THE HAUNTED MUSEUM:
DECEPTIVE PRACTICES OF FRAUDULENT MEDIUMS -- THEN AND NOW
As you are sitting here reading this article -- I can tell certain things about you.
You are a sensitive person who is in tune with events around them. When you were younger, you were different from other people that you knew. You have always been a little on the outside of things. Your intuition is strong and you feel that you may have always had a bit of a sensitivity or a psychic ability. You have occasionally dreamed of things before they happened or at least had a strong sense of 'deja vu' under certain circumstances.
You are also a caring and honest person, perhaps too much so, but you have difficulty in letting people get to know the real you. When you finally do let someone inside, you keep him or her close to you for a long time. In fact, there is someone that you are close to that you are concerned about right now. You worry too much though and can best help this person by continuing to be a positive influence in their life.
Does this information fit you and your personality? Does any of it fit -- perhaps just enough to convince you that someone who is giving you this information is on the right track? This is an example of what magicians (and unfortunately phony psychics) call a "cold read". It's an old technique that is designed to make the subject believe that the medium could see into that person's soul. In more unfortunate cases, it is also used to make that the subject believe that the medium is communicating with the dead.
It's called a cold reading because at first, the reader knows little about the person being read. However, thanks to simple deductions made from the client's body language, posture, breathing rate, eye contact and both verbal and non-verbal clues, the cold reader can quickly adapt the reading to suit the individual. It's an age old device that has been put to many uses over the years. It was a staple of the séance during the Spiritualism era -- and it's still being used by popular television psychics today for the same fraudulent purposes.
That's not to say that there are no genuine psychics out there -- that's not for me to judge. I try to keep an open mind about everything until I am convinced otherwise. But I would like to provide the information for those who may not know about it as to how "cold readings" and so-called "spirit communication" can be easily accomplished. It's not for me to say whether your favorite television psychic is real or a fraud -- you need to decide that for yourself -- but in the article ahead, I'll show you how this type of reading has a historical precedent, how it can be done today and even how you can learn to do it yourself!
HELPING OUT THE SPIRITS
Modern Spiritualism can trace its roots back to the Fox Sisters, who first began summoning spirits to communicate with them back in 1848. While there are lingering questions about some of the mediums who appeared on the scene during the heyday of the Spiritualism, there is no denying that the movement was riddled with cases of fraud. Many of the phony mediums were exposed by magicians and investigators over the years and in many cases, they were prosecuted for bilking money out of unsuspecting clients. Today, most popular mediums confine their spirit contact to "mental mediumship", which means that they claim to receive psychic messages from the dead that no one else can hear, rather than receiving messages from the spirits through trumpets, apparitions and mysterious objects that appear in the séance room.
Mental mediumship has been around for quite some time though and has it roots in the early days of the Spiritualist movement. Messages that could be obtained for the sitters at a séance were always convincing, especially if they seemed to contain information that the medium should not have had access to. But was this really the case?
In his book The Psychic Mafia (1976) former medium M. Lamar Keene explained in detail how he managed to fool sitters who came to see him at Camp Chesterfield, Indiana. He explained how mediums of those days managed to obtain what seemed to be complex information about the sitters who came to the séances. While clients were sitting in the darkened séance rooms, confederates would be used to pilfer through purses and billfolds to obtain photographs, letters, bank books and even social security numbers. They also made it a rule that anyone who wished to attend a private séance had to attend at least three public services beforehand. That way, the sitters could not only be observed and monitored, but the mediums would have time to run down the information already gathered in order to put together files on the sitters.
They also observed who was gathered for a séance through two-way mirrors and they could then prepare their "spirit messages" accordingly. That way, a sitter could always say to a skeptic that "the mediums didn't even see me before the séance, so if they needed prior research to prepare their messages, how could they have known to prepare one for me?"
The mediums also employed high-tech devices to help gather information. Of course, in years past, a high-tech device might have been nothing more than an electronic sound collector, which could pick up sounds at a considerable distance. Keene used one that was set up in a house across the street from the Spiritualist church at Camp Chesterfield. By aiming it at the church before a service, he could pick up all sorts of information that could later be incorporated into his readings.
Today, unscrupulous readers can employ more sophisticated devices such as tiny ear plugs that can receive messages from assistants about the sitters. This is a method that has been used to great effect by not only phony mediums but by questionable religious evangelists as well. Healing needs and spiritual messages can be incorporated into services by collecting "prayer requests" that are filled out by the attendees in advance of the service. It may appear that the evangelist has no access to these requests, but his assistants do and can feed the information to the minister through the ear plug.
