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Mediums of the masses
03-10-2020, 09:12 PM
Post: #1
Mediums of the masses
America is in the grip of the paranormal. But as psychic TV shows dominate the networks, are the hosts little more than hoaxers?

You would think Miss Cleo, a 'Jamaican shaman' whose late-night television slots made her the most famous psychic in America, might have seen the trouble coming and taken evasive action. First, there was the Jamaican Minister who laughed at her accent, then the customer who went to his lawyer after being charged $300 for a brief telephone consultation. And, finally, there was the birth certificate that proved Miss Cleo - real name Youree Harris - wasn't the psychic daughter born to mystical parents from Kingston, Jamaica, but a jobbing actress from Los Angeles, California.

Questioned earlier this year by government lawyers, Harris pleaded the Fifth Amendment, but it was too late. The first of a series of court actions aimed at putting her Psychic Network channel out of business concluded in Missouri last week when two Florida-based businessmen, who employed Harris to front their organisation, were convicted of fraud and fined $50,000 as part of a plea bargain.

They are swindlers,' said Missouri state attorney Jay Nixon after the case, a sentiment echoed by countless Psychic Network customers, by other psychics who complained that Miss Cleo's hard-sell approach gave their profession a bad name, and by professional sceptics who have spent a lifetime debunking Harris and her ilk.

Kevin Christopher of Skeptical Inquirer magazine said: 'Essentially, Miss Cleo was selling the same product as every other spiritualist down the ages; the idea that they can put a person in contact with a loved one who has died and, by implication, that we are all immortal. They are taking advantage of a vulnerable section of American society - the bereaved - and I can't wait for the day they are all out of business.'

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He will have to wait a while. The demise of the Psychic Network is merely a blip in the rise and rise of what is known in the States as paranormal television. There has always been an undercurrent of spiritualism on US television, be it in the The X- Files, where scientists are consistently portrayed as evil maniacs or cold-hearted disbelievers, guest appearances by mediums on mainstream shows like Oprah and Larry King , or one-sided documentaries on UFOs which portentously ask the viewers to 'make your own mind up'. But this year has seen mainstream TV open up to programmes devoted to displays of otherworldly powers. George Anderson, a New Jersey-based psychic and author of Walking in the Garden of Souls , starred on the ABC network this summer in an hour-long special which purported to have him speaking to the dead relatives of the rich and famous. The show attracted more than 10 million viewers.

Anderson says: 'People are searching for spirituality in their lives and opening their minds to other possibilities. They are realising they can seek spirituality on their own, outside of organised religions. However, I would always caution people to be good consumers, as the souls in the hereafter have told me too much is always as bad as too little.'

Clearly, the executives running American television don't listen much to advice handed down by the souls in the hereafter. John Edward's show, Crossing Over, has been a staple of the Sci-Fi cable network channel for two years but has now crossed on to network television. James Van Praagh, a former theatre stagehand turned best-selling author (his Talking to Heaven was No1 on the New York Times bestseller list for 13 weeks), has chipped in with Beyond With James Van Praagh, a half-hour syndicated show. This trend is in stark contrast to the ever decreasing space allotted to science-based programmes, now all but extinct on mainstream network television.

Both Edward and Van Praagh use the same formula, throwing out messages from the other side to a small studio audience until they get a response from an audience member. The medium then gives that person an extended spiritual reading. This is known amongst sceptics as 'cold reading', a technique which involves the spiritualist asking questions and making numerous statements, some general, some specific, and then seeing what sticks. Most of what he suggests is wrong but, as an incident on one of the first shows in Van Praagh's series proves, it doesn't take much to win over an already sympathetic audience. Confronted with a woman called Sherri whose father had died, the medium seized on her off-camera remark that her hair was being tugged - 'that was him, your father' - before reciting a litany of messages from the other side. Eventually, he threw out the suggestion that someone in her circle is perhaps adopted. It turns out she was! Cue audience applause.
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