For Entertainment Purposes Only: On Psychics and Legislation

consumer

There is a UK Gov petition doing the rounds that states ‘Make all those who sell psychic services, prove that their abilities are real.’ You can read the petition in full here. 

It is well intentioned but it isn’t going to work. I know not because I am a psychic myself, but because consumers are already covered by The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act 2008 which replaced The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951.

It was under this previous piece of legislation that psychics and mediums would use ‘For Entertainment Purposes Only’ disclaimers to avoid prosecution for fraud. This is a practice that still continues, probably to avoid breaching the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 which prevents service providers from misleading consumers as to what they are spending their money on.

Yet despite the use of entertainment disclaimers at the start of their show many psychics and mediums will go on to deliver what is considered a serious psychic performance or seance. It will upset people, give them false hope, and those who come away from the venue will often believe that what the psychic was doing was genuine.

This is proof that is doesn’t matter if you force psychics and mediums to prove their abilities before the can perform to the public, people will still seek out their services regardless of the risk of being tricked out of their money.

People who visit a psychic show do not deserve to have their money taken from them dishonestly, but the best way to stop this from happening is to educate people about how to spot trickery for themselves and by raising awareness of existing legislation that is there to protect us as consumers.

There are a number of things that people can do to cover themselves; get a receipt, record your session with a psychic, learn what the tricks psychics use are and familiarise yourself with reviews from others who have seen the psychic in question. It’s also important to check the Terms and Conditions of purchase of the venue you’re buying a ticket from as many theatres do not issue refunds.

When I created Project Barnum (an online resource about psychic trickery) a group of volunteers and I phoned dozens of UK venues at which Sally Morgan, Derek Acorah and other well known psychics would be performing. We posed as potential customers and asked for clarification about whether the psychic was real or not because they had entertainment disclaimers.

We would ask “are they a real psychic or are using psychological trickery to make it seem so?” and none of the venues were able to tell us. We would then ask “if it turns out they’re using misleading tactics and aren’t really psychic can I get a refund?” Again, the venues were unable to provide any of us with consistent answers. Had I been a real customer I would have been very confused. Had I been an actual customer refused a refund I would have taken it to Trading Standards and I’m confident that it would be possible to get a refund as a result.

The only outcome of stopping psychics and mediums from performing will be to move what they do from the stage where we can all see them and into back rooms, secret shows, or back into the parlours that our psychic ancestors would hold seances and reading during the Victorian and Edwardian spiritualism trends. I think that’s a big risk that skeptics should consider very carefully. I don’t think it’s an outcome that anybody really wants.

 

I Want To Believe: Will The X-Files Reboot Turn People Into Believers?

TV box

There have been lots of X-Files-related posts across my social media accounts recently as the relaunch fast approaches (with Greg and Dana of Planet Weird accounting for at least 70% of the Mulder and Scully stuff appearing on my Facebook feed.) Mixed in with these have been concerns from my more sceptically-inclined friends about what the return of Mulder and Scully will mean for the paranormal belief and susceptibility of the general public.

When talking about people who believe in paranormal ideas skeptics (myself included) will often be quick to point out that the media can have an influence upon which ideas we humans perceive to be realistic and possible. However many people will not be able to provide any reference for this claim – it is often parroted as a way to dismiss paranormal beliefs or to warn of the danger of paranormal television shows.

What we do know is that watching a television show isn’t likely to turn you from a non-believer to a believer. It’s all rather more complicated than that.

Glenn Sparks et al. conducted several experiments with groups of students who were surveyed about their paranormal beliefs and then exposed to certain forms of paranormal media. After watching shows about paranormal subjects presented in different manners they were surveyed about their beliefs again to see if there were shifts in their attitudes.

In one study the researchers had one group watch a program without any introductory disclaimer and another group with a disclaimer that mimicked those used on paranormal television shows. Another two groups watched the program with different disclaimers – one which said the program was only for entertainment and was fictitious and the second asserted that the depicted events violated the known laws of nature and that nothing like them had ever occurred.

The post-viewing survey found that the groups who saw the disclaimers tended to express more doubt in the existence of paranormal phenomena but the group who saw no disclaimer tended to express more confidence in the existence of these phenomena.

They also studied what happened when people with high or low mental imagery watched UFO-related television shows. One of which was shown as it had been broadcast, and the second which was edited to remove all special effects and alien imagery originally added by the producers.

