Friday, September 05, 2014
Wednesday, July 09, 2014
The 2013 scary movie The Conjuring was very loosely based on the story of Roger and Carolyn Perron and their five daughters who moved into a “haunted” Rhode Island farmhouse in January 1971. There, hysteria soon reigned, the flames of which were fanned by the infamous paranormal “investigators” Ed and Lorraine Warren. Now the Perrons’ oldest daughter Andrea is at work on a trilogy on the case called House of Darkness House of Light (Perron 2011, 2013).
The Perrons—he of French Catholic descent, she part Cherokee—married in 1957. In short order they had five children. (Writes Andrea, “It’s a Catholic thing” [I: 446].)
Roger Perron’s work took him on long road trips, a fact that harmed his marriage (he and his wife eventually divorced) and kept him largely a stranger to his children. He was skeptical of most of the occult phenomena reported by the six others. Andrea Perron (I: 112, 195) characterizes the situation as her mother’s integrity “being overtly challenged by disbelief, as though her opinion was entirely irrelevant, her recounting of events fraudulent.” The girls were “squarely in her camp.” (Roger eventually seemed to acquiesce, possibly to promote domestic harmony—something I have observed on occasion in my fieldwork.)
Carolyn Perron was highly impulsive. When she saw an ad for a colonial farmhouse at Harrisville, Rhode Island, she viewed the property and—without consulting Roger—made a down payment, even though they were strapped for cash. Effectively a lapsed Catholic, Carolyn became something of a New Ager. She “felt” and “sensed” various “presences” (e.g., I: 59, 63, 108), practiced dowsing for water (I: 146–147, 153), saw apparitions, and—once—seemed “possessed” (I: 156–159, 185; II: 355–363, 393). After one experience she developed a neck pain for which a doctor could find no physical basis (I: 355). She had fainting spells, typically in front of the fireplace and in Roger’s presence, and he would rush to save her from the fire (I: 249, 278, 279).
Like mother like daughter. “Each of the girls developed a real emotional attachment to the spirits in the house,” Andrea says casually (I: 454), “while bonding between dimensions.”
Andrea (or Annie) was the Perrons’ first child, born in 1958. No wallflower, when their previous house was vandalized and Andrea thought she knew who the culprit was, she pounced on the boy, pummeling him and breaking his nose. About three years later she was dismissed from a confirmation class when she had an “altercation” with the priest, challenging him about masturbation and homosexuality (I: 7–8, 260–261). Andrea sometimes saw “shadows” and heard voices (I: 192–193).
Nancy, the second daughter, was a “nine-year-old spitfire,” explains Andrea (I: 25). When spirits began to appear to the new residents, Andrea says of her sister, “Competitive in every way, Nancy had to claim credit for the first official sighting” (I: 213). A girlfriend once accused her of faking poltergeist-type occurrences in her presence, but friendship prevailed as the girl reconsidered (I: 484–485). Odd things happened to Nancy. For example, once becoming lost on the way home by taking an unfamiliar trail, she encountered an apparitional “family” (I: 131). She and a girlfriend played with a Ouija board, whereupon, she said, “The spirits talk to us through it” (II: 293).
Christine (or Chrissy), Andrea insists, “developed supernatural skills acquired only through the use of a sixth sense” (I: 121). On one occasion, “something wicked,” says Andrea, “had rudely awakened Christine in the middle of the night.” For months at a time, however, Chrissy would sleep undisturbed by “the presence” (I: 392–393).
The fourth child, Cynthia (or Cindy), “attracted supernatural activity unlike any of her siblings,” and, Perron adds, had “passive/aggressive tendencies” (I: 431, 438). She reported multiple apparitional experiences (I: 73–74, 223; II: 69, 164); the receipt of “telepathic messages” (II: 2); an invisible entity coming to her aid (I: 314–315); and entering “another realm of the house, another dimension” (I: 434). Her bed, she claimed, vibrated at times and, when she was thirteen, “levitated,” or at least rocked wildly once, while she screamed incessantly—although the rest of the family downstairs heard none of this (I: 435).
April, the youngest child, was only five, a preschooler, when the Perrons moved into the old farmhouse. April had what most people would call an imaginary friend. “Oliver” became her frequent “playmate,” and their communication was “telepathic” (I: 454; II: 95–97). The “baby” at home, April watched “as her sisters begged for the same type of attention she received all day, every day” (I: 1). When she did go to school, her behavior landed her from time to time in “parochial purgatory”—detention.
Then there were Ed and Lorraine Warren—the demon-hunting duo—who visited the home a few times. They were not sought out by the Perrons, as The Conjuring portrays, but simply showed up there one day. That it was on a night “just prior to Halloween” (II: 258) is typical of the Warrens. Seeking publicity, their modus operandi was to arrive at a “haunted” house that they soon transformed into a “demonic” one, in keeping with their own medieval-style Catholic beliefs. Again and again they were attracted to the homes of Catholics: the Lutzes at Amityville, New York; the Smurls at West Pittston, Pennsylvania; the Snedekers at Southington, Connecticut. Coauthors of the Warrens’ books have since indicated they were encouraged to fabricate elements to make the books “scary,” and at least one such writer has effectively repudiated the book he wrote. I appeared with the Warrens on Sally Jesse Raphael for a pre-Halloween 1992 promotion of their book with the Snedekers, and found Ed Warren a belligerent, manipulative character (Nickell 2012, 281–286).
