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The new medium on the block

May 27, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Either you believe or you don’t. It’s that simple.
Take this account, for example.
Some years ago Alan and Sandra went to see the psychic James Van Praagh. They were very skeptical of his ability to communicate with the dead, he wrote in his 1997 best-seller “Talking to Heaven.”
Soon, Mr. Van Praagh said a spirit named Steven had been trying to contact the couple. Yes, they replied, crying, he’s our son.
“Gee, he gives me a burning sensation,” Mr. Van Praagh wrote. “I feel like my head has been blown to bits. I’m sorry, but this is what he is giving me. Was he shot with a gun?”
The couple answered yes, that he had committed suicide. Mr. Van Praagh said the son was on drugs at the time of the shooting. They couple said yes, they had found that out.
“Your son is yelling, `It was Ronnie!’ Who is Ronnie?” Mr. Van Praagh asked.
“Ronnie was a friend of his.”
“His watch. He is talking about his gold watch.”
Alan said, “We couldn’t find it after he died. We looked everywhere.”
“Your son gave it to Ronnie for payment. Ronnie was angry. Do you know if there was some kind of fight before your son died?”
“No.”
“Steven is screaming at me, `I didn’t kill myself. It was Ronnie. Ronnie did it to me. I didn’t kill myself.”’
Mr. Van Praagh then went on to detail the fight between Ronnie and Steven, and how Ronnie killed Steven in a drug deal gone bad. Then Mr. Van Praagh said, “Listen, your son keeps showing me a garage. It is a brick garage with a white door. It has three small windows. He opens it and goes to the left-side wall.”
“We don’t have a garage. What does it mean?”
“I don’t know, but keep it, please.”
Soon thereafter, the session ended. Mr. Van Praagh wrote that several months later he received a call from Sandra.
They had a police detective follow up on the tips Mr. Van Praagh had received from the spirit of Steven. “When [the detective] visited Ronnie’s house, he found the brick garage with three windows. On the left side in a wall panel was a kilo of heroin, assorted drugs and Steven’s gold watch.” Ronnie confessed to murdering Steven, including other details that Mr. Van Praagh had channeled from the couple’s dead son. “Ronnie was brought to trial and is currently serving a life sentence in a state penitentiary,” Mr. Van Praagh wrote.
Now that is one hell of an impressive story. And I, for one, could be called a believer. For a journalist, that’s not particularly savvy. As I was preparing for my interview with Mr. Van Praagh, my co-workers teased me almost relentlessly about my venture into the otherworldly.
The office abounded with silly swamis with eyes closed and hands at their temples spookily intoning such things as “I feel the presence of your great-great-grandfather” and minor mystics declaring the long-past-amusing “I see dead people” whenever they were in my vicinity.
Seeing dead people
Many asked me whether I thought Mr. Van Praagh would be moved by my restless aura to give me an impromptu reading. I suspect there may even have been an office pool handicapping the likelihood this would occur. But I squashed all their hopes with what I believed was irrefutable logic: 1.) Mr. Van Praagh had written in his book “Reaching to Heaven” that he no longer gives private readings, and 2.) Why would he give away for free what others, such as TV psychic John Edward, who reportedly charges $300 for private sessions, get paid to do?
Plus, I had no desire to be read. The reasons for my reluctance were murky and not so logical but could be summed up in one word: fear. After all, I had been reared with a healthy respect for the Holy Ghost, ghouls and goblins, an appreciation compounded by decades of American horror cinema in which spirits haunted and tormented the living. And now I was supposed to welcome an opportunity for such visitations? Not this sinner.
So I was a bit dismayed when not more than 12 minutes into my interview with Mr. Van Praagh he suddenly stopped mid-sentence to inform me my relatives from beyond had arrived.
“I see your mother and another woman standing behind you,” he began … and then at sudden intervals during the roughly 80 minutes I spent with him, Mr. Van Praagh communicated messages to me from the beyond. He spoke of my mother and her sister, and told me things only those most close to me would know.
My kin proved to be as gregarious in death as they had been in life, which makes it a good thing that Mr. Van Praagh, though he deals with the serious business of the dead, has a lively sense of humor.
