Most of the hundreds of people who will pack the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts on Wednesday to see author and spiritual medium James Van Praagh probably will be hoping for a message from beyond the grave, from a loved one speaking through Van Praagh.
Not UB anthropology professor Phillips Stevens Jr.
“I will observe his methods, listen to his words, and will try to assess audience reaction,” said Stevens, who has discussed Van Praagh’s event, “An Evening of Spirit,” with a senior class he is teaching.
Van Praagh’s appearance is more than just a chance for some close-to-home anthropological study for Stevens, whose work in the 1960s to document the mysterious soapstone carvings of Esie, Nigeria, resulted in his being named a chief of Esie in 2012. It’s also an opportunity to enlighten people who may have read Van Praagh’s marketing materials submitted to the Center for the Arts, which claim that he “introduced the world to mediumship.”
“This is quite false,” Stevens said. “Mediumship has been practiced for millennia, and the Western world has been aware of it for many centuries. Van Praagh is a recent participant in a long line of public mediums with traveling road shows going back to the 18th century.”
Stevens points out that the first recorded mention of mediumship, or communicating with the dead, is in the Bible. Deuteronomy 18:9-12 warns against occult practices, including anyone “who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.”
Van Praagh wouldn’t need any special powers to know the historic significance of this region for mediums. Swept by powerful religious movements in the early and mid-1800s, Western and Central New York was dubbed “The Burned Over District,” because so few unconverted people were left here to fuel the fires of religious fervor.
One of those movements was Spiritualism, a religion founded in 1848 on the principle that Van Praagh embraces, that the spirits of the dead are able and willing to communicate with the living. The Fox sisters, who lived near Rochester and captivated and converted people with their demonstrations of communication with the dead through rapping sounds, are acknowledged as the early inspirations for Spiritualism in America.
The Spiritualist community of Lily Dale, founded in 1880 on Cassadaga Lake, is home to dozens of mediums year-round and is visited by thousands of the curious and believers annually.
Stevens has visited Lily Dale a few times and observed mediumship demonstrations, during which mediums choose people to receive a brief message from the spirit world. “Most of the messages ‘from the other side,’ or ‘beyond’ were rather bland, ‘So-and-so wants you to know that she’s OK,’ etc.,” said Stevens. “Occasionally a description of a spirit being ‘sensed’ was fairly specific, and a message was received with wonderment, or tears. I was selected once by a medium, and asked whether he might read for me. It was summer time and I was in shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and sandals. I did have a pen in my shirt pocket. He concluded that I was a researcher, perhaps a professor, perhaps planning to write a book!
“No skeptics attend such sessions,” Stevens said. “Everyone who is there is either a true believer or curious, ready to believe.”
Other popular mediums include Sylvia Browne, who did shows at local casinos regularly before passing over into spirit herself in late 2013; John Edward, who has had two television shows; and Teresa Caputo, the Long Island Medium, who stars in a popular TLC reality show.
James Randi, a former magician and skeptic who has offered $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate true supernatural or paranormal powers in a scientific test, wrote that such “pseudo-psychic spectacles” are damaging because they “prey on people at their most vulnerable moments – those who have suffered the loss of loved ones – and these mediums use such grief to make a buck.”
Stevens said he found fault with the description of Van Praagh in the Center for the Arts literature as “one of the most accurate spiritual mediums working today,” suggesting that adding the words “claims to be” might make the description less of an unqualified endorsement. But he fully supports Van Praagh’s appearance. “I would not object to having him here, that’s not the point,” he said. “Present him as an entertainer, OK.”
David R. Wedekindt, director of marketing for the Center for the Arts, said that the center, which is part of UB but generates its own program budget through ticket sales and sponsorships, schedules a mix of educational cultural events, including many cutting-edge dance troupes, and more lucrative shows. “If we make a little bit of a profit on a rock concert, that helps pay for a cultural attraction or a modern dance company,” Wedekindt said. “We’re a not-for-profit organization, so we are looking just to absorb all of our expenses and carry the mission forward.”
Wedekindt said Van Praagh was suggested to the center staff by his new agent, with whom the center works regularly.
“We noted how popular the Long Island Medium has been, and the agent pitched us the idea of doing him. We are always looking for some new ideas and this isn’t something we have done, so we thought, let’s give this a shot and see how it goes. Admittedly, it is a brand new thing for a lot of us here at the Center for the Arts; we’re not too plugged in to the whole ‘mediumship’ scene, but we’re looking at ways we can bring people into the building, maybe introduce some new people to our venue who have never been here before and maybe this is the event that brings them in.”
Van Praagh was promoted on the Center’s Facebook page, and Wedekindt said the first flood of reaction was totally positive. “I was really overwhelmed by the amount of ‘likes’ and positive comments, and the amount of people tagging their friends, saying, ‘Let’s go,’ ” he said.
Then a few people posted skeptical or negative comments about the event. A few of those who objected were “kind of wondering what place this has at a university, but I think that it should be at a university,” said Wedekindt. “Universities are where ideas are debated and exchanged, and it’s the whole point of the speakers series. People come to that knowing that some of these people have some controversy around them, or maybe some viewpoints they don’t agree with, but the whole idea is to see it from another side. Give people a forum and you can choose to come, you can choose to not believe them, you can choose to be happy or not happy with the presentation, but we provide that forum for that person to present their ideas.”