Skeptics in the Pub October 2015

Something a little bit different at Skeptics in the Pub this month as self-confessed “psychic conman” Ash Pryce brings his Edinburgh fringe show, “How To Talk To The Dead” to The Canalhouse.

First up, we are told that speaking to the dead is easy – the hard part is having them respond. Ash then goes on to explain the history of spiritualism and mediumship, although he doesn’t give away any of the magic secrets that he uses in his show.

On the 31st of March 1848, in Hydesville New York, a new religion is born – spiritualism. They claimed to be able to contact the spirit of a murdered beggar. As you would if you discovered that you had this power, they went out on tour. By the end of the century, the sisters had fallen out of favour so they confessed that they had made it all up – they had used controlled clicking of their toes and ankle joints to imitate a spirit knocking on the wall.

Similar tricks were at hand for ghost photographs. For example, William Mumler, a photographer in New York, would take your picture for $1. One day he took a picture and there was a ghostly apparition on it. From then on, for $10, you could have your picture taken with a ghost, even a celebrity one. The “ghost” was actually just his secretary and he hadn’t been cleaning his photographic plate correctly. When he was caught he was offered the choice to pay $100 fine or go to prison for a year. He paid the fine and then just took his scam to another city.

Then it’s onto the infamous Ouija board and three volunteers are selected from the audience. People always think that they aren’t actually pushing the planchette around the board but they are – it’s the ideomotor effect, where people are unconsciously moving it. The Ouija board was actually invented in 1891 by Elijah Bond as a parlour game. It was some 25 years later, during World War 1, that spiritualists started using them to “speak with the dead”. Just to emphasise the fact that it’s a game, Parker Brothers (part of Hasbro Inc) still own the trademark for the Ouija board and there is even a Hello Kitty one available.

In 1850, the spirit cabinet was invented .This consisted of a chair and a table inside four canvas walls. On the table would be various objects such as a bell, a whistle and a “spirit” trumpet. The medium would be restrained in the chair and then the curtain would be drawn shut so that nobody could see inside the cabinet. Bells would ring, whistles would whistle and trumpets would sound. The people outside would think this was the work of spirits but actually it was just a clever bit of escapology.

Levitation was also incredibly popular in the 19th century and Ash demonstrates by “levitating” an Edwardian side table. One such proponent of this was Colin Evans who was performing a levitating act in Wales in the 1930s. He would produce photographs where he claimed that he was levitating but in fact he was just jumping and taking a picture of himself in mid-air. However, Daniel Dunglas Home performed a trick where he “levitated” out of windows and people still don’t know how he pulled off the illusion.

Then it’s on to the part of the evening that everyone’s been looking forward to – the ectoplasm spewing. After a brief demonstration, Ash tells us about how mediums would bring up large amounts of ectoplasm. Of course it wasn’t really ectoplasm. Instead, mediums would swallow cheesecloth or muslin and then vomit it up on demand. Helen Duncan was one such medium who used this trick and she was also the last person in the UK to be found guilty under the Witchcraft Act 1735. At a show in 1941, she claimed that a dead sailor told her about the sinking of the HMS Barham, which hadn’t been made public at the time. The Navy took a rather dim view of this and sent some people to investigate. They weren’t impressed and she was charged with fraudulent “spiritual” activity.

Ash’s show then usually ends with an exorcism, which makes sense since once the ghost is in, you have to get it out. While this may sound ridiculous, the Catholic church still have exorcists on the payroll. Since Ash is more modern than the Catholic church, he uses the Wikihow exorcism page. Ash puts his own twist on it though and so around 100 sceptics are waving their arms in the air chanting, “the power of Jedward compels you”

However, as this is a Skeptics event, Ash finishes with some talk about modern mediums. For example statements such as, “I’m getting an older person coming through”, “I’m feeling a chest complaint” and “I’m getting a name, not the spirit, someone still alive – Michael” are known as shot gunning – putting out a series of generic proclamations that could apply to a variety of people in the audience. Cold reading works because of people’s expectations and because people only remember the positives and forget the negatives – you remember the two hits and forget the two misses. Mediums also use “rainbow ruses” – two contradictory statements such as, “you like to go out and socialise but sometimes you like to stay in alone with a book”. They also use “Barnum statements” – these are very general and are the sort of things that you find in astrology.

Ash was absolutely brilliant – He was entertaining, funny and really informative. The show was so well put on, it was obvious that Ash has put a lot of work into it and it’s clear why this has been successful at the fringe. Apparently, this is one of the last times that he’s bringing the show to a Skeptics in the Pub type forum so next time he’s back, it will be a proper show and you should get your tickets now.

Author’s notes

Not previously published

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