Robert Todd Carroll
James Van Praagh
James Van Praagh is a self-proclaimed medium. He claims that he has a gift which allows him to hear messages from just about anyone, provided he or she is dead. Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine calls Van Praagh "the master of cold-reading in the psychic world." Sociologist and student of anomalies, Marcello Truzzi of Eastern Michigan University, is less charitable. Truzzi has studied characters like Van Praagh for more than 35 years and he describes Van Praagh's demonstrations as "extremely unimpressive." ("A Spirited Debate," Dru Sefton, Knight Ridder News Service, The San Diego Union-Tribune, July 10, 1998, p. E1.)
According to Van Praagh, all the billions and billions and billions of dead people are just waiting for someone to give him their names. That's all it takes. Give Van Praagh a name, any name, and he will claim that some dead person going by that name is contacting him in words, fragments of sentences, or that he can feel their presence in a specific location. He has appeared on Larry King Live, where he claimed he could feel the presence of Larry's dead parents. He even indicated where in the room this "presence" was coming from. He took phone calls on the air and, once given a name, started telling the audience what he was "hearing" or "feeling". He fished for positive feedback and got it, indicating that he really was being contacted by spirits who wanted to tell the loved ones left behind in this vale of tears that being dead is good, that they love them, and that they are sorry and forgive them everything.
In Why People Believe Weird Things Shermer describes Van Praagh's success and how he wowed audiences on NBC's New Age talk show The Other Side. Shermer also tells us how he debunked Van Praagh on Unsolved Mysteries. Yet, none of the others in the audience was sympathetic to Shermer. One woman even told him that his behavior was "inappropriate" because he was destroying people's hopes in their time of grief.
Another devotee of Van Praagh is Charles Grodin, whose talk show on CNBC was cancelled shortly after Van Praagh's second appearance. Grodin demonstrated how open-minded, gullible, and devoted to his dead mother he is, as he fawned over the man who talks to heaven. Van Praagh's performance on Grodin's show was less than heavenly, but it was enough to satisfy Grodin and at least one couple in the audience who seemed to believe that their dead daughter was talking to Van Praagh. The only skepticism shown by Grodin was in wondering whether Van Praagh wasn't really reading the minds of the audience and the callers, rather than getting his messages from "the other side". The only person on the show who stated her doubts about the authenticity of Van Praagh's contact was a woman who lost a daughter to murder by terrorist Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing. She stated that nothing Van Praagh said rang true about her daughter except some generalities. The woman also claimed that her daughter communicates to her directly. I can understand and sympathize with the woman who believes her dead daughter talks to her, but I have no affection for Mr. Van Praagh. He plays a kind of twenty-questions game with his audience. He goes fishing, rapidly casting his baited questions one after the other until he gets a bite. Then he reels the fish in. Sometimes he falters, but most of the fish don't get away. He just rebaits and goes after the fish again until he rehooks. The fish love it.
When he can't get a good bite, he reminds his audience that sometimes the message is in fragments, sometimes he doesn't understand it, sometimes he misinterprets it, etc. If he's wrong, don't blame him since he never claimed to be perfect. Van Praagh seemed particularly inept to me on the Grodin show. Perhaps this is because I was looking for his tricks and already consider him a charlatan. Nevertheless, I think I can still appreciate good art, and he was not very artful. He used his usual bait: questions about girls and grandmothers, changes in the home, unresolved feelings, etc. He claimed to get messages about the usual stuff: angels, cancer, the heart, newspapers. What saves him much of the time are ambiguous questions that end with "am I right?" and the client saying "yes", though we have no idea what the "yes" is in response to.
More pathetic that Van Praagh, however, was Grodin, who practically asked for his guest's blessing as he thanked him for his wonderful work. I don't know what was wonderful about it. Although it did leave me wondering why there wasn't more skepticism shown. If this is the kind of response Van Praagh gets on a bad night, no wonder he is so popular. Grodin liked it so much that he invited Van Praagh back. James Randi was supposed to be interviewed by satellite during the second show, but Grodin apparently didn't want any skepticism cast upon his hopes to communicate with his dead mommy. Marcello Truzzi says that most of what Van Praagh gives out is "twaddle," but it is good twaddle since "what people want is comfort, guilt assuagement. And they get that: Your parents love you; they forgive you; they look forward to seeing you; it's not your fault they're dead." I guess I shouldn't begrudge Grodin his twaddle.
Van Praagh has a book out with a can't-miss title: Talking to Heaven. (Talking to God and Talking to Angels have already been taken.) And he has an adoring fan who has put up a WWW site to keep us informed of Van Praagh's books, tapes, upcoming products, tours and appearances. (Van Pragh has his own site, of course, and it is a bit dreamier than his admirer's page.) I predict continued success for Van Praagh, as long as he never never tells someone like Larry King on national television that Larry's parents forgive him for torturing them while they were alive. There is little chance of that happening, however. In an interview with Dru Sefton, Van Praagh states that "there is no death, there is only life....every person is psychic or intuitive to a degree," and most spirits end up in heaven.
Currently, there is a three-year wait for a private session with Van Praagh.
Sefton, Dru. "A Spirited Debate," Knight Ridder News Service, The San Diego Union-Tribune, July 10, 1998, p. E1.
Robert Todd Carroll