Spirit Cabinets, haunted dolls and the Psychic Ghost Theatre

A few years ago, my husband and I joined friends for a night filled with mystery, spine-tingling adventure and something to do with bugs. At least that's what they promised. They also dangled a Spirit Closet in front of me - how could I resist? We arrived late to the theater, the second-story of a magic shop outside of Washington, D.C., and scooted up the stairs to find the front room filled with about a dozen other theatergoers. We shuffled our way into the narrow back room as I ran over fire safety pamphlets in my head since there was only one way in and one way out. Two long sets of theater chairs were set up stadium-style, facing a desk and the spirit closet - a freestanding set of four curtains on PVC pipe hanging around a chair, a length of rope and some musical instruments.

I've had a mild fascination with Spirit Closets for years and if you've been reading the blog for long, it probably wouldn't surprise you to hear that I tried to rig one up as a teenager to figure out how mediums channeled their livelihoods from ectoplasm oozing out their noses and how they... let me explain.

Spirit Closets developed under the hand of the Davenport Brothers in the mid-19th century after their father discovered they could mimic the sounds made by the Fox Sisters earlier that decade. Seeing this as a sign to develop the boys’ talents further, the boys were trained as illusionists, using the spirit guide or control of a ghost of a man called John King.

King would assist the brothers in their nationwide act of using a Spirit Closet or Cabinet Séance. According to witnesses, the men would be bound hands and feet while seated on a bench in a large cabinet, measuring six feet by two feet balanced on two sawhorses off the floor.  During the séance, the brothers closed the doors of the cabinet and within minutes were free to the amazement of the crowd. They then re-entered the cabinet and after the doors were shut and the lights dimmed for effect, the doors opened by assistants to reveal both men tied up. To make things even more interesting, the assistants would then place musical instruments such as a guitar and a tambourine in the Spirit Closet and the doors shut again. Almost immediately afterwards, music would be heard coming from the box played by King.

The Davenport Brothers would invite skeptics to join them in the box but only if they agreed to be tied up as they were for their own protection from the spirits. One man reported feeling ghostly fingers run over his body while he sat in the dark box and music played around him.

Later mediums adapted the act to include "manifestations" of ghosts by having them appear as ectoplasmic residue, some of which looked earlier like cheesecloth ---ooooh, and ghostly limbs appearing from their variations of the Spirit Closet. 


I waited in great anticipation for the magicians to hop to it and get to the good stuff, wading through an hour of mediocre magic tricks and one excellently bad haunted doll that moved down a hallway via strobe light and really really loud music. The lady down the row from me wouldn't stop giggling though I suspect now it was more from nervousness rather than mirth since she kept grabbing my brother-in-law. After brief periods of darkness where we'd be tickled with feathers and slapped in the face with a wet sponge - yes, I paid a ticket for this - we got to the cabinet.

One of our friends was chosen to accompany the magician so as he tied her to the chair before the curtains closed, I watched for any leaking ectoplasm or heads up for extra, well, heads. As the he disappeared from sight after closing the curtains on her demand before she went into her trance, music started. A clamor of trumpets and cymbals, and I think even a whistle, erupted from inside the makeshift Spirit Closet. Clothing flew from the top of the curtains and there was great shaking inside as if Chris had himself been taken over by an unseen force and coerced into its paranormal boogie. He pulled back the curtains to reveal the magician still tied to her chair, yet now wearing his jacket and still deep in the trance state. Back went the curtain, more shaking and trumpets, and again open to reveal her in another state of trace-like serenity, only now missing items of clothing. I had to wonder what kind of show I'd signed us up for at that point. 

The act ended with her at last being released from her paranormal spell and the audience being ushered out with an invitation to buy a t-shirt and a mini-Snickers.

I freakin' loved that place and yes, I bought the t-shirt.

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