Ghostly apparitions and pranks reportedly assailed the Perrons from the outset, sparing only the father, Roger. I read accounts of many of their apparitional experiences with an old familiarity. Such reports represent a common phenomenon well known to psychologists and skeptical investigators. Consider an early experience in the house when Carolyn was abed: she saw her dresser erupting in flames! Trying to react she found herself “paralyzed”—able only to watch the blaze and the sparks it shot off. Subsequently, however, she found not a singe to confirm what she had seemingly seen (I: 156–159).
She had clearly experienced a common waking dream, a type of hallucination that occurs in a state between being fully asleep or awake. This was accompanied—as often happens—by sleep paralysis, the inability to move because the body is still in the sleep mode (Nickell 2012, 41–43, 109).
Carolyn Perron had another characteristic waking dream in which, stirring from sleep and “sensing a presence” (a common experience), she opened her eyes and saw “The grotesque figure of a woman hovering above her.” Again “immobilized,” she watched the ghostly form approach as she reacted in terror, then—“It was gone” (I: 185–187). Andrea had a similar “nightmare,” saying, “It woke me up but then I couldn’t move” (I: 191). One doesn’t have to be in bed to have a waking dream. Eight-year-old Cindy was playing with toys on her bedroom floor, and “many hours passed without her recognizing it.” Then she saw the figure her mother had told the children about, and that Cindy had later seen “in a dream” (original emphasis). Now, in a “soft glow,” the figure emerged from the closet, and seeing it “instantly paralyzed Cindy” (I: 222).
Sometimes, however, Carolyn or the girls had an apparitional experience other than a waking dream. Andrea, for instance, during daily activity, saw “a family: a man, a boy and his dog, standing side-by-side, peering through the wall of her bedroom” (I: 473). Cindy, who exhibited many of the traits associated with a fantasy-prone personality, once whispered to her mother, “Mom, there’s a whole bunch of people eating in our dining room” (II: 69–70). On another occasion, Cindy saw several “little ghosts”—“native children”—playing in a nearby pine grove (II: 164–165). Apparitions tend to be perceived during altered states of consciousness. Many occur while the percipient is tired, in a relaxed state, daydreaming, or performing routine work—conditions in which, particularly with imaginative persons, a mental image from the subconscious might be briefly superimposed on the visual scene, rather like a camera’s double exposure (Nickell 2012, 110).
In addition to ghosts, so-called poltergeist phenomena were common at the Perron farmhouse. Although the superstitious attribute such pranks and disturbances to an invisible agency, a supposed spirit called the poltergeist, history indicates that the occurrences typically center around one or more real mischief makers in a household, perhaps acting from hostility or just seeking attention. Many have been caught at their secret misbehavior, while, on the other hand, science has never confirmed the existence of a single poltergeist (Nickell 2012, 325–331).
A good example of an apparent little “poltergeist” at the Perron home occurred for a period when older sister Andrea set up after-school classes with herself as teacher, using an old oak-framed slate blackboard. However, she tells us that “some scoundrel spirits from the Netherworld did not appreciate having to attend school and would play nasty tricks. . . .” The chalkboard was a target, being repeatedly smeared, often even erased, and was eventually completely smashed. Although Andrea believed it was all of the girls’ “favorite pastime,” I suspect that one of them secretly resented the extra “school” time their big sister was subjecting them to. To such reports, Lorraine Warren gave a knowing smile and said, “poltergeists”—as if her “clairvoyance,” rather than her fantasy proneness, told her so. States Andrea (I: 448):
As one of the most active rooms in the house, the kitchen attracted someone, maybe more than one spirit. The telephone was frequently tampered with, as were several appliances. Antique bottles were routinely arranged and rearranged, moved from open shelves to windowsills then back again; someone had a flair for interior design! A pile of dirt left on the floor, the broom propped beside it, leaning against a chair; a message received then ignored. Household provisions spilled and splashed about the premises, chairs pulled out from beneath children; hair pulling was always a less-than-gentle reminder of their omnipresence. And the flies!
Investigators, however, will need more and precise evidence than the recollections of schoolgirls some thirty to forty years late in order to conclude who the real poltergeists were. But suspects are readily at hand.
We must ask, did the supernaturally inclined Cindy really have her hair “knotted” by a spirit? Was she actually “dragged to the floor”? Was she genuinely “trapped” in a wooden box in the shed (where she had hidden during a game of hide-and-seek)? Or was she deliberately play-acting or even just fooling herself? (Perron II: 53, 48; cf. Nickell 2012, 347). The late psychologist Robert A. Baker, my long time ghost-hunting colleague, found that sometimes events that were attributed to a pranking entity (such as a telephone flying off a table) could have a simpler explanation (the cord was snagged by the leg of a chair and pulled when the chair was scooted forward) (Baker and Nickell 1992, 135–139).
Witches and Demons
Even when the best evidence warrants a mundane explanation, Andrea still invokes the supernatural. For instance, her father was once angry about something and “touched a handle on the pot of meatballs” cooking in the kitchen, whereupon “it flew off the stove and hit the floor,” splattering him with sauce. Andrea insists she “saw that pot of meatballs go flying off the surface of the stove without the assistance of her furious father.” She wondered if the “Kitchen Witch”—a historic local figure named Bathsheba Sherman the Perrons obsessed on—was actually responsible (II: 236; I: 298).
