Pranks are a common staple of Halloween celebrations and have been so for centuries. Some of the pranking is based on traditions from the British Isles, where the tradition of Halloween itself began, but modern society has plenty of new options to choose from. The threat of "trick or treat" was historically a real one and not just a thing kids said at their neighbors' front doors to get candy. Those who weren't forthcoming with their hospitality were taking a risk!
This section of the site isn't to tell you to go out and play mean tricks or to commit acts of vandalism but just to discuss an old Halloween tradition. At the end, there are some haunted house variety tricks and fun stunts that you can do with your friends at a Halloween party, but remember that a joke is only really funny if everyone involved can laugh at it. If people get hurt or property gets destroyed, nothing is funny and no one will be laughing (or, they won't laugh for long).
Pranking on Halloween has a long tradition, based on Mischief Night practices from the British Isles. It was especially popular with boys and young men in 19th century America, and they could be very creative with their pranks (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 61-62). Some of their pranks included:
- Removing a neighbor's gate and hanging it in a tree or throwing it in a pond or ditch.
- Placing a wagon on a barn roof.
- Blocking roads with fences, hay bales, or logs.
- Blocking doors with carts.
- Throwing turnips at people's doors.
- Taking horses out of their stables and leaving them in a field.
- Letting livestock loose.
- Hanging rocking chairs from trees.
- Hiding and using a button on a string to rap on a window, laughing at the people trying to figure out what was making the noise.
- Putting bags of flour on top of open doors to fall on people.
- Pretending to break a window by first smacking it with a hand and then breaking a bottle against the side of a house.
- Writing and drawing on windows and sidewalks with chalk.
- Tipping over outhouses.
Up through the mid-20th century, the idea that "trick-or-treat" implied that there would be tricks played on those who didn't offer treats was so common that, in some areas of the United States, the children would recite a rhyme that spelled out the nature of the expected trick instead of just saying "trick-or-treat." For example, one that my mother remembered from her childhood in the 1950s went:
We are the beggars of the street!
Do we soap, or do we eat?
The "soap" part refers to the classic prank of rubbing a bar of dry soap over someone's windows to cover them in a soapy film (or, sometimes, write or draw things with the soap). This prank was more of a hassle than vandalism, since the soap would wash off, but it put people to the extra trouble of having to wash their windows.
A similar-sounding rhyme from the 1950s children's story The Blue-Nosed Witch by Margaret Embry goes:
Candy or cake
or your windows we'll break!
The children in the story didn't actually break any windows, and they even promised the adults that they weren't going to soap any windows, either. Their threatening rhyme is mostly traditional and for show.
Even in the 21st century, people like to play tricks on Halloween. Sometimes, their tricks are mean pranks, like decorating someone's yard with toilet paper. ("TP-ing" is usually more the prank of choice these days than soaping windows, although that prank hasn't completed disppeared.) However, thanks to generations of effort to "tame" Halloween, modern pranks are usually less destructive in the 21st century than they were in the early part of the 20th century and earlier. In the later part of the 20th century and onward, some adults persuaded children that the "trick" part of "trick-or-treat" meant that the children might have to perform some kind of trick in order to earn a treat at each house. The tricks that the children might perform were usually something like telling jokes (especially Halloween-themed jokes), reciting rhymes, or singing songs. However, children aren't always required to perform these "tricks" for treats - it mostly depends on where they live and what the adults of the community decide to emphasize about the holiday.
Another popular kind of modern trick is the haunted house style of trick, where the player sets up an atmospheric trick or series of tricks to frighten party guests and trick-or-treators with sudden surprises. The "victims" of this kind of trick are usually at least half-expecting it, and the perpetrators do it as much for the victims' amusement as their own. Sometimes, it's fun to be a little scared!
Tricks for Treats
I'd like to begin this section with a couple of warnings for adults. First, not all communities make children perform a "trick" on Halloween in order to get a treat. If you're new to a community, don't try to force children to perform a trick for you if that's not a thing that people in this community do. The children may not be prepared to recite a joke or rhyme, and it can be embarrassing if they aren't prepared. Ask around before Halloween to find out if that's something people in your community do. Second, understand that some children are more shy than others, particularly the young ones. I've had trick-or-treaters who are shy about even saying "trick-or-treat" to a stranger when they come to the door. What I'm saying is that holidays are supposed to be fun, and this particular tradition, as it is practiced in the 21st century, is meant to be fun for children. If a child is reluctant to tell jokes or even speak up much, be nice about it. Let them have a treat anyway, and say "It's okay. Maybe next time." You are the host, and they are guests. Be hospitable.
