The other day I was scrolling through various websites and I came across this:
Through A Glass Darkly: Performance Inspired by Victorian Séances of the Fraudulent Mediums
At this exclusive evening of mind-reading and cold-reading performance, the London Magician will talk about, and demonstrate, the mind-reading and magical effects that first flourished in the Victorian séances hosted by fraudulent mediums – people who were emulating genuine psychics in parlours across England. Meeting the dead, past-life regressions, amazing mind-reading, apports — the fraudulent mediums were the forefathers of the cold reading prodigies of today. But more than being told, you will be shown: magic will be performed, minds read, tales and fortunes told. Illusion, mentalism and magic meet, through a glass darkly. Performances sell out quickly,
To be honest, my eyes glazed over on the description and focused solely on SEANCES and I called up and booked a ticket as fast as humanly possible. When I reread the description I felt a bit deflated; no cool dimmed lights and ghosty conversations for me. Poo. Well, it still had the potential to be less self-harm evoking than the other lectures/ discussions that I’ve been to.
I found the venue along a side street in Soho, checked in and sneaked down the creaky stairs to the basement where the event was being held. There were foldout chairs in neat rows, approximately 30 of them, and a dark eyed slender man pacing at the front of the room, arms folded against his chest, chin perched against his fingers, observing the crowd with darting glances.
He warmed us up with a few quick jokes and made a blanket statement about how what he was going to show us was not a reflection of whether people can or cannot do such things (smart move considering that he was in an occult shop). I couldn’t help but smile – he was clearly a skeptic amidst believers. Brave soul. Saying that, the crowd for all accounts seemed like really lovely people, so I doubt they would have lynched him for his non beliefs.
Calling various audience members up to the stage (or in this case, the carpeted floor slightly further away from the chairs), he went through several card tricks and was able to predict what card the person had or was thinking about. It was fun but not a surprise if you’ve ever watched card tricks before. When these things happen you become passive, smile and shrug your shoulders because you know that they’re always going to have the answer, even when they pretend to have messed up.
I was called up, and much to my pleasure got to partake in the Zener card experiment; this experiment has been historically used in attempt to determine whether someone possessed psychic abilities. Personally, it reminded me of the Ghostbusters.
To do this, you must concentrate on a card and place it on the table. The other person essentially guesses what card you have. You don’t need to be psychic to be able to do this; it’s a system of pattern recognition, which we all tend to revert to eventually. As a result, those who could figure out the patterns were frequently assumed to be telepathic/ psychic. He found my pattern of squiggly lines, circle, square, star, circle and cross quickly. Damn.
He then asked us all to choose the first English speaking country to come to mind. He wrote something down on a piece of paper and folded it up. My brain exploded in a chorus of AUSTRALIA! AUSTRALIA! AUSTRALIA! He asked the girl in front of me, who promptly said “Australia”. He unfolded the paper and handed it to a nearby audience member who read out “Australia”. I felt exceptionally average; just one more predictable person.
Our host also gave us a brief explanation of Cold Reading, which is super cool if you’re not familiar with it:
Cold reading is a series of techniques used by mentalists, illusionists, and con artists to determine or express details about another person, often in order to convince them that the reader knows much more about a subject than they actually do. Without prior knowledge of a person, a practiced cold reader can still quickly obtain a great deal of information about the subject by analyzing the person’s body language, age, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. Cold readers commonly employ high probability guesses about the subject, quickly picking up on signals from their subjects as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, and then emphasizing and reinforcing any chance connections the subjects acknowledge while quickly moving on from missed guesses.
I’m going to go ahead and say that it’s fair to assume that many people who claim to have psychic abilities are cold reading (I would argue that all psychics are actually cold reading, but I don’t want to be a total bummer). When I went to see the Palm Reader months ago she was cold reading me but I stopped listening when she kept implying that I was a whore. That was great.
He called up a 30 year old girl who looked a bit like Betty Page and asked her to think back to a past life. He then asked her what her initials would be. She replied JP. He asked her how old she was. She replied 23. He asked her when she died. She said 1750. He pulled out a written prediction from his pocked which said: JP, 23, 1750. Perhaps we are indeed hardwired to default to certain things.
Sometimes I like to pretend that I had a previous life as a soldier during WWI. I mainly use this as an excuse for my irrational fear that any microwave or light bulb that I turn on will explode into tiny pieces of shrapnel and become impaled in my torso.
My favourite part of the show was when he told us about when he worked at the museum and was struck by a photo that showed two men lying on the sidewalk after being pulled from a fire. One of the men was horribly burnt but survived the incident; the other was unscathed but died from smoke inhalation. He then showed us two objects: one was a lighter and one was a coin. The lighter belonged to the man who was burnt but survived. The coin belonged to the man who died from smoke inhalation.
Next, he asked two members of the audience to look through the stack of small black & white photographs he had. He assigned them one of the two objects and each person had to say whether the photos reminded them of the lighter or the coin. When there were two neat stacks by each object he flipped them over and showed that on the back was written either “Alive” or “Dead”.
All the people in the photos were in the same fire; the photos that reminded the woman of the coin had all died in the blaze. The ones that reminded the fellow of the lighter had survived. Very curious. It was the sort of experiment that makes you raise your eyebrows as you try to figure out how this is possible (if it was indeed being truthful).
The wonderful thing about this evening was that everything was a trick and those are fun to ponder.
The evening ended with that and several people crowded around the small table to examine the objects and photographs. I asked our host if he had a card. We locked eyes for a second longer than is socially acceptable, both of us musing. He figured me out, despite my dark frock.
Bloody Cold Readers…