“We shall see if the spirits are willing” – Meet CSICon Speaker Mark Edward

Susan Gerbic

Photo by Susan Gerbic.

Mark Edward is a mentalist who specializes in magic of the mind. He started his professional magic career at Hollywood’s Magic Castle in 1975, and in 1993 he began performing séances as one of the mediums in their Houdini Séance Room, which he would continue for fourteen years. He has been involved in the skeptical movement throughout his years as a “professional psychic,” where he infiltrated the darkest corners of the psychic business. Mark has been very public in exposing celebrity psychics and the techniques they use. His book Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium, which was published by Feral House in 2012, exposed the inner workings of psychics, mediums and so-called “spiritual advisors.” He continues to teach magic and write books on creating mentalism and mind reading experiences.

Gerbic: There’s so much to talk about. Your work exposing the methods of psychics is well-documented. You are one of a very small group of “insiders” who are outspoken on the tricks and cons of the grief vampire. I have often heard that readers who are interested in the subject are encouraged to read Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham from 1946 and Lamar Keene’s 1976 book The Psychic Mafia as well as your book Psychic Blues. Anything else you would suggest?

Edward: I started my journey into the realm of psychic skepticism by reading a Prometheus [Books] book called The Psychology of the Psychic by Kamman and Marks. I highly recommend it as a jumping off point and a general intro on the whole scene as it was back in the early 70s. A few books on magic and mentalism might be added, but these would be mostly as reference for specific tricks and effects that have been co-opted by many psychics over the years: 13 Steps to Mentalism by Corinda and certainly any of the many works by Theodore “Ted” Annemann fall into this category. A good start would be his Practical Mental Effects.

Gerbic: You say that the history of mediumship has shifted over the years, from the dark séance to TV psychics doing group readings using the law of large numbers to look like they are getting hits. They are evolving in style as well; the woman wrapped in shawls is now replaced with the “fuzzy sweater” boy or girl next door. The more things change the more they stay the same. I understand that social media is making it so much easier for psychics these days?

Edward: Absolutely. All you need is a name and you can data mine all you need to appear as The Real Deal. Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram and all the places we gladly put up all of our most intimate information is now fair game for anybody to play the part of the person who knows all and sees all. It’s all right at their fingertips to know and see, so why not? In fact, any devious crook who doesn’t take advantage of these resources is either a lazy fool or has probably already made it into the higher levels of the psychic racket and no longer needs the “hits” that can be garnered though even the most cursory glance at these sources. It’s my opinion based on the people I have worked with and researched that after ascending (or descending depending on your viewpoint) to a certain level of celebrity, the psychic tends to get more lazy and offers only the flimsiest of limp cold readings to justify their paychecks. With television and savvy editing, all bets are off. It’s easy if you can lie sincerely.

Gerbic: You have done investigations into many different psychics, with me and also with media like Good Morning America, Bullshit!, 20/20, Inside Edition, and many more. Sylvia Browne was one of the first I remember. She was always my pet grief vampire going back to Robert Lancaster’s StopSylviaBrowne.com website. At CSICon 2016 I dressed up as Sylvia for the Halloween contest and even carried several of her books. People kept asking me who she is. I was pretty surprised, as she was such a big topic at everything skeptic for years. What are your thoughts on this? Is it a good thing that these people are forgotten?

Mark Edward and Ray Hyman, photo by Susan Gerbic.

Edward: Well yes, of course. Unfortunately, as soon as one is slightly forgotten, ten more psychics pop up in their wake. I think what really died off with Sylvia was the mean-spirited psychic demeanor. Many people accepted her crude behavior by thinking if she could be so mean, she must be “real” and therefore telling the truth. I never understood that twisted appeal, but it worked for her. She managed to re-invent the guru New Age style of tie-dyed woo into a sort of street-wise, know-it-all old crone witch image. That croaking voice of hers made it all the more “un-hippy-dippy.” She was a horrible human being. Psychics have learned from her rather extreme persona and re-adjusted to more of a calculated character style reflecting the homey reality television trope of “just somebody who has strange powers next door” instead of anyone particularly spiritually motivated. The days of incense and ashram gurus is essentially over except for Yoga and other self-improvement leftovers from the 60s. We can see the crass street talk softened slightly with the emergence of the Theresa Caputo phenomena.

