A Voice From the Other Side

By Ruth La Ferla

A long ago, Sally Morrison, a senior vice president at Miramax Films, got a message that her husband, Paul, was "very upset that you don't spend more time being in touch with his family." Some wives would have chafed at the scolding, delivered by proxy, no less. Not Ms. Morrison. "I laughed. It was exactly the kind of thing Paul would say,"she recalled. "I found it comforting." Comforting? Well, yes. Her husband, she explained, had been dead for six months and his reprimand arrived through a spirit medium.

Ms. Morrison is one of a growing number of earnest searchers, thrill-seekers and just plain trend-followers who have lately consulted mediums of self-styled emissaries from the spirit world who attempt to place the living in contact with the dead. In recent years the number of such believers has swollen, spilling from the Birkenstock-and-crystal set into the culture at large. A Gallup poll found that 20 percent of respondents in 1996 believed the dead could contact the living. Another 22 percent allowed that it might be possible of a willingness to suspend disbelief that has lent one of the oldest of the psychic arts a new luster.

"Without a doubt, visiting spirit mediums is becoming amazingly popular," said Cathy Cash Spellman, whose novel "Bless the Child," about a spiritually gifted little girl, was made into a film with Kim Basinger that was released over the summer. It followed last year's hit about a similar subject, "The Sixth Sense," whose child medium moans, "I see dead people."

Ms. Spellman attributed the heightened interest in mediums to or spiritists, as they like to call themselves or to a spillover from the growing interest in alternative medicine and Eastern spirituality. "We live in a world where many people have an acupuncturist, understand that there is energy and practice the martial arts," she said. "People are so much more open-minded about the unseen."

"They're talking to angels," she added. "At that rate, why not talk to the dead?"

Or why not communicate with your pets, a skeptic would ask. The possibility of contacting the spirit realm is, to the rigorously rational, and to most organized religions, no more credible than the Grand Guignol theatrics or rattling skeletons, witches on broomsticks or that are the stuff of America's own day of the dead, Halloween.

Still, there is a serious rising interest in the subject of mediums. "There is something in our culture today that is more accepting of things you can't quite get your mind around," said Bonnie Hammer, the executive vice president of the Sci-Fi Channel on the USA cable network, which last summer introduced "Crossing Over With John Edward," a talk show whose host attempts to relay messages from departed souls to audience members. It has gained a cult following.

Spiritualist stars like Mr. Edward, Sylvia Browne and Rosemary Altea are among those who have evangelized the fashion crowd, and drawn devotees as well from film and publishing. They include the actress Jane Seymour, the literary agent Joni Evans and the designer-turned- cabaret-performer Isaac Mizrahi.

"Quite a large number of people in the fashion world are paying visits to people they have lost," said Nadine Johnson, a New York publicist with clients in fashion and publishing. "I wouldn't call it booming, but it's harder and harder to get appointments with mediums these days, so you know the business has increased tremendously."

"To hear it from the people I know," she added, "mediums are a hotter commodity than the Prada bowling bag."

The curiosity has been fanned by a spate of books, television shows and films about mediums bearing tidings from the Other Side. Uncanny messages and occult encounters are the subjects of "Affinity," Sarah Waters's recent, well-reviewed novel about a sexually charged relationship between a Victorian woman and a psychic. They form the backbone of inspirational books, including "Life on the Other Side" by Sylvia Browne and "One Last Time" by Mr. Edward, each of which is on a New York Times best-seller list. And they create a subtext for films, including "The Exorcist," recently rereleased, in which a precocious little girl tries to break through to the spirit world via a Ouija board.

Spiritism has also spawned Web sites like Afterlifecodes.com, on which people can leave encrypted messages for loved ones to decode after they die; a proliferation of Learning Annex seminars; and countless private consultations costing anywhere from $2-per-telephone minute to $300 for a face-to-face meeting with a hot psychic like Mr. Edward, whose show, originally broadcast on Sunday nights, is now on five nights a week.

Self-appointed mediums like Mr. Edward have been alternately revered and reviled in history. Mediums gained a foothold in America in the mid-1800's, when the movement known as the Great Religious Awakening gave rise to psychic stars like the Fox sisters of Rochester, N.Y. Mary Todd Lincoln invited mediums to the White House.

Today, a renewed preoccupation with the spirit world has been variously ascribed to millennial angst, intimations of mortality among baby boomers and disenchantment with organized religion. "People turn to mediums to find out more about those mysteries that the church tends not to reinforce," said Dr. Andreas I. Perez Mena, the author of "Speaking with the Dead" (AMS Press, 1991), a study of spiritualism among Puerto Ricans in the United States, and an associate professor of anthropology at Long Island University.

But often the bereaved approach psychics when they have exhausted other avenues of healing. "I had never really believed in any of this stuff," acknowledged Ms. Morrison, the Miramax executive. "But you start to believe in it once you've lost someone. You're just so desperate to find that person again."