If you live in one of the communities where children are asked to perform "tricks" in order to earn treats, one of the easiest and most common "tricks" is to tell Halloween-themed jokes. Here are a few examples from a joke book, Count Draculations!: Monster Riddles compiled by Charles Keller:
Why do witches get A's in school?
Because they are good at spelling.
How do you get into a locked cemetery?
With a skeleton key.
Why did Frankenstein's monster go to the psychiatrist?
He thought he had a screw loose.
Why did the invisible man go crazy?
Out of sight, out of mind.
Why do they put fences around cemeteries?
Because people are dying to get in.
Why does a skeleton go to the library?
To bone up on a few things.
What kind of horse does the headless horseman ride?
What happens when you don't pay an exorcist?
You get repossessed.
What was Dr. Jekyll's favorite game?
Hyde and seek.
Why are vampires crazy?
They are often bats.
What kind of crew does a ghost ship have?
A skeleton crew.
Why was the skeleton a coward?
Because he had no guts.
If you're trick-or-treating in a large group, you might not want to have each individual person tell a joke. You could have one person tell a joke on behalf of the entire group (the best option for saving time, and it saves the more shy children from having to perform). Another option might be to have the entire group sing a short song or recite a short poem. I found a couple of YouTube videos that show the lyrics for a couple of Halloween-themed kids' songs. If you use one, try keep the performance to under a minute in order to keep the trick-or-treaters moving.
Old Woman All Skin and Bones
A very short, scary song with a surprise ending. Takes a little less than a minute.
A favorite song at summer camps! This one isn't really connected to Halloween; it's just about a really strange woman and has a funny ending. One of the advantages of this song is that you can make it shorter by leaving out some of the verses. The song also comes in a lot of variations, so if you know a different verse that you want to add in, you can, or you can even make up a verse or two of your own. You can sing it any way you want and still be right! In the interests of time, I'd recommend using no more than two or three verses total, including the ending one.
The Haunted House on the Hill
This is a song that I've only heard recently. I understand that it's a song often used for music lessons in Britain, but I like it because it's a very short song that fits well with the Halloween theme. The song is in the video below, just about a minute long. I have written the lyrics beneath it. The lyrics could be recited as a rhyme, if no one wants to sing. To shorten it, just use the first verse and end with "in the haunted house on the hill."
The door squeaks, and the floor creaks,
While the wind is howling ‘round the walls
Then a clock chimes, and a dog whines,
As a strange and ghostly figure calls.
There are shadows in the corner,
Shadows in the darkness,
The bats fly, and the owls cry,
While the moon hangs silently and still
And the panes shake as the ghosts wake
In the haunted house on the hill.
This is a short poem by e.e. cummings. It's possible to sing it, but just reciting it is fun. You can read the full text of the poem here (the spaces between words indicate pauses). However, I've decided to include only the second half of the poem on my site, the part about the "old woman with the wart on her nose" because trick-or-treaters will want to be brief in the interests of time, and the second part is the most dramatic. Just be sure to put a lot of spirit into the ending!
look out for the old woman
with the wart on her nose
what she’ll do to yer
for she knows the devil
This page has a collection of Halloween poems that are appropriate for children, but my favorite is the first one, The Witch by Jack Prelutsky. Again, when you're trick-or-treating, you'll want to be brief, so you may want to recite only the first and last verses.
The Witch by Jack Prelutsky
She comes by night, in fearsome flight
in garments black as pitch,
the queen of doom upon her broom,
the wild and wicked witch,
a cackling crone with brittle bones
and desiccated limbs,
two evil eyes with warts and sties
and bags about the rims,
a dangling nose, ten twisted toes
and folds of shrivelled skin,
cracked and chipped and crackled lips
that frame a toothless grin.
She hurtles by, she sweeps the sky
and hurls a piercing screech.
As she swoops past, a spell is cast
on all her curses reach.
Take care to hide when the wild witch rides
to shriek her evil spell.
What she may do with a word or two
is much too grim to tell.
Part of the key to this is knowing your audience and planning for them. I wouldn't recommend scary surprises for the youngest trick-or-treaters, who might be toddlers or little more than toddlers. Keep things light and fun for younger children. For older children, you can get a little scarier and make the trick-or-treat experience more exciting.
