In the new stage show Séance, host Nicholas Wallace guides the audience through a brief history of the Victorian occult before performing several experiments in an attempt to communicate with the dead. It all culminates with an actual séance, a well-constructed bit of interactive theatre in which one guest is invited to serve as a medium while the rest of the audience joins hands in a circle and prepares to welcome a spirit to the room.
The authenticity of the effort is largely a matter of perspective. Many of the experiments would be classified as magic tricks in a different show (Wallace is an illusionist and admits to his own skepticism at the onset), but they’re excellent magic tricks so it’s easy to let yourself be caught up in the atmosphere.
That’s really what makes Séance so much fun. While the things that happen are unquestionably cool, the show works because the mood is chilling. Wallace gives a superb performance, using the historical opening to plant doubt and then slowly nudging the audience with escalating sleight of hand until you briefly question your own perception. His calm, level voice assures you that everything is going to be all right while at the same time suggesting that maybe there are evil things in the dark that can’t fully be explained.
The horror is effective because it understands and manipulates that fear of the unknown. At one point, Wallace tells a story about a haunted object and then gives several audience members the opportunity to interact with that object, and the reticence is visible on everyone’s faces. While the rational part of your brain knows that there’s nothing to be afraid of, the superstitious part is telling you that it’d be safer to maybe not. It’s probably nothing, but why take the chance? Séance wants to show you everything that isn’t there, and the minimalistic black and white design lets your imagination fill in the rest.
Though the show does have its fair share of more conventional scares – every former stagehand knows that dark, empty theatres can be terrifying places – it’s best trick is ultimately played on your mind rather than your eyes. Séance asks you to make yourself vulnerable, especially during the séance circle when there’s no longer a wall or an audience behind you. You’re keenly aware that anything crawling around in the dark could sneak up without your knowing, removing the distance that ordinarily exists between the audience and the ghosts in film. We all like to think we’d remain calm in a spooky situation, but the interactive Séance gives you the opportunity to question that resolve, and that’s precisely what makes it memorable.
There is some obvious stagecraft, moments when you know there must be a rational explanation, but Séance otherwise eschews the grandeur of a Las Vegas magic extravaganza. It opts instead for a sparse antique set and plain white lighting reminiscent of an old photograph, and the lack of opulence draws your attention to the moments of stillness and silence that would get lost during an ordinary stage show. That’s where Séance finds its tension. It’s easier to remain skeptical when the lights go out only because there are far more places to hide the reveal, but even on those terms, many of the illusions are truly exceptional.
Séance is not, in all likelihood, an actual communion with a ghost. It’s simply a wonderful campfire story told with grace, poise, and considerable skill, a fine evening at the theatre and a unique horror experience perfectly suited to the weeks before Halloween. I’m still a skeptic, but I appreciate good horror, and sometimes it’s more fun to let yourself believe in the unknown.
Séance runs until October 11 at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue) in Toronto. Shows run Tuesday-Sunday at 7:30pm, with matinee shows on Saturday and Sunday at 2pm and late night shows on October 3, 9, and 10 at 10:30pm. Tickets are $30-$35.