A Skeptic Among the Spirits

Case studies like this will typically be detailed and thorough, so this entry is even wordier than usual. I apologize in advance.

I’ll risk people skipping over it because I think this event deserves to have a detailed chronicle available online for anyone who might be considering going to it, or for anyone who’s doing a background check on the mediums that host it.

I recently attended a “Physical Phenomena Weekend” at the Roanoke Metaphysical Chapel to do a little research. The people in charge of the event, F. Reed Brown, Mike Perry, and Sandra Tedora, consider themselves to be among the carriers of the torch of the olden day Spiritualists, practicing and teaching various forms of mediumship through classes and workshops.

The weekend was devoted to demonstrating physical mediumship in particular, which is the discipline of evoking tangible, objectively-perceivable phenomena in the material world, such as the moving and levitating of objects, spirit manifestation, apports, etc. They explained that this is done using a substance called ectoplasm that we all have in our bodies (some more than others). This substance is somehow paradoxically physical and accessible to spirits. It is the ectoplasm that is manipulated by them, which indirectly generates the physical effects we were told we might observe.

Ectoplasm, they claimed, is highly photophobic. Even the light from a watch or a cell phone will send it forcibly back into the body of the medium and/or the other participants, causing injury or even death. Human touch when not anticipated can have the same effect. They told stories of mediums of yesteryear who fell victim to séances gone wrong due to negligence of this sort.

The protocol of this particular group was to engage in physical mediumship in almost total darkness. The windows were covered over and the doors were locked to prevent accidental intrusion. A single dimmable red light (much like those used when developing film) stood between us and blindness. Observers were instructed not to touch anything they saw and to stay away from the medium, who was sitting in a chair inside the cabinet, which was a six cubic foot metal frame with black curtains covering all four sides located at the end of the room. Assistants were stationed to the left and right of the cabinet to guard the medium, just in case.

The role of the observers was simply to add “energy” to the ritual. We were asked frequently to sing songs, give an om, or merely project positive thoughts or feelings onto the circle.

The two showcase events (the ones they charged extra for) are the only ones I’m going to recount in this exposition, as they were by far the most elaborate and the most representative of what these people are capable of. The first was a card writing circle, conducted by Sandra Tedora, and the second was a spirit guide communication circle, conducted by F. Reed Brown.

Card Writing

We were to expect in this first event, according to Sandra, to receive a card with a precipitated message from one or more entities in spirit. The term precipitation refers to the telekinetic, ectoplasmic transfer of physical pigment onto a surface to create an image. The spirit “paints” with it, so to speak.

We entered to find stacks of plain white index cards on a table in the center of the room. A woman and her daughter had been asked to look through the cards to confirm that they were indeed blank. The main lights were turned off and the red light turned on. The cards were passed around the circle, about ten to a person, and we were asked to hold them to our hearts to “magnetize” them. Presumably one of the cards a person held would return to him. While she had us sing a song in the darkness to energize the room, I took a pen from my pocket and covertly drew a line along the edge of my stack. Since there were about 20 personalized drawings to be done in very little time in a dark room that no one enters or leaves, receiving an illustrated card with one of my marks would be a very difficult thing to find a mundane explanation for.

Sandra walked around the room with a box to collect the cards in, and when she finished she dumped handfuls of markers and colored pencils into it and closed it up. The box was given to the same mother-daughter pair to hold during the precipitation process. The box didn’t leave their laps until the end.

She then went to her seat in front of the cabinet (the protection of which was not required for this ritual) and dropped into trance. She began speaking in a cutesy infantile voice as the spirit guide who was to perform the feat. Naturally, extracting and drawing with aerosolized marker ink takes a while, so a few other entities were given time to come through one by one while she worked. Sandra’s intonation changed drastically with each. She spoke to me as an erudite old New Englander gentleman named “Dr. Kent” who gave me advice so vague that I can’t remember it now.

When the entity reported that the cards were finished Sandra came out of trance and the main lights were turned back on. About fifteen minutes had passed. The mother-daughter pair were asked to open the box and begin passing cards around. Each card had the initials of the intended receiver written on it. According to the daughter, the box had been very active while the medium was channeling. She felt both movement and warmth inside. Unfortunately I wasn’t close enough to tell if it made any noise.

My card was a very amateurly drawn image of a hillside at sunset with the words, “Just beyond the Horizon lies your dreams!” The names “Dr. Kent” and “Red Cloud” were written there as well.

card “precipitated” by the spirits

I quickly noticed three things.

First of all, it had no mark from my pen.

Second, the handwriting matched that on the card of the person sitting next to me, and looked very much like the handwriting on all of the cards framed in their bookstore from previous events.

