Talking to the Dead

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Clairvoyants who claim to communicate with the dead--and warnings not to listen to them--go back at least as far as the Old Testament, yet psychics continue to flourish in back parlors and storefronts across America. None today is better known or more listened to than John Edward, a fast-talking former ballroom-dancing instructor who is cleaning up on his proclaimed ability "to connect with energies of people who have crossed over." Died, that is.

Indeed, his nightly Crossing Over with John Edward is the highest-rated show on the Sci Fi network and is about to go into syndication. He has made appearances on Larry King Live, Dateline, an HBO special, Entertainment Tonight and other TV shows. Between his fees for individual appointments, tickets for his seminars and stage appearances, and sales of his books, audiotapes and videotapes, Edward seems to be one of the few growth industries in an otherwise lackluster economy.

But is he for real? Edward's critics claim his feats are merely illusions created by standard magicians' ploys--helped along, they charge, by a few tactics that are downright underhanded.

Like other mediums, Edward relies heavily on a technique known in the trade as "cold reading." It involves posing a series of questions and suggestions, each shaped by the subject's previous response. Practitioners often begin, for example, by uttering a generality: "I sense an older father figure here," eliciting a response that leads him to the next question. "I'm getting that his death resulted from a problem in his chest" is a statistically sound guess that could cover everything from lung cancer and emphysema to a heart attack. Should the subject answer no, the cold reader will often say, "Well, we'll get back to that," and quickly change tack. It's a sophisticated form of the game Twenty Questions, during which the subject, anxious to hear from the dead, seldom realizes that he, not the medium or the departed, is supplying the answers.

Michael O'Neill, a New York City marketing manager, had no preconceived notions about Edward but experienced what he is convinced was a "hot reading"--a variation on the cold reading in which the medium takes advantage of information surreptitiously gathered in advance. Given an extra ticket by family members hoping to hear from his deceased grandfather, O'Neill attended a performance and was singled out by Edward, who received what he claimed were communications sent directly from the dead grandfather.

While many of those messages seemed to O'Neill to be clearly off base, Edward made a few correct "hits," mystifying everyone by dropping family names and facts he could not possibly have known.

It was not until weeks after the performance, when O'Neill saw the show on TV, that he began to suspect chicanery. Clips of him nodding yes had been spliced into the videotape after statements with which he remembers disagreeing. In addition, says O'Neill, most of Edward's "misses," both on him and other audience members, had been edited out of the final tape.

Now suspicious, O'Neill recalled that while the audience was waiting to be seated, Edward's aides were scurrying about, striking up conversations and getting people to fill out cards with their name, family tree and other facts. Once inside the auditorium, where each family was directed to preassigned seats, more than an hour passed before show time while "technical difficulties" backstage were corrected.

And what did most of the audience--drawn by the prospect of communicating with their departed relatives--talk about during the delays? Those departed relatives, of course. These conversations, O'Neill suspects, may have been picked up by the microphones strategically placed around the auditorium and then passed on to the medium. (A spokesperson for Crossing Over would say only that Edward does not respond to criticism.)

Meanwhile, O'Neill e-mailed his suspicions to the James Randi Educational Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the Amazing Randi, a magician and skeptic, had been tracking Edward's career. Some of what Randi has learned is scheduled to be aired this week on Inside Edition, in what will probably be the first nationally televised show to take a skeptical look at the Edward phenomenon. Among other things, the show will feature Randi's demonstration of the cold-reading technique used by magicians to entertain and mediums to hoodwink an unsuspecting public.