Mediums (and evangelists with working with ailments that need to be healed) have also been known to use sealed envelopes that contain questions for the spirits to answer. The medium will hold up the envelope and then answer the question inside of it -- without ever actually seeing it. Of course, the information was given to him by the spirit world! Or was it?
In truth, this is one of the simplest and oldest "carny" shills around and yet it still continues to amaze people to this day. What actually occurs is that the questions and requests are gathered by assistants prior to the séance or group reading. The sitters have written their questions onto pieces of paper and then have sealed them into envelopes. This all legitimate and above board -- to this point. The medium then takes the requests, which have been placed in a box or basket, and removes the first sealed envelope. Without opening it, he proceeds to answer the question that is written inside. A person in the back of the room exclaims that this was his question and is suitably impressed with the answer "from the spirit world". Of course, what the rest of the sitters in the room do not know is that the man at the back is an accomplice of the medium. The words spoken were not his questions at all -- in fact, it was all a ruse -- and he is simply part of the game.
The medium then opens the envelope to read the question back that he answered, thus "proving" his mediumistic skills. What he has really done is to open an envelope that contains an actual request from a sitter. He memorizes it and then tosses it away. He then picks up the next sealed envelope and pretends to answer the question that is contained inside of it. What he is actually doing is answering the question from the envelope that he opened earlier. It appears that the spirits are providing him with the information inside of the envelope, when it's really the one that he already opened. He repeats the process over and over again, staying one envelope ahead throughout the entire sitting, and appears to be receiving information from the spirits.
Today, things are more sophisticated (in some ways) and carnival tricks are liable not to fool most audiences. When those who are believers take a look at the television shows that claim to speak with the dead, many swear that no room for trickery exists. They are certain that someone would have long ago detected their favorite medium if he was hacking into people's personal files for information or using an accomplice to feed him data through an electronic wire. And while it's impossible to know what is taking place in a television studio (for the shows are obviously highly edited) I concede that it's likely that these mediums are not using electronic trickery -- for the information they need is provided directly by the sitters themselves!
TALKING TO DEAD PEOPLE?
As mentioned earlier, most of today's popular mediums limit themselves to receiving messages from the dead through clairvoyance and then pass those messages on to their sitters. Because they do not have to produce physical phenomena, it is much more difficult to expose the frauds and also to differentiate between those who may be self-deceived (believing they really can talk to the dead) and those who might actually have a gift that is beyond our understanding. Unfortunately, this puts all mediums in a bad light and those who really are genuine, or strive to be, should do whatever they can to expose the ones who are frauds. If those who attempt to be legitimate allow only the debunkers (who believe in nothing -- including even the possibility of spirit communication) to expose the fraudulent mediums, then they are allowing the entire community to look bad by appearing as though they will do nothing about the frauds.
Today's popular television mediums are doing nothing more than blatantly employing the "cold read" method, which was used for years in many magician's "mind reading" acts. I was instructed in this method a number of years ago by a friend who was a magician and since have researched it quite a bit. When this new breed of television psychic began to appear on the scene a few years ago, I recognized their method for what it was right away. And so did many others but logic has been bedeviled by the popularity of this new movement and by those who simply "want to believe", no matter what. As stated already though, it is not my place to try and convince the reader of what to believe or what not to believe -- that's up to you -- but I do want you to understand how subtle variations on this familiar method can be accomplished.
These current mediums work by asking a lot of questions. This should be your first clue that something is not quite right for the "spirits" apparently have very poor memories or a lot of trouble communicating! In my opinion, if the spirits have a message to relay, they should be able to so without all of the silly guessing and weird unrelated information that seems to spew out. Anyway, what happens is that by this information being provided in a question form, it may be considered correct (or a "hit) if it happens to be on target and if wrong, then will seem to be just an innocent query. The medium can then obtain clues to the information they are providing by watching the body language of the sitter (facial expressions when either wrong or on the right track) and then can shift the information to fit the mood. For example, almost anyone can react positively to a mention of a common object like a ring, a watch or some special piece of jewelry and this guess can then be transformed into a hit by the medium.
In addition, the mediums will attempt to boost the accuracy of their statements by trying to get the sitters to focus on their accurate statements rather than the numerous incorrect ones. Even the most believing viewer will admit that the mediums are wrong much more often that they are right. Of course, this is hard to tell from an edited television program that is designed to showcase the medium. If you really want to observe them in action, try to do so on a live broadcast or news program that is not skewed in one direction or another. I think you'll find it be very revealing as the misses fall as often (or more so) than the hits and the accurate statements are usually weak ones -- such as telling an elderly person that the medium senses his parents are deceased or "I sense an elderly woman with an 'm' in her name". The only thing that really seems to be "uncanny" about what is going on is the editing involved with the taped shows. Many audience members who have attended the shows in the studio go away more disenchanted with the mediums than when they came.
