By now, you’ve noticed the ginormous bags of candy, scary décor, and an assortment of colorful costumes littering your favorite retail haunts—Halloween fast approaches.
Besides dressing in morally questionable attire and eating enough candy to incur a verbal beat down from Wilfred Brimley, the festive fall holiday offers us the chance to remember and honor the dead.
But what if we could do more than remember the dead? What if some of us can actually talk to the dead?
Mediums claim they are able to directly communicate with the dead. Yes, mediums claim they can reach out to your deceased Aunt Marge to ask for the decadent apple pie recipe she took with her to the grave. Who doesn’t love a good pie, right? Can mediums actually talk to the dead, or is there something else going on here? I suspect the latter is the case.
In the senior psychology seminar I teach (The Psychology of Weird Beliefs), I teach my students how to talk to the dead.
To begin this process, you need a motivated audience of one or more people. People who believe the medium can actually talk to the dead are more likely to fall prey to the confirmation bias and subjective validation.
In other words, the audience is more likely to remember the times the medium provides seemingly accurate information and will likely ignore, downplay, or distort the times the medium fails to do so. Thereby, validating their initial personally held belief: the medium can talk to the dead. Thus, you need an audience who desperately wants to contact a deceased loved one and believes that you are capable of delivering the goods.
When I demonstrate this trick in class, I begin with some theatrics. Dimming the lights, I close my eyes and begin to breathe slowly. I offer an invitation to those behind the veil of death to reveal his or her self to me. Without exception, the person I “summon” is an elderly person. Why? Because the elderly have a nasty habit of dying.
I am playing the odds here that it is more likely a student has lost an older relative rather than a younger loved one. Almost without exception, I select an elderly man as my chat partner, since males have a shorter average life expectancy than do females. Again, a game of odds.
I inform the class an elderly man now stands at the back of the classroom, and only I can see him.
At this point, I seek out non-verbal cues indicating I’ve said something personally relevant to them (e.g., widening eyes or leaning slightly forward). If I get nothing, I might quickly indicate an elderly woman has also entered the room. If I get the non-verbal confirmation I seek, I will ignore the elderly man from that point forward. Usually, however, an elderly man serves as the ghostly visitor.
Next, I ask the deceased about their cause of death.
I inform the class the deceased is pointing to his chest—indicating he may have died from a heart attack (pausing briefly again to look for those telling non-verbal cues). If I get no response from a heart attack, I may move to cancer, and if there’s no response to that, I move onto the next cause of death quickly.
Get the picture? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease and cancer are ranked one and two on the list of causes of death in men. Again, I am playing the odds.
Notice how I never start with being crushed by a piano falling from a ten story building, or being consumed by a Sharknado as the cause of death. By this point, I have identified at least one or two students, by reading their non-verbals, who most likely lost a grandfather to heart disease or cancer.
Now that I have a dead person and their cause of death, I set out to get the ghostly guest’s name.
My fishing expedition begins by informing the class that the elderly man’s name starts with the letter S or maybe M. Why S and M? Get your mind out of the gutter! This is because first names are more likely to begin with the letters S or M rather than, for example, the less frequently occurring U or Q.
By this point, more often than not a student will shout out some information useful to my ruse.
For instance, one time I started fishing with the letter S and a student blurted out to me and the class that her grandfather Stephen died from a heart attack. In such cases, the hook is set; time to reel in the student.
To this point, I’ve used a variety of techniques falling under the umbrella of cold reading.
Cold reading refers to the various strategies, in this case, a medium, uses to collect information from a person they knew nothing about prior. In others words, the medium went into the interaction cold. By reading body language, relying on the odds, and fishing for information (Did his first name start with S?), an effective medium leads people to believe they are actually collecting meaningful information from the dead.
In fact, people often forget that they offered the information freely to the medium and not the other way around.
Let’s return to the case of the student who lost her grandfather, Stephen.
After the student informed me that her grandfather Stephen died from a heart attack, I told her that he was here with us in the classroom now. As it was near mid-term examinations, I relayed the message that “He understands you are really stressed right now, but you will be fine. He’s really proud of the young woman you’ve become,” because who wouldn’t want to hear such praise?
Notice, I didn’t say “He’s really upset that you’ve developed a bit of a cocaine problem.” Even if she did in real life, I don’t want to know that information. I need plausible deniability.
Thus, if you are the medium, you want to keep the “message” from the deceased both positive and general. People like to hear good things about themselves and are more likely to believe general statements apply to them personally—this is known as the Forer Effect.
The Forer Effect occurs when people believe statements that apply to a wide range of people are tailored to them specifically. The cherry on top came at the end of our interaction when the student suggested that I had correctly identified her grandfather as Stephen. I reminded her that she was the one who provided that key information. I said only the person’s name (not HER grandfather, per se) started with the letter S. Please know that I fully debrief students at the end of each reading.
There are additional strategies for creating the illusion that one is talking to the dead.
In a hot reading, the medium cheats by accessing information about the person before meeting with them. Whether it is by surreptitiously collecting information through interviewing the person’s friends or family, going online to examine the person’s social media presence (e.g., Instagram), or by having the person fill out a pre-interaction questionnaire. A number of famous televangelists, faith healers, and mediums have been busted for engaging in hot readings. I’m not naming names here, under the legal advice from my cadre of attorneys.
Unfortunately, people that we love die. I wish we could converse with them about the afterlife and ask them important questions like, “how’s the WiFi?”
Sadly, there seems to be no evidence that people can actually talk to the dead. Let me restate the previous statement: Anyone can talk to the dead, but as Michael Shermer and others have pointed out, the trick is getting to dead to talk back.
Happy Halloween, you ghouls!