A L Kennedy: The babble of 'psychics' is a dangerous racket


I was surprised by the outcry which greeted suggestions that Sally Morgan used electronic, rather than divine, inspiration to furnish information on the dead and gone. I wasn't surprised a psychic was exposed – those who produce spirit phenomena have been revealed as frauds since the beginnings of modern spiritualism. James Randi's million-dollar reward for incontrovertible proof of paranormal activity remains steadfastly unclaimed. What shocked me were the insults levelled at those who believe in psychics.

The success and horror of the psychic industry lie in its exploitation of traits that make us all vulnerable. Effective psychics exploit human behaviour, needs and fears. Your may be unconvinced by the bland guessing of the American TV psychic John Edward. But perhaps you voted for Nick Clegg, thought your pension was secure, bought that kitchen gadget that looked great in the shop. Human beings want to be safe, loved and healthy, to have worries removed and pleasures prolonged, to be deeply known and treasured. And it is unbearable for us to lose our loves. Psychics trade on our every weakness like fraudsters everywhere, from Bernie Madoff to William Miller, who told followers that the world would end on 22 October 1844. They may sometimes be self-deceiving, but they always deceive others – because we are easy to deceive. This isn't about stupidity, it's about humanity.

In 1848, the Fox sisters, two New England teenagers, were dogged by rappings that apparently spelled out messages from the beyond. A strange coalition of Quakers, activists, thrill-seekers and disaffected Christians then gathered around Kate and Margaret. At its outset, spiritualism contained much joy and hope – it seemed to offer access to lost loves and, for a society within which class, race and gender were sources of condemnation, proof of a non-hierarchical heaven. Early seances might confront factory owners with dead child labourers and its proponents favoured a raft of progressive ideas, rather than amulet scams and chat lines. In 1872, the sexy, self-declared clairvoyant Victoria Woodhull stood as a radical US presidential candidate. She also had a good thing going with Cornelius Vanderbilt, offering hot stock tips from the Other Side. Wall Street's vast confidence game began with help from psychic fakery. Then the spook racket settled down to its real business, targeting the wounded.

From the outset, it was alleged that the "spirit raps" were produced by trickery. As would prove the case with all psychics, the more thoroughly the Foxes were searched and controlled, the fewer their wonders. Finally, Margaret confessed they were charlatans. But by this time, spiritualism was an income for many and a faith for more, so her demonstrations and public speeches were ignored – the movement rolled on.

Modern practitioners stick to guessing, obituary-raking, earpieces and research. And believers fund a multimillion-dollar industry based on the ability of one human being to charge for talking to another in a way that seems mystically well informed. The psychic industry takes beautiful things – love and the commonality of human experience – and replaces them with expensive, addictive counterfeits. From the women in call centres who say that your boyfriend will call, to the sleight-of-hand merchants who'll "pluck out" your cancer – the psychics are never harmless, never merely fun.

A L Kennedy's latest novel, 'The Blue Book', is out now