The 2022 disappearance of Gabby Petito – a #vanlife influencer in her 20s – generated an online whirlwind. Armchair detectives banded together to try to find out what had happened to Petito who, it was later discovered after a weeks-long manhunt, was killed by her fiancé Brian Laundrie while they were travelling together in Florida. Among the influx of internet sleuths who pored over the case were people searching for answers from a different realm: TikTok psychics, some of whom claimed they could “channel” Gabby’s spirit or figure out her location through their “visions”.
Over the past few weeks, psychic influencers have once again seized upon a true crime case, this time concerning Nicola Bulley, a 45-year-old woman who disappeared while walking her dog in Lancashire, England. (A TikTok search for “Nicola Bulley Psychic" delivers dozens of self-labelled psychics and mediums commenting on the case.) When Bulley’s body was finally found on Sunday, around a mile away from where she was last seen on the river in St Michael's on Wyre, some TikTok psychics used it as an opportunity to boast about making accurate predictions. Reports that a self-proclaimed psychic helped the police locate the body only served as further validation for the community. Jesse King, who describes himself as a psychic and ghost hunter, is among those who weighed in on the Bulley case. While King typically posts memes to his TikTok account @theparanormalemporium about “channelling someone’s dead nan”, or getting “icks from psychic clients”, his recent content has focused on his efforts to find Bulley via his crystal ball. In a video uploaded to TikTok earlier this month, King can be seen standing in front of a map of the area Bulley went missing projected on the wall. In the video, he claims to be instructing “urban explorers” in the area of the Bulley’s disappearance following his instructions. (Police subsequently issued dispersal notices to remove social media sleuths from the scene.)
As was the case with Petito’s disappearance and death, psychics commenting on the Bulley case have come under fire for exploiting tragedy for clout. It’s a charge King adamantly denies. “I would never interfere or overstep the mark. I do [readings] from afar and see what happens,” he tells VICE. On negative comments, he says: “These people wouldn’t know a spirit if it hit them round the face. I’m not bothered about convincing people of my psychic ability; I’ll just do it anyway.”As distasteful as it seems, it makes sense that psychics are choosing to make this kind of content given the enormous popularity of true crime on TikTok (its hashtag has 27.3 billion views on TikTok). The genre’s booming popularity has encouraged more “casual” psychics to weigh in on true crime cases, and is seeing psychic influencers go to even further lengths in a quest for virality. This came to a head last year when Ashley Guilliard, a TikTok tarot reader, baselessly linked Rebecca Scofield – a University of Idaho professor – to the murder of four University of Idaho students. Scofield subsequently filed a lawsuit against Guilliard, who, even amid the ongoing civil case against her, continued to spread her debunked theories. While there are psychics who throw around baseless accusations to build a following, there are also those who genuinely believe they can help police investigations. The question, of course, is whether they should. Although police have used psychics in the past to help with investigations, it’s not an approach to solving crime that law enforcement are likely to advocate. “If I was to call 999 and say that I saw that a murder is going to happen in my crystal ball, they’d probably hang up,” says King.
Despite the fierce backlash levelled against true crime psychics, the appetite for this particular type of true crime content only appears to be growing. Psychics have risen in popularity recently as part of a rising interest in spirituality. While they have traditionally profited from claiming to see into the future or by communicating with spirits, many are now seen as akin to wellness coaches who channel “energy” in order to help people realise what they want out of life. One market analysis found that the “psychic services” industry has increased considerably over the past decade, reaching over $2 billion in revenue in 2019. Matthew Remski, co-host of the Conspirituality podcast, says that mediums weighing in on true crime cases – much like wellness influencers – offer people an alternative to the status quo. “There’s just so many examples of failed or negligent policing,” he tells VICE. “I think that creates a vacuum into which the [psychics] can not only solve the crime, but also broadcast a kind of alternative way of knowing the world.” It can offer a more hopeful perspective, and a more “feeling”-oriented approach, as opposed to the cold hard facts of police reports, he says. “It’s powerful for people to feel smarter – and more empathetic – than the police.”
TikTok user Kamela Hurley (@truecrimemediumkamela) created a series of viral videos – with combined views of over two million – on the Idaho murders. She believes that her videos can help people to process traumatic true crime events. “Psychic mediums, I believe, are here to help people heal,” she says. Hurley sees her videos as offering “a way for people to collectively support each other through grief”, explaining: “Particularly with the Idaho murder, that wasn't just a crime against these four individuals. This was a crime against the community, against humanity.” Unlike the tarot reader who accused Scofield, King and Hurley say they avoid making accusations. “I never name anybody,” says Hurley. “That’s not my job; it’s for legal enforcement agencies.” Typically, TikTok psychics will tread carefully when it comes to specifics and stress that their content isn’t to be taken as fact. Similarly, in a video about Gabby Petito, @kellythemagicalmediu explained that she “can’t validate any of this, these are just visions that I had last night”.For audiences, imprecise details don't necessarily matter: “People don't expect psychics to be 100 percent right, or very specific,” says Christopher French, a BPS-accredited psychologist and university professor who specialises in the psychology of paranormal beliefs and experiences at Goldsmiths. “They're happy to accept that this information comes through in a fairly vague kind of form… there’ll always be enough to satisfy the true believer.” For these psychics, steering clear of specifics helps to avoid defamation lawsuits, and means they’re less likely to be called out for giving inaccurate readings.
Besides, the outcome of the case, or whether what the psychic says comes true, “doesn’t really matter”, says Remski. “What's being enjoyed and indulged in is this feeling that the influencer is sharing a secret with the follower, and the parasocial relationship that begins to instantly develop between the psychic and their audience.” It’s this relationship that psychics are able to cultivate and monestise through TikToks that signpost people to paid-for, private readings. It’s easy to put psychics in the same camp as your garden variety internet grifters, scamming their followers with dubious promises. But as French points out, this isn’t necessarily true of all of them. “In my personal opinion, most self-labelled psychics genuinely believe they have a gift.” This can make the question around ethics more complicated: “If you really, really believe that you can tell someone where a body is to be found, or where a missing person is, from a moral and ethical point of view, you’d feel obliged to do it.”TikTok user Jen (@officialpsychicjen1111) says that she felt compelled to weigh in on the Bulley case because of a previous accurate prediction she’d made. “It was a friend of my partner at the time,” explains Jen, “he’d gone missing [and] his wife wanted to know if he was alive... I went with my gut feeling and told her he wasn’t, which unfortunately, turned out to be true.” Jen doesn’t deny the positive impact that posting about the Bulley case has had on her business, noting a recent uptick in followers, but she maintains that this wasn’t the motivation behind wanting to cover the case.Psychics may feel they have a duty to share their intuition with the police – and TikTok – but turning tragedy into content is arguably harder to justify. Hurley is firm in her belief that psychics and other online sleuths can make a difference through posting, and is willing to endure any backlash that may come of it. “For a cold case, it can help to stop people forgetting about the case,” she says. She also points to the “countless individuals” in her comment section voicing their grief, anger and sadness over true crime events. “For me, that is worth my effort – even despite being harrassed and mocked by others.”