I received an unexpected e-mail last week. It was from one of the participants of the Swedish TV show “The Unknown” (“Det Okända”) who explained that she recently attended a séance with the same psychic that previously “cleaned” her house from “spirits” in the TV show, Mr. Terry Evans. The woman writes:
“I never thought I’d say this, but this is how it is. I still do not know how he did it when we met and taped ‘The Unknown’. He was right then. However, after having seen him in action during the séance, I changed my mind. I feel awfully stupid, because if he is a deceiver, I have to be terribly stupid to fall for it.”
I do not know who this woman is or what episode she took part in and I have no intention to turn this into yet another dissection of a particular episode of psychic TV. Terry Evans is of course a deceiver. In fact, Evans is one of the more cunning and experienced exploiters of superstitious belief in Sweden today. He also has the advantage of being a protégé of Mrs. Caroline Giertz’s, the producer of most, if not all, Swedish woo-woo TV shows. For a confidence man, that’s about the best promotion and back-up you can get – having a national TV show vouch for your supernatural gifts makes the deceit so much easier.
The woman’s sentiment is, however, worth some thought. She assumes she has to be terribly stupid to fall victim of fraud, which is perfectly understandable; most of us assume that we are or would be able to detect a hoax aimed at ripping us off and most of us believe we have the intellectual skill to recognize a conjurer just by looking at him or her. This is a double-edged sword that not only cripples the critical capacity of the victim, but also works to the advantage of the perpetrator – if someone is not recognized as a fraud, he or she cannot be a fraud. I know, it is circular argument but that is how the mind works sometimes. Aiding in this illusion is hindsight bias, i.e. when someone or something has been exposed as a fraud, we afterwards state that we knew all along there was something fishy about the whole thing and we consider the people who fell for it naïve, at best.
Before we look at what this woman has been up against, let us consider what she brought to the table. I do not know what traits in particular caused her to approach the TV show but I would suggest that the most common denominator among believers of paranormal phenomena is the need for meaning in life. In her research on alleged alien abductees, Susan Clancy discovered that
“At the end of every interview, throughout the five-year course of the research, each abducted was asked the same question: ’If you could do it all over again, would you choose not to be abducted?’ No one ever said yes. Despite the shock and terror that accompanied their experiences, the abductees were glad to have had them. Their lives improved. They were less lonely, more hopeful about the future, felt they were better people. They chose abduction. Being abducted by aliens is a transformative event. Not only does it furnish an explanation for psychological distress and unsettling experiences; it provides meaning for one‘s entire life.” (Clancy, 2005, p. 149)
I think the same is true for all variations of paranormal belief, regardless of the object – whether you end up searching for Bigfoot, pursuing signs of global, mystic conspiracies or teaching your mind to fake “out of body experiences” is a matter of pure chance. They all fill the need of meaning in life. The notion that most people go to see a psychic to get in touch with dead relatives is a misconception. David Marks notes:
“We seem to have a profound yearning for a magic formula that will free us from our ponderous and fragile human bodies, from realities that will not obey our wishes, from loneliness or unhappiness, and from death itself.” (Marks, 2000, p. 228)
In this perspective, what attracts people to séances is not the possibility to get in alleged contact with dead loved ones, but to be part of a miracle, to experience something “more than life”. The substance of what is generally conveyed by psychics during sessions supports this – the joint effort to find out who is the alleged spirit is most often followed by a very meager and general greeting. Although the actual message from the dead is close to ridiculous, the overall psychic experience is close to sensational. You go to a psychic session to get your beliefs confirmed and the psychic delivers. Does that imply that you are stupid? Of course not.
Psychics like Terry Evans are devious. He has been on television, he cannot be a fraud. That is why Evans does not hesitate to sit in the foyer before a séance and collect information – so called “hot reading”. For the average visitor, Evans does not need to cheat so whatever he does that looks like cheating is coincidental. Even when he bluntly uses the information during the séance, as I caught him doing [link], the average visitor does not recognize it as cheating. Why? Because the average visitor needs Evans to be genuine. If he is nothing but a trickster, the visitor is not part of something fantastic; is not having something amazing added to his or her life; is not getting more meaning in his or her life. Evans knows this too well. That is why he so boldly tells a woman of the audience of every séance that she should write a book. Because that is what many women want to hear. Not necessarily that they should write books, but that their lives and their thoughts are important enough to provide material for books. Although he messed that one up when I recorded him [link], I know of a woman that actually took him up on the tip and got published. But he tells that to a woman in the audience during every séance, so he cannot be credited for that one.
In addition, one or more sitters are always psychic material themselves. They should learn more, Evans tells them, because he can sense that they are “open to the spiritual world“. That is a variation of the same trick; most women (and many men) regard themselves as more sensible than the average person. And here is a known authority confirming that you are a “sensitive”. An emotional ka-ching!
You do not have to be stupid to be hoodwinked by this type of psychological trickery. You just have to be in need for something more in your life.
I think that the woman who wrote to me realized that Evans is a trickster during the séance because she already had her ”meaning” boost during the taping of the show. In her episode, she was the focus of attention, she was the main concern. After it had been aired, the production team’s interest in her faded, as did the psychic’s. Caught up in the process of making the episode, her experience was colored by the narrative version of the show and the attention she got from friends and strangers alike. Afterwards, the discrepancy between the show and reality is growing in her mind. And when she attends a séance with Evans to get a ”meaning” refill, what he does without editing and a supporting production team suddenly seems so obvious and not at all psychic.
Having published this blog, I will probably never hear from this woman again. She explicitly stated that her e-mail was for my eyes only. That is a shame. She had no problem promoting this fraud called Evans when she believed he was genuine, but she will not say a thing in public about realizing that he has duped her. The lesson I would have hoped she learned is that deception and conjuring demands that deceivers and conjurers are not easily identified, that being duped does not mean that you have been stupid. And perhaps that her story would save others from being deceived by Evans. But just as Evans feeds on the need for meaning like a plunderer of the dead scavenging a battlefield, he survives due to the silence of his victims.
Clancy, S., (2005). Abducted. Why People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. London: Harvard University.
Marks, D., (2000). The Psychology of the Psychic (2nd ed.). New York: Prometheus.