Watching the giant mediums

James Van Praagh and John Edward are the Spears and Aguilera of psychic readings. After seeing them, I'm not so skeptical.

Published June 13, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

It is a Sunday evening and I am in a line that winds up stairs, around corners and nearly out the other side of a Scottsdale, Ariz., resort hotel. The indoor temperature is rising and some of us wish we had water bottles for the two-hour wait before the event begins.

The following Saturday night, I am shivering with hundreds of others in a church parking lot in Tucson. A 16-passenger van that will transport us three miles to a resort is delayed in traffic.

"Some of us paid hundreds of dollars for these tickets," a middle-aged woman snaps.

"No one is worth this kind of wait," grumbles a gray-haired man.

Thousands of people who flock to similar sold-out events across the country nearly every weekend would beg to differ. They endure crowds, traffic jams and scalpers' prices for a chance to chat with dead people. More specifically, for an opportunity to be in the same room with someone who might help them do that.

James Van Praagh and John Edward -- the two psychics who went to Scottsdale and Tucson, respectively -- are appealing to a burgeoning population of fans. Public opinion polls show a dramatic increase in the number of Americans who think it's possible to communicate with the dead. And it's easier than ever to become a believer.

No longer the stuff of gauzy curtains and Ouija boards, chatting with the dead has become mainstream. You can learn about it from a host of hot-selling books, you can grab your remote to surf for new shows on the topic, or you can dig into your wallet and fight the crowds to see a real-life pop medium in person. Van Praagh says none of this would have been possible five or 10 years ago.

"Now, talking to the dead is the in thing," he says.

Los Angeles-based Van Praagh, 43, is the author of four books, which together have sold more than a million copies. Having given up individual readings, he concentrates on maintaining his interactive Web site (featuring live prayer sessions every Tuesday), conducting seminars, and co-hosting psychic tropical cruises he calls "voyages of enlightenment."

Edward, 32, a white-hot New York medium with a hit TV show ("Crossing Over With John Edward") and bestselling books of his own ("One Last Time" and "Crossing Over: The Stories Behind the Stories"), might be even bigger than Van Praagh. Edward's groundbreaking psychic talk show (on the Sci Fi channel and in daytime syndication) has received rave reviews and impressive ratings. "Crossing Over" reaches more than 3 million viewers each weekday. The show has been spoofed on "Saturday Night Live," it earned Edward a designation as one of People magazine's "Most Intriguing People of 2001," and it is spawning a number of copycat shows. Edward is also developing a dramatic television series -- based loosely on his life -- scheduled for release this fall.

Van Praagh's own hour-long daytime talk show, "Beyond With James Van Praagh," will begin in September on the WB network. "Living With the Dead," a two-part miniseries based on Van Praagh's life, aired on CBS in April -- it was the network's most successful Sunday in months.

Fueling the interest in after-death communication these days is a new book called "The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death," in which University of Arizona professor Gary Schwartz recaps scientific studies of a "dream team" of mediums (including Edward) to see whether they can really do what they claim. The answer, according to the book, is yes.

Schwartz, a Harvard-educated former Yale professor, says some colleagues think he's crazy for studying such a taboo topic. "But I remind myself that we used to think the Earth was flat, the sun revolved around the Earth, and all objects were solid," he says.

He says mediums provided consistently accurate information in his tests with minimal or no contact with the person they were asked to "read." Lucky guesses? Unlikely. After one exercise in which all the mediums in separate settings got similar, specific information about a woman's dead son and his dog, Schwartz calculated the probability of getting such results: less than 1 in 2.5 billion. Schwartz, who has been appearing before standing-room-only bookstore crowds, says people today are receptive to the possibility that consciousness survives death.

"There is a theoretical, conceptual openness that hasn't existed at any other time in history," he says.

Why? Thanks to a knowledge about things like cellphones and the light from distant stars, Schwartz says, people have a new understanding of the power of energy. And, he says, there is a pressing interest to find the meaning and purpose of life -- the events of Sept. 11 have only served to deepen that yearning.

Michael F. Brown, a Williams College anthropology professor who wrote a book titled "The Channeling Zone: American Spirituality in an Anxious Age," says an interest in the afterlife is nothing new. Since the 1850s, when two sisters in New York wowed crowds with their purported ability to communicate with the dead via mysterious tapping noises, Americans have been fascinated, on and off, with spiritualism.

