Jan 21 2016

Grief Vampires

Words are important. They definitely shape how we think about things, and are critical for affecting public opinion. I feel that as scientists and skeptics we are often on the losing side of the branding wars, probably because of our pesky attachment to technical accuracy, transparency, and honesty. Or maybe we just stink at marketing.

There is one turn of phrase, however, that I think perfectly captures a situation and is useful for communicating the skeptical position – “grief vampires.”

Grief vampires are self-proclaimed psychics or mediums who prey upon the loved ones of those who have recently died. They exploit the grieving for their own monetary gain.

It is, of course, usually impossible to know if an alleged psychic believes any of their own nonsense or if they are a pure con artist, but it doesn’t really matter. Most are a combination, somewhere along the spectrum, but regardless, the end result is the same. They are making claims and charging money, they are responsible for the outcome no matter what their intentions.

Often skeptics are dismissed with the attitude that psychics are harmless entertainment, and they may be at times. They are, after all, mentalists – magicians who pretend to have mental abilities, who use misdirection to feign psychic abilities, and who create an aura of mystery to enhance the illusion. There is a line, however, and magicians debate among themselves exactly where that line is. Self-proclaimed psychics and mediums, however, are way over the line.

There is direct and indirect harm. The indirect harm is fostering belief in a fantasy. Even if immediately harmless, relying upon gurus with non-existent powers is not a great life strategy.

Mediums often argue they offer the grieving closure, but this is just a rationalization. They, if anything, frustrate the grieving process. In the worst case scenarios they offer false hope, or sometimes even premature loss of hope. Sylvia Browne made many infamous gaffes in her career, including telling parents their missing child was dead when they were later found alive.

Alleged psychics and mediums are an industry, and a culture. They tend to follow a certain style that is currently in vogue. In the past it was common for alleged psychics to appear exotic, even other-worldly. While this style has not entirely faded, the new crop of popular psychics and mediums seem to be going for the “psychic next door” look. They are all fuzzy sweaters and loving animals.

A perhaps up-and-coming young medium personifies this new type – Tyler Henry. He is the antithesis (on the surface) of Sylvia Browne, young, photogenic, and innocent-looking. But make no mistake, he is likely just as much a grief vampire as Sylvia.

His goal is to work with parents whose children have died from suicide. That, by the way, is the number one worst loss and grief a human can experience. These are people at their most vulnerable. Into this mix Henry wishes to inject made up BS. He is not a trained counselor, and working with the grieving is very tricky. The potential for harm is tremendous.

Another example of harm is interfering with counseling which may be of benefit. This happens frequently, in fact on Henry’s Facebook page there is this comment:

Mr. Tyler, I do not desire a reading, but maybe a link or advice as to whom to turn to for help. My four year old Grandson has had “company” since infancy and he is dealing well with most of the ” company”, there are a few that are not nice and I thought you might know of a resource that may help. If he chooses to listen when he is old enough to decide, that will be his choice, but right now he has no say. This is hard on him and he does need help. Thank you for taking the time to read this and do hope you might share a link or person who knows how to help. Be well!

What is likely happening here is that a four-year-old child believes he is being visited. This may be just completely innocent “invisible friends” which the child will grow out of as a matter of course, unless his family encourages him to believe his invisible friends are real. It is also possible that this young child is having some sort of neurological disorder, and deserves medical attention, not psychic attention.

I have personally seen many cases of this – people who really need medical or psychiatric intervention being convinced that their problems are really supernatural. Henry may not be a raspy-voiced chain-smoking harpy, but the harm that he does can be just as severe, perhaps even magnified by his innocent demeanor.

In some ways I also see the “Hollywood Medium,” as he is calling himself, as a victim. He might have had a productive life if he were not sucked into an industry of exploitation and delusion.

Conclusion

I know in this article I have written with the assumption that psychics and mediums are not real. That is because they aren’t, according to all the reliable evidence we currently have. After a century of dedicated searching, no one has found any reliable evidence for ESP, precognition, or any manifestation of the afterlife.

Not only is there a lack of evidence for any extrasensory power, there is reliable evidence that alleged psychics and mediums are using mental trickery (either deliberately or inadvertently) to create the illusion of such powers. They are largely using cold reading, relying upon their targets to actively engage in confirmation bias to complete the illusion.

The psychic industry is also corrupt, and every member of that industry has to share in the responsibility. The few famous psychics lend their support to the much greater numbers of obscure psychics, some of whom con grieving elderly out of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is not a benign “entertainment” industry.

Tyler Henry may have a fresh and innocent face, but he seems poised to make that the face of a corrupt industry of grief vampires.

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