Is It Really a Dummy?
One of the most common methods for surprising trick-or-treaters is what I always think of as "Is it really a dummy?" I saw this one done multiple times when I was young in the 1980s and 1990s. A person dresses up as a dummy, in a costume that fully covers their body, including their face, and sits on a chair by their front door, with the bowl of candy on their lap. Nervous trick-or-treaters suspect that the "dummy" holding the candy is actually a person, but they can't really be sure. They approach nervously and reach for the candy, and the person in the costume has a chance to give them a fright by grabbing their hands, growling, or suddenly saying, "Take only one!" After a brief scare, the trick-or-treaters are allowed to take candy from the bowl.
Do You Want Your Palm Read?
Some people who are into playacting might put on a fortune-telling act when they hand out candy, but there's a trick that I encountered once at a church Halloween party. The "fortune teller" asks the victim, "Do you want your palm read?" When the victim says "Yes" and holds out their hand, the "fortune teller" uses a red washable marker to make a red line on the victim's hand, saying "There! It's red." Get it? "Do you want your palm read?" vs "Do you want your palm red?" It annoyed me as a kid because I wanted to see more of a performance from my "fortune teller" instead of a quick prank, but it's a simple trick that can be pulled very quickly and is easily remedied when the victim washes their hands. After pulling a trick like this, make sure that you reward your victims with a good treat!
Haunted House Tricks
If you're having a Halloween party, you might want to dress your house up to look like a haunted house to create the right atmosphere. There are a number of general ideas you can use to create the appearance and feeling of a haunted house:
- Low lighting, black light, or colored lights. (Candles are spooky, but battery-operated lights are less of a fire hazard, especially around kids or people in costumes that might have trailing sleeves or capes that might brush against a candle.)
- Spooky sound effects or music.
- Spooky posters or pictures on the walls - either purchased from party supply stores or bought from thrift stores and altered to look scarier (painting eyes or bones and skulls in portraits with glow-in-the-dark paint, adding fangs to mouths, etc. - This is a tip recommended in How to Haunt a House by Dan Witkowski, p. 40.)
- Typical spooky accessories - pumpkins, fake skulls, fake cobwebs, bottles that might contain mysterious potions, etc.
If you'd like to take it one step further, it's possible to use a few magic trick type of illusions to create some odd phenomena that will make your "haunted house" truly spooky!
A Flying, Glowing Spook
This tip comes from How to Haunt a House by Dan Witkowski, p. 25, 44. You can make a banner from black fabric and paint it with a glow-in-the-dark ghost. If you keep the banner secret until the lights are off and wave it in the air, it can create an eerie illusion. It can also look good just hanging. The movement of the cloth can give it a more life-like appearance, and you can use even use a fan to make sure that it moves. Keep in mind that luminous paint needs to be charged under a light for several minutes before it will glow. When I've experimented with glow-in-the-dark paint that black lights work very well. Not only will the paint glow under a black light, but black light also charges it very quickly.
Ghosts in the Fog
This tip comes from How to Haunt a House by Dan Witkowski, p. 29. In old episodes of Scooby-Doo, there are times when ghostly illusions are created when an image is projected onto dry ice fog. According to Witkowski, this illusion is actually possible to create with some cheese cloth, dry ice, a tub of warm water, and a slide projector with some spooky slides. Remember to use heavy gloves when handling dry ice so you don't burn your skin! Some places have an age requirement for buying dry ice, so keep that in mind as well and know the requirements of your area. Also, the area around the tub will be wet, and dry ice leaves a residue, so keep that in mind when choose a place to set up this illusion. Outdoor locations where you do't mind a bit of a mess are ideal for this. It should also be a place where air can circulate.
Fill a tub with warm water and hang the cheesecloth above it. Shred the cheesecloth so it hangs like spiderwebs. The threads of cheesecloth will help provide a surface for the projected images. (This is a step that I don't think was ever included in a Scooby-Doo episde, but it's important to have something thin yet solid inside the fog. The holes in the cheesecloth are expected, so don't worry about that.) Carefully put the dry ice into the tub of water. A fog will start to form around the tub and the cheesecloth above it. Position the slide projector so it will shine the images on the slides onto the cheesecloth in the fog. The images on the slides are up to you. They can be images of angry, fierce faces or people screaming or you and your friends in face makeup or people in old-fashioned clothing to look like ghosts of the past. What you project should be based on the illusion you want to create. If you want the fog ghosts to support a particular ghost story for your party guests or haunted house, prepare images that fit the story.
