Does media actually speak to the dead

Beyond contacts? The tricks of spiritualistic media

A comment from Dr. Peter Kügler

The belief that one can contact spirits of the deceased is part of many religions and may be as old as human culture. What is known today as spiritualism, however, began in the USA in 1848: knocking noises could be heard in the house of the Fox family in Hydesville, New York State. The two daughters Kate and Maggie used these noises to communicate with the afterlife and quickly became famous. Numerous public appearances followed. In 1871 Kate traveled to England, where Spiritism had previously been made known through American media. In 1888, however, Maggie confessed that the noises had been made by the sisters themselves. Do you want to know how? This is in the first chapter of the book "A Magician among the Spirits" (1924) by the legendary magician Harry Houdini. Incidentally, Houdini exposed every spiritualistic medium he encountered.

First, what differentiated nineteenth-century spiritism from previous evocations, visions of the afterlife, and haunted phenomena was the fact that it became a mass phenomenon, especially in the United States and Great Britain. There are still spiritist organizations there today, some of which even refer to themselves as “church”. New technologies contributed to the spread of spiritualism, such as photography, which was excellently suited for counterfeiting, e.g. through double exposures.

Second, spiritism was under scientific scrutiny from the start. Quite a few natural scientists and physicians took part in spiritualistic demonstrations and could not find any fraud. Your positive assessment naturally contributed to the popularity of spiritism. However, there was also criticism from the start. The tests by which the English physicist Michael Faraday proved in 1853 that the table is moved by the muscles of the participants when the table is "moved" are well known. Time and again, spiritistic media were caught cheating. To give a rather unsavory example: There were female mediums who hid fine cloths in the vagina or anus, which were brought out as "ectoplasm" under the sparse lighting of the spiritualistic session. Of course, not all media were fraudsters. Some were able to enter states of “trance” or “obsession”, which are now known as “dissociative states”. They themselves believed in the presence of the spirits, even if these spirits were sometimes historical persons who could not have existed, or even Martians.

Such cases contributed to the fact that, in the first half of the 20th century, spiritism had more or less lost its credibility. It was difficult to impress with photographic double exposures. Psychology identified the mental disorders from which some media suffered and dealt with techniques of hypnosis and self-hypnosis. And last but not least, the practices of the spiritualists were no longer checked only by scientists and other professional groups found suitable, but also by professional magicians such as the aforementioned Houdini.

As everyone knows, even clever people are usually unable to figure out magic tricks. It would therefore be a great mistake to believe that only stupid people let themselves be convinced by spiritualistic media. On the contrary, among the believers there are also scientists, lawyers, psychotherapists, politicians, theologians and many other people who are experienced in thinking. Psychologists who know about perceptual deceptions and manipulation techniques have slightly better cards. But only magicians are really trained to see what their colleagues are up to.

This is also the reason why the famous "spoon bender" Uri Geller refused to demonstrate his skills when a professional magician was in the audience. In 1973 James Randi ( had attended one of his demonstrations undetected and found that Geller's tricks were pretty bad, to which Geller responded with numerous unsuccessful lawsuits. To this day, Randi has devoted himself to explaining and exposing the supposedly paranormal and has shown again and again how easily audiences and even parapsychologists can be tricked. Some may know that the recently deceased Jack Houck ( has organized so-called “PK parties” since the 1980s. In an emotionally charged atmosphere, numerous people, including many children, practiced spoon bending (Houck himself also referred to this as "warm forming"). Only a few “skeptical” or “analytical” people were allowed to take part because they were unsuccessful and allegedly bothered the others by watching them.

At the time when Geller and Houck devoted themselves to bending spoons, the art of contact with the hereafter fell into the hands of people who no longer needed any tools (tables, tape recorders, ectoplasm, etc.) to contact the dead. What is meant is "channeling", the ghost seeing and / or hearing in a small group of participants or in front of a large audience. In English, such a person is referred to as a "Psychic Medium" or simply "Psychic" for short. In the German-speaking world, often only the word "medium" is used. Incidentally, media should not be confused with “mentalists”. Mentalists use similar tricks in their stage or television shows, but do not pretend to have supernatural powers or to really be in contact with the afterlife. In short, with mentalists you know it's just for show.

On April 6, 2013 I had the opportunity to watch such a “psychic” at work. Paul Meek, born in Wales and living in Germany for a long time, gave a lecture in the community hall of a village in the afternoon. This was followed by a two-hour “media evening” after a long break, during which Meek made contact with deceased relatives and acquaintances of those present in the audience and delivered messages.

What my wife and I saw and heard was a textbook demonstration. Do you want to learn it too? Go ahead. I recommend reading The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland. “Cold Reading” is the collective term under which most of the techniques used by Meek fall. Cold reading is the art of gaining information about the conversation partner through skillful conversation and observation and thus creating the impression that one has "paranormal" sources of information, e.g. talking to ghosts. The media and mentalists systematically use these techniques for professional purposes, but we all do similar things when we draw our conclusions from other people's appearance and reactions, often unconsciously. Rowland's book details these techniques. There are quite a few, so I cannot go into all of them here.

