The Radford Files
Talking to the Dead: Who's Answering?
Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?
--William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1, Act 3
It's easy to talk to the dead. It requires no special abilities. Anyone can do it; it takes precisely as much skill as talking to a plant or a cat. No, the real trick is getting meaningful answers back. There are many people who claim to have this power, including John Edwards (of the short-lived TV show “Crossing Over”); James Van Praagh, Alison DuBois (the basis for the NBC series “ Medium,” who falsely claimed to have solved crimes for police and the Texas Rangers); and Montel Williams regular Sylvia Browne. These psychic mediums have either refused to be tested under controlled scientific conditions or failed when they were (but that's a subject for another column). Many lesser-known psychics believe they have this ability, as do thousands of ordinary, sane Americans.
The vast majority of "information" from the Other Side consists of reassuring messages from deceased family members, such as "Grandma is happy now," or "Your mother is watching over you." These banal messages are relatively harmless, but oddly the dead seem to convey little if any useful, accurate or previously unknown information. Why haven't psychic mediums contacted the spirit of Albert Einstein and made giant advances in physics with his genius? Why haven't they contacted the ghost of Natalee Holloway (if she's dead) and determined the circumstances of her disappearance?
Before its recent demise, Stuff magazine had a regular column called "Beyond the Grave: Interviews with Dead Celebrities." It's not clear how tongue-in-cheek the readers took it, but the psychic is certainly serious about it. She is "world-renowned medium Victoria Bullis" (her website insists that she's "internationally known"; rarely do psychics tout themselves as "locally known").
Apparently some celebrity interviews are easier to arrange after the subjects have died, perhaps because their schedules quickly clear up. In the April 2006 issue, Bullis supposedly contacted slain rap icon Tupac Shakur. The first question among about a dozen asked by the magazine (through Bullis) was how he is doing now that he's dead, and Shakur's fans will be relieved to know that "he's doing well."
Instead of providing any useful, interesting or verifiable information from "the Other Side," Shakur's spirit--as spirits often do--stuck with vague information. Not that the interviewer didn't try: When asked, "Do you know who killed you?" (Shakur's murder remains unsolved) Bullis--er, Shakur--demurred with, "Of course! When you pass to the next life you see the whole thing. That's a question I'm not going to answer. That could be dangerous." For as often as stories are told of restless spirits seeking revenge for their murders, you'd think they would take the opportunity when contacted by mediums to avenge their deaths by giving damning information or directing police to incriminating evidence. Shakur's spirit seems to prefer that his murder remain unsolved. Bullis also states that Shakur and Abraham Lincoln "hang out" together in the afterlife; apparently the Great Emancipator and the rapper/convicted sex offender have much in common.
Bullis later "interviewed" Anna Nicole Smith, who reported that she and Marilyn Monroe shared 18 previous lives together. When Bullis asked about the overhyped controversy over the paternity of Smith's daughter Dannielynn, Smith was clear and unequivocal: "Please tell everyone it's Howard K. Stern." At that time, as Bullis was surely aware, Stern was listed as the infant's father on the birth certificate. But shortly after the interview was published, DNA tests proved that in fact Smith's former boyfriend Larry Birkhead is the father.
For those who believe people can talk to the dead, this development presents an interesting problem, because the ghost/spirit said something that wasn't true. There are several possible explanations: 1) Smith did not know who the father of her child was, and therefore the dead don't have any better information than the living; 2) Smith lied to Bullis, and therefore spirits lie and any information supposedly from The Great Beyond is suspect (including that Grandma is happy); or 3) "World-renowned psychic" Victoria Bullis is either a self-deluded fraud or a liar and cannot communicate with the dead as she claims. This is only one of countless verifiably inaccurate "messages" from the dead, and whichever explanation is true, it only undermines the credibility of those who do hear voices from beyond the grave.
Benjamin Radford has investigated mysterious and unexplained phenomena for more than a decade. He is a columnist for LiveScience.com and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His latest book is Lake Monster Mysteries , available at his website: www.RadfordBooks.com.