The slides and slide projectors are somewhat old technology now, and not everybody will even have a slide projector or the ability to produce physical slides. It is still possible to acquire them, but they can be a bit costly. Alternatively, there are projectors that can be used with computers and digital images if you want to use those instead. These projectors can also be a bit costly, so you'll have to consider that if you don't already have one, and you're considering this illusion.
Other tips for this illusion are that some spooky music or sound effects can really augment this illusion, and if you position a fan so that it will blow on the fog and disperse it on cue, you can cause the projected ghostly image to suddenly vanish.
Headless Bodies or Disembodied Heads and Hands
I've seen several different ways of doing, but it's all basiscally the same illusion. The trick is to create a table with a hole in it so part or even most of a person is hidden underneath it, but the person can stick up part of their body, like a head, a hand, or an arm, so it looks like it's disembodied. If the disembodied part moves, the effect is even better!
The key is preparing the table. You can do it by setting up two tables next to each other but putting a sheet of cardboard or thin sheet of plywood between the two of them with a hole cut in it. When the whole thing is covered with a table cloth, it will all appear to be one table, even though it isn't. The tablecloth will also need a hole cut in it the same size as the one in the cardboard or plywood. The size of the hole depends on the illusion you want to create.
One of the classic illusions of this type is the disembodied head that appears to be sitting on a table. I've seen it in several sources, and it requires a hole that's big enough for someone to put their head through. To cover up the hole, people commonly use cardboard covered with aluminum foil to make what looks like a platter that fits around the person's neck like a collar. Add a little garnishing around the "platter" to complete the effect, and you'll have a talking head on a plate!
How to Haunt a House by Dan Witkowski, p. 84-85, shows the concept of the disembodied head on a platter, and it also demonstrates how to use the same trick to create the illusion of scarecrows without heads or legs lying on a table. This variation uses the scarecrow's straw to cover up where the person's legs fit through the hole in the top of the table.
How to Fake a Seance
I hope this isn't to disillusioning for readers, but people have been faking seances ever since people first starting hosting them. When the lights are low, people's expectations are set on contacting spirits, and their imaginations are running wild, it doesn't take much to convince people that ghosts are present - a strange glow that abruptly vanishes, something brushing against people when nothing is supposed to be there, raps that seem to answer questions, or sudden or mysterious noises that seem to come from nowhere. In the right atmosphere, with the audience properly primed and the person leading the "seance" really selling it with their acting abilities, it's possible to create some truly eerie effects.
Note: These tricks work best when the audience is caught up in the drama of the moment and none of them really know much about magic tricks and illusions, which is basically what these tricks are. However, even if your audence spots your tricks or are more set on debunking your act than enjoying it, you can still turn the situation to your advance. If you find that people aren't amazed or spooked or something goes wrong that gives a trick away, play it for comedy. If your audience isn't scared, they can at least be entertained and amused. Most of the tricks actually sound pretty funny if you consider what they must look like in full lighting. It also helps to have a confederate or two to help you try out trick or perpetrate tricks in the darkness. While people are watching you, your secret assistant(s) can move things or make noises. If anything goes wrong, they can also help you to cover up what happened, cause distractions, or start acting up and playing the whole thing for comedy.
Use your powers for good! Remember, parties are supposed to be fun. If you decide that a seanace would make a fun party activity, keep it fun and only slightly spooky. Don't try to predict horrible things for your party guests to really scare them beyond the end of the party.
Setting the Mood
Setting the mood is about 90% of holding a seance. If you want it to be spooky, you have to create a spooky mood and prepare your audience to be scared. They have to be invested in the seance and prepared for something mysterious to happen to appreciate it. If you prime the audience enough, their imaginations will take over and make things seem more mysterious than they really are. On the other hand, if you're playing to die-hard skeptics, who are either bored or looking to debunk anything that happens instead of playing along, your best bet is to go for comedy and over-the-top silliness, or the whole thing might fall flat.
First, choose the location for the "seance" carefully. There should be a table where everyone can sit, and it should be possible to keep the room dimly lit, maybe even make it pitch black, if necessary. The exact setup will vary, depending on the space you have and the effects that you want to create. Then, you will want to make out a kind of script for yourself and any helpers you have with some pre-arranged signals between you. I highly recommend having one or two confederates to help you because it will make all of the other effects easier.