Carolyn Perron had researched local history and found that Bathsheba had been charged with the murder of a child, although the case was dismissed. Nevertheless, people purportedly whispered she was a witch who had sacrificed an infant to the Devil (II: 299, 321, 404). But was Bathsheba instead—as Mrs. Warren told them, according to Andrea (I: 328)—“the lone demonic presence in their house?” Did Lorraine Warren really use her psychic powers to divine this? Apparently not: Carolyn Perron had told the Warrens about Bathsheba Sherman. Andrea says her mother let the Warrens have her notebook—filled with “meticulous notes” and sketches of frightening entities—but it was never returned (I: 404–405; II: 298–299, 314).
Mrs. Warren went on to suggest that some specific reported incidents—some knocking sounds, the house shaking—were not due to fierce winds but were instead “demonic in nature” (I: 53, 311, 313). Soon, whereas the Perrons had intended what they were telling the Warrens to be kept in confidence, they found otherwise when curiosity seekers began showing up unexpectedly. Among them were a “cluster of ghost hunters” and a man “with only one tool-of-the-trade in hand: his Holy Bible.” The Warrens, it turned out, were giving public lectures about the “case”; they even “named the town and described the farmhouse.” Carolyn Perron “felt utterly betrayed” by the Warrens (II: 324–329).
Nevertheless, their relationship culminated in Carolyn’s agreeing for the duo to hold what was supposed to be a séance. But it became an “infamous séance”—part ghost-hunting session, with lots of cumbersome equipment (which does not of course detect invisible beings), and part intended exorcism, including, in addition to a medium/shaman/holy woman and a parapsychologist from Duke University, a priest. Carolyn Perron told her husband nothing of this until the Warrens’ entourage showed up again at their door. Roger was livid.
As the “cleansing” ritual progressed, the suggestible Carolyn began to work herself into the state obviously expected of her. As the group prepared, she looked “unresponsive” with “vacant hollow eyes.” When the group held hands—except for the protesting Roger—Carolyn began to mumble incoherently. “A low-pitched guttural utterance emerged from deep within her being as her quaking body trembled in place.” Suddenly, “Carolyn’s chair lifted from the floor and flew straight back, traveling at light speed into the parlor. She hit the floor with such force everyone present could hear the air rushing from her lungs” (II: 346–358).
No doubt Carolyn—perhaps unaware—was simply acting like those folk who “go under the power” at a Pentecostal service, falling, twitching, or what have you, just as expected of them. The process is akin to stage hypnosis, involving suggestion, compliance, and role-playing (Nickell 2013, 206–209). Although Andrea suggests Carolyn’s chair was propelled supernaturally and perhaps even levitated, this simply smacks of her usual exaggeration. The chair, I take it, was scooted back by Carolyn and—far from levitating—acted in accordance with the laws of physics, indeed moving “straight back” until it stopped abruptly and tipped over.
Roger Perron did not respond like one who had witnessed a defiance of natural law. Commendably, he first rushed to his wife’s aid, and as Ed Warren attempted to pull him back, “He whipped around and punched Ed directly in the face, dropping him to the floor.” Seeing Ed’s nose bleeding, Lorraine wiped his face. Roger ordered the bunch out of his home, whereupon—when the ghost “techs” went to fetch their equipment from the haunted cellar—they discovered that one or two, ah, poltergeists had managed during the hubbub to smash every one of their ghost/demon-hunting devices. Two of the girls, Andrea and Cynthia, had secretly watched the dining-room séance “through a crack in the door,” putting them near the cellar door; Chrissy had, unbelievably, slept through it all; and April was in and out of her room. Apparently no one could or would say anything about the broken devices (II: 358–362).
After slamming the front door behind the group, Roger said what he really thought. As Andrea tells us (II: 362): “He bitterly resented the intrusion, the theatrical farce of a pseudo-intellectual endeavor: ritualistic nonsense. Fake. . . . Roger considered their little sideshow a charade. . . .” After an earlier visit of the demonological duo, Roger had asked his wife: “Don’t you realize when you’re being played?” Calling them “a pair of two-bit charlatans,” he warned, “They’ll only use you for notoriety, for their own purposes” (II: 263).
There were no magical beings—ghosts, poltergeists, witches, or demons—in the Perron home, only an erstwhile Catholic family given to occult beliefs. Influenced by folktales, their waking dreams, contagion (the spreading of belief from person to person by suggestion), and probable pranking by one or more of the five girls, the mother and daughters excitedly hyped their experiences and feelings into a full-blown case of haunting. Provoked by the father’s skepticism, the other six dug in their heels and were seemingly motivated to exaggerate and even create evidence.
It remained for a phony demonologist and clairvoyant to seek to capitalize on the family troubles, to emphasize demons over ghosts, and to plant the idea of potential possession. Although the horror film The Conjuring (2013) greatly exaggerates the case and suggests a possessed Carolyn Perron was freed of her “demon” after a wild exorcism, in fact it is apparent Mrs. Perron was simply caught up in suggestion and role-playing. Moreover, the Perrons continued to be plagued by nine spirits—or rather their belief in same—for several years to come (Elsworth 2013).
Baker, Robert A., and Joe Nickell. 1992. Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, and Other Mysteries. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Elsworth, Peter C.T. 2013. “‘The Conjuring’ depicts family’s reported haunting . . . ,” The Providence Journal (July 17).
Nickell, Joe. 2012. The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2013. The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Perron, Andrea. 2011, 2013. House of Darkness House of Light: The True Story. In two vols. (of a projected trilogy). Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.