Another popular variation on the cold read (and one that often does not make the final television cut) is the method that some mediums have of "brow beating" the sitter and refusing to accept the negative responses to their statements. This is a common technique in which the medium persists in attempting to redeem a wrong statement, harassing the sitter so that they begin to feel that the incorrect response is their fault. Many sitters will start to accept the statements out of guilt and this further boosts what seems to be the accuracy of the medium's visions.
Regardless of how you look at it, or your fascination with your favorite popular medium, there are a myriad of problems when it comes to accepting the authenticity of their readings. All that I ask is that you not be too quick to believe -- or too quick to doubt either -- and study these things for yourself before making up your mind. I believe that an analysis of how many of these mediums work will shed a much-needed light on the "mysteries" of "communicating with the dead".
WANT TO TRY IT FOR YOURSELF?
Still don't believe it's that easy? You can try cold reading for yourself and soon you'll see that the work of fraudulent mediums is not as mysterious as you once thought. You can try this with a group of friends or even one or two people. Once you master it, or at least have the basics down, try it with someone that you don't know and see how "uncanny" your "spirit messages" actually are!
The basic method behind cold reading is to start by throwing out common names to your group of sitters. You hope that someone will link up with one of them and then you can fine tune your guesses based on the reaction of the person that you have connected with. You can either guess or ask the relationship of the sitter to the name and at this point, you are well on your way to convincing an unknowing person that you have contacted the dead. To do this though, you have to add some drama to the presentation, perhaps by saying that you "are receiving a message from a person named _________ -- does this mean anything to anyone present?" Also, on the off chance that your common name is not common enough, expand the possibilities into friends, relatives or neighbors of a deceased person. Eventually, you are going to get a hit.
Once you find someone who has accepted the name, it's time to move forward. The method includes a number of clever ways to get information from the sitter so that it never looks like the medium asked for it. You can make comments like "Why is this person laughing?". "They seem to be upset about something, do you know what this could be?" or "she's shaking her head 'no', why would this be?" Seemingly innocuous statements like this are sure to elicit a response. Once the reading moves ahead, it's important to use words that generalize the statements so that it never appears that your statements are absolute fact. In this way, they are never actually wrong! Just remember to add things like "I feel that...", "I think that..." or "I want to say that..."
Another devious way to reinforce the reading is to agree with the sitter when they give you information. In other words, if the sitter answers a question to something, say "yes, of course", as though you knew that information all along, and then repeat that information back to them. You can also say something like "Yes, I sensed that" when you really never sensed anything at all. The sitter is the one providing all of the information but by playing it back to them, they will come to believe that the information is really coming from you.
Here are the main points to watch for in this method (whether experimenting with it yourself or when investigating a reading by a medium):
1. The medium will use phrases like "I think" or "I don't think". This is a way of doing what magicians call "trying on" a guess for acceptance by the sitter.
2. The medium will often directly ask for information (which the sitter usually provides) and this will "help along" the process and provide more information for the cold read.
3. The sitters are often asked not to take the statements literally but to use their imagination and try to make them fit into something they already know. The excuse is that the spirits can't always differentiate between the past and the present and will sometimes be vague in their messages.
4. You should also look for (and if you are experimenting with this, try to encourage) a cooperation between the sitter and the medium. The sitters come to mediums because they want to believe and will go out of their way to do so. They only need to be encouraged.
Proficiency at this method is usually obtained by watching those who are skilled at it or by trial and error. There are many clever ways to get this to work such as using different methods to probe for information, laughing away mistakes, getting around long pauses when the sitter fails to volunteer information and even blaming errors on "poor reception from the spirit world". It takes practice to make it work -- and to understand how easy it is to accomplish by popular mediums.
As a warning though, I don't encourage readers to try and deceive the gullible with these methods. They are provided here for educational purposes only. Even tricking people for the purpose of debunking the fraudulent methods is frowned upon. This was often a method used by Harry Houdini when he wanted to show how alleged "spirit activities" could be duplicated by stage magic. During his career, he was accused of having supernatural powers of his own, which enabled him to escape from some of the traps that he prepared for himself. In order to debunk this notion, he put on a display of what seemed to be unearthly power but it backfired on him. Instead of convincing those in attendance that it was mere trickery, they became more convinced that he was a medium himself. Keep that in mind should you decide to teach yourself the methods of "cold reading"!