Mr. Van Praagh is celebrated for his best-selling books (“Talking to Heaven,” “Reaching to Heaven”) and appearances on such talk shows as “Larry King Live” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” His new show, “Beyond With James Van Praagh,” starts this fall. “There’s lots of work out there; there’s no limit to dead people,” he joked.
When he speaks lightly of there being enough audience to go around, he is referring to “Crossing Over With John Edward,” a syndicated show like Mr. Van Praagh’s in which a psychic communes with the dead relatives of studio audience members. “Crossing Over” is in its second season.
“John has opened the door, which has been great for television. … which is wonderful because it made it possible for me to do my show,” Mr. Van Praagh said.
His bonhomie is all well and good, but it doesn’t change the fact that “Beyond,” the rookie program from Tribune Entertainment, is chasing “Crossing Over,” the leader and bona fide hit. So it is a good thing Mr. Van Praagh and Mr. Edward have decidedly different styles. Where Mr. Edward is all sleek profile and slick showmanship, his words tumbling over each other in his rush to connect the spirits with the living, Mr. Van Praagh is gentle compassion and cuddly warmth.
“I want to get that awareness out there, to really teach people, and to help people, to show people,” he said. “Baby boomers have come to an age where they’re questioning the death situation, but so many people are serious about it. It’s huge. The concept of death has changed, and … people want to know.”
Every single person, he said, “has that question, has that curiosity. … We share two common experiences. One is birth. We know about that; we’ve all done that. But death we’re not sure about.”
With “Beyond,” Mr. Van Praagh may not be able to answer that question for everyone, but he hopes to at least bring solace to the living who seek to forgive and be forgiven.
Forgiveness “works both ways,” he said. “With people on the Earth, once their loved ones have passed over, they never had time to say goodbye, maybe. They never had a chance to say, `I’m sorry for what I did.’ … We give an opportunity for those people who have the desire, for them to contact the spirits. I find it also the other way. I contact spirits. When spirits come through, the No. 1 thing they ask for is forgiveness from their loved ones. … `I’m sorry I didn’t love you … I wish I could have loved you more.’ `I wish I could have forgiven you. I didn’t understand you the way I should have.”’
Have no fear
As for teaching people, that includes explaining why those who have “passed on” are so communicative and why they don’t have someplace better to be than hanging around Hollywood television studios.
“There are some spirits that are caught [on Earth],” he said, “whereas there are some spirits who have successfully finished, but they want to stay down here and influence people in more positive ways and help them. I wouldn’t say they were stuck, because they have free will. There are those spirits, though, who I would say are stuck. … It’s people who are kind of stuck in a situation. … And some people are surprised to find out where they are. And so they might walk around where they are until someone comes and gets them.”
Those poor souls, he said, must have someone escort them over to the world beyond. “There are those from higher levels who come down and let them know they have passed over. … For the most part we have nothing to worry abou
t because usually it will be someone who we loved very, very dearly and have a strong affinity with. They’ll come and get us.”
As eerie and spine-tingling as that process may sound, Mr. Van Praagh said there is nothing to fear from the dead. “Just as there are evil people, there are evil spirits, but I fear more from the living than I do of anything dead. There are evil people walking this Earth–Hollywood,” he said, laughing. But he said his studio audience will be protected from the messages of bad spirits. “There are gatekeepers keeping those spirits out,” he said.
“Beyond” will not only feature sessions where Mr. Van Praagh conveys messages from the dead to the living but will also include segments in which he visits intriguing locations. In the pilot show, he takes surviving relatives on a boat trip to the exact spot in the ocean off Long Beach, Calif., where a passenger jetliner crashed, killing all aboard. He plans to share the stage with guest psychics from all walks of the paranormal, such as a man who interprets a person’s destiny from the shape of his or her face, and he will have celebrity “readings.”
He envisioned and designed the format of his show 10 years ago, he said. “I always wanted to get this message out to the public.” After his first book had been on the best-seller list for 26 weeks and he was well-known throughout the country, the producers of “Crossing Over” came to him. They offered Mr. Van Praagh a show on the Sci-Fi Channel, but he turned them down. “I didn’t want to do something on Sci-Fi,” he said. “I don’t do fiction. I knew something else would come along, and it did.”