Why do people see the Virgin Mary on a cheese sandwich or hear demonic lyrics in "Stairway to Heaven"? Using video and music, skeptic Michael Shermer shows how we convince ourselves to believe — and overlook the facts.
Tuesday, July 08, 2014
TALKING TWADDLE WITH THE DEAD
By Michael Shermer
The Tragedy of Death —
The Farce of James Van Praagh
THE HUMAN BRAIN EVOLVED TO BE EXCEPTIONAL at finding patterns in nature, even when they do not exist or have no real significance — the “eagle rock” overlooking the 134 Freeway in Eagle Rock, California; the “JFK” stone in Hawaii looking for all the world like the late President in profile; the face of Jesus in a tortilla; the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. The first two are amusing but do not strike observers as filled with cosmic meaning. The latter two, for some people, trigger emotional responses linked to spiritual meaning — witness the crowds that appear whenever the Virgin Mary makes her “appearance” on a barn door, in the shadows of trees, or, recently, on the side of the Ugly Duck car rental building in Clearwater, Florida, where the faithful come in wheelchairs and canes to be healed.
We are especially attracted to patterns with a spiritual or religious link, that touch our deepest desire for there to be Something Else out there calling the shots and running the show. For some, that Something Else is God, for others it is angels, spirits, fate, synchronicity, collective consciousness, or some universal life force. For several months over the summer of 1997 the bestselling book in America was about secret codes purportedly hidden in the Bible that, when properly identified and decoded, allegedly predict everything from political assassinations to comet collisions (see my review of The Bible Code in the July 20, 1997, Los Angeles Timesor in Skeptic Vol. 5, No. 2).
Throughout the Spring of 1998, the bestselling book in America (#1 on the New York Times bestseller list for 13 consecutive weeks) is by a guy who says he can talk to the dead (on Larry King Live, no less!), and so can you (if you buy his book, of course). It turns out that our loved ones who have “passed over” are not really dead, just on another “spiritual plane.” Since no one really “drops out,” all you have to do is fine tune your frequencies and you too can turn off the Here and Now and tune into that Something Else.
The Medium is the Message
I am referring, of course, to James Van Praagh, the world’s most famous psychic … this year anyway. He has appeared twice, unopposed, on Larry King Live. He was featured on NBC’s Dateline (where James Randi debunked him) and on ABC’s20/20 (where I debunked him). He has been making the talk show rounds, including Oprah (who was mildly skeptical) and Charles Grodin (who was not skeptical at all), and even had Charles Gibson on ABC’s Good Morning Americatalking to his dead father (after the spirit offered the breathtaking revelation that Gibson needs new golf club grips).
As an quantitative measure of Van Praagh’s popularity, according to the New York Times his book, Talking to Heaven, has sold more than 600,000 copies (“the spirits said I needed to reach more people”). The book retails for $22.95. Assuming Van Praagh has a standard author’s contract (they are all basically the same with a sliding scale of 10% for the first 5,000 copies sold, 12% for the next 10,000, and 15% thereafter), he is now receiving 15% of $22.95, or $3.44 each. Multiply this by 585,000 gives $2,013,862.50. Add to this his royalties for the first 15,000 copies sold ($11,475 + $27,540) gives a gross royalty statement of $2,052,877.50. Most good literary agents take 15%, leaving him with $1,744,945.80. Not a bad take for a couple of months. Over the course of a year of sales, even after taxes and allowing for returns and deep discounted sales, Van Praagh will be a multi-millionaire. And this does not count his lucrative $200 an hour private consulting business run by his Los Angeles-based company Spiritual Horizons, Inc., which also sells his audio tapes Tuning Into: Intuition and Abundance and Tuning Into: Healing and Forgiveness, his video tape Develop Your Psychic Self, and books his numerous lecture tours, Whole Life Expo appearances, and international cruise ship readings. One psychic “insider” informed me that Van Praagh recently filled a 400-seat hall in Anaheim at $40 a seat, netting a cool $16,000. (In fact, his group business is so successful he has abandoned doing private readings.) By contrast, the bestselling book of the bestselling science author Stephen Jay Gould is The Mismeasure of Man, which in 15 years accumulated about 250,000 in sales, a remarkable amount for a science book, but not even half of what Van Praagh’s book has done in a couple of months. (Please do not misunderstand me. I do not begrudge anyone’s financial success. I am simply using this as a measure of popularity — anyone willing to plunk down $22.95, or $200, must be serious about a belief.)
What is going on here? In my opinion, James Van Praagh is not a psychic. He is not a spiritual medium. He has no paranormal powers, none whatsoever, not one bit. I have never seen him do anything that I could not explain or duplicate myself. Sometimes he comes up with a hit or two, or gets hits that startle everyone, including me, until the videotape is viewed again. Other times his readings are so bad it is embarrassing to watch them. In all cases most of his clients swallow his ramblings hook, line, and sinker; and they are swiftly reeled in for the catch. Why? Who is this guy?
An Actor in Search of a Role
James Van Praagh would appear to have seen fame and fortune in his future years before he became a “psychic.” Biographical details are sketchy at best, but according to Alex Witchel of the New York Times(February 22, 1998), Van Praagh is the third of four children, born and raised Roman Catholic in Bayside, Queens, New York. At one point, he considered becoming a priest. He served as an altar boy and even entered a Catholic prep seminary, the Blessed Sacrament Fathers and Brothers in Hyde Park. His father was Allan Van Praagh, the head carpenter at the Royale Theater on Broadway (where his brother still works). His mother was Irish-Catholic and one of his sisters is a eucharistic minister. While James attended college he found part-time work at the theater where, says Witchel, while the other stagehands were playing cards during the shows, Van Praagh “was out front watching, picking up pointers he still uses for his numerous television appearances.” The lessons were well learned.
