Psychics making sense for some, dollars for selves

Telepathy and television have joined forces to discover a happy medium

The Denver Post/June 5, 2009

The trailer for NBC's "The Listener" says it all: If you had the ability to hear people's thoughts, would you use it to help yourself or someone else?

The show, which premiered Thursday night, is one of a wave of psychic-themed dramas drowning the airwaves, including "Medium," "The Mentalist" and "Ghost Whisperer."

People have been fascinated with the idea of telepathic powers and spirit communication for thousands of years, but the recent crop says as much about our own hopes and fears as the unseen world outside them.

And that question - would you use your powers for yourself or others? - is being answered by a new breed of self-described psychics, mediums and mentalists in a very 21st century way: Why not both?

"I don't care who believes me and who doesn't. What you think of me is none of my business," said "Ghost Whisperer" inspiration James Van Praagh, who visits the Paramount Theatre on Tuesday for a night of psychic activities and ghost readings.

Praagh said he really just wants to show people how all choices come down to either "love or fear," and how our decisions affect everything around us.

"It's their experience, and they can believe what they want to believe. But what it does is bring back the responsibility to them. People have to be responsible for their thoughts and words and how they treat people. And that's my message."

Praagh's message - a twist on an age-old spiritual maxim - has resonated with an increasingly large chunk of the population. The show he helped create is in its fourth season on CBS. He has penned numerous best-selling books over his quarter century in the public eye - including the new "Unfinished Business" - and hosted TV shows and corporate gigs. Tickets to his "Ghostly Voyage" Mediterranean cruise range from about $2,500 to $6,000. Ten-week online courses start at $40 per session.

In other words, you have to pay to play.

But Praagh says he's not abusing his powers by overcharging people, he's just looking for new ways of reaching those who need him.

"Some people like the cruise because it's an easier, more relaxing place," he said. "They're not locked in a room with a medium, so it's less confrontational and fearful."

Praagh is one of a handful of performers of his loose genre who have the stature to tour the country, produce network TV shows and sell copious amounts of merchandise.

The supernatural theater show dates back centuries to mentalist and magic shows in English music halls and Victorian-era displays in American theaters. Even then, skeptics and scientists debunked them as cold readings and glorified games of 20 questions. Psychics, they said, picked up on subtle cues to convince audience members of their powers, in turn exploiting the audience's feelings of loss and fear for financial gain.

It's all cyclical, says longtime mentalist George Joseph Kresge Jr., better known as the Amazing Kreskin.

"There's a tremendous interest in spirit communication before and after the Civil War and the first and second World Wars," said the 74-year-old performer, who recently published his 17th book, "Kreskin Confidential," which chronicles his six decades in show business. "This is historically a pattern. It's a way for people to seek some solace and maybe search for some meaning."

Whether it's for entertainment or inner peace, we're flocking to these types of events. David Copperfield's six "Grand Illusion" shows at the Buell Theatre last month sold more than 12,000 tickets. The Celebration Metaphysical Fair - the oldest of its kind in the country - drew 5,000 people to its March installment at the Denver Merchandise Mart, with another planned for Labor Day weekend.

Shanti Toll, the fair's Colorado Springs-based director, said the interest may be cyclical, but that this area is particularly well-suited for such events.

"Denver and Boulder have always been responsive to basically using all parts of the human spirit," he said. "We're one of the the real leaders in the country because there's a general openness to holistic health, meaning body, mind and spirit. And what's nice about (the fair) is that it draws a very big circle. Everyone that wants to see themselves as part of a larger whole can participate."

Toll says the new crop of psychics and mediums focus more on free will and the ability to change potentially unpleasant futures. And the dozens of vendors at his fairs - all of which go through reference checks - fulfill real needs.

"From a pure dollars-and- cents point of view, these readings are more cost effective than going to psychologists," he said. "And I'm not talking about people with schizophrenia or chemical imbalances, but day-to-day things. What Praagh and these others are saying is that we all have more knowledge than we think and that we cover it over with rationalizations."

Real or not, the readings are a salve. They comfort people by telling them what they want - or think they want - to hear. You can't argue with someone who truly believes in psychics, the same way entrenched Christians can't argue with entrenched pagans. They simply don't see things the same way.

"I figure if a skeptic is sitting down in my chair on the other side of my table, they at least want a hello," said Diane Stillman Moody, who gives psychic readings from her Westminster nonprofit, Hello Rose. "I don't tell you what you want to know, I tell you what I see, and sometimes that might be different."

But are these people objectively speaking to spirits and hearing your innermost thoughts? Science says no. They say yes.

It's up to you - and your wallet - to decide.

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