Anyone can be famous, or so the media tells us. The Big Brother society that has been created over the past ten years in Britain has demonstrated that the least talented and the most desperate can aspire to becoming a ‘star’, regardless of the cost. Yet among the endless list of wannabe singers, actors and presenters all baying for their brief spell in the limelight, another kind of ‘celebrity’ has emerged: that of the TV psychic.
Day in day out, the viewing public is bombarded with talent contests to seek out ‘real’ talent and market it. The message is clear – if you have what it takes, then it could be you. Of course, stage schools and performing arts courses are hugely oversubscribed with those frantic for fame (along with those who truly believe in their art) and the competition is immense. Therefore anyone who is ‘gifted’ in another, less likely, field stands slightly more chance of grabbing their fifteen minutes of fame and gaining the love/hate of the fickle British public.
EARLY PARANORAL PHENOMENA AND INSTANT FAME
Since the dawn of the Spiritualist movement, many mediums have been awarded celebrity status. Margaret and Katie Fox of Hydesville, New York were the first Spiritualists who achieved notoriety (post Swedenborg and Andrew Jackson Davies) – their elder sister swiftly securing press interviews and a theatre tour as soon as the ‘rappings’ created by the girls became public. The revelations surrounding the Fox sisters soon gave way to a nationwide craze, with everyday folk claiming that they possessed supernatural powers in order to capitalise on the Spiritualist frenzy.
In particular, young women became attached to the movement. In her book, The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England, Alex Owen writes of early Spiritualism in Britain:
Both Florence Cook (who produced the ‘materialisation’ of the famous spirit Katie King) and Mrs Guppy (who conjured up flowers, fruit and blocks of ice on her séance table) could well have been stage actresses or vaudeville entertainers as opposed to the infamous Spiritualists they instead became. Women attracted to mediumship were both the flamboyant and the bold; those who desperately wanted to break free from the constraints of Victorian life and ‘become’ something or someone else. This, coupled with the dashing Daniel Dunglas Home representing the make faction, made Spiritualism something which was, not only exciting and out of the ordinary, but also hugely saleable on the worldwide stage.
The response from the general public, both in the US and Britain, was that of fascination. This search for knowledge by individuals who had never before considered the supernatural, fuelled the need for mediums to make themselves known and become minor celebrities in the process. The fact that the Fox sisters had performed in theatres early in their career, immediately placed Spiritualism in the entertainment bracket, as well as forming itself as a fringe religion. Mediumship and performance soon went hand in hand – a partnership which has not been separated to this day.
THE NEED FOR CELEBRITY STATUS
The renaissance of the ‘medium as celebrity’ in the UK was undoubtedly led by Doris Stokes in the early eighties. As the first medium to appear at the London Palladium, Stokes, for the first time in over fifty years, became a psychic who was a well-known household name. Her books sold millions of copies worldwide and, although claims of fraudulence were abundant both in and after her lifetime, Stokes undoubtedly secured herself notoriety as one of the most famous British mediums of all time.
The advent of the TV show Crossing Over with John Edward in the US in 1999 again sparked interest in celebrity mediums. In the UK, Living TV’s Sixth Sense with Colin Fry followed in 2002, along with Most Haunted in the same year. Millions tuned in to Most Haunted Live specials, to watch medium Derek Acorah being apparently possessed by the spirit of witch finder Matthew Hopkins, highwayman Dick Turpin and more infamous characters from history.
Mediums are always ready to cite their experiences of contact with a famous deceased individual and, in doing so, many hope to secure such prominent status themselves. TV medium Sally Morgan (‘Psychic to the Stars’) has often spoken of her alleged psychic banter with Marilyn Monroe and mediums Craig and Jane Hamilton-Parker are always happy to exploit their ‘The Spirit of Diana Séance’ (where a group of people who had worked with the Princess ‘contacted’ the late Diana via the Hamilton duo).
Magazine programmes, such as This Morning and Richard and Judy, realise that their target audience (predominantly women) generally share an interest in psychic phenomena (as is so often illustrated in the cheaper female magazines) and, due to this, it provides an interesting topic for discussion. Psychics regularly appear on daytime TV, desperate to show off their talent and win viewers over. However, as is so often the case, such segments nearly always demonstrate to the astute viewer nothing more than predictable cold reading by the mediums in question.