His college career was checkered, including enrollments at Queensboro Community College, State University of New York at Geneseo, Hunter College, and, finally, San Francisco State University where he graduated with a degree in Broadcasting and Communications. Subsequently he moved to Los Angeles and began working in the entertainment industry, including Paramont Studios and a stint with the famed William Morris agency in Hollywood. He confesses in his book,Talking to Heaven, “I dreamed of a career as a screenwriter. As luck would have it, while coordinating a conference with the creative staff of Hill Street Blues, I became friendly with one of the show’s producers. When I told him I would be graduating soon, he offered what I thought was my first big break.” After graduation, Van Praagh moved to Hollywood where “I vowed that I would not leave Tinsel Town until I realized my dream and became a writer.” Through a job at William Morris, Van Praagh met a medium who told him “You know, James, you are very mediumistic. The spirit people are telling me that one day you will give readings like this to other people. The spirits are planning to use you.” Van Praagh had found his role in Hollywood. He would act the part of a spirit medium.
In 1994 he was discovered by NBC’s The Other Side, for whom Van Praagh made numerous appearances (as did I) in their exploration of the paranormal. This, and other media appearances, generated countless personal and group readings, pushing him above the psychic crowd and eventually leading to his status as a bestselling author. (The way it works in the media is that once you get in someone’s Rolodex file or computer database, other shows looking for certain guests get the number because the booking agents share information: “I’ll swap you two skinhead Neo-Nazis for a witch and a vampire.”)
Who does James Van Praagh say he is? According to his own website, “Van Praagh is a survival evidence medium, meaning that he is able to bridge the gap between two planes of existence, that of the living and that of the dead, by providing evidential proof of life after death via detailed messages.” Van Praagh calls himself a “clairsentient,” or “clear feeling,” where he can allegedly “feel the emotions and personalities of the deceased.” His analogue, he says, is “Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost.” He CLAIMS that the “spirits communicate by their emotions,” and even though they do not speak English or any other language, they can tell you, for example, “that you changed your pants because of a hole in the left seam or that you couldn’t mail letters today because the stamps weren’t in the bottom right desk drawer.” He readily admits that he makes mistakes in his readings (there are so many he could hardly deny it), rationalizing it this way: “If I convey recognizable evidence along with even a fraction of the loving energy behind the message, I consider the reading successful.” In other words, if he can just get one or two hits, then “convey” the all important emotional psychic stroking that your loved one still loves you, is happy in heaven, and all is right with the world, he has done his job. From the feedback of most of his clients, this is all most people need.
The 39-year old medium’s message cuts to the core of most people’s deepest fears and loftiest desires, as he told the New York Times: “When a reunion between the living and the dead takes place it may be the first time the living understand that death has not robbed them of the love they once experienced with family and friends on the earth plane. With the knowledge of no death, they are free to live life.” No one has explained the attraction of this message better than Alexander Pope did over two and a half centuries ago, in his 1733 Essay on Man:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest.
The soul, uneasy, and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
In Why People Believe Weird Things I was satisfied with the “hope springs eternal” explanation for the popularity of such New Age beliefs, but this does not explain precisely how our belief engine drives us to be taken in by such claims. Here I will explore more deeply our willingness to suspend disbelief when it comes to the afterlife.
Gambling on the Afterlife
By way of analogy, consider the gambling games of Las Vegas. Gaming is big business, as anyone can see driving down the ever-burgeoning strip, with one after another casino crying out in neon glare, “can you top this?” Gambling is the best bet in business, far superior to the stock market, as long as you are the house. You only need a tiny advantage on any given game, with lots of customers playing lots of rounds, and you are guaranteed to win. For the roulette wheel, with 18 red slots, 18 black slots, and two green slots (zero and double zero), the take is only 5.26%. That is, by betting either black or red, you will win 18 out of 38 times, or 47.37%, whereas the house will win 20 out of 38 times, or 52.63%. If you placed one hundred $1.00 bets, you would be out $5.26, on average. This may not sound like a lot, but cumulatively over time, with millions of gamblers betting billions of dollars every year, the house take is significant. Other games are better for gamblers. For straight bets in Craps, for example, the house take is a mere 1.4%. For Blackjack, with the most liberal rules and optimal (non-card-counting) player strategies, the house earns just under 1%. These are the best games to play if you are a gambler (that is to say, you will lose more slowly). With other games it is downhill for the gambler. The take for some slot machines, for example, is a staggering 25%. That is, you are losing 25 cents on the dollar, or, the house wins 62.5% and you win 37.5% of the time. Yet people still play. Why?
