Spirited away: Meet the psychics with an uncertain future

Tomorrow, the Government brings in new laws cracking down on the activities of professional psychics. Does this spell the end for a secret world of Ouija boards, 'aura cameras' and flying ectoplasm? Archie Bland travels to The Other Side in search of answers

Sunday 25 May 2008 00:00

Colin Bates puts his fingers to his temples, and frowns. "As I have just been gently sitting down and blending with the spirit world," he says, "I have a lady coming forward who was a great-grandmother." One or two people in the audience nod gravely. "She listened while 'Danny Boy' was played just now, and I know she would very much sing these old songs while she was still very much here." Total silence. Who is she? "I do believe this woman would connect around the name of Harry... Harold... Harry."

The medium pauses, and looks expectantly at his audience. It is Open Week at Arthur Findlay College, "the world's foremost college for the advancement of spiritualism and psychic sciences", and the room is full of people who hope to see proof of life after death. But no one moves, apart from the organist, who is trying to get from his stool to a more comfortable spot as stealthily as possible.

"Who can take this connection?" Bates asks. Then, with a business-like sweep back to the podium, he cuts his losses, and points at a fragile-looking pensioner called Audrey. "Do you have a husband in the spirit world?" Yes, she does, and Bates is away, swiftly establishing that the deceased wants to say hello, that he had medical problems shortly before his death, and that his widow looks at old photographs when she feels lonely. References to a local corner shop and watch are off the mark, as is an anniversary date; but the significance of a shared sofa clinches the deal. Bates moves on to an undertaker linked to the name Jones, and 40 minutes later, over a cup of tea and a biscuit in the refreshments tent, Audrey wonders whether her nephew wasn't called Harry after all.

Audrey is not the only satisfied customer at the college. Emily Bishop has her scoliosis soothed by a Reiki healing session; Kerry Wyatt gains new insight on her work problems. A full day of psychic demonstrations has cost only £15, although private readings are extra. Listening to the punters' experiences in the gardens of Stansted Hall, the country pile that oil magnate and paranormal investigator Arthur Findlay bequeathed to the Spiritualists' National Union when he died in 1964, I find it hard to think that spirits could be anything but benevolent, or witches anything but white.

But while the law doesn't believe in evil apparitions, it has a robust faith in the reality of snake-oil merchants. And although it's hard to see any of the mediums on show at Stansted Hall as much more harmful than an adolescent experiment with a Ouija board, no one denies that there are some crooks in the realm of the paranormal. Since 1951, such individuals have been mainly dealt with by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which requires the prosecution to prove the intent to deceive. Since juries are generally unable to read minds, that condition has meant that solid cases are rare; only 19 guilty verdicts have been returned in 57 years.

The list of the convicted seems to demonstrate that, as things stand, only the most startling charlatans can be held to account. In 1988, for instance, a clairvoyant called Jonathan Beale, who doubled as head of a lonely hearts agency, was sentenced to six months for taking £4,600 from a jilted wife and promising to cast spells that would lead to her husband's return. It worked for a day, the unfortunate woman testified, but her beloved left again in the morning.

It could be said that we are more in need of protection from the likes of Beale than ever. Even as mainstream religiosity collapses, popular belief in the more outlandish elements of a piecemeal spirituality is astonishingly strong. Some 58 per cent of us believe in premonitions; 38 per cent believe in guardian angels; and a hardcore quarter have visited a psychic or medium, which goes some way toward explaining why it's a £40m-a-year industry, and the baffling popularity of Most Haunted Live. A sceptic might argue that it's less the Beales we need protecting from than ourselves.

Tomorrow, the Fraudulent Mediums Act will be repealed and replaced by general consumer protection legislation that many say will do just that. The Crown Prosecution Service, which has not traditionally expended a great deal of energy on tarot readers, will cede responsibility for policing the spirit world to the Office of Fair Trading. Anyone taking money for psychic services will be barred from aggressively targeting the vulnerable. And, crucially, complainants will no longer have to demonstrate deliberate malice to have a chance of success. In short, psychics and mediums will be judged on a par with door-to-door salesmen and second-hand car dealers.

As might be expected, the most voluble reaction from the psychic community has been of dismay. The Spiritual Workers Association, an organisation founded specifically to fight the change, gathered 5,000 signatures to a petition which argued that spiritualists were victimised by the change in the law in a way Christians never could be. It had no effect.

