Welcome to W’s Witch Week, a celebration of all things witchy. In the days leading up to Halloween, we’ll be boiling up a wicked brew of all things occult, from pop culture’s favorite new witches to the real women practicing Wicca today.
So you want to throw a séance. It’s the last week of October, it’s hard to not get swept up in the spooky season, and what is spookier than contacting spirits in the comfort of your very own home? But hosting your own ceremony is far more involved than you might think. So we’ve enlisted a professional to take you through all the steps, precautions, and other important information that you might need before throwing your own séance. This past Sunday, Dakota Bracciale, co-owner of Catland, an occult bookshop located in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which also hosts regular events with names like Yoga for Witches and Potions and Tinctures 101, lead the store’s All Hallows Séance, their first group séance. Ahead of the event, the witch breaks down how to throw your very own.
What are the preparations you need to make when starting to plan a séance?
Generally, you want to make sure you are in the right headspace. A lot of people approach a séance because they are going through grief. A lot of people will say you shouldn’t do that, but, listen, I’m not going to tell someone how to grieve. God show mercy who would ever try to tell me how to grieve when I go through that. I would just say make sure you are in the right headspace in terms of stability. The idea is that you are engaging with foreign elements, so it is always good to be on solid ground before that. One of the key things that I would tell everyone is that every spirit that you don’t know is potentially dangerous—just like a person or an animal. You are dealing with another sentient, intelligent, animated creature that has a mind of its own and an agenda of its own and is not necessarily there to help you just because it is a spirit. And, of course, the main thing that you have do for anything of this nature is you have to cleanse and set protections in your space.
How do you find the right location to hold the séance?
Location matters a lot, mostly for your own comfort level. A lot of people are going to try to find the spookiest place possible, because they want to get a thrill for Halloween. You don’t want to do that. The best place to do it is the hearth of the home, which is the most central or active place in the home. Because it gets the most human traffic, there is kind of a home team advantage. You want to think about your own concerns in terms of comfort. Make sure you are sitting comfortably so you don’t have to move around a lot. Make sure that the lighting is comfortable so you can see what you are doing but it’s not too overpowering. Make sure that you are not interrupted.
How do you then protect and cleanse the space?
A lot of people, their very first instinct is to reach for the bundle of—go ahead and fill it in—sage. That is the number-one thing that people get wrong. You can’t use sage for spiritual cleansing. Full stop. A lot of people, their whole approach to anything witchcraft is “I’m just going to stop using my critical thinking skills, because everything is magic and nothing counts.” If you want to really cleanse your space and burn herbs for it, the best thing I can recommend is cedar. Cedar has been used for rites of banishing, cleansing, purification, exorcism in every single part of the planet where it grows for at least 5,000 years. We’re talking ancient Babylonia all the way up to the Mediterranean, North and South America, Japan, North Africa—everywhere that it grows, it’s been used for the same thing.
Another one for burning that is great is palo santo, as long as you get the legal, verified kind. They are sticks of wood that smell incredible, and come from the tree that produces the resin known as copal, which is what they burn in Catholic mass. That’s been used by tons of different people for purification and protection and cleansing space. For protection, one of the easiest things you can do is grab a jug of olive oil off the counter, make the sign of the cross three times, recite Psalm 23, and boom, you have holy oil. You do the sign of the cross over all the doors and all the windows and mirrors, and you’ve got a whole protective seal on the house.
Don’t be afraid to use water. Around the full moon, maybe it will be time to clean your house, and what you can do is brew herbs into an infusion. Add that to a mop bucket, or even better, literally splash on the floor and use a Swiffer Wetjet from the very back of your house to the front door. As it’s drying, burn the herbs and go through the house with all the doors and windows open, and close them one by one with the oil, and there you go. That’s a full-blown ritual.
Is there any time that is most optimal to host a séance?
It really depends on you and your beliefs. When it comes to anything psychic, cultures usually associate that with the sun or moon. For example, in ancient Greek culture, it was associated with the sun because Apollo was considered to be the deity of prophecy. But the moon was in charge of witchcraft, and those were the times that you would see someone practicing what we know as necromancy. Necromancy is what you’re practicing if you’re doing a séance. That’s a word that I would love if we could make a little less stigmatized, because necromancy is literally the same thing as cartomancy. Cartomancy is divination using cards. Necromancy is divination by talking to spirits. It’s not like, “I want to make a bunch of zombies.”
Some cultures would say you have to do it when the sun is up, but some cultures say that when the sun is up the spirits are totally inaccessible and you have to do it at a certain time of night, whether that’s midnight or 3 a.m., which is the traditional witching hour in Western Europe. It really depends on you and your comfort level. Remember that every decision that you make should be a conscious, critical decision. There’s no wrong time, it’s just very much up to you. And what you have to remember is that so much of witchcraft is about trying things and seeing what works.
Is it best to hold a séance alone or with a group?