Brown says interest in the phenomenon (which counted a million followers in the 1850s) has coincided with struggles for individualism. During the 1980s and '90s, he says, fascination with after-death communication moved from ashrams into homes and offices. Today, it has become even more commonplace, courtesy of television and the Internet.

The Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera of the psychic world, Edward and Van Praagh have different styles and fan bases, but their talents and their tales of how they came to realize and develop their gifts are quite similar.

Both were raised Catholic in New York. The youngest of four children, Van Praagh had a carpenter stagehand father and an alcoholic mother. Edward was the only child born to a police officer father and an executive secretary mother. Both say they experienced psychic phenomena -- premonitions, visions of dead people, out-of-body experiences -- as young as 4 and 6 years old. Both tried to ignore those things, which frightened and puzzled them. Both claim to have been uninterested in the paranormal until psychics told them (Van Praagh at age 24 and Edward at age 15) that they had unique gifts and would work to help people make connections with the spiritual world.

Both spent years studying and developing their psychic abilities while pursuing mainstream careers. Van Praagh has a degree in broadcasting and moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter. Edward has a degree in public health and administration (and a side passion for ballroom dancing) and after college went to work in a hospital. Both worked as mediums in their spare time until the demand for their psychic services became overwhelming and they dropped their day jobs.

Both men claim everyone has psychic abilities that can be honed. They say they merely tune in to the frequency at which the spirit world communicates, then try to interpret and pass on those messages to the person being read.

Critics -- who are just as vociferous on the Internet as the mediums' supporters -- say Van Praagh and Edward are nothing but scam artists who take advantage of people's grief. They claim the two can merely edit out their mistakes on TV, use hidden microphones or employ other methods to learn about audience members, and rely on "cold reading" techniques, which include talking fast, making safe guesses, and picking up on unwittingly offered clues. Worse, detractors say, the two are making millions of dollars using such fraudulent tactics. (Skeptics need only to point to those who lost gobs of money to Miss Cleo, the dial-a-psychic who advertised heavily on late-night TV, to show the gullibility of the paranormal-hungry public.)

And so when Edward and Van Praagh both went to Arizona -- in a rare confluence of their schedules -- it provided a chance to examine each man, his followers and his techniques in person. I hoped to see whether I could spot any trickery and in the process to learn whether either or both of them were for real.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

For my ticket to Van Praagh's sold-out seminar in Scottsdale I paid $45 -- a bargain compared to the hundreds of dollars charged for his weekend seminars around the country. I was joined by 1,300 others, about 90 percent female and 99 percent white. They were eager for an otherworldly contact. In line for the bathroom before the show, two ladies behind me leaned against a wall and chatted about why Van Praagh quit doing personal readings in favor of larger groups and cruises. "That's where the big money is," one offered.

Suddenly, the restroom door swung open.

"Oh my God! Did that door just open by itself?" one of them asked. Later, I spotted an earthly explanation -- a wall-mounted door-opening device for the handicapped.

Inside the ballroom, a heavenly mood was set by soft lights, candles and a beatific-looking guy playing angelic keyboard music. On the sides of the room were water dispensers and tissue boxes. To the rear, a spiritual marketplace, offering spiritual CDs, angel paraphernalia, Godiva chocolate snacks, and stacks of Van Praagh's books. Glossy brochures and a sign-up sheet promoted his cruises to the Caribbean and South Pacific, costing from $1,850 to $5,550.

When Van Praagh entered, his fans went wild. Dressed in a purple shirt and tan slacks, with dramatically dark hair and triangle-shaped eyebrows and mustache, he joked that "they cast tall" when Ted Danson was tapped to play him in the TV miniseries.

Van Praagh said the message of his 20 years of work was this: There is no death. Our loved ones are still with us -- in a different form -- after they have passed into the spirit world. Van Praagh recapped his successes, threw in some humor, and previewed both the TV movie and his new series. When one woman stood to ask a question, Van Praagh noted she was surrounded by invisible cats. Cats and animals. Did she have a lot of cats? No. Did she work with a lot of animals? No. Did she work at a veterinarian's office? No. Did she have a friend who was a vet? No. The woman asked, "Do you see a Chihuahua?"

"No," Van Praagh said.

Although he struck out miserably, I gave him points for resisting an easy hit. A "cold reading" psychic might have exclaimed, "No, wait! It is a Chihuahua!"