After struggling vainly to recapture a sense of her husband by visiting places they enjoyed together, Ms. Morrison turned to Mr. Edward. "He told me, `I'm getting a screwdriver; what does that mean to you?' " she recalled. "The day before, I had spent an hour looking for a screwdriver in my late husband's tool box. It was such an everyday thing to bring up. But to me, it was incredibly comforting, a sign that Paul had been there."

Suze Yalof, executive fashion director at Glamour magazine, told of a more whimsical encounter. "When I first went to a medium, it was a goof," she said. But the meeting, with Judith Nadell, a Boston psychic, took an otherworldly turn when Ms. Nadell said she saw in her mind's eye the image of a large old woman flapping about in a Persian lamb coat. "She's Russian," Ms. Yalof was told, "I get the name Cate or Catherine." "My great-grandmother died the day before I was born," Ms. Yalof said, still shaken. "And yes, her name was Catherine."

A fashion designer who declined to be named, fearing it would undermine his professional credibility, said his relationships with spirits had influenced his work. "It's not like there's a dead person looking over my shoulder," he said. "But I use a form of geometry connected to the spirit world to make my patterns."

Ms. Seymour, who was "read" on television by Mr. Edward earlier this month to promote her television movie "Yesterday's Children," said: "My skepticism regarding mediums is rampant. I'm an actress, so it's easy enough for anyone to press a key on the Internet and get an enormous amount of background on me."

She has frequented mediums but was less than impressed when Mr. Edward insisted that her mother, a woman in robust health, was gravely ill, but she was reluctant to dismiss him outright. "He might have done better outside the studio," she said. "With all those other people in the room, I don't think he had a really good shot at it."

Mr. Edward, 31, a part-time ballroom-dancing teacher with a fresh- scrubbed face and an earnest manner, acknowledged that his readings were not 100 percent accurate, or, at any rate, didn't necessarily provide the information his sitters were seeking. "People might be coming because they want to talk to their son," he said. "They do not want or expect to get a visit from grandma."

But guests on "Crossing Over," who sit in a semicircular studio as sterile as an airport waiting room, might indeed hear from Grandma. Or as in the case of Pat Carrozza, a nutritionist from a suburb of Denver, from an entire gallery of the departed. "They're saying `Florida,' " Mr. Edward told Ms. Carrozza during a recent taping of the show. Acting stunned, his sitter nodded. "Yes, my father died in Florida," she said. "I see July," Mr. Edward said. "Right, he passed in July," she said. "Now there is something about Lulu that they're showing me Lulu," Mr. Edward said. Ms. Carrozza's eyes welled up in a display of feeling that even the most practiced shill would have had trouble faking. "Lulu, that was my great-aunt," Ms. Carrozza affirmed.

Judith Nadell, the Boston psychic, maintains that she can actually see a spectral presence standing behind her sitters. In contrast, Mr. Edward said he gets his messages on an internal video screen. "I see images in my mind's eye," he said. "They're usually pop culture references, like McDonald's, which might refer to a hamburger or to someone named Ronald." Typically, such communiques come in the form of names or initials meaningful to the sitter, or of objects, like Ms. Morrison's screwdriver, or even a snatch of a popular song. "I'll say whatever is in my head," Mr. Edward said. "It's up to you to interpret it."

Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic.com on the Web, dismissed the claims of mediums as "twaddle," comparing their techniques to a sort of fishing expedition. "The technique is called cold reading," he said. "You're throwing questions at the subject, rapid-fire, and the subject is doing the reading, confirming that the psychic has scored. People remember the hits and forget the misses. That's the deeper principle."

"Mentalism is actually a show," he added, "a psychodrama that requires of its audience a willing suspension of disbelief." Until recently, such scathing appraisals have kept many mediums, and their clients, under cover. "Fifteen years ago, if you were a psychic, you didn't tell people," Mr. Edward said, adding that lately the climate had changed. "When I started, there were no Barnes & Nobles, where you could go to the New Age section. And the occult room at the public library was no place to be seen. Going there was like sneaking in to the adult section at the video store."

Mr. Edward is a participant in an ongoing study of mediums conducted at the University of Arizona by Dr. Gary Schwartz, a Harvard-educated professor of psychology, medicine and neurology who taught at Yale. Dr. Schwartz, who is researching whether human "energy" lives on after death, called Mr. Edward "one of the Michael Jordans of the mediumship world." Like the legendary athlete, Mr. Edward "is accurate about 45 percent of the time," said Dr. Schwartz, who said he has tested Mr. Edward in double-blind experiments. To have credibility, a medium doesn't need a perfect score. "You can miss more than 50 percent of your shots," Dr. Schwartz said. "But from time to time, you have to dazzle, make what we call the impossible shot."

These days Mr. Edward is routinely accosted in public by would-be sitters looking for an impossible shot. He remembered looking up from a coffee-shop breakfast in Florida recently to find that a stranger had slid into his booth. "She kept edging closer and waving her fingers," Mr. Edward recalled with a shudder. "She never introduced herself, didn't even say hello. All she kept saying was: `Anything? Anything? Are you getting anything?'