If there's a way to cheat death, Harry Houdini vowed he'd send a message from the Great Beyond. This Halloween, loyal followers of the famed magician will try once again to summon his spirit.
Don't be confused by cheap imitators, folks. If the world-famous Houdini is going to grace us with his ghostly presence, it's going to be at the Official Houdini Séance. It's even trademarked.
"I think the chances to make a connection this time are excellent. We have friends and family of Houdini who will join the séance and they will create the necessary spiritual vibrations," says Rev. Raymond Fraser, 56, of Canton, Mich.
"I have spoken to many spirits. I have a 70 percent success rate." Training at the Spiritualist Correspondence School
Houdini was a famous debunker of table-levitating spiritualists and often exposed them as flimflam artists who used simple parlor tricks to exploit the gullible.
Fraser, who was ordained through a correspondence course by the National Association of Spiritual Churches, says Houdini's low opinion of clairvoyants like himself doesn't matter.
"Folks like that are only non-believers when they are alive," he says. "When they are dead they know that we are all spirits who can exist outside the body."
Through séance, Fraser says he's helped dozens of people make contact with dead relatives. The communication can occur in many ways, he says. Sometimes it's a materialization — a milky white haze of the departed spirit hovers over the room. Sometimes it's a disembodied voice. Sometimes the spirit will speak through the body of a séance participant.
"In 1978, I was a salesman for IBM," Fraser says. "I went to a séance, a frail old woman went into a trance, and the spirit of a man spoke through her body. That's when I knew there was something here."
Yet Fraser admits there are fakes in his field. Beware those who claim they've spoken to famous people. "You hear all these claims that someone made contact with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln," he says. "Those people are full of crap."
Secret Code from the Netherworld
Leave it to the great showman Houdini to die on Halloween. This year marks the 75th anniversary of his passing. Perhaps now — with psychics preparing a séance in Detroit — the great escape artist will speak, as he promised his wife he would.
Houdini became obsessed with the occult after his mother died. He consulted with psychics to contact her, a common practice in his day, and found they were using the same sleight-of-hand and stage magic that he was using.
The magician made headlines going from town to town, daring psychics to prove their powers onstage. In 1922, Houdini even joined a panel, sponsored by Scientific American, that offered a $2,500 cash prize to any medium able to produce a true physical manifestation. Several mediums came forward, but none could pass the panel's test.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the famous Sherlock Holmes character, was a great admirer of Houdini. But Doyle was a true believer in the occult, and the two often clashed on the subject. "My opinion of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is that he is a menace to mankind," Houdini once wrote.
But as an escape artist, Houdini couldn't resist the challenge of coming back from the dead. This is a man who risked being chained to a wooden crate and dumped in New York's East River to thrill audiences.
In his most famous stunt, the water torture cell, he'd hang by his ankles, locked in chains, as he was lowered headfirst into a glass tank. As the clock ticked, the audience could see Houdini's eyes bulge as he seemed to run out of breath. He was, at the time of his death, one of the most famous performers in the world.
In anticipation of his own death, he and his wife Bess even worked out a special code so that she wouldn't be fooled by a fraud.
‘10 Years Is Enough to Wait for Any Man’
Bess honored his request. For 10 years, she held séances, the last one in 1936, broadcast over radio from London. She finally stopped, she told friends, because "10 years is enough to wait for any man."
A protégé of Houdini's brother — a lesser-known escape artist known as "Hardeen" — picked up the tradition. Sidney Radner, now 82, of Holyoke, Mass., has been holding the séances since 1940.
Many of Houdini's greatest magic props sat in Radner's garage for more than 40 years. "Hardeen gave me some," Radner says. "But I'm a fan. I bought some, too."
Radner wouldn't describe himself as a believer. "We're open minded. We're honoring a tradition," he says. "But some spooky things have happened at these things.
At a séance in Niagara Falls in the 1970s, when a medium called on Houdini to make his presence known, there was suddenly a crashing sound, Radner recalls.
Heads turned to a bookshelf. A flowerpot and a book on Houdini's life had suddenly fallen to the ground. "It was spooky," Radner says. "The book fell open to a page where Houdini asks, 'Do the dead return?"
But was the dead magician sending that long-awaited signal? Radner says he wasn't convinced.
The Ghost Who Couldn’t Spell
A sure hoax came at New York séance one Halloween in the 1980s, conducted in Houdini's Manhattan residence on 113th St., when a medium began channeling the spirit of the great escape artist.
Unfortunately, the ghost of Houdini, couldn't spell his own brother's name. "You'd expect a little more from the world's most famous magician," Radner said.
There's a better test, Radner says. This year, he's bringing turn-of-the-century handcuffs that Houdini used in his act. "If they suddenly open, we'll know something supernatural is happening," he says.
But the bigger test, Radner says, might be getting the cuffs to Detroit. "With all the security concerns," he says, "who knows if they'll let me take them on the airplane. Just getting them there might require a Houdini act." Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.