Van Praagh led a group meditation, designed to demonstrate the energy around us and prepare us for spiritual messages. He spoke hypnotically as we closed our eyes and felt the energy between our palms. We then aimed our palms inward to feel the energy and the messages from our hearts.

We were to visualize a beautiful garden, a gorgeous blue sky and a brilliant rainbow. In front of us, we saw a person who had passed, a person we loved and missed very much. We asked that person to point a healing ray at us (Van Praagh says physical healings are possible). The person then handed us a bejeweled box. Inside, Van Praagh said, was something for us.

I couldn't for the life of me conjure a garden or rainbow, not even an image of my mom, although -- just six months after her death -- I missed her desperately. When we opened our eyes, many people were crying. Although I flunked this exercise, I was also moved to tears. Focusing so intently on my mother left me with an aching sorrow.

During the three-and-a-half hour session, Van Praagh answered several general questions and performed six readings. He spoke quickly, guessing names of those passed over, asking if a person understood a certain reference. More often than not, he was right. In a few cases people tried to confirm things that were way off base. He asked a woman if she knew a Linda who had passed over. She replied that a friend sitting next to her had a friend named Linda -- who was alive.

"I'm sure we all know a Linda," he said. "Thanks for trying."

In a dual reading, he found two women sitting next to each other whose sons had died. He correctly told one her son had been in and out of hospitals, had had a mental condition, had died a drug-related death. He said two other children had passed, and the mom agreed. He asked her who Michael was.

"That's my son," she said, beginning to cry.

He then conveyed messages from her father, including valid details about her childhood. "Who is Luke?" he asked.

"Oh my God, that is my dad."

The woman nearly swooned.

"Well, who did you think I was talking to?" Van Praagh asked.

He gave accurate details about the death of the other woman's son: It was a car crash, he lost control of the car, a window was broken, and mom was asked to donate his organs.

During breaks in the show, people headed to the back of the room to buy merchandise. Van Praagh had taken every opportunity to talk about his books. After the longest break, when he was about to return, we were asked to "stand up and applaud." We did.

The night ended with another meditation. At its conclusion, he told us to repeat after him.

"Happy am I, healthy am I, holy am I."

Again. We said it again.

"And so it is," Van Praagh said.

That last part was his signature ending, and maybe only he is supposed to say it, but we were psychic sheep and we repeated it anyway. When we opened our eyes, we were invited to line up again if we wanted Van Praagh to autograph copies of his books. As I left, I did not feel particularly happy, healthy or holy. Actually, I was sad and misty-eyed again after concentrating on my mom during the closing meditation. I was irritated by the sales pitches and the fact that all but one of the readings had involved someone in the expensive seats.

But I was also impressed. Van Praagh had made enough hits -- and people's reactions had been so genuine -- that I believed there was something to this, that he really might have special abilities.

Six days later, I was looking for spying opportunities as I waited to see John Edward. (Some speculate that microphones pick up information from people waiting to get into the "Crossing Over" studio in New York.) Here, people shared stories in line, but not with any specificity. One woman, who drove six hours from El Paso to Tucson hoping to hear from her late fiancé, said she didn't mind the lines.

"This is the most human contact I've had since he died," she said.

Others griped about how mad they'd be if the seminar started without them, about how the hotel people misjudged Edward's huge following. Indeed, nearly all of his seminars sell out within a few days of their quiet announcement on his Web site. Tickets -- usually $45 -- are hot eBay items. Edward quit taking reservations for $300 private readings after the backlog grew to three years. And scoring free tickets to his TV show is nearly impossible.

When 3,000 of us finally crammed inside the ballroom, we found water pitchers but no fliers or anything for sale. This audience was also almost exclusively white, but maybe as many as 35 percent of the group was male.

Edward entered to a heartfelt standing ovation. He wore glasses, blue jeans, a light shirt and a sport coat. He told anecdotes about his 16 years of psychic work. Then he introduced Gary Schwartz, the professor who conducted the afterlife experiments. Here, Schwartz was preaching to the choir. He was allotted 20 minutes but took 40. Finally, with the crowd grumbling and one man calling out that we'd come to see John, Edward took back the mike. He guaranteed a full evening, assuring us we wouldn't be shortchanged.

