediums are considered very scandalous or very controversial. But for the most part I spiritualist do truly believe that anybody can talk to their deceased loved ones.”

Shannon Taggart is an artist and author based in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. Her photographs have been exhibited and featured internationally, including within the publications TIME, New York Times Magazine, Discover, and Newsweek. Her work has been recognized by NikonMagnum Photos and the Inge Morath Foundation, American Photography and the Alexia Foundation for World Peace. Taggart’s monograph, SÉANCE (Fulgur Press, 2019) was listed as one of TIME magazine’s ‘Best Photobooks of 2019.’

Taggart’s book is currently out of print, but a new exhibit of her photographs is now on display at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. The exhibit will be on display until December 17, 2021. And on October 14, Taggart is doing an artist’s talk that will be broadcast for free online, however you are asked to sign up in advance using this form.

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