The debunking of medium Craig Shell on the Bad Psychics website (1) illustrated a typical example of a young man, desperate for fame, fortune and celebrity status who was willing to do whatever it took to establish himself alongside the likes of Colin Fry and Derek Acorah. Although completely unknown before the BP expose, Shell’s website proclaimed: “Do you need a celebrity figure to open an event or fate?(sic) Craig will be happy to attend and speak with any guests and to become involved in any day to day activities (price on application)”. The site - titled Celebrity Medium - also included the Living TV and Most Haunted logos at the bottom of the page (although he had no association with either).
Should such people be scorned and punished for taking advantage of the basic human need to be reconciled with a dead loved one? Certainly there should be appropriate laws in place to discourage such behaviour (and prosecute when necessary) and the general public made aware of the fraudulent techniques used by such persons. Yet, regardless of their gross manipulation of the bereaved, it is surely as important for us to understand the need for fame in today’s throwaway world, and the psychology of those who will do whatever it takes to gain renown. Although exploiting the grieving is far more damaging to society in general than, say, appearing in a pornographic movie, there is really very little difference. The need to break out from the mundane nine to five lifestyle and ‘make it’ often ensures that countless individuals leave their morals behind in search of the apparent fulfilment of fame and, in doing so, are swept along with the imaginary façade that they have created.
The numerous TV channels that have been created in the past ten years in Britain have caused an influx of the diverse and the drab. This, along with the need to publicly recognise and embrace the supernatural (regardless of how ludicrous this might seem) has seen a desperate increase in programmes ‘investigating’ the paranormal. Such investigations rarely fulfil their criteria in terms of uncovering the truth behind Spiritualism and merely encourage the dangerous belief that a mortal can transmit the thoughts and wishes of the deceased. ‘Celebrity’ mediums usually feature, typically showing off their ‘abilities’ by summoning up the dead in a two-up, two-down semi in Bradford. Regardless of the sense brought to these programmes by sceptics such as Professor Chris French, the producers are always keen to leave a question mark over the possibility of life after death and careful never to knock the psychic in question too harshly.
Many programmes carry a disclaimer at the end of the credits, not unlike that which appears on Sixth Sense with Colin Fry stating:
Yet medium Craig Hamilton-Parker expressed his dislike of the way the media treats psychics by stating the following:
It seems that Hamilton-Parker does not find theatre tours or once featuring as ‘resident psychic’ on Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast in order to promote his work abhorrent, although these are deemed as entertainment to just the same extent. Spiritualists who remain firmly in churches, giving readings for free, must sometimes cringe at certain mediums who appear in the media for (it appears) their own personal gain. On the other hand, one would consider that surely a psychic who has a special webpage titled ‘Psychic’s TV’ with numerous clips of his ‘portfolio of TV shows’ wouldn’t be too offended by the word ‘entertainment’. But, in a somewhat contradictory way, Craig Hamilton-Parker obviously is.
The dislike of the need for questioning is always very apparent in mediums. Many project a ‘Why should I have to prove myself to you?’ attitude, yet know that their TV career depends upon it. If they don’t come up with the goods, then the chances are they will not be hired again.
The basic need to be respected and admired can manifest itself in different ways. The desire to be rich and famous burns in many, and striving to attain this often sees those who might, on the surface, have high principles selling out in order to grab the public’s attention. Regardless of whether the medium in question has made a cold and calculated decision in manipulating the public, or whether they honestly believe that they have a gift and should make themselves known nationally due to this, the want for recognition of some kind in an undeniable element in undertaking such a career path.
In a society where we are constantly inundated with, literally, the good, the bad and the ugly on our television screens, the division between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred. It is surely up to the viewing public to make their own informed decisions about truth and lies, right and wrong, yet the very fact that a programme such as Most Haunted has been running for over five years (with strong viewing figures) and never actually captured the whole form of a ghost on camera, dictates otherwise. Do the viewers really believe, due to the documentary style format of such programmes, that they are one hundred per cent fact, or do they suspend their disbelief and enjoy an hour of television where celebrity mediums are possessed by the souls of the dead all in the name of entertainment?
Perhaps by questioning some of our own personal motives and agendas we can come to understand the psychology of the celebrity medium. In an article published in the New York Times in 2006, Benedict Carey wrote on the strong motivation of fame:
By understanding the need to belong, along with the desire for celebrity we can begin to comprehend just why ordinary people decide to deceive and manipulate others by fraudulently conjuring up the dead spirits of departed loved ones - be it at a local Spiritualist fete or on a nationwide morning talk show.
By Emma-Louise Rhodes
(2) Hamilton-Parker, Craig, ‘We’re No Frauds’, Daily Express, 2 June, 2004
Carey, Benedict, ‘The Fame Motive’, New York Times, 22 August, 2006
Owen, Alex, The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England, University of Chicago Press, 2004