In the beginning of an hour-long performance titled “Psychic Reading for Fun and Prophet” at 2012’s Dragon*Con in Atlanta, I decided to try something different. Performing an hour of “cold readings” can be extremely taxing. As a so-called “psychic,” you can’t repeat the same readings over and over or fall back on old lines and platitudes. You have to seem fresh and appear to be picking up rapid-fire thoughts on a very personal basis. It has to look spontaneous.
This is akin to watching a comedian who appears to be totally off the cuff when he or she starts in with lines like, “So …where are you from?” and other casual remarks. They seem unscripted the first time you hear them. After you watch a pro work a few nights, it soon becomes obvious he or she delivered these same lines dozens of times. Your mind tricked you into thinking it was a special joke or one-off observation just for you. A psychic or medium has the same bag of shtick and at times must work really hard not to repeat or sound over-rehearsed when they take the stage.
In this case it was a packed house of over 300 people. I danced through several “visions,” accurately telling different people I was sorry they had recently lost their pet dog, how another had recently had some difficulty with her brown car, and a few other bits and pieces. I was doing really quite well and decided to make a leap and just throw something out.
I stopped for a stage beat or two, gripped my temples in both hands in a display of intense concentration, and said to the crowd: “I’m picking up a strange image. I’m not sure, but I’m going to go ahead with what I’m seeing. After all, that’s my job. I’m seeing a clown, yes. A man dressed as a clown. He’s standing in a grave yard and he’s putting flowers on the graves.”
Then I delivered the time-honored traditional question to the audience that I hear every time I watch the latest flavor-of-the-month psychic work a large room: “…Does that mean anything to anyone?” Not expecting any response, but still ready to deal with what I thought at the time would be a very slim chance of any hit, I waited.
It’s always good business to throw in two or three ridiculous bits like this. When a psychic is wrong, it makes it more believable. The audience reasons (wrongly) that if what they have heard was a trick, then like a magician, the performer would have been dead-on right. But since they were wrong and got no response, it must be something real. Why else would he or she say that?
This is a beautiful dodge that allows a canny charlatan to say just about anything—which was where I was going. I didn’t really care. This was not like, “I’m seeing someone’s husband. Did someone’s husband pass to the other side from lung cancer here tonight?” After which any psychic worth his or her salt would expect to see dozens of up-raised tear-filled eyes. The “psychic” only has to scan the crowd briefly and pick a miserable soul that looks well-off and desperate enough to book an expensive reading with them later and go in for the kill. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. I also added. “…And I see the name Stanley.” I had no particular reason to choose Stanley over any other name; it just popped into my head. In mentalism and in spiritualist circles, this is called the scattershot approach.
Lo and behold, a woman in the middle of the room stood up! I looked out over the crowd to make sure it wasn’t one of my friends or someone playing a prank on me, but no, there was a total stranger standing up looking quite terrified. She screamed out, “There’s no way you could have known that! There was an old man in my hometown who used to dress-up in a clown costume and put flowers on the graves in the town cemetery. My name is Cindy but for some reason that guy always called me Stanley! How the hell did you know that?” I had even described his long clown shoes.
I was momentarily stunned. In the character of a medium, it’s always best to remain unruffled and calm as if to say, “…Of course I knew that,” but I was a tad bemused myself. I had yet to tell anyone I was faking the whole show, and this little interlude was going to make the explanation more complicated. On the one hand, this is the sort of “hit” a mentalist or psychic prays for (if you will excuse the expression.) On the other hand, in the minds of the audience, it was overwhelmingly against the odds for this to be written off as mere coincidence. It was a dead-on hit—and two hits in one reading! I thought for a minute. Maybe Cindy’s a nut and just going along with me for a lark, but it would have been indelicate for me to say so under the conditions I found myself in.
So let’s back-up a minute. A few weeks prior to going to Dragon*Con, I had watched a cheapo Italian horror film called The Iron Rose (1973). In it, a young couple takes a stroll through a large cemetery. As darkness falls, they realize they can’t find their way out, and soon their fears begin to overtake them. In an early scene we see a quick shot of a clown putting flowers on a grave. For whatever reason, this image stuck in my mind. Mentalists and psychics are often treasure troves of meaningless trivial images and quotes they pull from their minds like magicians pull rabbit’s out of hats. That’s all it was, just a random shot in the dark.
So how did this happen? Perhaps more importantly, What did I do with this?
It is important to be reminded of a few things before going forward. This was at Dragon*Con, not a skeptic convention. Most of the attendees are already prone to fantasy and the world of Dr. Who, Hobbits, and Star Wars. Although this particular lecture was featured in the “Skeptic Track” room of the convention, the mere suggestion of something psychic going on drew a huge audience of all kinds of seekers of strange things from all over the convention. Dragon*Con generally attracts over 60,000 people. It is not a stretch to consider that a very large percentage was probably expecting miracles to happen. In such a rarefied atmosphere, the law of large numbers (LLN) comes into play. This ploy assures the larger the audience, the more likely a “psychic entertainer” is to get a “hit” or more than a few people to respond to just about anything he or she says.