"We don't have any objection to the new regulations in themselves," says Carole McEntee-Taylor, the organisation's co-founder. "But by repealing the Fraudulent Mediums Act as well, they're taking away the statutory recognition of genuine mediumship. People fought for 100 years to get that ' law through Parliament." Worse, since spiritualist churches routinely charge for entry – solely, McEntee-Taylor says, to cover the costs of venue hire and travel – they will be vulnerable to malicious complaints from the aggressively sceptical.

One can hardly blame spiritualists who claim persecution. Their profession has not exactly been immune to ridicule, and it's not hard to imagine a long line of naysayers with the will to complain. But it's for precisely this reason that another strain of opinion within the ranks of the clairvoyant insists that the legal change will work in their favour, eliminating the loose cannons who give the industry a bad name. The Spiritualists' National Union, the best-known umbrella group in a broad field in which its position is roughly analogous to that of Monty Python's People's Front of Judea, has come down strongly in favour of the new rules. It argues that no one who works responsibly will have anything to fear.

"We get very few complaints about our mediums," says Duncan Gascoyne, the organisation's president. "It's the others outside in the sticks, who claim to be mediums and aren't, who cause all the trouble. If [the new rules] help to clean the movement up, they're in our interest."

The question, then, is this: what exactly is a bad psychic? To a non-believer, Colin Bates might seem like one who might warrant the occasional grumble, relying as he seems to on cold reading, persuasion and a scatter-gun approach to common human characteristics that seem less like clairvoyance and more like an enormous game of Guess Who. But while this is not exactly endearing, it is not dishonest, either – and instead of consternation, it brings comfort. Certainly no one seemed to be complaining at Stansted Hall, and no harm was done: the hourly rate for entertainment, if that's your sort of thing, works out very reasonably indeed.

So perhaps the question should be recast to consider responsibility. Like the doctor, the sensible psychic's first rule is probably to do no harm, and while there may be no such thing as a good medium to the ardent materialist, the contrast between those who have a code and those who don't – between the tactful and the terrifying, the reasonable and the rip-off – is obvious to anyone. Under that scheme, it may be people such as Warren Caylor who should be worrying.

Like all physical mediums, Caylor performs his "experiments" in the dark, and in an era of infrared cameras and miniature recording devices, he is one of the few to still be plugging away. Caroline Smith and Michelle Skyrne went to see him last year, after hearing from a friend that he might be able to help them contact loved ones on the other side. Caroline's father had died of cancer, and Michelle's boyfriend, a soldier, had been killed in Iraq just two months before; £30 each from 80 audience members seemed like a lot of money, but they had heard he had a connection. So they took off all their jewellery and went through the compulsory metal detectors and took their seats, and watched Caylor being strapped into his chair, the better to guarantee he couldn't move during the séance. Then, to combat the risks of ectoplasm, the lights went off.

Ectoplasm, as any physical medium will tell you, is the crucial thing that distinguishes the gifted few from the rest of us. A kind of ethereal, intestinal goo that can manipulate the restrained visionary's surroundings, it looks – in Caylor's pictures, at least – an awful lot like toilet roll. Light is said to force the stuff back into the body at dangerous speed – indeed, the legendary Helen Duncan, queen of the physical mediums and the last woman to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act, is said to have died from complications resulting from a sudden ingestion of ectoplasm when the police raided one of her shows with torches.

This is one explanation why Smith and Skyrne found themselves in the pitch black, waiting for a message. Unfortunately for the medium, just as the spirits started to send luminous signs of their presence, enough light from a passing car got in through cracks in the window panels for his audience to see him out of his seat, the bindings removed, waving a pair of what looked suspiciously like glowsticks. This is another explanation.

Caylor, sensibly enough, did not hang around long enough for Skyrne or Smith to demand a refund. They considered going to the police, but decided that their chances of success were too slim for it to be worth bothering with, and they were probably right. With the Office of Fair Trading in charge, cases will be treated in the context of other reports of fraud, rather than in isolation, as they tend to be at present. Given enough complaints, someone such as Caylor might eventually be held to account.

Smith is, not surprisingly, in favour of the change. "I just wanted to speak to my dad," she says, her anger still fizzing. "I really wanted to believe. But this man made a mockery of the whole thing. It was just laughable, like a 'Punch and Judy' show. That's what was so upsetting."

