Usually when people think of ghostly communication it’s in a positive or benign light. Ghost hunters, for example, often speak of helping lost souls “cross over” after getting information from the spirits, and mediums such as John Edward and the late convicted felon Sylvia Browne often offer ostensibly reassuring messages from dead loved ones. Whether the communication can be proven to have a ghostly origin is of course up for debate, but in many cases there can be real harm done, especially when the dead are not generic stereotypes (a Confederate soldier, for example) but once-living people.
I have discussed this issue in several of my articles and investigations, including in the haunted KiMo Theater in New Mexico and Rose Hall Plantation of Montego Bay, Jamaica. In those cases, specific once-living people’s family names have been tainted by their later inclusion into ghost stories.
I was moved to write more about this when I read several recent news stories about a Japanese psychic who claimed to have conducted a posthumous interview with Princess Diana. “A psychic who claims to have contacted the lonely spirit of Princess Diana has released full details of their claimed ‘interview’ 20 years after her death. ‘Renowned spiritual leader’ Ryuho Okawa claims he spoke to Diana’s spirit earlier this month while in a Japanese lecture hall.” Okawa, who founded a spiritual movement called “Happy Science” in 1989, has published his interview in a book titled “Spiritual Interview with Princess Diana” and claims that Diana referred to Prince Charles as “a devil,” among other unsavoury names.
When psychic mediums or ghost hunters write out messages and books they claim (and perhaps believe) are coming from the dead, this is called automatic writing. I have been in the presence of several people who engaged in automatic writing, and it can seem impressive–you get the sense that the person in front of you really is communing with a spirit and not in control of her hand and arm.
The basic problem is of course that you must take a person’s word for it that the words and messages they’re generating are not coming from them (consciously or subconsciously) but instead from outside their bodies. I’m not suggesting that all or most people who do automatic writing are faking it (though many surely are) but instead that some may truly and sincerely believe that the messages are not their own even though they themselves are the unwitting author. Because the source of the information is at issue and the medium cannot be validated, we must turn to the content of the material to determine whether or not the messages are from the afterlife.
Except for in a few places such as Spiritualist camps like Lily Dale, slate writing has long since vanished. Part of its disappearance is due to the widespread fraud uncovered a century ago, and part of it is that people no longer use writing slates. Automatic writing has lost its nineteenth century trappings and become computerized. There are hundreds of books claimed to have been written by dead people through living writers.
Channeled books surged in popularity among New Age circles in the 1970s and 1980s. Among the most popular was the book series Seth Speaks, dictated by Jane Roberts, who claimed that an energy named Seth possessed her body and dictated esoteric information through her about the soul, the nature of consciousness, spiritual truths, higher planes of reality, and so on. Channeling remains immensely popular among New Agers; hundreds of books, audiotapes, seminars, and DVDs are devoted to the practice.
In her book Conversations with History, claimed psychic medium Susan Lander wrote that Betsy Ross, widely credited with sewing America’s first flag, came out to her as a lesbian about 175 years after her death. According to an interview on Out.com, “When Lander asked Ross why she contacted her, the American icon announced: ‘I am gay and I fly the flag of pride and liberty for all of us… I am gay, I am gay, I am gay… I am speaking now as a revolutionary act,’ Ross explained [through Lander], saying she no longer wanted to carry this secret. ‘I want history to accurately reflect who I was.'”
It’s a surprising revelation from Ross–especially since many scholars doubt that she actually sewed the flag she’s famous for. According to The Washington Post, “There simply is no credible historical evidence that Ross… either made or had a hand in designing the American flag before it made its debut in 1777… it is all but certain that the story about her creating the American flag is a myth.” Given Betsy Ross’s interest in wanting history to accurately reflect who she was, it’s very strange that she would not have offered evidence defending (or disavowing) her claim to fame.
Wendy Weir, sister of the Grateful Dead singer and guitarist Bob Weir, wrote a book titled In the Spirit: Conversations with the Spirit of Jerry Garcia, in which she offered 250 pages of what she says the dead singer told her about life, music, and the world, in a series of lessons from the cosmic beyond. Unfortunately little of Jerry Garcia’s lyricism seems to have survived death, and most of his messages are indistinguishable from standard New Age platitudes. Here’s a typical message: “Joy is love. Joy is peace. Joy is within each and every one of us if only we listen to it calling, follow its song, and open the doors to where we so often keep it hidden behind pressure, guilt, work, obligations, fear, and pain. Allow the light of joy to shine forth from within, allow it to penetrate the Universe, and you will be transformed, for life within you will be raised to a high vibration and the life without you will respond to this shift…. This is a lesson we should incorporate into all of our lives, every day. Open up, allow your joy to shine forth, and feel the radiance, the joy, shining back to you.”
One of the problems with channeled writings is that for the most part there’s no way to know whether the information is actually coming from the famous dead person’s ghost or just being made up by the author. Anyone can claim to communicate with the spirit of anyone, from Jesus to Napoleon to Michael Jackson or Princess Diana, and write a book about it. Conveniently for the psychics, the dead cannot sue for defamation.
While the vast majority of information imparted through psychic mediums and channelers is impossible to independently verify, every now and then they do offer facts that can be examined. Before its demise in 2007 as a printed magazine, Stuff had a regular column called “Beyond the Grave: Interviews with Dead Celebrities.” It’s not clear how tongue-in-cheek the readers took it, but the psychic who wrote it, Victoria Bullis, was certainly serious about her work. Like Susan Lander, Wendy Weir, Ryuho Okawa, and many others, Bullis “interviewed” many dead celebrities including ex-model Anna Nicole Smith, and when Smith was asked about the then-hyped controversy over the paternity of Smith’s daughter, Dannielynn, Smith was clear and unequivocal: “Please tell everyone it’s Howard K. Stern.”
However soon after the interview was published, DNA tests revealed that in fact Smith’s former boyfriend Larry Birkhead was the father. For Bullis (and others who believe that people can talk to the dead) this presents an interesting problem, because the ghost said something that wasn’t true. There are several possible explanations: 1) Smith did not know who the father of her child was, and therefore the dead don’t have any better information than the living (about paternity, cosmic truths, or anything else); or 2) Smith lied to Bullis and her readers (thus calling into question the truth of anything communicated by a ghost) or 3) “World-renowned psychic” Victoria Bullis cannot really talk with the dead as she claims.
Ghost hunters and psychic mediums should consider the potential damage they can do to the living (and the legacy of those who have passed) by speaking on behalf of the dead. It may earn them fame and attention–not to mention scorn from skeptics–and legally they have every right to do it; ethically, however, it’s another matter.
Ouija board image courtesy of Kenny Biddle