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The Constriction of Spiritualism

A blast from the past and what happens when a team of paranormal enthusiasts mix with New Thought clergy.

I had a run-in with Spiritualism, the kind with the capital letter S, over several years around 2013 to 2015. It left a strange taste in my mouth, and it left me often gaslit and ignored. In the family tree of religious science, Science of Mind came about around 1927 through Ernest Holmes and mixing mediumship and mysticism with Christian foundations. Through the lens of this branch of Spiritualism I learned first-hand of an ability to control a narrative within a group of paranormal investigators, slowly closing open minds and narrowing possibilities over time. Through that same lens, I watched problematic behavior, and self-aggrandization on a self-proclaimed ability of psychic mediumship. An apparent ability which they'd cultivated, grown, honed and become certified for. Mediums are certified by the Spiritualist church, one of 3 larger national organizations all based loosely in the same root movement of the 1800's. That title is valuable within that organization, however, that credibility doesn't necessarily translate to the secular public at large. The Church of Spiritualism within this branch claims that their membership are the only true, certified mediums, and all other "self-proclaimed" mediums, even tarot readers and divination practicers, aren't always to be trusted, as though among them are only the upright and most moral.

Something definitively unproven like mediumship abilities having a standard within an organized religion, is still a standard only held up by those within that organization, and can even come across to many as gatekeeping. What constitutes credible when it comes to something like faith? Mediumship itself can't be policed between people who call themselves mediums, let alone is it something that can be qualified or quantified simply because it is, again, based on belief. There are many roads to training as and becoming a psychic medium, and many would argue that they don't require an organized religion or governing body to provide credibility.

I was present at the meeting when a Spiritualist minister was first invited to join the paranormal team I was on. At that initial introduction, all of us sitting in a circle, another investigator turned to this minister and asked very plainly, "So do you believe everything we're dealing with in the paranormal is dead people?" And that individual answered, "Yes," without missing a beat. The investigator who asked the question turned to me with a look of surprise and skepticism. I returned the look. Interactions between team members declined rapidly from that meeting forward, and even declined that night as an investigation took place with this new minister.

The new team Spiritualist wasted no time after that in killing several forests to print off everything about their religion so as to teach everyone about the Science of Mind and perhaps indoctrinate? convert? the rest of the paranormal team through lectures and informal classes. It was just for information sharing, and understanding this person's perspective, apparently, through an introduction to Spiritualism. No one else on the team had been granted such authority, no matter their beliefs or implied abilities, in any previous context. It felt very much like the group was swooped down upon by a faith system that we were suddenly supposed to have in-depth knowledge of, but still operate as a scientific and open-ended group of investigators. No one had expressed interest in becoming Spiritualists, and many were unsure dead people were in fact the things we were interacting with on investigations. This was a group of volunteers with a common curiosity who wanted to hunt ghosts. It's that simple. All we knew, when this happened, was that we had just spent years being skeptical in the face of overt and biased belief, even trying to back things up on electronic devices through repeated experiments, yet here came this individual and their firm set of beliefs, and they came in to the team dynamic like a wrecking ball. Miley's words.

Would you feel slighted as a tarot reader to know Spiritualists may consider you a fraud for not being certified through their church?

To me, the instruction sessions felt like a red flag. I have a minor in Religious Studies from an accredited university as part of my Bachelors degree, and already knew the history and teachings of Spiritualism. I looked at those sessions as leading in a direction that was potentially dangerous more than informative for some of the team members, due to their inexperience and inability to think critically about the information. Over time, the minister became the one to explain all the paranormal activity through their Spiritualist lens that the team witnessed or captured on devices. While no one outright said we had to believe their interpretation, it became harder and harder to work alongside or even outside of that bias. It was a bizarre step in the evolution of a group that had spent its existence espousing the tired "science first!" trope for investigations. It wasn't a perfect approach and it could have its own narrow scope too, but it kept everyone at least curious. That team was comfortable not knowing all the answers, but attempting to seek them in the process of investigating.