(It should be noted that these percentages are probabilities over the long run. You can win, of course, if you get ahead and quit. You can also win by “cheating” — as defined by the casinos — by using techniques such as card counting. A friend of mine has spent many years learning the fine art of card counting for Blackjack, but he must now wear disguises and routinely finds himself escorted to the door when discovered in most Las Vegas casinos, apparently a perfectly legal action since the law allows businesses to refuse “service” to anyone they wish. Finally, there are some interesting betting schemes that, at best, delay the inevitable. The “Martingale,” for example, also known as the “double-up-to-catch-up” system, is where you double your bet every time you lose. When you win you have caught up, whereupon you return to your original bet. The problem is that losing streaks will quickly break your personal bank. If you start with a $5.00 bet and lose, say, eight times in a row — not at all unusual — you will bet $10, $20, $40, $80, $160, $320, $640, and $1280, for a total of $2550, and if you lose again you have to be prepared to pony up $2560 over and above the $2550 you just spent. Since most tables have upper limits to betting, and most of us have upper limits to our bank accounts, this prevents the Martingale from being properly applied.)
As B. F. Skinner showed in his experiments with rats, pigeons, and humans, organisms do not need steady reinforcement to continue pressing a bar, pecking a plate, or pulling a one-armed bandit (AKA slot machine). Intermittent reinforcement will do just as well, and sometimes even better at eliciting the desired behavior. A “Variable Ratio Schedule” of reinforcement turns out to be the best for gambling games, where the payoff is unpredictably variable, depending on a varying rate of responses. Payoff comes after 10 pulls, then 3 pulls, then 12 pulls, then 7 pulls, then 23 pulls, and so on. When I was a graduate student in experimental psychology in the mid 1970s I worked in an operant laboratory where we created these variable schedules of reinforcement for our rat, pigeon, and human subjects. It is remarkable how infrequently the payoffs need to come to keep the subjects motivated. And this was for such basic rewards as sugar water (rats), seed (pigeons), and money (humans). Imagine how much more motivating, and, correspondingly, lower the rate of reinforcement must be, when the reward is the belief that your lost loved ones are not really dead and, as an added bonus, you get to speak with them through a medium. This explains, in part, the success of James Van Praagh, whose hit rate is far below that of even the lowest-paying gambling games in Las Vegas.
When NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries had me sit in on a day of readings with Van Praagh in 1994, I kept a running tally of his ratio of hits to misses for each of the 10 subjects (one of whom was me). Being generous with what kind of information counted as a “hit,” Van Praagh averaged 5-10 hits for every 30 questions/statements, or 16-33%. For a 1998 ABC 20/20 show, I counted a much lower rate of about 2-3 hits for every 30 questions/statements, or a mere 6-10%. (Van Praagh was on an exhaustive book tour in which he had done dozens of readings and missed some obvious cues from his subjects that he normally would have caught.) After giving him the benefit of the doubt by using the higher percentage from Unsolved Mysteries, his hit rate of 16-33% was still significantly below that of roulette where the player wins almost half (47.4%) the time.
Because Van Praagh’s payoff is the hope of life after death and a chance to speak with a lost loved one, “players” will be exceptionally forgiving of his countless misses. Like rats and pigeons, Van Praagh’s clients only need an occasional hit to convince them.
How to Talk to the Dead
Watching James Van Praagh work a crowd or do a one-on-one reading is an educational experience in human psychology. Make no mistake about it, this is one clever man. Some skeptics may see him, at best, as morally reprehensible, but we should not underestimate his genuine theatrical talents and his understanding, gained through years of experience speaking with real people outside the limitations of the laboratory, of what touches some of the deepest human emotions. Van Praagh masterfully uses his ability and learned skills in the three basic techniques he uses to “talk” to the dead:
- Cold Reading. Most of what Van Praagh does is what is known in the mentalism trade as cold reading, where you literally “read” someone “cold,” knowing nothing about them. He asks lots of questions and make numerous statements, some general and some specific, and sees what sticks. Most of the time he is wrong. His subjects visibly nod their heads “no.” But, as noted above, he only needs an occasional hit to convince his clientele he is genuine. Sometimes he gets lucky, and as mentalists note, you always take credit for lucky hits.
- Warm Reading. This is utilizing known principles of psychology that apply to nearly everyone. For example, most grieving women will wear a piece of jewelry that has a connection to their loved one. Katie Couric on The Today Show, for example, after her husband died, wore his ring on a necklace when she returned to the show. Van Praagh knows this about mourning people and will say something like “do you have a ring or a piece of jewelry on you, please?” His subject cannot believe her ears and nods enthusiastically in the affirmative. He says “thank you,” and moves on as if he had just divined this from heaven. Most people also keep a photograph of their loved one either on them or near their bed, and Van Praagh will take credit for this specific hit that actually applies to most people.
Van Praagh is clever at determining the cause of death by focusing either on the chest or head areas, and then exploring whether it was a slow or sudden end. He works his way down through these possibilities as if he were following a computer flow chart and then fills in the blanks. “I’m feeling a pain in the chest.” If he gets a positive nod, he continues. “Did he have cancer, please? Because I’m seeing a slow death here.” If he gets the nod, he takes the hit. If the subject hesitates at all, he will quickly shift to heart attack. If it is the head, he goes for stroke or head injury from an automobile accident or fall. Statistically speaking there are only half a dozen ways 90% of us die, so with just a little probing, and the verbal and nonverbal cues of his subject, he can appear to get far more hits here than he is really getting.
