A Good Thing To Lose #9: Speaking to the dead
I miss my grandfather. We were extremely close when I was young, and I spent just about every weekend with him and Grandma. He’d let me stay up late and watch The Hammer House of Horror and The Wicker Man when I was clearly far too young, and take me for walks round Falkirk’s fields and along the Union Canal even though his replacement hip hindered him with a characteristic, cane-assisted limp. Our yearly holidays in Blackpool were the highlights of most of my childhood years. We loved each other very much, yet the last time I saw him – or rather the grey, decaying spectre that used to be Papa – his cancer had destroyed his faculties to such an extent that he couldn’t even remember who I was. This was over twenty years ago, and it had an understandably profound effect on me. And while it wouldn’t quite be true to say that I think about him every day, I do live with a constant reminder: I named my son after him. And I would love to hear his voice again.
I imagine that this longing for the deceased is something I have in common with the rest of the audience in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as we await Derek Acorah’s stage entrance. You’ve probably heard of the camp Liverpudlian psychic before. Maybe you’ve even seen him terrify the eczema off ex-Blue Peter presenter Yvette Fielding on Living TV’s Most Haunted. This is where Acorah’s profile ascended, as we watched him channel lost souls with the aid of his spirit guide, Sam. These televised séances featured Derek being apparently possessed by historical figures from the various decrepit and spooky buildings that the show frequented, always at night, always in pitch darkness, and always via the modern wonder of an infrared night-vision camera. And as Yvette and the local guests started freaking out and having panic attacks, you probably wondered why they didn’t just turn the fucking lights on.
Anyway, Acorah was sacked from Most Haunted for being a fraud. One of the producers suspected subterfuge, so they had the show’s researcher create a fictitious history for one of their creepy locations to put Derek to the test. Would he claim to channel the spirit of this imaginary character? Of course he did – he feigned possession by one Kreed Kafer, an anagram of Derek Faker – and was promptly exposed as a charlatan and sacked. Yet he continues to peddle his lies on numerous TV shows – including his own – and still packs in quite an audience when appearing live. The Royal Concert Hall is about half full tonight, which would mean an audience of around 1,300. Despite the empty seats, there’s a real buzz in the air, a genuine excitement all around the theatre before he arrives. Onstage, there’s a video screen that will later show Acorah as he moves around the audience, a banner underneath it claiming: “To the believer, proof isn’t necessary; to the non-believer, proof isn’t possible.” The quote is accredited to the aforementioned Sam.
Do you really need me to tell you how awful the whole thing is? Acorah rarely gets anything right, but like all mediums he manages to suck in the gullible audience on the thinnest of threads. Sometimes it begins with guesswork and then is built upon from there. He’ll offer the vaguest of descriptions – someone who died young, someone who died in an accident etc. – that could easily apply to at least half the audience, then asks anyone who might recognise this spirit to raise their hand. Some of his descriptions are just laughable. On one occasion, he says he has a man with a big belly; on another, a man who "liked a drink". In Glasgow? You must be joking.
When he does supply an uncanny amount of detail, rather than convince me that he’s in touch with the Other Side it just makes me feel uncomfortable: how did he get this information? Well, I didn’t check, but it’s quite likely that the one woman he had the most success with bought her tickets with a credit card. This is a common trick in the mystic industry – anyone who uses a credit card leaves an address, and mediums have teams of "researchers" who actually visit these addresses and have a look around. They may pose as a salesman or a Jehovah’s Witness, or they may not need to pose at all if no-one’s home – they’ll just have a look through the windows. So when Derek tells one woman that her stairs need fixing, all I can think of is someone snooping around the front door of her house.
And if he’s not guessing or spying on people, it’s quite likely that there’s a plant in the crowd outside. Not in the audience during the show, but rather in the social areas of the venue before the show and during the interval. The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall has three separate bars, all of them a-chatter with the hushed talk of lost loved ones. It’s not difficult to overhear titbits about who the crowd wish to contact this evening.
The argument for Acorah and all psychic mediums is a reasonable one: if people want to pay money to watch a show that gives them hope and makes them feel better, then so what? But the darker flipside of such an opinion is that Derek Acorah, a proven fraud, is making a lot of money exploiting desperate and emotionally vulnerable people by feeding them lies and quite possibly invading their privacy to gather information. I suppose it just depends on which side of the fence you care about most, and as you may have gathered by now, I am a passionate "non-believer". But as I’ve illustrated above, I fully understand the agony of longing to hear from a dead loved one, and the idea that anyone would charge me money to pretend they can contact the spirit of my grandfather thoroughly disgusts me.
Of course, I wasn’t expecting to be converted by this experience, I wasn’t hoping to speak to Papa or Grandma, but I didn’t realise how truly horrifying it would be. Even by the standards of make-believe mediums, Acorah isn’t any good at it. He knows how to work a crowd, certainly, and the queue for autographs in the lobby after the show is testament to his affable stage presence and nothing more. He sits at a table, being photographed and signing books, with a curiously empty seat beside him. Is that where Sam sits? Spooky!
So, no surprises then, only confirmation: the mystic industry is a deceitful, parasitic con game that is only allowed to legally exist because of its supposedly esoteric nature, which can neither be proven nor disproven in a court of law. In any other line of consumerism, selling goods and services under false pretences is illegal – why isn’t this?
I dream that one day, hopefully in my lifetime, the world will renounce the worship of myths and fables and accept that the real, tangible universe around us is far more wonderful and beautiful than any world described in a bible or the inane ramblings of a "spiritualist". But I expect to die a disappointed man.