Medium offers a minimal message

New Zealand Herald/December 10, 2002
By Fiona Rae

James Van Praagh is making a nice woman in his audience cry. Soon, a couple will be sobbing over their two dead children. Van Praagh is good at driving people to tears.

"Has your mother passed over?" (He never says "died.") The woman is nodding and crying already.

"You have a young picture of your mother out and she wants to tell you 'I am that way now'."

There are also assurances that her mother is watching her and says to be careful while driving.

Soon he is telling a couple whose two children died of a rare genetic disorder that the youngsters are okay and the father needs to forgive himself for their passing.

Then there's our own Rachel Hunter. Van Praagh says he was blessed to meet her. He surmises that she went to visit her grandmother in New Zealand. There, she was shown family photographs, and there was a "cook-out" (what are the odds?).

Beyond with James Van Praagh (Prime, 8.30pm) stars the so-called medium who was described by as having "the comforting, slightly fey affect of a small-town drama teacher".

It's big business. Van Praagh has written two best-selling books and his show is on daytime syndication in the US.

On his website, bookings are invited for a Baltic cruise with Van Praagh and a leading authority on "past life regression".

There's even been, heaven help us, a mini-series about his life starring Ted Danson with whom, Van Praagh says, he has a close connection. The mini-series was apparently a lot like The Sixth Sense with an edge.

Naturally, he has his critics, chiefly Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and the director of the Skeptics Society in the US. Shermer at present is gunning for another US medium, John Edward, who he says steals lines from Van Praagh.

And for sure, it looks like hokum even in a set-up as controlled as a studio. In the 19th century, spiritualists and mediums claimed to communicate with the dead. Music hall "mentalists" used clever techniques to amaze audiences. More than 100 years later, as every evangelist knows, television is ideal.

Van Praagh and others, sceptics say, use the techniques of cold reading, warm reading and hot reading.

Cold reading uses generalised questions that will elicit a response that can then be homed in on by the questioner; warm reading uses an understanding of psychology; and hot reading uses information discovered beforehand about the subject.

If you listen carefully, Van Praagh will have actually said very little, and offered advice or information that cannot be verified, such as "they're okay" or that Rachel Hunter will have a third baby, a girl.

But what Van Praagh does offer is succour to the grieving. It doesn't take much to figure out that a father needs to hear 'You need to forgive yourself, it wasn't your fault'.

And for believers in his psychic powers, that the advice is something a counsellor or priest or friend could have said, doesn't really matter.

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