In an inconspicuous shed at the Vortex playhouse rests a homemade Davenport spirit cabinet — an apparatus used to contact spirits. Years ago, UT alumnus Jake Cordero would close his daughter inside to conjure ghosts for private audiences.
Now, Cordero and his best friend Albert Lucio are the spiritual guides of Austin Seance, the city’s only seance company. A seance is a gathering of people who attempt to communicate with the dead with the help of a medium or special equipment. Austin Seance uses equipment from or inspired by the American Spiritualist movement to make contact with the beyond.
Lucio and Cordero met on South Congress Avenue when Cordero and his daughter Sofia Dyer, a Plan II senior, were performing as street psychics. They connected over a deep fascination with the American Spiritualist movement and the occult. Every season, Austin Seance offers a peek into the supernatural world with shows at the Vortex and Highball. Though they cannot guarantee anything will happen, Cordeo and Lucio try to create a fun and stimulating environment for their audience.
“It’s like playing Marco Polo in the dark,” Lucio said. “We’re like ‘Marco’ and we’re just waiting for something to come back and say ‘Polo.’ Sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes it’s emotional. Sometimes it’s funny. We never know what’ll happen.”
Lucio, who got a degree in psychology and sociology, spent three years following and studying ghost hunters and psychics around the country. He said he enjoys seances because they reflect a tumultuous time in American history when science was used in a seemingly irrational way: to contact the dead. He said visitors are interested in seances because it gives them a chance to take a break from a plugged-in, modern world.
Cordero and Lucio often use a ouija board and radio tuned to white noise as a way to communicate with spirits. Cordero said these objects can reveal anything from initials of a deceased person’s name to full messages. One time, an audience member noticed letters on the ouija board spelled out the initials and birth date of a person who had recently passed. Then, the radio suddenly switched to a Mexican radio station playing Selena.
“As it turned out, the person she had been thinking about, the person whose birthday that was, it all came together,” Cordero said. “Selena was the mother’s name of the person she was thinking of.”
An affinity for the unknown seems to run in the family. Dyer used to work as a “mentalist” with her father on South Congress Avenue to help pay for tuition. When she was growing up, Cordero would lock her in the Davenport cabinet — the same one that now stands at the Vortex — to make contact with the great beyond during private seances for family friends.
“The first encounter with the Spirit cabinet was terrifying,” Dyer said. “I was secured inside the armoire with all of the shelves taken out of it. Locked chains would be wrapped around the cabinet. Then the lights would go out and we would begin to conjure spirits.”
Cordero emphasizes that the seances don’t prove the existence of ghosts but can suggest the possibility of life after death. Austin Seance hopes to encourage audience members to become comfortable with the inexplicable.
“If during these events, something strange happens, maybe it [was] a ghost,” Cordero said. “Maybe it’s something in their own heads, but who are we to say? We just offer that experience to them. We’d like to think there’s something there. Like Fox Mulder says ‘We want to believe.’”