This brings us to another rule of thumb any medium takes full advantage of when working a room. Unlike standard magic tricks where the audience would in some cases like nothing better than to see the performer screw something up (leading ultimately to a popular branch of magic, that being the comedic kind), the spectator will actually root for the performer to make something happen or be correct in their vision. As in psychic readings, they want the performer to succeed and in most cases will do anything they can to help out. People need to believe. They may not necessarily need to believe a rabbit comes out of a hat, but when it comes to death and the hereafter, an audience of believers will consistently make connections of the most bizarre and ridiculous kind. If you don’t believe me, watch an episode of “Hollywood Medium” or “Long Island Medium.” Hence, my “clown in a graveyard” option. I tossed out a wild curve into a wide net and caught a live one. It was a long shot I anticipated would only get a laugh. As they say—and if you will again excuse the expression—shit happens. This time it did.
I had to soldier on with the show and continue as if nothing out of the usual had happened. At the fifty-minute mark in the show I started into the “reveal” part of the show when I ask the audience, “You really didn’t think I was talking to your dead relatives did you?” and begin telling how it’s all done in the psychic market. I swiftly segued into the tricks of the trade phase of my performance, explaining how I had spoken with several people in line before the show, asking them who or what they might want to reach in the spirit world. When these same individuals were called upon after I got my psychic swoon on, of course the rest of the audience had no idea I had already gotten everything I needed to weave a convincing vision for everybody else. Not too perfect mind you and always a little off pays the bills. This same person still gets a nice warm fuzzy reading and is generally happy with what I say, so it’s a win/win for everybody. This is called “pre-show” in the spook racket and has always been one of my favorite ruses to exploit. Nobody seems to even consider that a “psychic” or “medium” would be acting and using information they already knew; they take it on faith that everything they hear is coming from some divine source.
As I’m talking about this, I could see that the woman from the graveyard was still standing and shaking her head in disbelief. She didn’t see how that fit with her reading. I then had to stop and tell her about LLN and the cogent fact she was conveniently neglecting to fathom. If I had looked straight at her and singled her out of the crowd of 300 and then delivered the clown in a graveyard line directly to her, that’s a whole lot different than saying, “Does that mean anything to anyone?” or “Does that make sense to anyone?” Watch and listen carefully to the medium next time, and you will see how easily this works.
If psychics were real, they wouldn’t need to ask even a single question. They would just know. Period. End of story. Yet if we listen to any of the latest crop of psychic mediums in a live situation and not in edited television formats, that’s all they do. Its non-stop question after question after question. Medium Rebecca Rosen recently clocked in at a question every twenty-four seconds after her written transcript was carefully reviewed. Nobody ever bothers to do that. It’s too much thinking and not considered “healing” or entertainment.
As in what frequently happens in these kinds of demonstrations, the show is rarely over when I leave the stage. True to form, Cindy the graveyard lady immediately came up to the group of people who were chatting with me after the lights went down.
She still looked dazed and unsteady and insisted again there was “No way in the world” I could have known about that guy in the clown suit and further, how did I know her nickname? She also admitted she felt sick to her stomach after I had uttered my vision. There was no assuaging her. For a few minutes it seemed my explanation had fallen on deaf ears. But who could blame her? The odds were pretty staggering. If you aren’t careful, after a few of these experiences you can end up believing in your own bullshit.
Mentalists who have worked large audiences know this feeling of a no-win after a successful performance. You can tell a curious spectator it’s all tricks and unfortunate as it may seem, the more you try to convince them you are a complete charlatan, many times they think you are covering up for your mysterious “gift” by trying to talk them back down to earth. It’s frustrating and sometimes no amount of logic or common sense will prevail. In this case my entire show and everything I did in it was fully revealed, explained, and taken apart piece by piece and yet Cindy still had a very hard time letting go of her belief system. I had made her feel special and different than all the rest of the standard readings I had given that night. Hard facts such as this make it even harder to break the news to a believer. After several tense minutes and some reinforcement from a few of the other skeptics in the room, I was finally able to convince her that truly, there was no way in the world I could have known about her clown friend. Of course, the irony is Cindy was sadly disappointed in hearing this.
Over the years, the “no way” comment has grown to be one of my favorite expressions of wonderment. I hear it often. So often, in fact, I have frequently found it necessary to stop and remind the person uttering it that in this complicated cyber world, where anything and everything about us is floating around in one information system or another, I can say confidently that without any supernatural powers whatsoever, beware. Because in an awful lot of cases … yes, there is.
But that’s another story.