Third, it was clearly not precipitated. Precipitated drawings — authenticity aside — are historically reported to look rather logically like airbrushings. Some have even said that the drawing surface itself becomes deeply permeated with coloration. On my card, however, every colored pencil line was broken by the texture of the paper. This broken pattern (which anyone who has ever drawn on paper in his life is familiar with) shouldn’t emerge through precipitation unless the intent was to perfectly simulate a picture drawn the conventional pencil-to-paper way, which seems to me like an incredibly counter-productive waste of time. Why create an image that looks specifically commonplace and unremarkable? Especially as a demonstration? In the corner you can even see that the pencil was down to the nub and the wood base was making contact with the card; in place of coloration there are faint gouges from the wood that become apparent when you hold the paper up to the light at a certain angle. I feel silly describing in detail what amounts to “a hand definitely drew this” but I need to be thorough.

I made sure to get a handful of cards from the box to help the medium check that no drawings were going to be thrown out by accident. I found a blank card with my pen mark, which isn’t an indicator of much, but it’s worth mentioning. When I handed the unused cards back to her I got a chance to look down into the box. I saw nothing but the deep pile of pencils and markers.

I left the circle and compared my card to the bookstore cards. The handwriting was exactly the same. If a single entity did create all of these cards, it isn’t outlandish for them to all exhibit the same handwriting — in a weird way it’s to be expected if you forget for a moment that she doesn’t have hands. But it was clear enough to me that someone at the church had drawn them in advance. I just needed proof of it.

I was sitting in my room moments later when proof serendipitously showed up. On the desk my roommate had left a note written to him by the manager at the church, Diane, indicating the time and location of a psychic reading he had scheduled.

note written by church manager

The note matched my card unmistakably. So you don’t have to take my word for it, here are a few of the things that stood out:

example 1 (card) example 1 (note) The curves above the baseline are very angular with flat bottoms. Both jut out in the southwest direction.
example 2 (card) example 2 (note) The same precise attention is given to this shape.
example 3 (card) example 3 (note) Shoulders, in letters that have them, point narrowly to the northeast and rise well above the stem.
example 4 (card) example 4 (note) The eye is very narrow, sometimes disappearing, and the body points almost north.
example 5 (card) example 5 (note) The shoulder sometimes ends in a tiny loop around the stem rather than bouncing off of it (a little more obvious in the larger images).
example 6 (card) example 6 (note) Some people have specific letters (in this case the letter ‘n’) that they will routinely half-write, leaving the letter unreadable by itself.

There are many unique ways to draw any given letter, so letters that clearly don’t match can sometimes be more informative than letters that do, and I didn’t see any such letters. There were many line-for-line matches in the bookstore cards; unfortunately there was no way to get a sample.

I let a few other event goers in on what I’d discovered, but unsurprisingly they just shrugged it off. There’s rarely much interest in incriminating evidence in environments like this.

The box was originally taken around the room for collection with only the red light for illumination, and it was being held by the medium in a way that prevented someone from looking into it easily. If the prepared cards were already in the box from the beginning they would have easily gone unnoticed. The blank cards were used as misdirection.

I can only speculate on the source of the activity felt within it by the daughter. I wish it had been handed to me instead. A false bottom concealing a device underneath it would be plausible. Somehow chicanery seems more likely to me than a real entity rummaging around as a fake ritual took place around it.

Guide Communication

We took our seats for the second event and Reed Brown gave us an introductory lecture where we learned much of what I discussed at the beginning of this writing. Surprisingly he also spoke at length about mediumistic fraudulence — such as the use of cold reading — warning us to be wary and reminding us that true mediumship takes years of patience and devotion that not everyone is cut out for. He also talked about how long it took him to believe for himself that these phenomena are genuine, and about some of the measures he took over the years toward getting verification. I briefly found myself wondering if he could be different from all the frauds out there, which of course was the intended effect.

Following the lecture Reed directed the circle’s attention to a long metal cone left standing on the center table. It was a trumpet, a prop made famous by the early Spiritualists, used both for object levitation and for amplifying direct voice phenomena. He told us that he didn’t know if we were going to see anything happen that night or not, but he wanted to have a trumpet on hand just in case.

He then stepped into the cabinet and pulled the curtains closed. Sandra and Mike sat on either side to assist. We were instructed to sing to help Reed drop into trance. He soon began speaking in a comically squeaky, hyperactive voice. This was the entity, one of his spirit guides, who was to cue each person in the circle to receive a short message from the deceased or from a guide. As he went around the room each person would say, “I (name) give my love and light to the spirit manifestation.” The circle would respond with an om and an entity would begin speaking.