As part of the script, work out what you will tell your audience before they even sit down at the seance table. You want to get them into a spooky mood, setting the stage with a good story, so they can be swept up in the narrative you've created and open to the phenomena you're going to produce. I recommend that you start by telling your audience a kind of ghost story. Rather than telling your audience that you're going to see if you can contact just any spirits, tell them that you plan on contacting a specific one. Tailor the story to your environment to make it believable (or at least, basically plausible). Tell them that you discovered that someone died in your house years ago (this is good if you live in an older house that has been owned by other people before), and that some strange things are happening now that you think may be related to that death, so you want to contact this spirit tonight. If you live in a newer house, where nobody could have died before, tell the audience that you have just learned a disturbing secret about one of your distant ancestors, and you have decided to contact them to learn the truth. Be colorful and dramatic about what the "secret" is. Maybe your ancestor was a pirate with a buried treasure that's never been found or some kind of scientist whose secrets have never been discovered. Consider the possibilities and pick the one that yields the best story and a good ending for the seance. (More about that below.) Work out the details of your ghost story in your script and rehearse it with your confederates so you can base your performance around this story. The better your performance matches the story, the more your audience will get into the spirit of the seance and be interested in following it to see where it goes.
There are some materials that you will want to assemble, based on the effects below that you would like to create. Choose your materials and effects to fit the story in your script. Friedhoffer suggests putting glow-in-the-dark materials in a black bag so the light will not show through and hiding this bag under your chair so you can reach it when you need it. Some possibilities include pieces of paper or cheesecloth painted with glow-in-the-dark paint so they can look like shooting stars if you throw them or ectoplasm pulled from nowhere (Friedhoffer, p. 80, 82). One further thought that I had is that glow-in-the-dark objects need to be charged with light in order to glow in the dark. If they're kept in a black bag for too long, their glow will start to fade. If the bag you use is heavy enough so that no light will show, you could put a small flashlight, turned on, or a small black light in the bag with them to keep the objects charged. I've found that black lights work very well for charging glow-in-the-dark toys. Just be sure that the bag is made of sufficiently heavy material so the light doesn't show.
Secret Raps and Spirit Communication
This is the classic method that "spirits" use to communicate with the audience at a seance. People ask the "spirits" questions, and they answer with one rap for "yes" or two for "no." (Or the other way around, if you prefer. Just make sure that everyone knows what the code is supposed to be and keep it straight in your own mind.)
There are different techniques that you can use for producing the raps. The trick of it is that everyone's hands must either be visible on the table or everyone at the table must be holding hands with each other so it seems like no one has the opportunity to make the rapping noises. That means that you have to use something other than your hands to make the raps. One of the classic methods is to wear long sleeves and secure something long and hard to your wrist, such as a wooden ruler, and using it to make raps on the underside of the table while your hands rest on top of it. This technique has a downside, though. When one of my friends tried it with me years ago, I could see her wrists obviously moving with the raps. With everyone's hands in plain view, that movement can be difficult to hide, and some tables have an edge or are too thick for this trick to really work well. On the other hand, rulers secured to your arms can also be used to lift up the table, especially if it's a light-weight table and you have a confederate on the other side of the table lifting it with you (Witkowski, p. 92).
If the room is almost or completely dark and you have a confederate sitting next to you, you can fake having that person holding your hand, so you have one hand free for the rapping and other effects, but that might also be noticed by other people at the table. (Although I once did a joke seance for friends where I made an obvious stuffed hand that I gave to the person next to me to hold in broad daylight, just to be funny, so you can play this for comedy.) Friedhoffer suggests, rather than asking everyone to hold hands, telling your audience that everyone's hands should be on the table with their pinkies touching those of the people on either side of them. In the dark, you can spread out one of your hands so that the pinky is touching one person's hand while the thumb is touching the next person's, leaving your other hand completely free (p. 78, 80). In order for this to work, I think you'd have to be using a round table with everyone sitting close together, otherwise you won't be able to stretch out one hand far enough to touch two people at once. If you can manage this, though, it will give you one free hand for making spirit raps or manipulating other objects.