- Hot Reading. Mentalist Max Maven informed me that some mentalists and psychics also do “hot” readings, where they obtain information on a subject ahead of time. I do not know if Van Praagh does research or uses private detectives to get information on people, but I have discovered from numerous television producers that Van Praagh consciously and deliberately pumps them for information about his subjects ahead of time, then uses that information to deceive the viewing public that he got it from the spirit world. Leah Hanes, for example, a producer and researcher for NBC’s The Other Side, explained to me how Van Praagh used her to get information on guests during his numerous appearances on the show (interview on April 3, 1998):
I can’t say I think James Van Praagh is a total fraud, because he came up with things I hadn’t told him, but there were moments on the show when he appeared to be coming up with fresh information that he got from me and other researchers earlier on. For example, I recall him asking about the profession of the deceased loved one of one of our guests, and I told him he was a fireman. Then, when the show began, he said something to the effect, “I see a uniform. Was he a policeman or fireman please?” Everyone was stunned, but he got that directly from me.
Deception or Self-Deception?
When I first began following Van Praagh I thought perhaps there was a certain element of self-deception on his part where, giving him the benefit of the doubt (he does appear likable), he developed his cold- and warm-reading techniques through a gradual process of subject feedback and reinforcement, much like the operant conditioning of a rat through “shaping,” where one rewards partial behaviors until the target goal is reached. For example, some gurus come to believe in their own divinity when enough of their followers tell them they are divine. We skeptics are only too aware of the power of self-deception in areas involving memory.
Human behavior is enormously complex, so I suppose it is possible that Van Praagh is both deceiving and self-deceiving, but over the years I have observed much more of the former than the latter. During the Unsolved Mysteries shoot, which lasted 10 hours and was filled with numerous breaks, Van Praagh would routinely make small talk with us, asking lots of questions and obtaining information, which he subsequently used to his advantage when the cameras were rolling.
Is it possible he does not consciously realize that he is doing this? I contacted numerous mentalists about Van Praagh and they assured me that it is extremely unlikely he is self-deceiving because these are techniques that they use, and they do so consciously and purposefully. I was told that I was being naive in trying to give Van Praagh the benefit of the doubt. I spoke to an individual who works a 900-psychic hotline, who is a skeptic but believes there might be “some” psychic abilities. He knows Van Praagh, and many of the people who work with him in that industry (unfortunately he will not speak out for the record), and he assures me that Van Praagh is not self-deceived. The psychic industry consensus, this source tells me, is that James Van Praagh knows exactly what he is doing.
Even for seasoned observers it is remarkable how Van Praagh appears to get hits, even though a closer look reveals that he does not. When we were filming the20/20 piece, I was told that though overall he had not done well the night before, he did get a couple of startling hits — including the name of a woman’s family dog. But when we reviewed the videotape, here is what actually happened. Van Praagh was bombing in his reading of a gentleman named Peter, who was poker-faced and obviously skeptical (without feedback Van Praagh’s hit rate drops by half). After dozens of misses, Van Praagh queried, “Who is Charlie?” Peter sat there dumfounded, unable to recall if he knew anyone of significance named Charlie, when suddenly the woman sitting in back of him — a complete stranger — blurted out “Charlie was our family dog.” Van Praagh seized the moment and proclaimed that he could see Charlie and Dad taking walks in heaven together. Apparently Van Praagh’s psychic abilities are not fine-tuned enough to tell the difference between a human and a dog.
The highlight of the 20/20 piece, however, was a case of hot reading that Van Praagh denied having done. On a break, with the video camera rolling, while relaxing and sipping a glass of water, he suddenly called out to a young woman named Mary Jo: “Did your mother pass on?” Mary Jo shook her head no, and then volunteered “Grandmother.” A full 54 minutes later Van Praagh turned to her and said: “I want to tell you, there is a lady sitting behind you. She feels like a grandmother to me.”
Van Praagh suspects he might have been set up by 20/20. I can assure you he was not. In this particular incident, for example, neither he nor the producers were aware that the camera was on during the break. When I was there they asked me about the grandmother hit, and I explained that I would have guessed that myself — because of the woman’s age it would more likely be a grandparent than a parent, and from there you have a 50/50 shot. Just then one of the line producers said, “you know, I think he got that on the break. Too bad we don’t have it on film.” After checking they discovered they did, so Van Praagh was caught red-handed. But when confronted by 20/20 correspondent Bill Ritter with the video clip, he proclaimed: “I don’t cheat. I don’t have to prove… I don’t cheat. I don’t cheat. I mean, come on….” Interesting. No one said anything about cheating. Van Praagh is denying his own self-imposed charge.
As an example of the power of the belief engine to distort reality, even after we busted Van Praagh, Barbara Walters concluded in the wrap-up discussion:
I was skeptical. I still am But I met James Van Praagh. He didn’t expect to meet me. He knew that my father’s name was Lew — Lewis he said — and he knew that my father had a glass eye. People don’t know that.
Ritter, doing his homework on this piece to the bitter end, replied:
You told me the story yesterday and I told you I would look and see what I could find out. Within a few minutes I found out that your father’s name was Lew and that he was very well known in show business. And this morning I was looking in a book and found a passage that says he was blind in one eye — an accidental incident as a child — and he had a glass eye. If I found that out, then he could have.
While Walters flustered in frustration, seemingly groping for some vestige of hope, Hugh Downs declared without qualification: “I don’t believe him.”
Where have we heard all this before? A hundred years ago, when mediums, seances, and spiritualism were all the rage in England and America, Thomas Henry Huxley concluded, as only he could in his biting wit, that as nonsensical as it was, spiritual manifestations might at least reduce suicides: “Better live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a ‘medium’ hired at a guinea a seance.”
