“You’d never imagine that in this day and age, people would believe in psychics. But it’s big. They’re filling arenas.” So Mark Edward said to a packed house at the Institute Library for the latest “Amateur Hour,” where Edward worked his powers as a medium, then showed how most of it is a crock—and then, somehow, worked his powers again.
Edward has worked as a professional mentalist for over 25 years, at theaters, nightclubs, 900 numbers, and the Magic Castle. For more than a decade, he has also been an outspoken skeptic and debunker of the same powers he demonstrates in his performances. In front of the crowd in New Haven, he was both.
After a brief conversation with host Jack Hitt, Edward started with a routine of standard psychic tricks, calling up one audience member to talk with her about a recent experience she had in California.
In another conversation with a woman in the audience, Edward delved into her personal memories, triggered by references to astronomy and the Civil War. “You’re going to make me cry,” the woman said, and she was right.
Something was going on. My thought at the time was that the audience members were plants.
Then Edward pulled back the veil and told us how he did it. It turned out that the audience responses to Edward were genuine. It was just that Edward knew what he did because he snooped. Just like every other psychic does who pulls off the same trick.
“It’s called pre-show,” Edward said, and “it’s been common for hundreds of years.” Before the show, Edward got a list of the attendees, went on Facebook, got the details he needed to make the trick work, and memorized them. “I made the notes, they’re right here in my pocket,” he said, “And you only need three or four hits in a crowd this big. That’s all it takes to turn a nonbeliever into a believer. If you’re susceptible and you want to believe, you’re toast.”
He went on to explain that psychics filling auditoriums for high ticket prices—John Edward (no relation) or Theresa Caputo—have researchers spend a day before the show perusing everything from social media to financial records to dig up the details they need.
“And this is where you hear the line,” Edward said, that the psychic “knew things there was no way in the world he could know. Forget it, folks. We live in the age of information…. Watch where you put your information up, because there are people who will take full advantage of it.”
“I call them grief vampires,” Edward said. “They may not be sucking blood, but … they’re sucking information.”
“We already did vampires,” host Jack Hitt said, to laughter. “That was last time.”
Edward went on. When pre-show research isn’t possible, a good medium can convince his audience with a cold reading—relying on generalities, body language, and the response from the target to dig up information and make it look like he knew it all along.
“That’s one of the keys to being a successful psychic,” Edward said. “Making bold statements as if they were fact.”
But here’s the thing: When Edward did a cold reading on an audience member, it worked just as well as entertainment—even when we knew what the trick was.
Moreover, Edward wasn’t there only to tear down the whole thing. “You can scar a person for life” by reaching too far into their personal lives. But to be really good at the job, to be able to read the audience and guess what they want out of the exchange, “you have to love people.” For every statement about the gullibility of the audience—“the same people who believe in demons are the ones who are having children and voting”—there was also Edward’s belief that psychic readings and magic shows can be beneficial.
“It can be addictive for both parties,” Edward said, meaning the medium and the audience. “I still like doing readings. There still is that sense that I’m helping you and you’re helping me. People want someone to bounce their dreams off of.”
He told us we should look up the time in 1973 when Johnny Carson, with James Randi’s help, exposed Uri Geller as a fraud just by offering him spoons to bend instead of letting Geller heat up a spoon between his fingers first. On the other hand, he wouldn’t explain how he did everything he’d demonstrated. He wanted to leave us with a little bit of magic, he said.
You could call Edward a disillusionist, maybe; a skilled performer thoroughly skeptical of his own skill, and trading on both the skill and the skepticism. Both were part of the show, after all. But if they were, where did the show end, and the end of the show begin?
It got me thinking about entertainers of all kinds, and about con artists and politicians, too—why we pay attention to them, why they pay attention to us, what they want out of us and what we want out of them. It was all still with me when I walked out the door onto Chapel Street.