The Project Barnum website was launched in September 2011 after accusations by audience members that self-proclaimed UK psychic Sally Morgan was being fed information while on stage. Wiltshire resident Hayley Stevens—cohost of the Righteous Indignation podcast and popular on the skeptic scene for her international lectures on paranormal investigations—decided that something had to be done. Project Barnum exists to educate the public and venue providers about techniques that psychics and mediums often attempt to pass off as supernatural ability.
Kylie Sturgess: So tell me about yourself. Why are you a skeptic?
Hayley Stevens: Oh, that’s a good question. My website is called Hayley is a Ghost and that kind of gives a hint to the fact that I started as a ghost hunter. I used to be a ghost hunter who did believe in ghosts, but now I’m a skeptic.
I believed in all sorts of associated strange things: mediums, psychics, the other side and afterlife. Then at the age of eighteen I started doing on-site investigations into hauntings and supposed ghost sightings. As I got older I started to doubt some things; I witnessed certain things being done by other people that made me think that something wasn’t quite right with what I believed.
I started to do research into it and I realized that I was very wrong, and I became quite skeptical. It sort of spiraled from there; rather than stopping what I was doing, I have carried on with it, but from a different angle.
Sturgess: It must have been terribly disappointing to go through that, and yet it seems to have empowered you to say, “Right, I’m going to correct some of the wrongs or try to make good of it.”
Stevens: Yes, it was quite disappointing. But it wasn’t an instantaneous thing where suddenly one day I was saying, “I no longer believe in ghosts.” It was a drawn-out process. I used to do things like table tipping and séances; it was really crazy. One day I decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore. Then another day I decided, “Oh yeah, actually I don’t believe that these photos contain ghosts.” I gradually lost the belief.
In one way it was quite disenchanting, but in another way it opened my eyes up to something that was more interesting: the way that our brains perceive things. The believing brain is, I think, actually far more fascinating than the idea that a ghost has done things. I find it much more intriguing to enter a case now and try to work out a logical cause for what is being reported, rather than just going in and saying, “Let’s find a ghost. There must be a ghost.”
Sturgess: How did it influence your interactions with other investigators? You were working alongside those who believed and then things slowly developed and changed; you’ve even gone to conferences where you’ve had people question you and see you as the enemy—yet you were once on their side. Does it help you understand their perspective as well?
Stevens: I guess the thing I really took from becoming more skeptical and losing my beliefs was that I learned very quickly that just because you see things one way, other people aren’t instantly going to agree with you. It was probably very naive of me to think that was going happen that way. Because I decided I no longer wanted go into people’s houses and do séances, it also suddenly occurred to me that it was very distasteful and wrong. I didn’t believe it worked anymore, because I had learned more.
But the people [with whom] I investigated—people who had become [my] friends—weren’t necessarily very accommodating to my beliefs. They were very spiritual people and some of them still are to this day. They very much turned their backs on me, which I can understand. I still feel disappointed that they did. But I can understand why people’s beliefs are that way. I think it gives me insight into how easy it is to believe some things and do certain things, and believe that table tipping works, because I’ve been there; I used to believe it. I used to sit there for hours at a table thinking a ghost was moving it.
I was very young, and I look back and think, “Oh my gosh, how unethical.” But you can only learn from past mistakes. Yes, I fell out with a lot of people, and as you mentioned I do sometimes get invited to paranormal conferences to speak about being a skeptic. Every time I speak people do come up and say, “I don’t agree with you” and “I think you’re wrong on this.” There was one occasion where I was in the foyer of the theater [where] the conference was being held and I got cornered by a lady who was a spiritualist. She was pointing her finger in my face, [saying], “You’re so wrong. Spirits are all around. You say they don’t exist but they’re right here. I can see them.” She’d just taken what I said out of context. I thought that was very sad.
I also think it’s very sad that when you label yourself as a skeptic—and I do so quite correctly—and people instantly think that you are the bad guy and that you’re saying they’re idiots and that their belief systems are wrong and that ghosts don’t exist. I don’t believe ghosts exist but I’m open‑minded to the possibility. You have to try and convince people to be open‑minded and that’s one of the biggest problems that I come across.
Sturgess: I have one more question on this. You said that you have been in touch with people who are religious spiritualists. Did you ever notice a conflict between those people who are promoting themselves as commercial psychics and those who see it within a spiritual or religious dimension, part of their world view?
