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The Ethics of Party Fortune Telling

In a few days my apprentice and I will be entertaining for a large corporate holiday party and we both decided to write about it, each from our own perspectives.  (You can read her thoughts here.)  We will be there to tell fortunes using various methods such as Tarot cards and Palm Reading.   This kind of entertainment option at large parties is remarkably well received.  In fact I can tell you with all assurance that whenever I have done any sort of entertainment event if the package I provide includes fortune telling it is always a hit.

Now this may seem a bit odd coming from me.  People who know me know that I do not believe in the supernatural in the least.  In fact I actively debunk such things when given the opportunity.  In this day of fake psychics (a term which is entirely redundant), talking to the dead, every television channel offering up every variation they can come up with on ‘ghost hunter’ shows and all manner of homeopathy/alternative medicine bullshit it is all I can do to keep up with the relevant information.

Given all of that why would I be willing to provide such a service?

I could argue that I’m just giving the customer what they want.  In the end I have bills to pay and if they are going to give me good money to listen to me hold forth on their prospects for the future why shouldn’t I collect?  My wife has often joked that “there are stupid people and we need their money.”  We have often joked that given all that I do know how to do as a magician it would take very little effort on my part to start a cult.

The truth is I have come to a compromise in providing this service and it is based entirely in the ethical stance I have chosen to take with regards to the differences between my client’s potential beliefs and my own.

You see there is an argument in the magic community about certain types of entertainment.  Magicians who use their ‘power for evil’ such as fake psychics (there’s that term again) are universally shunned.  Magicians who use their ‘powers for good’ are seen as entertainers.  I offer up for your consideration Uri Geller and Derren Brown.  Uri has long claimed he has real powers.  Derren admits up front that he has none yet gives performances that far outstrip anything Uri has ever provided.  Browse YouTube for examples of both.

This upcoming event is a perfect example of how I have found it possible to do these things in a manner that I find ethical and still respectful of any of the possible believes of my clients.  Allow me to set the scene for you.  I will be sitting at a table off to one side.  Able to view and participate in the party but slightly secluded so as to avoid to many casual observers at any given time.  I will be dressed very nicely and slightly mysteriously.  Which is to say that I will wear small but subtle accessories with my outfit which will suggest a ‘magical’ nature to my character.  Given that the party is to have a “Mardi Gras” feel to it this is entirely appropriate.

A single individual will approach my table, sit down and ask to have their fortune told.  I will immediately swing into action, asking questions and gathering information on them by their answers and by their appearance (even in costume many things are revealed if you know what you are looking for) and I will proceed to give them a reading most probably with Tarot Cards.

At the end of this reading I will ask more questions usually if they understood everything I have told them.  They may ask for clarification, they may not.  This is okay.
Inevitably there will be one question or statement that will come up.  Someone will ask me if really believe this stuff, or they will comment that I have a “gift.”  Something along the lines of questioning or verifying my belief in the supernatural will come up in these conversations.  In fact the more convincing my act is the more likely I will generate this question, if not right away, certainly be the end of the night as my reputation spreads among the crowd.

I will have earned this question.  After all I came to their party for the express purpose of reading their future.   By my appearance I will have put myself into the character of someone who is ‘in touch’ with other realms of reality, the psychic realm, ghosts or spirits perhaps.  I have presented them with a plausible if not completely convincing reading of their future.   I will definitely have earned this question.

And here is where the schism in the magic community presents itself.  Do I tell them that I do indeed have a gift?  Do I tell them that I receive messages from my spirit guide, a faery named Sand, or perhaps my guardian angel.

Or do I tell them it’s all a trick?  I have no special powers, I have simply been manipulating them and the cards to my own ends.  Do I shatter the character I have created for them and their enjoyment?

Sadly there are plenty of magicians and charlatans who would opt for the former.  They would justify themselves with the idea that either they will get more gigs out of the reputation they have built among a bunch of credulous individuals or perhaps they will simply assume they’ll never see any of these people again so why not tell them such a story?

But I am there for their entertainment.  I’m there to do a job and the job is to provide them something they will enjoy.  If I just say “nope, it’s all a trick” then I’m doing more harm than good.  I am at the very least humiliating them by pointing out how easily they have been fooled in a situation where they have put their trust in me and at the very worst I have challenged and mocked their beliefs in something beyond themselves.

And while I might like to challenge their notions of the supernatural this is not the place to do it.  Professionalism alone dictates that.