‘One major finding that emerged from the study was that viewers who watched either of the two segments of the UFO reports increased their UFO beliefs significantly when compared to the control group. Like the results in the first study, this finding supports the notion that media depictions of the paranormal do indeed affect viewers’ beliefs.’ – Sparks

Other experiments were conducted about how a scientific authority can play a significant role in whether people consuming paranormal-related media are more likely to accept paranormal ideas presented as being valid or not. You can read an overview of the studies here. 

The important thing to consider here though is that The X-Files does not present itself as a factual programme as shows like Unsolved Mysteries, Beyond Reality, Strange But True and others. It’s a fictional show that fits into various different genres – paranormal, horror, science-fiction. The X-Files takes common paranormal themes and often adds another layer of weirdness to them.

The shift in attitudes that Sparks et al. noted also relied upon a pre-existing belief in paranormal ideas. There was no indication that watching these shows in their original format or an edited format could convert somebody from non-believer to believer.

In 2003 Christopher H. Whittle conducted a study that explored how people learn scientific information from television programming. Using an online questionnaire he asked viewers of ER and The X-Files to agree or disagree with a series of questions based upon the science (or pseudoscience) presented in the two shows.

He discovered that entertainment television viewers can learn facts and concepts from the shows that they watch, but he also discovered that there was no significant difference in the level of pseudoscientific or paranormal belief between viewers of ER and The X-Files.

The weird thing about this was the fact that Whittle wasn’t asking ‘do you believe in astral projection?’ but in fact questions that focussed on ideas created by the writers of The X-Files in their episodes, such as ‘Do you believe during astral projection a person could commit a murder?”

demon fetal harvest

‘ER viewers were just as likely to acknowledge belief in that paraparanormal (a concept beyond the traditional paranormal) belief as were viewers of The X-Files!’ Whittle wrote in Skeptical Inquirer in 2004. ‘The media may provide fodder for pseudoscientific beliefs and create new monsters and demons for us to believe in, but each individual’s culture is responsible for laying the groundwork for pseudoscientific and paranormal belief to take root.’

So sure, The X-FIles might make UFOs seem a bit cooler than ghosts for a bit (depending on what the focus of the series will be, that is) and many of us will rekindle old crushes, but it’s probably not going to make people believe in things they weren’t likely to believe in before.

Besides, Dana Scully is a kick-ass skeptic investigator who knows what’s up. We’re in pretty safe hands.

scully

What’s The Deal With Self-Styled Exorcists?

cross

Ghost Hunters claiming to clear spirits from a property is nothing new and yet many people who offer this nonsense service brand themselves as exorcists and they seem to be as popular as ever. So, what’s the deal?

A survey conducted in 2012 found that 57% of Americans believe in demonic possession. A survey in 2013 showed that 18% of Brits did too. In October 2013 the Pope commended exorcist priests for their fight against “the Devil’s works” and said that the Church needed to help “those possessed by evil.” The Catholic church responded by training more priests to perform exorcisms with a conference last year seeing at least 160 priests in attendance.

It seems that the “cool” new Pope that many people (atheists included) praise for being a more modern version of his predecessors is actually a bit obsessed with the fictional devil. When this man is praised by atheists it makes my skin itch, but that’s another blog post for another day.

“Pope Francis talks about the Devil all the time and that has certainly raised awareness about exorcisms,” Father Cesare Truqui  told The Telegraph, “but all Latin Americans have this sensibility – for them, the existence of the Devil is part of their faith.”

Traditionally people associated ill luck with demonic entities, and as the media modernises and we see news reports from all around the world 24/7 it is easy to see why people may turn to the more traditional aspects of their religion and believe in the work of the devil when they did not before. The world seems like such a darker place when you are constantly bombarded with news of terrorism, war, humanitarian crises, poverty and natural disasters.

Suddenly the darkness that was thousands of miles away is in your living room, invading your house. You can’t quite escape it.

The risk is, of course, that exorcisms often replace what should be a trip to see a health professional, and this is alarming given the number of people being killed or grievously harmed while being exorcised because friends or family members believe they are possessed.

People who are thought to be possessed are usually displaying symptoms of underlying mental or physical health conditions, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes you could have a lifestyle that is not approved of by relatives and they’ll consider this sin to be the result of evil in your life.

This is why I find it concerning that ghost hunters present themselves as people who conduct exorcisms when ridding homes of a ghost. This is probably done because it makes you sound important and mysterious –  an appeal to authority, if you will. Yet to do this adds a sinister layer to a haunting that could actually make the situation worse because of the negative connotation that the use of the word ‘exorcism’ drums up. Suddenly your traditional ghost is something much more scary because a ghost hunter is stroking their ego. It’s all quite vulgar really.

