A Magician In Search of Spirits


Harry Houdini (1874-1926), as most people know, was a famous stage magician, illusionist and escape artist. He was famous for allowing himself to be shackled in a closed box which was then bound all around with chains which were then fastened by padlocks which was then thrown in a lake. While the public watched in breathless anticipation, Houdini would escape from his shackles, break the chains binding the box, emerge from the box and rise to the surface of the lake before he ran out of air.

Of course, it was all an illusion. Houdini carefully installed hidden latches and fake links in the chains which allowed him to effect his escape with little trouble. But since his audience was convinced that all the shackles, chains and padlocks were real, they were truly amazed at Houdini's feats.

But it was in the realm of spiritualism and mediumship that Houdini devoted much of his time after the death of his beloved mother. Lured by the promise of contacting her, Houdini visited medium after medium and sat in seance after seance hoping to find proof that her spirit still existed. But invariably he would discover that the most impressive demonstrations of the presence of spirits would be the result of clever tricks -- the very tricks that he had used on stage to convince his audiences of his supernatural abilities.

Ultimately, he consulted the wife of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was about the closest thing he could find to a genuine medium. The seance was apparently simple, with no bells, whistles or other theatrics. Lady Doyle simply sat in a chair with her eyes closed and brought through an entity that was purported to be Houdini's mother. But for all the simplicity and obvious sincerity of the session, Houdini reported sorrowfully that he just did not feel his mother's presence nor did he recognize any of the words that she was purportedly speaking to him. Whatever spirit Lady Doyle had contacted, it didn’t seem to be Houdini's mother.

Esoteric schools, especially ones that teach the doctrine of reincarnation, hold that the soul of the deceased person goes to a spirit realm where he or she stays for a time to reorient themselves to their new state. In Spiritualism, this realm is called the Summerland. After their sojourn in the Summerland, the departed go to various places (or, more accurately, states of mind) where they continue their soul's evolution and become less and less concerned with the life -- and the people -- they left behind.

Maybe Houdini’s mother was just on her own spiritual journey and simply was out of range of even a genuine medium trying to contact her. Or, she might not have wanted to ‘come back’ to reassure a son who needed to get over his grief and get on with his life.

Death has a way of 'making real' a relationship that has been shrouded in delusion and false sentimentality in life. Just because someone we loved has died, does that mean that they actually want to communicate with us afterward? Of course we might be devastated at their death and wish to continue the relationship beyond the grave. Our loved ones, maybe not so much.

For over a hundred years, life after death and the ability of mediums to contact the spirits of the dead has been hotly debated in this country. Often skeptics who, like Houdini, weren't able to contact their deceased loved ones have dismissed the whole business as a fraud. But many people have been contacted by deceased loved ones. If a spirit wishes to appear, it does. No medium seems to be required.

Maybe skeptics would rather proclaim life after death as a delusion than admit that their deceased loved ones maybe just don’t want to talk to them anymore.

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