So, how do I do it?  How do I walk this line between what they may believe, what I believe, respecting the contract and my professionalism?

Theater.

In the end this is a show.  I am a character.  I am portraying someone with a mysterious gift.  But when the time comes the actor must be revealed.  And there has to be answer to the question.

“That was amazing!  You must have a gift!”

“I do, but probably not the one you’re thinking of.  It’s not so much a gift as it is a skill, one everyone can learn.  You can learn it too.  It’s not hard to learn but it takes patience to practice because it’s all about asking the right questions and really listening to the answers.  And in the end, it’s all about telling the best story possible.  I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it.”

So this is my ethical answer.  To tell them the truth.  Because right there is the secret to every type of fortune telling or psychic speaking to the dead you have ever seen.

It’s all about the questions you ask and really listening to the answers you get.  Sales people know this.  They call it Active Listening.  Psychotherapists know this as Active Listening too.  Magicians call it Cold Reading.  It’s all in the questions we ask.

Will they believe me?  Will they accept my answer?  That depends on the person really.  I’ve given this answer, or some variation of it, every time I’ve been asked.  Outside of any performance context I have made my position very clear and inside of the performance context I have stuck to my position but softened my words for the sake of the atmosphere and the event.

Yes, there are times when people refuse to believe me.  I have been told that people understand if I want to keep the truth about my gift to myself.  There is a person in the building where I work who is still absolutely convinced that I have psychic powers after I read her fortune five years ago and explained how I did it.

After a certain point what more can I do?  Even when I have argued the improbability of various supernatural things with believers in a basic debunking discussion I have always encountered those who simply refuse to give up what they believe in despite the evidence provided to them.  This is always going to be the case.  I can’t worry about the people who refuse to believe my explanation for how I do what I do inside the context of a show.  They have made the choice they have made.

I expect that this gig will be fun.  As I mentioned at the beginning this is both myself and my apprentice who are going.  She is far more versed in a wider variety of divination methods than I am.  She has written her own article about preparing for this particular event.  It is a very interesting to read.  Please check it out.

Smile and Say “Boo!”

A number of years back I discovered that in my family history I have a spiritualist minister.  My great grandfather on my father’s side was an ordained minister and used to engage, apparently, in talking to spirits.  Since then I’ve tried to get my hands on his ordination papers, but no luck at this point.

I have been interested in charlatanism for a very long time.  In fact, back in High School I actually took the opportunity provided by my photography class and my sci-fi lit class to provide a sort of hoax that I showed to everyone just for the fun of it.

The hoax was a photograph of a ghost.  A little spirit photography.  The picture is long since gone but I remember it very well.  The camera I had back then was an old SLR and I was using a lot of black and white film back then because it was cheaper and what the class generally supplied.

Using a tripod and really long exposure time I simply set the camera up, opened the shutter, walked into the field of view, stood there for a few seconds and then walked out again.  Total exposure time about 20 seconds.

As the Teacher’s Assistant for the photography class it was my job every morning to set up the darkroom including mixing all chemistry for that day and putting out the supplies.  But once that was done I had my own little empire and I could do anything I wanted.

I developed the film, made some prints and “BOOM!”  Spooky evidence of a ghost in my backyard.

I showed the picture to my teachers and to other students to a wide variety of reactions.  I never said it was real but I didn’t deny it for a long time either.  You see my sci-fi lit teacher Mr. Gutierrez was kind of in on it.  I did the whole thing on my own but he saw the value of it as a way to make his students think a little harder about irrational things.

Eventually we revealed the hoax.  The people who were skeptics all along were not surprised.  The students who also had photography classes and experience were not particularly surprised.  The people who knew me well enough to know that I was probably up to something were not surprised either.

The believers were in total denial.  Surprise.

Obviously the experience stuck with me and one of the things that I have always found the most interesting from the realm of spiritualism is ghost photography.

In the early 1900’s a guy named William Hope was one of the best known spirit photographers around.  He made tons of money scamming people by taking spirit photos of their dead relatives and loved ones.  He had a rather large following including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was an ardent follower of all things spiritualist and was responsible for the fame of the Cottingley fairies.

It was definitely a time when some amazing things seemed to be caught on film.  Of course today we are jaded by Photoshop and movie special effects.  But it’s not that hard to imagine the impact seeing spirit photos must have had.

Well, recently a new collection of spirit photos taken by William Hope has been uncovered.  Take a look and imagine what it might have been like to sit for a photo and find later on that your dead relative really is watching over you.

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