I’m a really big fan of skepticism and doubt in all things that I do. I’m always looking for a completely nonspiritual explanation for everything to make sure that we’re not just filling in the gaps with magical thinking. For me, the more the merrier. A larger séance makes sure that you’re going to have more objective experiences and people aren’t going to make things up. But you want to go into it with people who may not share the same opinion, but can agree on a common level of decorum. You can all go in as skeptics—go ahead, have fun—but just make sure that everyone goes in with the same agreed-upon amount of respect and reverence. Also agree upon what’s going to happen beforehand. Don’t wing it. This is not the time to wing it. You really want to make sure you have a game plan.
How do you choose the object, or apparatus, that you’ll use for the spirit to communicate through?
Look at your moon sign. There are three different types of divination: There’s inductive divination, which is when you practice augury, like watching natural phenomenon and interpreting it; there’s interpretive divination, which is when we find tarot and the runes; and then you have inspired divination, which is mediumship or clairvoyance. In choosing your tool, go with your gut. If you are someone who wants to go as objective as possible, maybe you use a pendulum, which only answers yes-or-no or either-or questions. So you’re going to have a very decisive sitting. What you want to stay away from is anything that is supposed to be channeled through you. That is a very bad idea. If you’re like, “I watch a lot of horror movies, I’ve seen emphasized text, I think I’m going to try automatic writing for my first séance.” Like, “Okay, good luck getting possessed, Susan.”
Is there any object that does not work as an apparatus?
I would say no. You’re talking to me, and I’m somebody who has practiced a long time and taught a long time. The kind of magic that I come from, especially on my mother’s side of the family, is conjure and hoodoo from the deep South, and anything that isn’t nailed down to the floor is a possible ingredient.
Once everything is cleansed and purified, how do you begin the séance?
You usually want to start with an opening prayer, something that welcomes in whatever you feel comfortable with. Find a word that you feel comfortable with, but make sure you know what the word refers to, like “spirit guide” or “guardian angels” or “ancestors”—something that is going to make you feel okay. If you don’t know what to pick, stick with your ancestors. Every single culture in the world has some form of ancestors and an understanding that they are blood-related to people all the way back to the beginning, which means you are the living manifestation of at least 100,000 years of human experience. So there’s the idea that the people who have gone before you may have some vested interested in you having a continued happy and healthy and safe existence.
Is it best to go in wanting to conjure a specific spirit or to be more open-ended in your intentions?
It’s not a bad idea to target a specific spirit, but make sure you remember that in a lot of cultures, it is extremely taboo to try to contact the recently dead. And there’s good reason for that—in a lot of cultures, there is the understanding that the recently dead are unavailable and made so so that they don’t become a wandering spirit or ghost and become tethered to the Earth. So any spirit who does answer isn’t actually them but is a malicious or no-good spirit just taking on that face to wreak havoc. I don’t know if 100 percent believe that, but it is worth noting and taking caution. If you want to conjure someone specific, ask for your ancestral helping spirit to introduce themselves and to protect you and watch out during the séance. Ask if there are any other spirits who would like to be heard, and that they to only come forth if they have a message and mean no harm. And take anything you get with a grain of salt. Most people aren’t in it for a targeted reason; they really want to just have the experience. But if you are going to experiment with it, at least take precaution with it.
How long does a typical séance usually last?
You want to have an opening prayer to initiate, some time for questions and answers, and then you want to have a closing prayer to seal the space and not have anything ongoing.
Is there any way to quickly end a ceremony if it seems a malicious spirit has come through?
There’s a reason that, for all of human history, salt has had a really central role. If you come from any sort of Christian background, get some holy water—you can go to any Catholic church with a water bottle and get some—and splash that on whatever you’ve been working on, along with some salt. A Saint Benedict medal is really great to have just to ward off any trouble. But salt works regardless of who you are or what you believe. You can also do a salt circle around the apparatus or yourselves when setting up to set the appropriate boundaries.
Are there any steps you need to take post-séance?
You can do something that is anointing. Getting some Florida water is amazing, and washing your hands and the front of your head. In a lot of cultures, you never do anything without covering your head, which prevents you from getting possessed or getting messed up. Really, the way you decompress is by action. Usually during a séance, you’ve been sitting still and maybe you’re not really breathing too heavily—just do the opposite of that. The kinetic energy really helps to clear things out.
Is there anything else you think people should know before throwing their own séance?
Séances are great, but there is a certain—forgive the pun—grave respect that they demand. I think people need to be a little more careful. Spirits are not playthings, and you essentially are a spirit in a body, and not for very long. You would be very upset if somebody tried to mess with you. Even if you don’t believe in something, that doesn’t mean you have to disrespect it. I would be very careful about that. On the other hand, we live in a world that is incredible to explore. We are problem-solving mammals who would rather have a conspiracy theory than no theory. We absolutely love to ponder these things and explore them. Absolutely explore and have fun with it, but please make sure that you have some level of precaution and respect. And don’t do séances in graveyards. A lot of people think that’s a good idea, but don’t do that.