Stevens: On the Righteous Indignation podcast we’ve interviewed lots and lots of psychics who do shows but are also part of the SNU, which is the Spiritualists National Union here in the United Kingdom. We’ve actually interviewed Steven Upton and during our interview he openly criticized the big-name psychics who go around claiming to be psychic mediums … saying that their practices were very un-spiritualist and he didn’t like what these people did.
I think there is some conflict between the two, but I think there’s also a crossover between those who are spiritualists and [those who] do stage shows. If you go into a spiritualist church it’s very much the same sort of thing: people in the audience are there for readings and a medium or a psychic is up on stage doing readings. It’s very much a condensed version of the stage show.
In one episode for the podcast, episode 99, we interviewed a psychic named Litz Butcher and she was very much speaking out against those who use trickery. We interviewed her the day after the Sally Morgan story broke. She said, “I’m so shocked that Sally has potentially done this. I’m disgusted.”
It was something that I’ve heard time and time again with other psychics that we’d interviewed. I said to her, “Why don’t you do something about it?” because she also claimed that she knew numerous psychics who used similar tricks. I said, “Well, Litz, if you think you know, why don’t you speak out about it? I accept that you might be genuine and you think that your ability is genuine, but if you think you know people who are using trickery, why don’t you speak out about it and help to educate people?”
Then Litz said, “Well if I do, that it’s just a can of worms and I don’t really want to deal with that.” So I think sometimes there’s a bit of double standard going on. It’s very complicated to try and understand how these people think.
Sturgess: Do you ever think that skeptics and spiritualists might stand together with protest placards outside a psychic show saying, “This is entertainment only!”?
Stevens: Oh gosh. I don’t think so! I would love to see that happening! Maybe it would. I don’t know. I’m very doubtful because from my experience with spiritualists when you label yourself as a skeptic it means that you’re the enemy in a sense. That’s probably not true of all people who recognize themselves as spiritualists, but it’s certainly true of the ones that I’ve encountered. I mentioned [the lady] before who cornered me with her finger in my face saying, “You’re wrong. You’re wrong.” That was simply because I labeled myself as a skeptic.
I would like to think that Project Barnum is something that those who think that they’re genuine psychics would get behind, with regards to educating people about trickery—that it would be something that those who think they’re genuine or claim to be genuine would also support. But at the same time, I don’t think they’re going to be jumping with joy at the idea of Project Barnum.
Sturgess: What was the original idea behind Project Barnum?
Stevens: I work in the theater industry, and it gave me another kind of perspective on what was happening with psychic stage shows. I had this idea that perhaps the best way was not just challenging the psychics or the audience alone, but targeting the venues that make it possible for psychics to perform there.
I’ve worked in theaters in the past who say they won’t bring in psychic shows because they know what trickery is involved. But then I’ve spoken to people who run venues that do allow psychics and who don’t know the tricks involved, and they use a “For Entertainment Only” disclaimer because of the law. But they don’t really know what some psychics do in regards to cold reading, shot-gunning, and those kinds of techniques. When you explain it to them they’re actually quite shocked. The same goes for people who go along for a reading, because they don’t always know what techniques are being used.
So I had the idea of creating an online resource for information on the techniques of psychic shows that I would then make available to the general public and theater venues, with things that you could print off: posters, tip cards that would have information about cold reading, and so forth.
Sturgess: So who else is involved in the website? I noticed that there’s a Meet the Team link on the Project Barnum website.
Stevens: Lots of different aspects have come together from my mentioning to random people that I’m working on something. For example, Ashley Pryce from Edinburgh Skeptics in the Pub does a brilliant Skeptics in the Pub talk here in the United Kingdom, called How to be a Psychic Conman. I got in touch with him to see if he could provide some information and some resources that people could download. He was the one that came up with the name Project Barnum, after P.T. Barnum.
Also we’ve had support and advice from Michael Marshall, who helps to organize Merseyside Skeptics, the QED Conference, and the 10:23 Homeopathy Overdose campaign. He’s also my cohost on Righteous Indignation. Then we’ve got other people in the United Kingdom: Tannice [Pendegrass] and Keir [Liddle], Simon [Clare], and people who have donated information for the website. My dad and I built the website, and then they just helped me put information on there. Without them it would still be half complete. I’ve said to people, “Does anybody want to help?” and people have just come forward.
Sturgess: Can readers send in recommendations or links and resources?
Stevens: Yes, we need as many resources as we can get for people to download, watch, or listen to that will help them understand how psychics can often mislead people. So if anybody has anything or they have an idea, let us know and we’ll give you credit—we just have to share as much as we can in order to help people.