It has been amazing to see the growth of TV psychics over the last few years. Although talking to the dead has been popular for over 100 years already, ever since “rock star psychic” John Edwards’ TV show has become an international hit our fear and suspicion surrounding this rather unusual occupation has given way to ratings and rave reviews.
Never mind TV, in almost any city a glance through the local New Age listings – say, the ‘Link Up’ newsletter – will offer a veritable yellow pages of psychic telephone operators ready to put you in touch with the dearly departed. Many people now think that contacting the dead is a pretty normal thing to do – if you need a last goodbye or to ask where the will is, no problem.
Rewind a few hundred years, and talking to the dead is a very serious, difficult and dangerous activity. Only the greatest of Magicians can do it (that’s Magicians as in Wizards, not stage conjurers like Mr Copperfield) and usually with enormous consequences – from having their houses torn apart by strange inexplicable energies, to death. That’s when it worked, of course, and there’s very little evidence that it did. There is lots of strange stuff in the world, there certainly are inexplicable and spiritual phenomena, but that doesn’t mean it was chatty dead folk.
Actually, ‘spiritualism’ – the politically correct name for what is properly called necromancy or ‘raising the dead’ – is a modern invention, invented in the late 19th century by a pair of sisters who worked out how to create taps and movements in the furniture. Despite their eventual admission that they faked it, an instant fad developed and tables were tapping and tipping on both sides of the Atlantic before you could say Harry Houdini. Yes, conjurers picked up on the clever trick and made a new branch of illusion out of it, and Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle dragged his own name and reputation through the mud trying and failing to prove that communication with the dead was possible.
Duh! I mean, whatever your religion or belief system, is there one idea of ‘heaven’ that suggests that dead people are hanging around waiting for the phone to ring? Most people who believe in spiritualism also believe in an afterlife of some higher dimension and even in reincarnation. It takes only a moment’s thought to realise that both of these make taking calls impossible – one way or another, these spirits are either moving on to a higher cloud or back down to dreary old earth.
But as usual, that never stopped an industry being born. An industry that is really all about exploiting people’s fear of death, lack of knowledge about it, and their very sad inability to let go and move on themselves. All of these are brought about by a materialistic culture totally devoid of any meaningful spiritual worldview or authority, and so the vultures move in.
What do these telephone operators tell us? That your relative is happy, that they they are fine now, they’re in a great place, and that they forgive you. That’s it, that’s always it. They don’t even bother to get a new script or a different one from the next psychic. It is truly amazing and also sad that people are so easily taken in by such shallow platitudes. It also shows how desperate they are (and how religion has failed them.)
More significantly, they never give useful information – who is the murderer? Where is the will? Not a single case of such help. Never is a person given any information they don’t already know or that can be verified later.
And that reveals how they’re doing it – because some of you must be thinking, ‘I’ve seen it done, they come up with names and diseases and all sorts of stuff – it’s pretty convincing.’
Actually, any student of magic – the conjuring type – knows how to do it (and also knows how to bend spoons, another famous piece of deception.) In fact, stage magicians usually do a more convincing job than John Edwards. It’s a technique cold “cold reading”, and it boils down to an incredibly simple, clever and deceptive method of first homing in on the right person (‘I’m getting an ‘M’ … and 5 people raise their hands; ‘someone who died of cancer’ (gee that’s unusual!), 3 of those now lower their hands … and so it goes; and then extracting information from them without them even noticing! It;s even more convincing in a one-on-one, where it’s more subtle and devious but still very similar. It’s bog standard illusion though, and very frustrating and infuriating for an amateur or pro magician to watch a cold reader pretending to have paranormal talents!
Okay, most of them don’t do the cold reading and are really well-meaning, and no doubt even think they are doing what they claim to be doing – after all, they’re generally as gullible as the people they’re persuading and “she is no longer in pain and she loves you very much” doesn’t take much skill to produce. But well-meaning or not, if self-delusion leads you to take desperate bereaved people’s money and deny them the very necessary psychological acceptance of the death it’s actually a lot worse than anything a ‘conventional’ religious idea does.
After all, even if they’re not really sitting on clouds and all, they’re certainly gone. Not forgotten, still loved; but the only word that needs to be spoken, and which needs no magic telephone, is ‘Goodbye.’