The fact that both she and Skyrne continue to believe in the possibility of psychic connection with the dead is, if nothing else, a remarkable testament to the resilience of faith. It is true, as many psychics will tell you, that there isn't much you can do to convince someone who's made their mind up that it's all nonsense; it is worth pointing out that it's not all that easy to unconvince someone, either. At Stansted Hall, still glowing from her reading, Audrey remains resolute. But what about the watch, I wonder. What about the phantom corner shop? Isn't it all the same as the glowsticks, in the end? Audrey sighs and tilts her head. "I suppose if I didn't believe I wouldn't see the difference," she says, and her still-unnamed husband's ghost is plainly close at hand. "But I know what that was. And it certainly wasn't fraud." n

The animal translator

Oephebia, 45, south London

'I'm hoping to refine my parrot communication skills in the future'

This change in the law is a minefield, but for people who are genuine, I don't think it's going to be a problem. Some of my colleagues charge an arm and a leg, and they're rubbish; I'm concerned about that. Some people charge £120 an hour. They give us all a bad name. Of course we have to earn a living, but you have to be reasonable. The people who need your gift are not necessarily the ones with a lot of money.

Working with animals is very different to working with humans. Even if they're having problems, they tend to be simpler. They don't get embroiled in love triangles. It's usually a matter of helping them let go of a trauma from the past.

One dog I worked with used to go ballistic at the oven all the time. It was bizarre. It turned out that when he was young he had been made to fight, and he had been kept in a container outside with a lot of other puppies, and it had a grill in it. So naturally the oven made him anxious. I helped him and he's still a bit strange, but he doesn't go ballistic now.

I have an African pygmy hedgehog myself. She's called Zoe. She's a little madam, but her thoughts are very basic. It's food, it's no bath, and it's cuddles. She's an amazing creature. She lives such a simple life, totally in the present. Sometimes I think I could take a leaf out of her book.

I used to have a parrot, too. But he wanted to be free. I didn't realise at first but I've got my suspicions that he was raised in the wild, I got that vibe after I bought him. So now he's in a sanctuary in Lincolnshire. I visit him sometimes. He's got a girlfriend and he's having the time of his life. I'm hoping to refine my parrot communication skills in future.


The psychic artist

Su Wood, 60, Gwynedd, Wales

'When my drawings are accurate, people cry – it's such strong proof'

If I tune into the spirit world, I become aware of faces. On a rainy Monday night in January 1991 I knew I had to draw what I was seeing, and I haven't stopped since.

I would look into the audience and I would see the spirit standing next to the person they knew. Now they don't come through so strongly. I just get told the way to draw the face.

It's understandable that it's become harder. The spirits were holding my hand, I assume, to encourage me, like when you learn to write at school. But teachers don't hold your hand forever.

When it's very accurate, some people cry; it's such a strong piece of proof. Still, I never promise I can make contact. All I can do is make myself available, and if the spirit chooses to show itself to me, that's wonderful.

Since 2002 I've worked with an aura camera too. It gives you a picture which shows a person's aura in various colours around their head, then I use my psychic abilities to interpret that. People confirm straight away that the readings are accurate. They come back year after year after year.

It still won't make me rich, though. It makes me laugh when people say that we do this for money. For an hour session I get paid £6 and provide my own acetate and pens. I used to be a counsellor and now I'd probably earn more at McDonald's. You don't do this for the money. You do it because you know it's going to help people.

The TV star

Colin Fry, 46, Haywards Heath, West Sussex

'Not everyone who claims to do what I do is so ethical'

Ten years ago if you'd told me I'd be demonstrating to 3,000 people a night, thanks to my shows on UK Living, I wouldn't have believed you. Now it's my life.

If you're in the public eye, you're going to come in for more criticism, and you just have to accept that. I try to make things as normal as possible, but there are people who say I overplay the spooky element. What I do know is a lot of people find my work inspirational. If half a dozen people get a message that changes their lives, and thousands more have something to think about, I've done my job.

I've been accused of fraud, and got into situations I probably shouldn't. But all you can do is say, "I'm not a fake" and work harder. And we're all human. How many lawyers come away from a case and think, I messed that up? It doesn't stop them being a lawyer. I can only tell you that I know what I do is genuine, and the fame hasn't changed the spiritual side of it. The problem is, a lot of people confuse spirituality with piety. I'm not very patient with the "away with the fairies" lot.