Edward has an engaging presence and a quick wit. When an audience member later struggled to verify a piece of information, Edward quipped, "Keep thinking. Otherwise Gary is coming back up again."

He spoke fast and his pace was sometimes frenetic. After one reading concluded, he immediately pointed to a new area where the spirits were "pulling" him. He remained in the front of the room but read people from all over.

In the first reading, he made an impressive initial hit, then struggled. Connected to someone in the back of the room, he said, was a male figure. He was thinking of Neville, like the musician Aaron Neville, and seeing an image of Fred Flintstone. A woman stood and said her uncle, Fred Neville, had passed.

But when Edward said there was a mother figure there, the woman said no.

"They are saying yes," he replied.

"No," said the woman.

"They are saying yes again," Edward said, planting a hand on his hip.

He told the woman he was supposed to wish her a happy birthday. No, she said. Yes, he said. The woman said it was not her birthday. "Now," Edward said.

Finally, the woman said, her ticket to see Edward "now" was a birthday gift.

Edward said spirits use details like these to convince us that it is really them coming through. He urged people not to make a reach just to validate something. But other times, when people couldn't make sense of something, he said the spirits held firm.

"I'm sweating," he told the crowd one of those times, removing his jacket. He walked back and forth across the elevated platform -- something he doesn't do on TV. Again, he announced he was sweating. He pushed up his sleeves. He stopped to make a point, then resumed the caged-tiger walk. He was undeniably mesmerizing.

Over four hours without a break, Edward performed 16 readings, several involving more than one person. He made some startling hits, evoking tears in many. One connection was with a young girl who had died two months before. The family had brought one of her dolls: "Dizzy, Desi?" A mail carrier and his family -- Disney character in hand -- rose to say that described them and the child. Edward correctly identified and conveyed a greeting to "Rose'" -- her grandmother in the audience -- then "a second Rose," a cousin. When he mentioned "Cookie or Kiki," the mother said her daughter's nickname was Kookoo. He noted, in correct hits, that the girl had been the fourth born in the family, that people had prayed the rosary around her hospital bed, and her left leg had turned blue from poor circulation.

Because live readings don't offer any follow-up opportunities -- as those on Edward's show do -- some intriguing messages were left hanging. Did his revelation about a note and a reference to Miami, Ariz. (a place he said he never knew existed) provide any insight into a shooting death? Did his urging a woman to get help for the "female problems" she admitted she was ignoring save her from some medical disaster?

Edward revealed pieces of dirty laundry as well as warm and fuzzy messages. He told one woman her father was not a very good dad. "You got that one," she said. He told another her two dads (presumably, father and stepfather) had passed, correctly announced that her mother was still alive, and said her spouses would not keep the usual "bond of love" going once she came over. "Who is Edward?" he quickly asked. The daughter said that was who her mom had an affair with.

Later, an aspiring medium asked Edward how he managed to get so "out there," so well known.

"I never tried to get out there," he responded. "That came as a byproduct."

Edward said he is a private person, so this public life is tough for him. The key, he said, is the motivation: "It should be to help and assist people, and not to worry about how to get out there. Just do the work and honor the process."

Edward closed with his standard TV messages: We don't need mediums to realize our departed loved ones are with us. And although we will be reunited later, we should communicate with, appreciate and validate loved ones while they're here.

These seminars are like birthday parties, Edward said. We may not be the one with our name on the cake, but we each get a little piece for ourselves. I considered my slice. The evening was highly entertaining. I was not at all sad. I got a look at this psychic phenomenon and witnessed enough to make me think he was the real deal.

It occurred to me that if Van Praagh and Edward were fakes, their readings would have been more accurate. Each erred several times, sometimes saying their interpretation could be wrong or the person might not yet realize its accuracy. But their hits were so stunning, so personal and specific, that I had to believe in them. Granted, they are raking in the dough, and in Van Praagh's case, openly hawking products. I don't begrudge them their wealth or success. Everyone has to make a living. Theirs just happens to be courtesy of the dead.

Anthrolopogist and author Brown points out that while the two are making lots of money, it's not as if they are draining little old ladies out of thousands of dollars. Anyone with a TV set can watch these guys work for free. For $45 you can check them out in person.

"What's the harm in it?" he says. "This doesn't seem to be any worse than some of the other things we spend money on."

By Laura Laughlin

Laura Laughlin is a writer living in Arizona.

MORE FROM Laura Laughlin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------