“Change the channel” (Summoning the dead)


Channeling is when someone claims to have been overtaken by a deceased person who is speaking through them. To date, no one has channeled a janitor. It is invariably someone prominent or from an interesting period. The channeler usually appears trancelike and speaks slowly in varying volume. So it’s similar to being drunk, except you can get paid for it.

Probably its best known proponent is Shirley MacLaine, though the spirits don’t speak through her. She endorses other persons, such as Kevin Ryerson. He channeled John, a being who spoke perfect English despite being a compatriot of Jesus. John told MacLaine she was co-creator of the universe, an assertion she heartily gulped. In fields like this, people are more persuaded if you tell them what they want to hear, although this example seems especially egomaniacal.

MacLaine is also fond of Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior who stopped by J.Z. Knight’s kitchen one night for some Doritos and a body invasion. In the almost four decades since, Ramtha has taught Knight about out of body experiences, quantum mechanics, and therapeutic healing. Knight has also invoked less than 35,000-year-old ideas by copyrighting the character and charging $1,000 per performance.

Ramtha insists his was a great civilization. He may be speaking in relative terms, since persons in the Upper Paleolithic Era lived in caves, wore caribou hides, and proudly pointed to the flint blade as their preeminent accomplishment. He also reports commanding a 2.5 million man army, which would have comprised 1,000 percent of the men at the time.

Part of the reason people gobble this up is a wistful desire for a better time. It gives them a chance to briefly escape their existence and live a more exciting one vicariously. There is nothing wrong with appreciating elements of another era. It is fine for a 25-year-old to sport a Bowler or listen to Jimmy Dorsey. But if that person starts pining for an era in which he never lived, there’s a problem. It’s an indication he finds his current circumstances unfulfilling. The same principle applies here, even though the time period is several millenniums. To those caught up in the romantic idea of Ramtha, the men were braver, the women more virtuous, and the mead sweeter.

Jose Alvarez, in conjunction with James Randi, demonstrated how easy it is to fool people through channeling. He invented a 2,000-year old character named Carlos and toured Australia in 1988. Alvarez mimicked every channeler he knew and included every horrible cliché he could uncover. His press releases touted interviews with non-existent publications. Towns he said he performed in weren’t real. Audience members and reporters went along with it. Even after Alvarez revealed the ruse on the Australian version of 60 Minutes, some refused to accept it. While it went further than he expected, Alvarez had succeeded in showing that deception often requires the cooperation of the deceived.

Channeling is one of the easier charades to pull off. If the channeler invokes Ramesses II, who talks about his personal life, there’s almost nothing he could say that would reveal fraud. Even if a historical inaccuracy slips in, the channeler could claim the voice in his head got it right and the historians got it wrong. After all, Ramesses II was the one who was there. And now he’s in the Milwaukee Convention Center!

By contrast, a séance is more difficult since you can’t just make up any incident. In a séance, the medium is supposedly mentally transcribing messages from someone audience members knew. This requires cold reading skill or doing one’s hot reading homework.

Séances are one of the most fraudulent paranormal businesses. Some astrologers, palmists, and Tarot readers may think they have the skills. This is seldom the case with séance mediums. Séances are done with lights off, partly to heighten suspense, but mostly to allow undetected trickery.

Skeptics have turned on lights during séances to show that spirits were actually the medium’s assistant lifting items playing an instrument. The medium may have his or her hands “tied” to a chair, but the chair’s arms will be loosened. This allows the medium to slip free and ring bells or move objects. A similar trick is to have the victim put their feet on top of the medium’s to guarantee the medium can’t use them. However, the shoes have been hollowed and glued to the floor, enabling the medium to remove their feet and use them in the deception. Another fraudster used a ball that seemed to rise and move. However, a clandestine cohort had snuck and picked it up with a stick. This was easy because the ball, like séances, was full of holes.

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