 

The Worst Ghosts of 2015

hampton court

It has been an entire year since I correctly predicted that Slenderman would be seen in the UK in my ‘Worst Ghosts of 2014’ round up. In that year I created a feature on this blog called The Weakly Ghost Bulletin which morphed into The Spooktator Podcast which examines ghost related headlines on a monthly basis. It’s been busy…

…so, without further ado here are the 5 Worst Ghosts of 2015!

#5 The Ohio Ghost that was literally crap

figure outside Ohio mall

In May, Examiner reported that a woman called Tonya Nester was taking photos of the closed down Randall Park Mall in Ohio and a friend noticed something odd in one of the photos that was quickly concluded to be a ghost.

‘What exactly is the angelic figure in the photo?’ asked Examiner reporter John Albrecht. Well, John, bird crap is what it is.

The photo was taken through a car window, dirt tracks left from rain visible, and the white smudge being called a ghost or angelic is bird poo.

#4 That Samurai Ghost that photobombed a little girl

Samurai-Ghost (2)

In April some people lost their composure over a photo that it is claimed shows a pair of ghostly legs behind a little girl who was on holiday with her family. Taken on a smart phone, the childs father claimed nobody was standing behind her at the time the photo was taken. This, it turns out, is not true.

japan policeDon Cake worked out that it was a guard standing a slight distance away from the child and emailed the Fortean Times (FT332, p. 76) to tell them that the beach in the photograph is a short distance from the Summer palace of the Emperor of Japan, which is well guarded by officers who wear the uniform (pictured), which resembles the legs of the so-called ghost. If you look carefully you can even see part of the light blue shirt beneath the childs left elbow.

 

#3 The grey lady of Hampton Court that was actually… not

hampton court

Many people claimed that this photo taken by 12-year-old Holly Hampsheir in February shows the ghost of Dame Sybil Penn (aka the gray lady of Hampton Court) and that the apparition is wearing period clothing which is interesting because it totally isn’t.

It is, in fact, a panoramic photo that went wrong and what we’re seeing are the distorted features of a fleshy (an alive human.) This is explained by Mick West in more detail here, where he also replicated the photo. West said ‘it’s just the result of taking a panoramic photo in low light on the iPhone. Panoramic photos are done by holding the camera up, and panning from left to right. The camera takes lots of photos and then stitches them together … but because it takes a while to take all the images, if something moves while you are taking the panorama, then it will get distorted.’

#2 That eight-foot-tall Ghost 

Although this photo technically dates back to pre-Christmas 2014 it wasn’t until 2015 that it came to the attention of the media which is why it has been included here. It was taken by teacher Debbie Monteforte and a family friend said “The family insists there was no one standing behind them and there was no place to hang a coat. Even if there was someone standing there, they would have to be 8ft tall to appear like that. It’s beyond spooky.”

However, in Weakly Ghost Bulletin #4 I explained how a quick look around on Google Image Search revealed another photograph taken in the same area of the pub that showed that perhaps a person standing in that position wouldn’t have been 8-foot-tall after all.

Kings Arms Ghost Comparison

#1  Slenderman. Obviously.

It feels right that we finish with the story I opened with. I am awarding the #1 spot on this list to two people: Lee Brickley and Christine Hamlett.

In January 2015 Brickley (who has previously made the #1 spot on this list) generated bizarre headlines by claiming that Slenderman had been seen by many people in the Cannock Chase area. He also made the observation that throughout history people have reported seeing tall creatures and spirits which led him to declare that Slenderman wasn’t created online.

What a genius.

He’s wrong, of course. The fictional creature called Slenderman is an internet creation that probably takes inspiration from real-like folklore. I wrote about this in more detail in a blog post called The Evolution of Ghosts and Monsters in which I point out that ‘many in the Cannock Chase area reported that they saw the so-called Slenderman entity while experiencing sleep paralysis, but if they lived in a different part of the world they might perhaps report that they saw a Grey- an alien considered synonymous with E.T. encounters -rather than a spirit or monster.’

It didn’t stop there though. Enter Christine Hamlett…

Hamlett, a self-proclaimed spirit medium, claimed to have caught Slenderman on camera.

Alleged photo of Slenderman
Alleged photo of Slenderman

This is quite amusing because Hamlett also claimed to have caught a Black Eyed Child on camera when Brickley made the headlines in October 2014 with claims that Black Eyed Kids were prowling in Cannock Chase (you can read more about that on my blog here)

not slenderman
Alleged photo of Black Eyed Child ghost…
More recently Hamlett made headlines with claims that she caught the ghost of one of the Pendle Witches on camera, but her claims were shown to be historically inaccurate. You can read my breakdown of the Pendle Witch claims here.