An alternate technique is to make the rapping noises with your feet. You can attach something hard to your shoe that you could use to tap on the floor or on a table leg to make the rapping noises. This method is easier to pull off in secret because all of the movement happens under the table. It could also be helpful to have a confederate or two who are in on the act to also make tapping noises. If two or three people around the table take turns doing it, it will be harder for the other people at the seance to determine exactly where the taps or raps are coming from.
Whichever technique you use, it's a good idea to rehearse it with your confederates at the table you will be using so you can make sure that you can produce the effect you want reliably. Feel free to experiment and try variations on these ideas that will work well in the setting you use!
If you don't want to do rapping noises or don't think you can manage them with your chosen setting, an alternative way to "communicate with the spirits" would be by using a pendulum. All you need is some kind of string or chain with an object hanging from it as a weight. There are people who sell pendulums for fortune telling, but you don't need to actually buy one if you have some other dangly object you can use like a necklack with a pendant or locket, a pocketwatch on a chain, or a even a finger ring tied on the end of a string. You could work any of these objects into the storyline of your science, like they once belonged to the spirit you're trying to contact. You just hold your dangly object or pendulum over the table, or better yet, have someone else hold it, and ask the "spirits" questions. You will know the answers by the way the pendulum moves. Tell everyone that if the pendulum moves in a straight line, the answer is yes, and if it moves in a circle, the answer is no. The trick of this is that there actually isn't a trick. Or, rather, the trick is psychological. Human beings can make small, unconscious movements called ideomotor responses without even realizing it. If the person knows the answer to the question (or if you want to use Friedhoffer's idea of using the pendulum as a lie detector, whether or not they're telling the truth) or at least is hoping for a particular response, they will unconsciously make the small movements necessary to get the pendulum swinging (Friedhoffer p. 86). It only takes a very tiny movement, so they may not even notice that they're doing it. The response you'll get could look like it's being done by "magic" or the "spirits", but really, you're just seeing the results of the person's expectations. They expect the pendulum to move in a certain way, so they make it happen. The only downside is that it's easy for someone to mess with the results if they know how the trick works or just want to deliberately give a certain answer. From the viewers' perspective, it might not matter, though. The ideomotor response is also the principle behind how Ouija boards work, although I don't recommend those because they're still dang creepy, even knowing the psychological part of it. Plus, you'd actually have to buy a Ouija board, while you probably already have something that could work for a pendulum.
In olden days, seances were incomplete without sudden noises that seemed to come from nowhere - musical instruments that seemed to play themselves, bells ringing, voices from the ether, etc. These days, we have many electronic means of producing sounds at the click of a button, so sudden music isn't nearly as startling or mysterious. However, using your stereo or computer to make noises for a seance isn't very mysterious. If the sounds don't seem organic and physically present (as opposed to pre-recorded), people aren't going to be impressed.
The trick is to make some sounds that sound like they're in the room or very close by without the listeners being able to immediately determine how you did it. Having a confederate makes this easier, but it's still challenging because any confederates who are in the room and at the table will also be under observation. Some of the techniques used for making raps can work here for making other types of noises, but it's necessary to do some prep work, have a few objects ready that you can use, and arrange some keywords with your confederates so you can give them cues for when to make the noises.
For a ringing bell, I recommend using a jingle bell on a string. For this to work, either you or a confederate who will be making the ringing noise has to either conceal the jingle bell in their shoe to bring it into the room or hide it under the chair where they will be sitting. To hide a jingle bell in your shoe without it being obvious, the shoe has to be both close-toed and roomy, and you would have to curl your toes around it while walking to muffle any sounds it might make while you walk. If you can't do that, you could just put it until the chair where it needs to be. In a dimly-lit room, other people might not notice. It's just important for the right person to sit in that seat, so you may have to use assigned seating. Jingle bells need to be able to move without being directly touched to make a clear ringing sound. If you cover most of the bell with your toes, the most anyone will hear is a faint muffled rattle, which can be covered up with other noises or talking. The need for the bell to be able to move freely without being touched directly is also the reason for the string. When you want it to ring, use your toes to grip the string and shake it. This might take some practice!
Another option would be for people to make noises with their mouths. Some people are better at doing this than others, and if everyone at the seance knows that you or your confederate have the ability to do this, it's not too mysterious. On the other hand, if someone can make a noise with their mouth that not everyone knows they can do, it can be a subtle way to introduce some sudden noises into the seance. If you do this, the noise has to be brief (so no one has time to noice who's doing it) and loud enough for everyone at the table to hear clearly. If you have one or two confederates who can whistle, they can take turns giving a very brief whistle, so it seems like the soudns are coming from different directions. Some mouth noises require the help of your fingers to make them (like the ones on this page), so if you decide to use those, you will have to take that into account when arranging seating, lighting, decding whether participants should hold hands, etc.
