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Being Psychic: Or, How to Fleece Rubes

I've been told that one of the best ways to open a speech or a paper is with an inflammatory, bold statement, so here goes my best shot: The dead lie cold, beyond our abilities to communicate them, lost eternally to the world of the living. Now let me ruin this bold opening with a qualifying statement: I'm not talking about religion. If your chosen holy book or instruction manual has led you to believe that the spirits of the dead speak to the living, fine. What I am talking about is so-called "psychic mediums." You can find their parlors and shoppes scattered throughout the city and some, such as Miss Cleo and John Edward, have their own hotlines or talk shows. If you think they're real, cut out the middleman and just dump all your money into the sewer.

I'm sure you're wondering what happened to my regular tripe about spacemen, but let me say this: John Edward, who runs the farce called Crossing Over on the Sci-Fi channel, is a millionaire. People pay him $1500 an hour to have him speak to their dead comrades. Do you have any idea how much could be done with that money, to say nothing of the time and effort, had the people he was talking to had a little more common sense and skepticism? A hair less than 100% of the world lives in utter, disgusting poverty, and people have made John Edward a millionaire for making up pretend stories about their dead friends. Thinking about that for long enough will give you an aneurysm.

As much as I would love to, I'm not going to attack Edward personally. I won't mention the fact that his mother was a "psychic junkie" that took him with her to fortune tellers and hosted psychic parties throughout his entire formative years. What I am going to do is give you an outline of the technique he uses to fake talking with the dead. It's called "cold reading," the "cold" meaning that the psychic has no prior knowledge of his person. I'm not enough of a suave con artist to know how to do it to a single person, so this formula assumes you're in front of a crowd, the way Edward is.

Step One: Start with a name, and make it vague. Try guessing letters or "sounds like" type hints, and get someone to reveal their name. For instance, I know that someone whose name starts with a J is reading this article. Oh, excuse me, I mean the restless spirits of the dead wish me to acknowledge J ... Juh ... jay? I chose J because that has, in America, the widest spread of names associated with it. In your audience, there's sure to be a Jim, James, Jerry, Jack, Judy, Jennifer, Jules, Jude, or so on.

Step Two: Pick a corpse, any corpse. Well, not just any. Look at the person you've "been told to acknowledge." If they're young, say something like "the spirit looks to be an older person." Believe it or not, the vast majority of young and youngish folks know an old person who died, be it an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent, or so on. People rarely come to hear their dead friends speak, so you're pretty solid if you assume it was a relative or spouse.

By now you should have the person convinced that their dead grandmother has asked you to pass along some important message. Otherwise, how would you have been able to pick them out of the audience by name? My suggestion for Step Three is to pick a special household object or a holiday.

Ask the person "Does December hold any special meaning to you?" or "There's something about some jewelry?" Most religious holidays are in December, but either of the people's birthdays could be in December; that could be the month of a family reunion, anything. If asking about an object, tailor it to the person you're speaking with. Women and men alike care a great deal about money, whereas men might care more about watches than necklaces, which will be prized by womenfolk. What you are trying to do in this step is figure out exactly what the mark...I mean, audience member wants to hear. They either want to know about the dead relative's money/posessions, or to know that the dead relative is doing okay in the realm beyond.

The exact nature of Step Four varies, depending on why you're trying to convince a sucker you speak to their dead relatives. It's always basically the same: Tie it all together and go in for the kill. If you're doing it for sheer trivia value, say "Well Jennifer, your dead grandmother wants you to know she doesn't care about the necklace" or something. On the other hand, if you're a greedy jerk, say "Well Jennifer, your dead grandmother wants you to ... wait, she's fading ... what ... well, she's gone. I can try and contact her again but gee, I sure could use a couple of hundred dollars..." Then, you know, go on and on until you've got all her money.
This 4-step plan is hardly bulletproof, but you can improve your chances of proving your psychic powers if you remember a few simple things.

1: Be vague. Never, ever, has a fortune teller walked into a room, pointed to a man, and said "Your name is Zephram, and you're here about your dead grand-uncle" unless they knew the man earlier. Pretend that the spirits are "here in the mortal plane but weakly" and just sort of throw things out to your audience. If you can't find someone whose name begins with J, grope at J-like names, such as Gerald or Gina. As an alternative, ask if that sound means anything to someone. There may not be anyone in the audience with a J-name, but perhaps one of the dead that they've come to hear from is named Jerry. Hell, maybe they drove all the way from Jersey to see you.

The vaguest ways are often the safest, though you'll need more time to convince the audience. Instead of asking about a common object or a special time of year, say something like "I'm getting an image of a building ... a low building ..." Who hasn't ever been inside a building in the past with someone who is now dead? The purpose of beign vague is to get the audience member to reveal information without realizing it. When you then tell them that information, they'll be shocked, certain of your abilities, and ripe for the picking.

2: People will see what they want to see. If they want to believe that you're able to talk to the dead, you won't have to try very hard. Speak confidently and hold yourself seriously, and they'll never doubt you. At the same time, you can never, ever give them any reason to doubt your psychic abilities. John Edward gives a good example of this: After guessing wrong a couple of times about the reason a man was at his show, he began insisting the man knew a dead person who was an older man. Eventually, he bellowed out "Don't you not honor him!" and stormed off. The audience, being a bunch of chumps, believed that the man was lying to their beloved psychic and gave him dirty looks throughout the remainder of the show. Confidence is your thickest armor.

3: Get a schtick going. No matter what the various religious instruction manuals say, no one is 100% certain what happens when you die. If you tell the audience that your answers are wrong because the etherial mists are clouding your vision, what are they going to do? Leap up and tell you you're wrong? If these are the kind of people that believe you can speak with the dead, they're not going to be all that contrary to you telling them that you're guessing at "name sounds like" because the dead can only speak in pantomimes.

This is a plan for cold reading. "Hot" reading is a lot easier to do, and involves knowing stuff about your mark before you begin speaking with him. In Crossing Over, audience members are told to fill out information cards with their family tree and other personal data on it. The waiting areas have been said to contain microphones with which Edwards and his staff can hear what audience members are saying while waiting for the show to begin. Hot reading can be more subtle: facial reactions, mannerisms, the style of dress, accents, all sorts of little things scream details about a person. Anyone with any skill can use this data to score hit after hit and, more likely than not, get a wad of cash out of it in the process.

So there you have it. A 4 step plan with 3 general reminders that will enable you to convince any dupe that the grave hinders not your eloquence. Why did I lay all this out for you? I'm not naive enough to think that when this column gets published, the millions we spend yearly on psychic hot-lines will be pulled out and invested in research at CERN. If you want to talk to a psychic for entertainment value, fine. But if you really do think someone you know can speak with the deceased, remember the plan I laid out above. You'll recognize it, or some version of it, in every psychic parlor, hot-line, and TV show you will ever come across.

First Published in The Triangle, 29 October 2004

Reader Comments:

Brent Lewis says:

John Edward is paid $1500 an hour to communicate with dead loved ones? How supremely irking! I don't know who is more contemptible: The fools who fork over that kind of money, or the con man Edward himself. I suppose it could be that Edward doesn't know he's a con man. He may have hypnotized himself into believing that all his machinations and imaginings are the sublime vibrations of the afterworld. I wish he would go there personally and get the ultimate close look at it.