I would like to content myself with four tips to help you start your career as a medium:

1. Start with general statements that will apply to many people in the audience. Of course, if you see ghosts then the statements should apply to many deceased fit. In this case, general statements about health problems and causes of death can be used. You can then refine these general statements a little after you have received initial feedback from people who feel concerned.

2. That brings us to the second tip: Make sure that you receive reactions immediately. For example, Meek said that he had to hear the voices of the people in the hall in order to be able to assign the deceased to the right person. Most responses will be a simple “yes”, which will tell you that someone is feeling concerned and that you are on the right track. Silence or even a “no” should induce you to change your strategy. Facial expressions and body language will also contain answers to your hidden questions.

3. Speak very quickly. This has the advantage that the audience ignores inappropriate statements and errors or is quickly forgotten. Since the audience consists mostly of people who basically want to believe you, the correct statements will stick. This is known as selective perception.

4. And finally: If you are caught making a mistake, reinterpret what you have just said in such a way that it fits again to some extent. (Occasionally you can admit that you were wrong, but please do not too often, as this would undermine your credibility.) In the first report on Meek's media evening, an example was mentioned: Meek thought he was talking about a Talking about girl who passed away at the age of four. When it was found that the girl had died four years ago, before giving birth, he simply claimed that the girl would appear to him today as a four-year-old.

Rowland describes a total of 11 methods with which the medium can pull itself out of the affair if it is wrong. The case just mentioned falls under Method 9, by the way: Admit that you were factually wrong (the girl did not die when she was four), but within your belief system you were correct (a girl who died before giving birth may appear to you to be four).

In his book "Pseudoscience and the Paranormal", Terence Hines reproduces a dialogue from a BBC television program in which the English medium Doris Stokes appeared. Stokes first asked if anyone in the audience, which consisted of several hundred people, knew a "little Daniel". A young woman answered. Stokes also asked if Daniel had to "go back to the hospital," which the woman said yes. Then Stokes said that Daniel was fine again ("he's all right now"). However, the woman replied that he might be fine in the afterlife, but that they had actually "lost" Daniel. Stokes replied that this is exactly what the ghosts would say. A little later she claimed that little Daniel would like to give flowers to his mother, on the assumption that the young woman was Daniel's mother. But she replied that she was not the mother. "No," said Stokes, "but you know his mother" - which the woman confirmed. And of course Stokes interpreted her previous statement to mean that little Daniel was his absent Mother giving flowers. Anyone who has listened to Paul Meek will notice the similarities.

Stokes, who died in 1987, had to rely not only on her skills in cold reading. Among other things, she made sure that there were people in the audience about whom she already had important information. With this we leave the rather harmless area of ​​cold reading and come to what is known as “hot reading”. Hot reading is the prior collection of information that the medium can later present as supernatural knowledge. In the simplest case, the medium receives this information through a conversation with the client or the audience. Often “assistants” are involved. It also happens that the client's background is spied on, sometimes even gaining access to his apartment. Such methods are of course particularly suitable for preparing individual spiritualistic sessions or "seminars" in small groups.

Paul Meek practices hot reading on the open stage as part of his program. Immediately after the one-hour lecture, there was a half-hour part in which the audience could turn to him with questions. Many revealed information about themselves, their lives and deceased relatives. It is not surprising that most of the people who spoke up here were approached two hours later during the "media evening". The medium already knew what it had to "perceive" in the hereafter in order to establish a connection with them. It should not be forgotten that at the beginning of the event, the medium sat among the people at a table, where it sold and signed its books. At the same time it probably got to hear a lot that was useful to it later.

It is of course difficult to judge from a distance whether a spiritualistic medium is deliberately deceiving its audience and whether hot reading methods are also being used that go beyond mere "listening in". But I would like to emphasize again that not all spiritualistic media deliberately work with questionable means. One of the most interesting psychological aspects of spiritism is that a medium can fool itself. There are media that want to do their clients good and are honestly convinced that they have psychic abilities. They may not ask for any financial consideration for their services, and they may not make large profits from stage shows and book sales.

Morris Lamar Keene, who worked financially very successfully as a medium between 1958 and 1971, reports that he and his colleagues differentiated, among other things, between media with "eyes open" and those with "eyes closed". Those with "open eyes" know that they are cheating and also talk about it with other fraudulent media. Those with "closed eyes", on the other hand, believe that they themselves have supernatural abilities. They are not initiated into all the secrets of the trade by those in the first group, but they are valued by them because they are extremely important for the credibility of the trade. After all, nobody is more convincing than a friendly vacuum cleaner salesman who also believes in the quality of his vacuum cleaner himself.



Terence Hines: Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, Amherst 2003

Harry Houdini: A Magician among the Spirits, New York 1924

M. Lamar Keene: The Psychic Mafia, New York 1976

James Randi: Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions, Amherst 1982

Ian Rowland: The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, London 2002

Michael Shermer: The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience, Santa Barbara 2002


Dr. Peter Kügleris professor at the Institute for Philosophy at the University of Innsbruck with research focus on metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of science as well as philosophy of religion.