At around the same time, one or two people on the team began acting out extreme psychic duress in haunted locations, including dramatic possession and trance episodes, where they'd never had anything like it happen before. Suggestion is a powerful thing to the most easily influenced and naive of people, I'll just say that. While no one on the team was held down and forced the information, it was clear that no one in the situation considered the danger of how it might affect some of the people present, and how they may further influence the people we interacted with at events and client cases. There was zero precaution taken for the sake of psychological consequences of everyone involved, and there were very different types of people involved at all levels. We weren't easily able to question the tenet of Spiritualism either: that the spirits, ghosts, entities and the Other that we are interacting with are all deceased people.

The act of mediumship itself within investigations became required nearly every time and place we went, with a spirit circle of 3-5 people led by this person, and at the direction of the leader. Choice in the matter was hardly considered, or in my case, met with some level of confrontation then or later. There was finally an attempt made to separate the team with only several people working with the minister, and others going to a location later, but that did nothing effective for team dynamic and didn't remain consistent. It can be noted that there were so many other toxic dynamics between this group, even interpersonally, that it soon began to feel like a despised job more than a fun adventure.

The most troubling aspect of this person wasn't their religiosity or abilities, though. It was the non-psychic toxic behaviors that really turned myself and others off. Being constantly interrupted while I was speaking at meetings, while bringing my words to the point that I was making, infuriated me. It happened often and even exclusively with them, to the point others noticed and approached me about it in private. Upon the minister gleaning the point I was in the process of making, they'd begin speaking out loud over me, with my own words coming out of their mouth as though they'd thought of it. It's misogyny, plain and simple. It taught me they harbor some hatred of women, and react by taking from people they're threatened by. Whether it be ideas, explanations, points about the paranormal, this person could not help but to take from, and speak over me. That is not an inclusive or empathetic person. It's a spiritual "pick me" personality. I wonder now if they were lacking in some area of their life in such a way that their faith became their entire identity to the detriment of it. Even when confronted, the inability of the leader to address it diplomatically or for the minister to hold themselves accountable, was evident.

Anyone can be a fundamentalist in their own faith and evangelize in a way that's belittling. However, the other Spiritualists we worked with weren't anything like this minister, nor did they compete verbally with anyone they spoke with on the topic of the unknown. They were clearly doing their own thing and content in it - not intent on preaching to convert or anything. It's not to say that spirit circles are bad, or anything about the particular practices or tools of Spiritualism are anything I even disagree with. Just the opposite. It's this personal past experience that contained an odd and toxic dynamic, and makes for a strange but true story. There's far more detail, nuance, and memories that would be just too much to unpack concisely, but those years were a trip to watch unfolding, and even still to look back on. The power of suggestion is incredible, and there's a very fine line between that, and the power of honest intent without self-driven, opaque or negative motivations.

Between then and now I've seen that line, and been able to experience both sides of it and the results of true intent within a paranormal context. I've worked with so many more people, firm in their faith and resolve, who in no way challenge others to conform to their own interpretations as the correct one or only one. They've gained a humility in understanding their truth is not everyone's truth, even to those witnessing the same unexplained phenomena. It's transformative. I can only hope that the same honest and transformative understanding, and fully inclusive perspective somehow graces this particular person in time and in learning. The full context remains opaque still though, and I have no guesses as to how the future unfolds for them. Like what we experience in the paranormal, anything is possible.

Be careful out there, and remember to stand up for yourself.

Do you want to know what comes to mind when I remember New Thought and Science of Mind? Here:

I'm Amy L. Bennett, a writer, multimedia artist, recovering archaeologist and YouTuber from Upstate, New York. I've been invested in all things strange and unusual since my dad gave me the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy when I was way too young. Along with my fiancé, Ryan, we've explored countless haunted locations in the US and abroad in search of the Weird.
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