It is clear Mr. Van Praagh takes his work very seriously. He said, “Integrity is No. 1. … The show is built with my integrity, because it won’t be built without it. I just won’t do it.” He is confident that “Beyond” will make believers out of people. “It will validate for people that this is real.”
But certainly there have been and will be critics who dismiss what he does as trifling entertainment at best–and harmful, fraudulent bunk at worst.
Skeptics are something Mr. Van Praagh is familiar with, but he dismissed their influence almost cavalierly when he said, “I don’t have to deal with them.” But then he modulated his stance. “Everyone has a belief system, and if they want to believe in this, they can. … I think everyone should be skeptical to some degree. I don’t mind skepticism as long as they’re open-minded skeptics. Open-minded is fine; I’m an open-minded skeptic. Skepticism is one thing, cynicism is something else. But I find skeptics say things about these … experiences, where they’re really … prejudging, because they haven’t had the experience; they haven’t had the one-on-one reading. If they had it, they’d change their mind.”
On the up-and-up
Besides, he pointed out, for someone like himself who believes we all pay for our transgressions sooner or later, “The karma alone for fooling people would be pretty astronomical … lifetimes of horror.”
Kari Sagin, executive producer of “Beyond,” agreed there is little percentage in deceiving the audience. Precaution against perceptions of fraud is something they take seriously in producing the show. “For a psychic, integrity is everything,” she said. “Once that is taken away, it could put them out of business, because that is the cornerstone of what they’re about and why people come to them.”
She said she uses examples such as the boat trip to the plane crash site to respond to suspicions that audience members are thoroughly researched before being permitted into a show taping. “If you talk about researching [people], then you have to follow that conclusion through. … [James] would have to go back and find the passenger list of 88 people. … So he’d have to have the world’s greatest memory to go back and locate and research 88 people. … I know [he’s] smart, but I don’t know if [he’s] that smart.”
And Ms. Sagin ridicules suggestions that she has mikes or other high-tech eavesdropping devices hidden in the studio. “On my budget? I wish I was so lucky.”
But she realizes that no matter what they do or say, they will always have their detractors, and she is philosophical about it. “I believe there are people who definitely believe. There are people who want to believe,” she said. “There are people who are skeptical but open and accepting to the concept. There are people who are totally closed to the idea. But you know what? At the end of the day I’m hoping that there’s enough of an audience … there’ll be enough of those people who will want to come and be a part of the show. And that’s all we can work from.”
What could be a major factor in driving an audience to “Beyond” is the CBS four-hour miniseries “Living With the Dead,” based on the life and psychic experiences of Mr. Van Praagh, which was aired last month and was a ratings hit. It focused particularly on his exploits when he was a forensic psychic helping the police with missing persons cases. The very tall Ted Danson (“Becker,” “Cheers”) stars as the somewhat shorter and more compact Mr. Van Praagh, who is proud of the miniseries. “It’s `Sixth Sense’ with an edge,” he said. Mr. Van Praagh had a cameo appearance playing a church organist.
He has no objection to his life being turned into mass entertainment. “It’s great entertainment,” he said, “but they’ll get the message. At the end of the movie I make sure the message gets out. I fought for that ending, and it’s pretty powerful, pretty profound.”
Mr. Van Praagh has said that he was willing to wait until the right opportunities came along, and it seems his moment has arrived. “Beyond” is cleared in 85 markets, representing more than 75 percent of the United States, and has been given a firm go to debut in mid-September. “We’re ready to have it now. The consciousness has changed. It will do very well, the show. If we do it the right way, market it the right way, it will do very, very well,” he said, smiling. “That’s a prediction.”
I must say I’ll be watching. My experience of having been read was very positive. Mr. Van Praagh even brought me a message from my father that brought me to tears. I felt comforted and protected by these people who had loved and protected me in life and, it seemed, were determined to do so from the spirit world. And knowing it was a rare gift James Van Praagh was giving me, I felt special.
Which may, of course, have been his calculated objective. But he relayed details unique enough to me to convince me he is genuine. If he can manage to convey that mix of comfort and specialness to his TV audience, then “Beyond With James Van Praagh” should, as he himself has predicted, do well.