HOLYOKE - The council of 12 clasped hands, closed their eyes, breathed deeply, and waited.
The room became tomb-silent. The air began to chill. And then, the dead spoke.
(Note to you skeptics out there: Please suspend your disbelief.)
Ropes, locks, webs of chains, straitjackets: Harry Houdini defied just about every worldly restraint he could while in the air, underwater, upside-down, crammed into milk cans, or tied to pillars.
And, as evidenced by a ritual seance held every Halloween night for more than three-quarters of a century, some believe the escape artist has the ability to spurn his otherworldly confines as well.
Since he died at 52 on Oct. 31, 1926, Houdini’s family, friends, and fans have ceaselessly tried to rouse the legendary showman and magician from the dead. This Halloween, the 85th year, they once again attempted the feat at the Wistariahurst Museum, welcoming, among other guests, the mute magician Teller, and local female escape artist Alexanderia the Great.
“We all want to think anything is possible,’’ said Roger Dreyer, a New York City-based magician who was part of this year’s paranormal tradition on the cold, crescent-mooned Halloween night.
Every year, they gather for the invitation-only, private event - magicians, historians, enthusiasts, and the curious. Officiated by members of what is known as “the inner circle,’’ the Official Houdini Seance (they’re so serious about it they’ve trademarked it) - carries on a tradition begun by Houdini’s widow, Bess. Over the years, it’s been held in cities large and small - Salem, Hollywood, New York, Las Vegas, Toronto, London - each with some sort of connection to Houdini.
Holyoke was the setting for the supernatural ceremony this year in honor of Sidney Radner, who lived in town and earned the nickname “Mr. Houdini’’ thanks to his lifelong dedication to the mystifier. (Houdini actually performed in Holyoke in the 1890s, before he became the man of legend.) A mentor of Houdini’s brother Hardeen - also a sleight-of-hand showman - Radner died in June at 91.
“Houdini brought us all together; that’s part of his magic,’’ said Fred Pittella, a Houdini historian from New York City.
As for encounters with the maestro of metamorphosis? Some who’ve been attending the seances for years described unexplained drafts and shoulders being brushed.
Filmmaker Gene Gamache, who came to Holyoke from Burbank, Calif., recalled how one year his watch stopped.
“It was an antique watch,’’ he said, with a laugh.
Gamache has been to more than a dozen seances, and is so dedicated to Houdini that he directed a mid-1990s documentary in his name.
Dreyer, meanwhile, described hearing “unusual sounds, unusual currents.’’ Still, the co-owner of Fantasma Magic toy shop in New York said with a shrug: “It could be coincidence. Who knows? No one can ever say.’’
And no one’s going to stop trying.
“I’m always going to keep an open mind,’’ said Pittella, who’s been coming to the seances for 15 years and collects handcuffs and memorabilia from both Houdini and his competitors and imitators. “We’re just waiting for it to happen.’’
And this year, something may have - if you believe in this sort of thing.
Late Monday night, after a dangerous underwater cell escape by Alexanderia the Great - an homage that took about 30 seconds - the 12 members of the inner circle gathered at a round table in a marble-columned, Italian Renaissance-style room.
The lights were dimmed. Set in front of the participants were candles, two sets of Houdini’s handcuffs, a bust, and a miniature model of his water torture cell. Silent spectators sat all around.
Medium Kandisa Calhoun led the flirtation with the unknown. Between deep breaths, she asked that the circle members join hands and that the onlookers close their eyes and think “complete, pure thoughts.’’
“I’m calling you Ehrich Weiss [Houdini’s real name],’’ she intoned in the silent room, quietly and tentatively at first, then louder and fiercer. “In the name of everything pure and real, in the name of the angels, I call you.’’
After a few seconds of heavy breathing, opening and closing her eyes, and subtle head movements, Calhoun looked around, seemingly bewildered, allegedly channeling Houdini himself. She went around the table, asking everyone to say a few words about what they wanted with Houdini and why they were there.
“I know some of your souls,’’ she said. “I don’t know you by your faces.’’
Later, when the lights were undimmed and the lines between the dead and the living were no longer blurred, some spectators mused about a subtle flickering of lights during the ceremony, and a spooky feedback noise from hearing aids.
“He wanted to believe,’’ Dreyer said of Houdini. “We all want to believe.’’
For more on the seance and Houdini, visit www.theofficialhoudiniseance.com.
Taryn Plumb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.