Strange that this phenomenon would repeat a century later. Perhaps Marx was right when he wrote in the Eighteenth Brumaire that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” In this case, death is the tragedy, Van Praagh is the farce.
The Tragedy of Death
The simplest explanation for how James Van Praagh can get away with such an outrageous claim on such slim evidence and questionable techniques is that he is dealing with a subject the likes of which it would be hard to top for tragedy and finality — death. Sooner or later we all will face this inevitability, starting, in the normal course of events, with the loss of our parents, then siblings and friends, and eventually ourselves. It is a grim outcome under the best of circumstances, made all the worse when death comes early or accidentally to those whose “time was not up.” As those who traffic in the business of loss, death, and grief know all too well, we are often at our most vulnerable at such times. This reality can cause the most controlled and rational among us to become emotional.
I experienced the full force of this reality on April 2, 1998. The events of that day prompted me to consider what I would say to someone who is grieving. The ABC television program 20/20 came to my home and office, then followed me to Occidental College to shoot some background footage in my critical thinking course. I thought I would ask the students to respond to the question I typically receive from journalists: “What’s the harm in what James Van Praagh does?” The students had plenty to say, but one woman named Melissa told a personal story about how her Dad had died when she was 10 and that she has never really gotten over it. She was sad that her father never got to see her play volleyball or basketball, or to see her graduate from High School. Her opinion of James Van Praagh was less than charitable, to say the least. She could not imagine how such a performance could make someone feel better about death. In a maturity beyond her years, she expressed her opinion that one does not really get over such a loss; one just learns to live with it: “When my dad first died I just wanted to get on with my life and not let it bother me too much, now I’m just trying not to forget him. Next year when I turn 20 I will have lived 10 years with my Dad and 10 years without him … so I guess that is when my life will begin … like a new chapter or something.” At this point she was fighting back her tears. It was a very touching moment.
When I returned home I was preparing to send Melissa an e-mail expressing how tragic it must be to lose her Dad at such a young age, when I opened an e-mail from my sister, who wrote:
I was thinking of Dad today on this 12th anniversary and how proud he would have been of you and all you have accomplished with your life. For some reason, I have really been missing him lately, more than I have in a long time and it’s still so hard to be without him. I really hope there is a heaven, even though I know otherwise, but the thought of never seeing him again, ever, is almost too hard to bear.Love you, Tina.
Our father died 12 years ago that day, April 2, 1986, and it is probably a good thing I had not realized that in class as it would have been very difficult to remain composed.
This was such a peculiar conjuncture of events that it prompted me to give some thought about what I would say to someone in grief. Having watched James Van Praagh now for nearly five years, I would imagine he might say something to this effect:
It’s okay Melissa, your Dad is here now in the room with us. He’s telling me he loves you. He says he watches over you. He loves watching you play basketball and volleyball. He saw you graduate. He is with you always. Don’t be sad. Don’t cry. You will get to see him again. Everything is fine.
My response to Melissa, and to everyone who has ever received a “reading” from Van Praagh, is as follows:
First of all, no one knows if any of this is true, but even if it is, why would your loved one talk with this guy you don’t even know? Why would he choose to make his appearance in some television studio or at some hotel conference room with hundreds of other people around? Why doesn’t he talk to you instead? You’re the one he loves, not this guy getting $40 a seat in a hall with 400 people, or $200 a private reading, or two million dollars for a book filled with this sort of drivel. Why do you have to pay someone to talk to your loved one?
In the St. Louis Post Dispatch (March 1, 1998) Van Praagh called me a “rat fink.” I take this as a compliment because to “rat” on someone is to tell the truth about them. In Mafia circles it means a crime has been exposed. On the 20/20 show Van Praagh offered this view of the difference between my work as a skeptic and his as a psychic: “He makes his life beating people down, putting people down. I make my life healing and bringing people up. I’m not a circus act. I’m not a side show. It’s God’s work.” By now nearly everyone in America has heard what James Van Praagh says to aching hearts. Here is what I might say. It is not God’s work, but you judge who is putting people down or bringing them up. To Melissa, to my sisters Tina and Shawn, and to my own daughter Devin should I die before my time, I dedicate this essay and close with this statement:
I am sorry this happened to you. It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair at all. If I were you I would feel cheated and hurt; I might even be angry that I didn’t get more time with my Dad. You have every right to feel bad. If you want to cry, you should. It’s okay. It’s more than okay. It’s human. Very human. All loving, caring people grieve when those they love are gone. And all of us, every last one of us, will experience this feeling at some point in our lives. Sometimes we grieve very deeply and for a very long time. Sometimes we get over it and sometimes we do not. Mostly we get on with our lives because there is nothing else we can do. But loving, caring people continue to think about their loved ones no matter how far they have gotten on with their lives, because our lost loved ones continue to live. No one knows if they really continue to live in some other place — I suspect not — but we do know for sure, with as much certainty as any scientific theory or philosophical argument can muster, that our loved ones continue to live in our memories and in our lives. It isn’t wrong to feel sad. It is right. Self-evidently right. It means we love and can be loved. It means our loved ones continue to live because we continue to miss them. Tears of sadness are really tears of love. Why shouldn’t you cry for your Dad? He’s your Dad and you love him. Don’t let anyone try to take that away from you. The freedom to grieve and love is one of the fundamentals of being human. To try to take that freedom away on a chimera of feigned hope and promises that cannot be filled is inhuman. Celebrate your love for your Dad in every way you can. That is your right, your freedom, your humanness.