April 11, 2006

Other: Dead Folks 'R' Us

As promised, a review of a psychic reading. Sorry about the time this took: it was quite a wide ranging show, and trying to narrow down the generalizations into short coherent specifics was quite difficult. And it still ended up five pages long. Yeesh!

It has been argued at me (yes, at: there wasn’t much of an ideas exchange going on at the time) that the one major flaw in my argument against spiritualism is my lack of experience with it. I had never seen first hand the awesome power of the spiritual and supernatural worlds, so what would I know? Huh? Huh?

Actually, I know a fair amount about spiritualism and spirituality (different things); but that doesn’t take away the basic premise of the claim. No, I had never seen a medium or psychic in action, live and in colour. Mostly, this has been due to a lack of funds. That is to say I could afford to go see one, but I didn’t want to throw $165 into an open sewer to watch Sylvia Browne in Victoria.

It is a situation that has now been remedied.

Fortunately for me, a “World Famous Psychic” came to my home town recently (all the way from Aberdeen!), and it would only cost me $15 to see “proof of life after death!” Of course, if I should happen to be interested in learning how to speak to the dead myself, the cost would be slightly higher… Somehow, I managed to resist the temptation, only signing on for the Friday night show.

We all file in at 7:00 for the 7:30 show time, as we had been warned to do. If the psychic was a fraud, this would be an excellent time to overhear anyone talking about why they were in the audience, and who they may want to contact, and that sort of thing. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

At the front of the little hall is a table with a very nice little doily with two lit candles on it and a ghetto blaster. There are conversations around me about what people are about to see, what they’ve been told previously by other psychics, and a surprising (to me) amount of open skepticism. The half hour passes fairly quickly, and our host appears, introducing herself and the “wonderful, amazing” psychic who has come all the way from Aberdeen. I count about 70 people, meaning some portion of $1,050 was going to our guest. Not really enough to make the trip worth it, I shouldn’t think. The lessons tomorrow are $65 a shot, so maybe she’s got a number of people for that… Ah, well: I’m not her accountant.

The psychic stands up, getting polite applause, and sets the scene for us by playing a song that has didgeridoos, pan pipes, and a gentle sounding fellow singing about how wonderful it is to be “not dead”. Lovely thing apparently, not being dead. In fact, “dead” is a word the psychic never uses for the next hour and a half, and she goes through quite a semantic workout to avoid it: people are on the other side, in that other place, with the spirits, passed over… all sorts of things other than dead. This is simply knowing the audience, most of whom are True Believers who need to believe that life continues after death, at least for their friends and relatives.

[About the audience: I’m going to make some generalizations here, since the psychic would be talking about people from several generations. There is quite a sociological difference between a 30-year olds grandfather and an 80-year olds grandfather. There were three generations present in the hall, so I’m going to label them every twenty years from 1 (up to, say, 30 years old) to 6 (110 to 130 years old, if they were still alive).]

She continues by explaining any failure. Not hers, of course, but the audience’s. The medium is just a telephone, right? Someone here has to answer, all right? So if she says something that makes sense to anyone here, they have to speak up, do you understand? This opening paragraph keys the audience into responding, a necessity for any psychic reading.

[A little side note here about the famed Canadian interrogative “eh?”. What “eh?” does is turn any statement into a question, inviting a response from whoever you’re speaking to. It makes the other person feel like a part of the conversation, and imply a friendlier mood, even with what would otherwise be outright threats: “Put down those keys or I’ll break your fingers, eh?” See? You can still have a drink with this guy.]

She also notes that relatives that she contacts can be direct or distant, so a name you may not understand in conjunction with yourself must be from several generations ago. Which leads into her complaint against mentalists who claim they can do what she does: she tells people things they have to go look up before it makes sense to them, and let’s see a mentalist do that!

[Another side note about something humans do very, very well: making connections. A friend of mine and I used to play a game we made up called “jump”, where one of us would come up with two words, and the other would try to connect them with the fewest “jumps” possible; kind of a “Six Degrees (or less) of Anything”. Give it a try.]

What follows is pretty much a straight forward cold reading, but with one additional hook that hadn’t occurred to me to use: maps. For those of you who don’t live in a rural community, roads in low population areas didn’t have to have names until much later than in cities did. People knew where certain families lived, and you went to their house, not to their street number. So here is how she would start looking for hits:

“Shaunessy? Does the name Shaunessy mean anything to people here? Person or road… Is there a Shaunessy road or lane or some such? I’m getting Gordon… Road, or last name… Gord? Do you use Gord here?”

Using this technique, she went through:



White (corrected by an audience member to “Wright”;
Hudson (then Hudson’s Bay, one of the biggest and oldest retailers in Canada);
Coronation (also a massively popular, long LONG lived TV show of course).

Now, every time she got a hit (confirmation of some kind), our psychic would reconfirm: “Yes, because I’m just being told that…” or “Yes, because I’m seeing…” And every time she made a statement while “reading” someone and missed it, there were four outs she would use:

1) Stretch the guess;

2) They are (or it is) in your future;

3) It’s there, you have to look for it yourself;

4) Ignore it until later.