Of course, if you can arrange to have a confederate who isn't sitting at the table, maybe someone just outside the room where you're holding the seance, it opens up more possibilities. This person is free to ring bells, speak in spooky tones, or knock something over at a strategic moment to create a scary effect. However, in order for this to be spooky, it shouldn't be obvious to the people in the room that you actually have someone outside, creating these effects, unless you want the situation to quickly turn into comedy.
Ghosts and Moving Objects
In seances held over 100 years ago, sometimes objects would seem to move on their own or ghosts would appear out of nowhere. This could be the climax of the seance, but it will take some planning to pull off this effect. In olden days, "ghosts" were people draped in cheesecloth to look ethereal. A confederate would hide somewhere in the room and emerge at the proper time to look like a manifested spirit. This is unlikely to fool your audience, especially if this seance is at a party where all of the guests know each other, your ghostly confederate is someone everyone else would recognize, and there would be no way for a friend to hide in the room without being seen. Other ways to move things about would involve people dressed in black, who would be nearly invisible in a dark room, or the use of strings, but I think both of these methods are problematic. Again, at a party where everyone knows each other, it could be difficult to arrange to have people dressed in black to hide and move things around, and depending on your setting, the room might not be dark enough to really pull this off. Having strings to manipulate objects can also be problematic because other people can find or feel strings, and depending on the placement, might even stumble into them by accident. My thinking is that you want to keep the effects as simple to produce as possible, with everything you need close at hand and under your control.
One of the best ways to produce this effect is by having your confederates throw things. (Remember, they'll need at least one hand free to accomplish this, and there shouldn't be anything nearby that might be broken if objects are tossed around.) Small objects can be carried in the confederates' pockets until it's time to produce them. Throwing actions are brief, and either you or a second confederate can cause a distraction so a confederate can quickly toss something into the air. What they toss depends on the effect you want to create. You can produce "spirit orbs" by having them toss glowing balls across the room. If they throw them quickly in the dark, the audience should see a brief streak of light that seemed to come from nowhere. The glowing balls can be purchased or created by painting balls with glow-in-the-dark paint. Depending on the kind you use, you might have to expose them to light before the seance begins in order for them to glow, and the more time they're in the dark, the effect will gradually wear off. I think that one of the better options might be balls that use mini glow sticks or glow chemicals for light because the glow effect will last longer. Of course, after the seance is over, members of your audience might find these balls and realize how the trick was done, but the effect can still be good in the moment, and if you manage to toss a ball so that it lands behind some furniture, it might not be discovered.
Another possibility could be to have a confederate quickly toss something onto the table itself, as if it was produced by the "spirits." Whatever the object is, it should fit with the ghost story you created for this seance. For example, if part of the story involves treasure, someone could toss coins onto the table. Or, if the story involves a mysterious piece of jewelry, like a missing locket, they could toss that piece of jewelry onto the table.
A tip from How to Haunt a House by Dan Witkowski, p. 44, is that curtains can also move suddenly if someone can secretly turn on a fan.
Ending the Seance
The ending of the seance should bring the story you've spun around the seance to a close and make it clear to the audience that the story is over. Having an object mysteriously appear or move could be a good, dramatic end to the seance. If you can have a confederate in a good position to turn off the light in the room or blow out a candle while everyone else is distracted, plunging the room into darkness would also be a dramatic end to the performance.
Of course, the ending should fit the mood of the seance. If it's taken a humorous turn, the ending should be also be humorous. Have the confederates really, obviously show everyone what they've been doing to help you, humorously exposing some of the more obvious tricks, and then make a point of asking the "spirits" to give you one, final "sign." Then, for the sign, have one of your confederates hold up a picture of a stop sign. That's what it's time to do.
Friedhoffer. How to Haunt a House for Halloween. New York: Franklin Watts, 1988. Available online through Internet Archive
Hunt, Roderick. Ghosts, Witches, and Things Like That. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1984. Internet Archive
Witkowski, Dan. How to Haunt a House. New York: Random House, 1994. Available online through Internet Archive