In most cases people seemed to recognize the entity by the name it introduced itself with. Family and friends often came through. Some of the recipients got very emotional. I wish I knew more about the relationships between these people and the mediums. I do know some of them have been attending the church for years, and that the mediums are already familiar with their family histories. Others, like me, had no prior contact with them. This whole portion of the event is beyond my ability to assess. I can say that the entities who spoke to me, Dr. Kent and Red Cloud, were entities I had never heard of before that night, and their advice to me was again highly one-size-fits-all. Each entity spoke at a different volume and with a different voice, except for the many Indian guides who all seemed to blend together. I was mildly impressed that Reed spoke as Dr. Kent using the same subtle accent used by Sandra.

When everyone had been attended to, the mood of the séance changed. The entity told us that our conditions were indeed suitable for creating a physical manifestation. A nervous excitement around the circle was becoming palpable. Some but not all of the remaining light streaming into the room was taken care of when the entity complained that there was too much, and the red light was lowered. We were asked to sing again to provide the energy needed, and toward the end of the song something finally appeared.

I should point out that I had made sure to get the best seat in the house, so I was only about five feet away from the cabinet. I could hear and localize the sounds coming from within the cabinet very well. The myriad of entities that came through all spoke from the same height — the height of the medium’s head when sitting in the chair. Just after mention of manifestation, I heard the medium’s chair creak and his ankles crack. His voice moved upward and forward. He was quite obviously standing. Leading up to the appearance itself, the direction and location of his voice became erratic. He was moving around and turning his head. He was preparing the next trick.

I should also mention that my night vision is topnotch. It’s a tricky thing to quantify, but I’m often surprised to catch people cautiously stumbling around in levels of darkness in which I can walk with total confidence. I can only take this séance as further evidence, because if the circle had seen what I saw they never would have reacted as they did.

My eyes had adjusted well enough that even the dimmed red light was enough to give me a clear view of what was going on at the entrance to the cabinet. Hidden from most of the circle by the center table, a clumsily placed leg with white fabric pressed against it momentarily parted the very bottom of the curtain and withdrew, and knowing what was about to happen I was struck with disbelief. After everything he had said about fraudulent mediums, I was genuinely shocked that Reed had the audacity to go all the way with this event. What followed was truly shameless.

The cabinet clearly — to my eyes — produced a hand with the white material draped over it. The curtain below the arm was being pinched closed from inside. Reed wiggled and swayed the cloth back and forth and Sandra said with mock surprise, “Look! It’s the spirit! Can you see the spirit?” and sounds of shock and excitement erupted from the circle. Jaws were hanging open. Some people had jumped to their feet. I mentally flashed to an image of children enthralled by a puppet show.

The hand quickly retreated back into the cabinet, and Sandra and Mike were asked to pick up the trumpet on the table, which hadn’t moved at all up to now. They each took one end and began to make a show of it twitching and jumping in their hands. They dropped it and picked it back up again. Everyone ooh’d and ahh’d. I’ll admit that I’m fuzzy on the details of this part. Shock had been replaced by disgust and I was cradling my head in my hand.

Once the activity had settled down Reed was ready to come out of trance. The circle sang another song to help him return. I didn’t pretend to join along — the time I would spend interacting with the mediums had officially ended. They opened the curtain and Reed, in his seat again, feigned being drained and oblivious. He groggily asked if anything had happened. After a time he cautiously pulled himself to his feet.

I noticed for the first time that he was conveniently dressed all in black.

Despite my disgruntlement I found myself appreciating just how much mileage they could get from such a simple and sloppily performed trick. No wonder it had to be so incredibly dark. A brief glimpse of a meager piece of cloth was just enough to trigger all those brains in the room to fill in all those hopeful details.

Closing Thoughts

The night prior to these séances, the mediums had held a “message service” where we each filled out a small piece of paper listing the names of the deceased or disembodied that we wished to contact with a question that we wanted them to answer. The mediums then gave quick readings using these cards. We didn’t see them look at the cards before destroying them — Mike even blindfolded himself on his turn at the podium. But these people are clearly not adverse to deceit, so it’s likely that they took advantage of the information we provided. For all I know the cards they were destroying were blank and the ones we filled out were being filed away for future use. Unfortunately I have no idea if anyone was spoken to by a familiar entity who was both unknown to the mediums and unrepresented on those cards. I can vouch that I listed no one on my card, and no entity I’ve ever heard of came through to me that weekend.

The following day I mulled over how these people have gotten away with this for so long. It didn’t shock me that they were fraudulent; frauds are not a rarity. But these people have a large camp, a large flock, and actually teach regular classes on mediumship — something they haven’t accomplished themselves, it would seem. Why risk this livelihood so carelessly with transparent, third-rate magic tricks? Why such lazy subterfuge?

I quickly realized this was a stupid question. They’ve been doing this a long time. It’s been demonstrated to them over and over that they don’t have to be vigilant. Most of the work will be done for them by the nature of the average human psyche. As long as there are people eager to believe something every church is guaranteed devoted followers, no matter how obvious the holes in its performances. As every con artist alive has discovered, credulity is an infinitely available and infinitely profitable resource.

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