Spiritualists tend to feel a bit persecuted, and this new law won't help. But in any field of life people are governed by laws. It's important to realise that this isn't just directed at mediums and psychics. It's to control bogus traders in all fields. That's not such a bad thing: not everyone who claims to do what I do is as ethical as I am.

You can't change everyone's opinions, but my shows are constantly sold out. I think my public have already formed their opinion.


The hereditary psychic

Rosa Derriviere, 38, west London

'I could be a gypsy fortune teller, but I'm progressive'

My grandparents were natural healers, from a town called Benevento in Italy. When I was little we visited my grandmother, who was preparing a healing ritual, muttering this mantra. I justconnected with the energy.

I have been doing it professionally now for 20 years, and running a practice for 15. I still give private readings, but now I do work over the telephone too, on Psychic TV, where you can call in and talk to the psychic on screen. A lot of people don't understand how you can pick it up over the phone. But once you've tuned into the vibration and are connected with your spirit guides, it's the same.

The TV work is a fantastic platform to show what a modern psychic does. The thing about the psychic world is there are so many different styles. There are still gypsy fortune tellers knocking about. I could do that if I wanted, but I've chosen to be progressive.

So I don't think this new law is going to affect me, but you never know. I don't believe that my private clients are going to vanish, but sometimes the wires get crossed for everyone. So we have to be really careful.


The spirit host

Ron Gilkes, 70, Barnbury, Oxfordshire

'Mediums have surplus ectoplasm. The friction can burn them terribly'

Séances have to be in the dark because of the ectoplasm. We've all got it, but mediums have a surplus that hangs around the pancreas area. They can extract it from the mouth, but if there is even a spark of light, it shoots back at great speed. The friction can burn them terribly.

I run a place called Jenny's Sanctuary, for my daughter, who committed suicide 14 years ago, and we've never had any problems with that. We do things properly here.

I never make any money out of it. I just provide the space. All I'm looking for is proof of what happens after the death of the body, and I've had that all right. I have lost count of the number of conversations I've had with my daughter. I've had her hold both hands, and give me a kiss on my head. And in the room there's always this tremendous feeling of love.

We've had all sorts come to talk to us: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Judy Garland, Winston Churchill. There's always a reason they come back: nothing is petty or frivolous in the spirit world. Winston signed his name on a picture we'd left on the floor. Princess Di signed too.

That was all with Warren Caylor, a wonderful medium we developed. He could do marvellous things. But then the bloody idiot brought a Dictaphone into a séance. I still don't know why he did it. I think he wanted to get a recording of something or other. Yellow Feather, a Native American who visited us regularly, told him to keep it in his pocket, and that's how it all came to light. I know he's genuine, but in a public séance someone will say it's fake.

I can understand why people get angry, because it costs £30 each, and if they haven't had a good night, they get a little bit peeved.

I don't take anything, which means the medium can get £1,000. I try to explain to anyone who complains that the mediums can't do this very often; it takes too much out of them.

Anyway, I'm not bitter about it. I don't care how much they earn, as long as it's genuine. That's the only thing that concerns me.


Don't have the gift? Don't worry!

Seven quick steps to contacting the spirit world

Floating is easy with the lights off. Just put your shoes on your hands, and "walk" around. The ability to throw your voice will help: "I can't get down!" won't be terribly convincing unless you sound like you're near the ceiling.

Drawing out your ghostly friends' love of music is a simple matter of planning. For an accordion, you'll need a remotely operated air hose to blow across the reeds; for a violin, resin wire to pull across the strings will do the trick.

Producing ectoplasm is easy if you can regurgitate on demand, tough if you can't. If you have the knack, swallow some muslin and wait for the right moment; if you don't, blame the chink of light coming in under the door.

If it's spirits you're after, have a Dictaphone and dummy available, preferably one light enough for you to move around from your chair. Also required: strong fishing line.

For slate writing, practice holding a piece of chalk with your teeth, so you can write despite your restraints; failing that, a double-backed blackboard will let you bring out one you wrote earlier.

Get good at escapology, and insist on having a stooge in the house.

Don't get discouraged: remember what the author of Revelations of a Spirit Medium told us in 1891: "The ranks of the 'medium' is overflowing with tricksters and humbugs of the first water." That could be you, too!

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