So there we have what I consider to be the 5 Worst Ghosts of 2015 – a whole range of bizarre claims that, encouragingly, were investigated and explained by rational researchers.

You can check out previous years Worst Ghosts showcases here, and throughout 2016 I will examine ghost related headlines on a monthly basis on The Spooktator podcast. Be sure to subscribe on Soundcloud or iTunes!

 

London Accountant Claims Business Partners Ghost Changed Life

acrooge

Here is the story that we discussed in the Christmas Special of The Spooktator podcast which you can listen to below

 

Originally reported in The Spooktator by Chuck Dickens

London based accountant claims business partners ghost changed life

PLAGUED BY STRANGE APPARITIONS that warned him of impending doom London-based accountant claims that his brush with the afterlife has turned his life around.

THREE apparitions brought Ebennezer Scrooge warnings of his doom in the days that led up to Christmas, prompting in him a change that his family, neighbours and colleagues just cannot believe. “He’s so generous now and before we were scared to even ask if we could turn the office heating on” one employee told The Spooktator.

Scrooge claims that he was visited by his business partner Jacob Marley who died on Christmas Eve seven years ago. The ghost was swamped with heavy chains which, as punishment for his greedy and self-serving life, his spirit has been condemned to wander the Earth with.

The shocked accountant recalled that Marley informed him that three spirits would visit him during each of the next three nights to stop him meeting the same fate. “I thought I was hallucinating but I know what I saw.”

Mr Scrooge, 56, who has no history of mental health awoke from a heavy sleep to find a child with a GLOWING HEAD at his bedside which whisked him off through time into his past. The accountant, who has a seat on the London Stock Exchange, claims to have watched Christmases from his earlier years replay in front of him. “Nobody could see me, but I could see them and the memories brought up great emotions in me.”

He claims to have visiting the school he attended as a child, the merchants at which he apprenticed in his youth and even saw the tragic ruin of the relationship with his past fiancée, Belle.

The apparitions kept coming. Scrooge, whose nephew Fred is his only living family, claims he was next visited by a JOLLY GREEN GIANT which took him through London to unveil Christmas as it would happen in the days to come. Scrooge claims to have watched the impoverished family of his employee Bob Cratchit living in poverty before zipping through London to his nephew’s house to witness a Christmas party. Was this an other-worldly protest at the London housing problem forcing hundreds to live in unsuitable accommodation? Things took a macabre turn when this ghost revealed two starved children under his coat called Ignorance and Want before vanishing. It was then, Scrooge claims, that he noticed a dark, hooded figure coming toward him.

The accountant claims he was led to his grave. But not before being shown businessmen discussing his riches, vagabonds trading his personal effects for cash, and a poor couple living in a bedsit expressing relief at the death of their unforgiving landlord.

“I didn’t realise at first that I was being shown my own legacy” he claims, “I begged the ghost to tell me the name of the dead man. The next thing I know I’m in a churchyard and the ghost is pointing me towards a grave. Mine. Sent chills right up my spine, that did.”

The Londoner claims that this shock to his system make him renounce his insensitive, uncaring ways and to honour Christmas with all his heart and he found himself back in his bed.

Neighbours claim that they saw Mr Scrooge rushing into the street the next morning. One neighbour told our reporter “he was shouting something about a turkey. It was really odd and I thought he’d gone mad to be honest.” The turkey was purchased with sweetmeats from Fortnum and Mason and sent to the house of his employee Bob Cratchit whose family rely on hand outs from the local food bank despite having a income. Cratchit told The Spooktator “my son, Tim has been very unwell and finances have been tight. It was a huge surprise to find Mr Scrooge on the doorstep with the food. He’s turned over a new leaf.” His son Tim added “God bless us, everyone!”

The city is rife with the talk of the ruthless businessman who has changed seemingly overnight into a kind hearted philanthropist like something out of a Victorian ghost story, but is this a real-life ghost story that proves that christmas really is the season of peace and goodwill, or is there more than meets the eye to these spectral apparitions?

Professor Chris French of the Anomalistic Psychology Unit who studies paranormal claims at Goldsmiths University believes that this could all be a product of Sleep Paralysis – a disorder which affects around one in twenty people. ‘Our research confirms the results of previous studies in showing that sleep paralysis in its most basic form is surprisingly common, associated symptoms include a strong sense of a presence, difficulty breathing due to pressure on the chest, intense fear, and a wide range of hallucinations.’

When asked if he thought this could account for his experiences Mr Scrooge looked doubtful and said ‘Bah, Humbug!