A stretch guess would be: “I see an older woman who suffered a stroke of some kind… (no response) With mobility problems… (response) Yes, because she’s telling me that she hated to be a bother…” The audience member was generation 3 (50-70), and almost certainly had a woman in generation 4 (70-90) die. Few women of that generation who reached old age did not have mobility problems, and a stroke is a reasonable guess for any generation, BUT “a stroke” and “mobility problems” are two radically different things. A can cause B, but then so can a whole lot of other things.

Placing something into the audience member’s future is a great cop-out. She only used this twice, as too great a reliance on it would be noticeable. She asked if the person was “looking into family history, or if someone else was looking into family history at all” because there was something about the street she just mentioned. She got one positive and one negative response, but her reply was the same: “Would you remember I said that, please? And look into it?” A bit of confirmation to the audience the she wasn’t wrong; it’s just that the information hadn’t been discovered yet.

Likewise, she got a miss when she saw an older man (generation 4) who “passed over” while gardening. When the woman she was reading said no, the psychic asked about the woman’s father: “Does your father ignore anything wrong with his health?” I know mine does, and by sheer coincidence (heh) hers does, too. The psychic then recommended that she get a doctor to check his blood pressure, because there was definitely something there, but she’d have to find it herself.

Ignoring information that gets a negative response (or no response) until later on was always accompanied by a reminder that the audience had to be pro-active with their responses, because she didn’t know what she was hearing or looking at, only they did. And if she has the chance to double back and clean up loose ends, then apparent misses look like apparent hits. For instance, as she was reading one woman, she guessed something wrong with the spirit’s hearing, but that got no response. Later on she prompted “Perhaps you didn’t know she was going deaf?” Tough to confirm what you never knew, but that’s okay! The psychic confirmed it for her, turning it into a hit.

For the most part, the show was about platitudes and generalizations. If anyone here has read a quickie biography (commissioned and published three days after a celebrity’s death), then you know what kind of generalizations I mean. More specifically:

When talking about a dead man of generation 4 or later, the psychic always asked if he was good with his hands, or liked to tinker with machines;

When talking about a dead woman, she always said “She didn’t like to be a bother, did she? Didn’t want a fuss made over her?”

One of her guesses was about a generation 1 man killed in a car crash of some kind”, which is the leading cause of death in men younger than 44 years.

When talking to a generation 2 or 3 woman (who attended alone), she would comment that the woman hasn’t “had an easy life, have you? Not that you’re complaining, lots of people have had worse lives, but sometimes it’s been a little hard, hasn’t it?”

Bear in mind that the psychic was a very pleasant woman to talk to: she could (and did) laugh at herself, kept a sympathetic voice, and had a gentle demeanor. Also bear in mind that the doctors who get sued aren’t the incompetent ones; they’re the frigid or mean ones. The patients who liked their doctors tended to be far more forgiving of mistakes and other failures.

The last thing I’m going to mention about the reading is that she often repeated that there was more than one spirit trying to talk to her at the same time (sometimes three at once) which explained why she would sometimes make wrong guesses while talking about one spirit – it was another getting in the way!

There were a couple of guesses she made which did impress me somewhat: she mentioned that one woman’s (deceased) father worked in mining (and had respiratory problems – not a long shot, that) and that another was in teaching. However, when the 90 minutes were up, I saw that she had met, and spoken to, both women before, and that they were members of the spiritualist church that sponsored the event.

All in all, it was at best a mildly entertaining way to pass an hour and a half, but I don’t know if it was worth the $15. And I can’t say it converted me into believing in “PROOF of LIFE after DEATH!” as advertised.

Maybe I need to talk to more Jehovah’s Witnesses…


By the way, if I hear that someone is using this as a guide to sucker the vulnerable and bereaved into handing over their money, I fully expect my 10%... then I’ll break your legs.

No, no, I’m kidding! I’ll just break your legs.

Hope you found this informative. Or at least amusing enough that my $15 expense will not have been in vain. I'm not only egotistical, but a cheap bastard, too.


posted by Thursday at 12:44 am


Blogger EoR said...

Cold reading: ask a lot of questions, get a couple of guesses fairly close (usually on pretty general topics). Where you're wrong, insist it's not your fault. Finally, tell the suckers to "take it home with them". Everyone else will think you're amazing.

Incidentally, I recently analysed an Australian psychic (at http://thesecondsight.blogspot.com/2006/03/talking-to-dead.html) in a similar manner, and the similarities are uncanny (dare I say, "otherworldly"? - no I wouldn't).

4:36 pm  
Blogger Thursday said...

I just loved it when she started with names, every time. No getting tripped up with "Can my mom remember her name?"

I'll check out your review for a little comparo ... Oh, and thanks a hell of a lot for turning my five pages into one paragraph! Jeez! [snark]

10:24 pm  
Anonymous Helena Constantine said...

My two year old went through an episode of watching the whole wizard of Oz every day for 2 months. I noticed that Dorothy's initial interview with Prof Marvel (the Wizard's Kansas identity) is a satire of cold reading, and a very well-observed one. It occured to me that skeptics might be able to make some use of this since it is something that most people have seen.

10:17 am  
Blogger Thursday said...

Good catch - I've never seen more than bits of the movie myself, heresy though that may sound to some. I'm going to check the book to see if it's the same there.

Thanks for the comment!

10:54 am  

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