So, you’ve learned to see ghosts! Well done you!
Having performed the steps in my previous guide you are probably now drunk, mentally unstable and convinced there are spectral goblins living behind that expired Muller Fruit Corner in the back of the second shelf of the fridge. Sorry about that. But relax – I’m about to make amends, my lovelies. Here comes the money shot – emphasis on the money – because it’s time to start talking to ghosts.
Talking to the dead is a lot less interesting than it sounds, since most dead people seem to be banal in the extreme. Spirits claiming to be William Shakespeare have demonstrated little to no ear for iambic pentameter and even all-knowing Mesopotamian prophets of the apocalypse have come off as downright boring when channeled through the wives of well known writers.
Ghosts tend to say a handful of things, which can be roughly summed up thus.
- Woooo I’m dead and that’s spooky.
- Woooo I’m dead and it’s lovely here.
- Woooo I’m dead and I’m looking out for you.
- Woooo I’m dead and you should definitely keep coming to these spiritualist meetings and isn’t the medium nice? (give them money tell your friends)
Whenever ghosts get into particulars it’s usually stuff like ‘Do you remember how Aunty Ethel’s hearing aid used to whistle?’ or ‘Remember how you left your rollerskates out in the rain and they went rusty?’, which is odd because you’d think that an answer to one of the biggest theological questions of all time would prompt even bigger questions, such as what does this mean for almost every religion ever and do George Harrison and John Lennon still talk or collaborate over there?
An even bigger question is why anyone would want to talk to the dead, since they’re not very interesting and notoriously bad at dealing with the earthshattering implications of concrete proof of an afterlife. Surprisingly, unlike many big questions, this one has a reasonably short answer.
Talking to the dead is really fucking lucrative.
If you want to make a fat heap of wonga as a medium, then roughly speaking there are two ways to go about it.
I was maybe thirteen when I first encountered the first method. It was on a very silly programme late on Channel Four called ‘Do Ghosts Exist?’ (Short answer – all the evidence currently points to ‘no’.) There was a studio audience and a medium – a Canadian gentleman who looked a lot like a dapper, slimmed down version of Raymond Briggs’ drawings of Santa Claus.
He then gave various members of the audience psychic readings so gob-smackingly accurate that it was enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Then, having impressed the shit out of them, he held up his hands and said “Okay, that was all a trick – I have no psychic ability whatsoever.”
That was James Randi, every bit as Amazing as advertised. He went on to elaborate on a method of fortune telling that was as old as dirt back when Nostradamus was cutting his baby teeth.
Cold Reading – The Basics
Cold reading is a dying art these days, for reasons we’ll get around to in time, but it largely boils down to a cross between twenty questions and a game of not-so Holmesian observation.
I once saw one famous psychic zero in on his mark and coo ‘And I’m getting the sense that you’ve not been well lately, is that right?’, which was a staggering leap of deductive reasoning on his part. His victim was not only a lady of a certain age and certain weight, but was also wearing a tubigrip bandage around one knee and walking on crutches.
Even more astonishing, nobody in the audience laughed, pointed or asked how much he was getting paid for stating the bleeding obvious, which brings me neatly to my first point.
1. You Gotta Have Faith
Sceptics don’t tend to attend the readings of psychics – they find them silly at best and morally reprehensible at worst. This suits psychics, mediums and faith-healers just fine, since nebulous, negative ‘energy’ tends to interfere with whatever kind of ghostly WiFi they’ve got going on these days. (I assume they’ve upgraded. If they haven’t, they really should.) Plenty of mediums have claimed they can’t produce the goods in the face of sceptics, which is why many well-known sceptical investigators are considerate enough go to psychic readings or faith-healings in disguise, so as not to offend the medium’s delicate sensibilities.
Oddly, psychics seem to have a blind spot when it comes to sniffing out undercover sceptics, but again – it’s probably that negative energy. That or they’re also being polite.
A credulous – or at least suggestible – audience is a cold reader’s greatest asset. One of the biggest names of the Nineteenth Century psychic scene – Daniel Dunglas Hume – arguably escaped all-out exposure because he almost always performed to a select ‘home circle’ of good friends and their guests, usually in other people’s houses. Or palaces. Like I say, he was a big name.
So, say you have a good audience, well suited to your purposes – what next? Well, you go ‘fishing’. If you watch a stage medium (Pick your recordings carefully – many of the big names rely on heavy editing.) you might notice that they go through a great deal of names before landing a ‘hit’.
2. Talking About My Generation
A ‘hit’ in cold reading parlance refers to a correct guess, while a ‘miss’ refers to the opposite. Your ability to score a hit or miss is dependent on your power of observation. The age of your subject is significant. An eighteen year old subject is less likely to have dead parents than a subject in her fifties.
Watch any stage medium these days and their first go-to is usually “I’m getting an older lady/older gentleman,” simply because these days dead grannies are far more likely than dead children. Interestingly this hasn’t always been the case – back in the Nineteenth Century when infant mortality was higher, dead babies were big business. Many women, including the writer Florence Maryatt, attended seances in the hope of exchanging a few tender words with their infants. Luckily for Florence, her late two week old daughter had learned to talk since passing over.
When fishing for names you should also take generations into account. For instance, a thirty five year old subject is unlikely to have dead elderly relatives named Kylie, Ryan, Tracey and Shaz. If you go for Ivy, Albert, Dolly and Rose you’re more likely to land a hit. A friend of mine was recently awed by a medium who guessed that she had an ‘Uncle Albert in spirit’, to which I replied ‘Who hasn’t got a dead Uncle Albert?’ I’ve got at least two.
3. Sing It Back
Another interesting thing to watch for with mediums or fortune tellers is their habit of agreeing with their subjects.
It goes a little something like this.
Medium: I’m sensing a younger man in spirit – your age, maybe older. Younger?
Subject: Younger brother.
Medium: Yes. Your younger brother.
When you start consciously listening out for this you’ll be amazed how often this is deployed, to the point where some mediums sound like there’s an echo in the room. Again, watch carefully – many of the big names edit heavily on their TV shows and this is exactly the kind of thing they edit – the bit where the subject gives the psychic reader the answer. Raw stage performance footage is the best place to spot this at work. Like I say – when you’re watching for it you’ll be stunned you ever missed it. It’s a lot of fun – like a Magic Eye of bullshit.
You’re probably disappointed now, aren’t you? Sadly it really is that banal when you get right down to it, but don’t go away. While cold-reading in itself isn’t that interesting, the psychological explanations of why it works are where it gets downright fascinating. So, update your bookmarks, because next time we’re diving headlong into the world of horoscopes, the short-comings of human memory and why in the early 1990’s a lot of psychologist’s patient notes started looking like some of the really unpleasant pages from the Malleus Maleficarium.
For more psychic skullduggery and the strange-but-true story of how magician Harry Houdini declared war on psychics, check out my historical fiction, and watch out for my new upcoming novel, Paris Green – A Tale of 1920’s New York.