Once, decades ago, I attended a séance. The medium, Mrs. B, had since childhood spoken to people nobody else could see. In her eighties, she’d been a minister in the Spiritualist church for years.

She was part of a long tradition. The American Spiritualist movement dates back to 1848, when the Fox sisters of upstate New York convinced their followers that mysterious raps heard in answer to posed questions were responses from unseen spirits. Of course, people throughout history have longed for glimpses of the afterlife, if only to learn what awaits beyond death. But with the evangelical Second Great Awakening challenging traditional Calvinist beliefs, the mid-nineteenth century offered particularly fertile ground for an emotional religious revival. It spawned a tidal wave of seances, where people gathered to receive messages from the spirit world delivered through mediums who claimed to be in touch with the dead.

Anyone could make money as a medium, and anyone did. Seances and readings proliferated as newly minted mediums contacted the spirit world via spirit guides (discarnate entities relied upon for spiritual guidance) or the deceased themselves. But alongside those eager to believe sat skeptics just as eager to uncover fraud. Close observation revealed levitating objects suspended by string, and tables tilted by nothing more “spirited” than the medium’s knee. Supernatural “manifestations” turned out to be dolls, while plaster casts served as “materialized” ghostly hands. Yet even after the Fox sisters admitted in 1888 that their spirit rapping had been the result of cracking toe joints, people continued to believe. By the turn of the twentieth century, Spiritualism had more than eight million followers in the United States and Europe. And despite the movement’s glaring lack of credibility, there was more to come.

As the 1920s dawned, the world struggled to recover from the one-two punch of the Great War and the 1918 influenza pandemic. Nearly 120,000 Americans died in World War I. The flu surpassed that figure, sweeping across the landscape in 1918-1919 and taking over 500,000 American souls with it. Almost everyone lost someone dear to them, taken with little warning. Spiritualism experienced a new surge of popularity as, fueled by sorrow and desperation, people flocked to seance tables in search of closure.

As before, fraudulent practices flourished. Mediums continued to glean information about the deceased from the words and descriptions of those trying to contact them. There was ectoplasm made of butter, muslin, and even sheep’s lung. Materialized spirits (including Woodrow Wilson and King Ferdinand of Bulgaria) turned out to be cut-outs clipped from magazines. Spirit photography, where hazy images of the beloved deceased floated about a living subject, was revealed to be nothing more than double exposure. But people came anyway, searching for answers and comfort that traditional religion and modern science couldn’t provide.

Mrs. B’s “circles of enlightenment” were held at her home, in a room set aside as a chapel. A little altar with a cross atop it sat on one side of the room; Mrs. B identified as a devout Christian. Instead of the expected round table, there was a circle of chairs. Spirit pictures–pastel portraits of Mrs. B’s spirit guides–lined the walls. Quartz crystals and religious artifacts were set on side tables. The air felt dense, like walking to one’s seat involved passing through several sets of velvet curtains.

Six of us settled into our chairs. Mrs. B reached for the light switch. As total darkness settled around us, she asked if anybody in the room saw “anyone.” Nobody did. She herself saw points of light, which she identified as spirits. She received information from several spirit guides who had been with her for decades. Frequently she spoke in one-size-fits-all generalities that invited personalized interpretation. Some of her pronouncements seemed like obvious follow-up statements to a participant’s question. Nothing “appeared,” thank heavens; no ectoplasm, thumps, or unusual noises announced otherworldly guests.

I started wondering if anyone else in the room noticed that, except for changes in hairstyle and clothing, all the spirit pictures on the wall looked the same. Did anyone really believe that Mrs. B’s beautiful rose quartz necklace had been materialized as a gift from a spirit guide?

Mrs. B thoroughly believed in her own ability to communicate with spirits and didn’t care whether other people did or not. Neither did the couple comforted by words from their deceased teenage son. Nor did the woman who’d come to ask her late husband for a little guidance about where he’d left his will. Mrs. B listened to a voice none of us could hear and repeated what she heard. I learned later that, based on the information, the woman did indeed locate the will.

Perhaps this is the fundamental reason why belief in Spiritualism continues. For each uncovered act of fraud, there are stories that can’t be explained in logical terms.

Our world moves forward in a steady flow of scientific and medical advances. Technology keeps us in nearly constant contact with each other, no matter where we are. But despite these changes, people today experience the same longing and emptiness as did those so willing to believe the Fox sisters back in 1848.

For those who yearn for something “more,” Spiritualism offers hope.