Gerbic: On Bullshit! – Speaking to the Dead, you exposed Rosemary Altea. She was one of the fuzzy sweater psychics but with a British accent, and now almost no one has ever heard of her. I give you full credit for that. If she had been left unexposed, she had the chops to rise to the top of the heap.

Edward: Well. I’m sure she’s still eking out a good living in some small English village pub somewhere. We like to think we made a difference, but it was more about exposing the methods she used than taking her down personally. We tend to forgive and buy into little grannies with buns and shawls, don’t we?

Gerbic: At TAM 2012, Sylvia Browne did one of her “performances” at a nearby casino. You organized us and a group of us went to protest. That was an absolute blast. Video can be seen here. I’ve heard skeptics say that protesting outside these venues does nothing, as believers will not change their minds. But I’ve heard your response: “We aren’t there to change believer’s minds, we are there to let the psychic know we are there.” In essence you are saying that these psychics are performers, and when you stir them up, worry them that we might be in the audience, that we might make a disturbance, then it knocks them off their game and the whole tone of the show shifts. They might be more desperate to make something happen and make mistakes that can be exposed. Have I got this right?

Edward: Pretty much. Of course, the “knocking them off their game” theory makes us as a group feel better about ourselves and all our hard work, but actually the most surprising situation (and one of the things we found out through talking to so many people on the street as they passed by and commented) is for the most part there are an awful lot of people who already knew about her or psychics in general and the fact that she was a terrible fake. It’s important to bear in mind that as a skeptical group, we tend to focus on what we perceive as a big deal because it makes us angry. When in reality we often find that as a whole, people are not that stupid. It sometimes seems like we are lost in a world of woo—but there is hope. That was my take away from that experience. On the other hand, as a performer, I know that if there’s a commotion, no matter how small, it can put a dent in my timing and how I might react to a person in the audience or shade my delivery. It doesn’t take much. We know from when we did the John Edward protest in Pasadena, he mentioned us to the audience in unflattering terms and even later in another interview. So we know we are getting to him. That’s important. Letting his audience know we were out there on the street with something to say could be the first seeds of thought many of these people will ever get to start them thinking. It’s like “Oh, so there is another way to look at this guy?” How else does it start? People generally don’t know any better until it’s in their faces. They can like us or not and it doesn’t matter so much before or during the show. It’s afterwards that counts and when the fix sets in. On the drive home or in the coffee shop eating pie or thinking it over before falling asleep. Also, I think you’ll agree that when we as critical thinkers band together and stand up as a coordinated group against what we see as deceptive practices—not only as performed by the performer but also supported by the management of the venue—it helps us create bonding and lasting partnerships that are both effective and fun. When John Edward’s management lost their cool and called in the police that night, it only made it worse for them. The crowd grew, people were drawn in, and as long as we stood on our rights to protest peacefully, the message was clear to everyone involved: the onlookers, the event staff at the venue, the police, and the few audience members who might have had their cages gently rattled. Doing something is so much better than sitting around talking about how bad it is. It’s empowering—to use a woo expression.

Gerbic: This year at CSICon you will be doing a workshop on Thursday, October 26, at 3:30 pm. The workshops require a special ticket to attend, but I highly encourage people to arrive in Vegas on Wednesday night and hang out with everyone and then attend the workshops that start at 11:00 am the next morning. This is your chance to have one-on-one time with speakers who really know their stuff. You will be talking about cold-reading, and I understand you will also be talking about hot-reading? And people are going to get to practice with others in the audience, right?

Edward: Yes. Everyone will have the opportunity to learn how to cold read up close and personal and there may be some amazing other more experimental things that will happen. I’m not at liberty to report exactly what, but let’s just say at this point mind control, telepathy, and cyber-meddling may be involved. If you have heard the phrase “There’s no way in the world the psychic could know that!” and wanted to have a clue how easy it has become, you will get a lot from my presentation.

Gerbic: At CSICon 2016 you preformed a séance in the Excalibur’s chapel. Is that going to happen this year? If so, are you going to try and bring back Houdini?

Edward: I haven’t heard back on that yet. Right now the exact venue hasn’t been determined. Part of the problem with performing a successful séance entertainment in the old-school fashion is having the ability to completely black out the room used for the last part. Last year we had some issues with the hotel staff on that, so I can’t comment at this point. I can say I’m totally open to the chance to do something weird anytime, anywhere. We shall see if the spirits are willing.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.