You know the kid - the one who ruined Christmas for all the other little Santa disciples. The brat who jostled the Ouija board just to freak everyone out. The precocious young nihilist who scrawled, "There is no God" on her grade 8 agenda.
What can I say? I popped out of the womb a cynic. Nevertheless, when a strange light started appearing outside my darkened bedroom door soon after I moved into my new apartment, my stomach sank and I started wishing I'd paid more attention in The Sixth Sense. Isn't there some technique to make dead people go away?
This is what happens when you grow up amongst psychic seekers, astral projectors and pop spirituality buffs. I'm a skeptic wrapped in a believer wrapped in a New Scientist reader who knocks on wood and occasionally holds her breath when driving past cemeteries.
So maybe it's only natural that I end up sitting in the back row of a How To Communicate With Heaven seminar. In truth, the last thing I want is to talk to dead people. I'm here for the man at the front of the room, moustached television clairvoyant James Van Praagh, who claims to talk to deceased dogs and dearly departed uncles. For years, my family has watched shows like his, programs like Crossing Over and Beyond, which gained cred and ratings after the mediums in question would pass tests set up by CNN talk show hosts. "How did he know Larry King had five wives? Damn, that man must be psychic."
I'm here to perform my own tests. I scan the large conference room for bugs. Hmm, you'd need pretty tall ladders to get mics into the chandeliers. If they're smart, they've rigged the washrooms. Nothing better than a lineup to get the ladies chatting. I eye the crowd for plants. Is that a real family? Funny, they don't look related. I should ask to see some I.D.
The hotel conference room is a sea of straitlaced middle-aged women, some with daughters, others with husbands. The Guyanese woman next to me is here alone. She leans in and chuckles quietly, "I'm scared." She's a skeptic, she says, but she "sees" things. I'm scared, too. Did you see the tacky talking-to-heaven books being hawked?
Finally, the man of the hour appears. The burly, round fellow with a thick cop-stache looks more like an NFL coach than a psychic. But, no, our quirky medium with a soft New York twang was actually a sitcom writer in a past life. No, really, he worked at Paramount stapling contracts together, hoping to make a living penning situation comedies. This guy knows all about timing and showmanship and uses plenty of both to push, then plug, then promote his books, tapes and even an upcoming CBS series he supposedly inspired. There's no mention of the cancellation of his own show, Beyond, but no one seems to care.
We're warned not to ask about our dead until the very end. With 500 of us in the room, he'll never reach them all, he says, so he's going to teach us how to do readings for each other.
Before I know it, I'm pressing my neighbour's bracelet against my heart chakra, trying desperately to tap into my "intuitive" side. I break into a sweat. My mind is blank. I open my eyes to see the bracelet's owner looking at me expectantly. "You're a loving woman," I gulp, "but something is holding you back." Wow, what bullshit. Can't I fake it better than that?
We're told to keep practising on our own time by guessing which elevator door will open first or who's on the line when the phone rings. It seems Toronto audiences are way more psychically uptight than Vancouver ones. No one from heaven's going to pay us a visit unless we loosen up.
I feel like I'm spending the night with a kinder, spacier Dr. Phil. His audience is obviously grieving, and he spends much of his energy walking them out of the shadows. But the crowd isn't satisfied with the peer-reading swap and the lengthy self-help pep talk. Everyone who stands up with a question is choking back tears, looking to know if their dead son or father is okay.
One woman says she hasn't slept since Van Praagh gave her a faulty reading three years ago. "When you said my [dead] father told you I was renovating my bathroom tiles to blush, did you really mean to say I was changing my taps to brass? Because he has a thick accent, you know - maybe you just didn't understand him." Desperation clings to her like a dark cloud.
After the break, Van Praagh pulls out some notes. Turns out the spirits have a habit of interrupting him while he's eating and taking a leak. He's suddenly full of messages from beyond.
Our wisecracking medium keeps pressing a woman about whether she works with physically challenged kids. She corrects him repeatedly, saying she teaches adults. "Are they retarded?" he pushes. It seems her grandmother's spirit is insistent about this. "No," she says, "they're immigrants." Oops. Talk about a faux pas. Maybe grandma was racist.
Another man is asked about his German background when he's actually English and Russian. "Oh, but my boss is German," he offers. "Has he passed over?" No? Oh well, wrong again. We move on.
But the audience is forgiving. When the ghost of a German shepherd with bad hips manifests, we all sigh. "Oh my god, how did the dog know his master got new glasses this week!" I stare the medium down from 30 rows back. If he can read minds, he should know I want him to summon the spirit of my lop-eared bunnies. Alas, nothing.
For every three wrong guesses, a right one draws rousing applause. How could he know a father had a picture in his SUV of his dead son in a ball cap? That's pretty damn specific. Then again, maybe Van Praagh saw the dad drive up in his gas-guzzler.
I want to believe him. And I do now and then. But so many of his messages "from beyond" only reveal his keen sense of the obvious. Come on. The young couple clutching a teddy? The 80-year-old woman here on her own? The 40-year-old sisters in the back row? You can pretty much guess which has a dead child, a dead husband or a dead grandmother.
And how do you corroborate a statement like "Your great-grandfather is standing behind you, and he says you were a pirate in your past life"?
Still, believers will keep finding comfort in right guesses and skeptics will keep looking for mics in the chandeliers.
Turns out my ghoul was no ethereal night-walker but the intermittent light of a smoke detector. Seems I need to change the batteries.