Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How psychic believers made me more of a skeptic

Guys, as I have mentioned before, I'm like, obsessed with paranormal TV shows: investigation-y ones, ones with cheesy reenactments, personal anecdotes, scientific or "scientific" analysis of the phenomena, whatever. Obviously, my default television network is Investigation Discovery because, duh murder shows, but if there's a ghost hunt or first-person account of a haunting or even a paranormal debunking show on that I somehow haven't seen yet, I'm watching it. I've also written numerous academic papers on paranormal investigation TV (and even got one accepted to an academic journal for publication mwahmwahmwah) because I think the genre's popularity can tell us some really interesting things about our culture.* Do I believe in ghosts? Maybe? I've stated before that I am like Mulder's poster when it comes to the paranormal:

But I kind of gave up on believing things when I stopped being Mormon (eight years ago this fall!). I mean, I grew up being taught to believe in some weird shit. For a long time after leaving the church, I thought of myself as an "apathetic agnostic"; I didn't know if I believed in a god, and I didn't really care. I lean more toward atheist now, and my inability to believe in a deity also makes me awfully skeptical about stuff like souls and an afterlife. Which makes the whole "ghost" thing confusing. But lest this turn entirely into a multi-thousand word post about which scientific theories of alternate realities/universes/energies or whatever I think might be valid, let's just leave it at: I have always been fascinated by and drawn to paranormal stuff. I like the idea of it, I think people have authentically unexplainable experiences, but I have no firsthand experience and my liberal arts-addled/critical thinking brain is like, "It's probably bullshit. It's cool and creepy, but probably mostly bullshit."

The other important thing to know about me is that I am very uncomfortable with genuine displays of emotion. Sincerity is like my Kryptonite. I cannot handle earnest people and all their feelings and enthusiasm and faith and I'm just feeling icky thinking about it. I only hug when I'm drunk! I use sarcasm as a shield! Et cetera! I don't even know how I handled all those years of testimony meeting.** Which is not to say I've never been caught up in "the Spirit" or whatever. That's what Girls' Camp and EFY were for. I've moved pretty far past that whole Mormon teenager "I have to believe" mindset, so today even things like my local Occupy meetings drain me because of the all the goddamn belief in change and earnest effort. I was just so goddamn embarrassed for everyone. I hate the Q&A sections of academic lectures. You just do not know what people will say! It is so awkward. I hate it. True believers are huge turn-off for me. But I went to see psychic/medium/badass Chip Coffey last night anyway.

I can't say that the actual presentation/show was worth the $50 I spent to sit in the very back of the general admission section, but Chip was, ultimately, very charming. He's an adorable southern-ish gay man who likes to swear and give people tough love. How can you not be into that? I also tend to believe that Chip Coffey is sincere in his belief that he can speak to the dead and has general psychic abilities. I don't believe the man is a charlatan (though I do kind of just like using the word "charlatan"), and I've seen him come up with some pretty specific, creepy shit that he really has no way of knowing on his various TV appearances and even in a few of the short readings he did last night. I can't explain those. But most of what he does is read people. OBVS. Psychics are like Sherlock Holmes, but more tactful.

The crowd who showed up at Coffey Talk with Chip Coffey was largely made up of white ladies, and skewed toward middle age, I would estimate. And some of them had their very own PSYCHIC KIDS with them! Which is one of Chip's things, obvs, but when the woman next to me pressed him during Q&A to write, like, an instructional manual about children's psychic development he was like, "I actually do very little work with children." In part because it is kind of controversial, which he admits. And she was filled with disappointment, but luckily she could chat with the ladies in front of us about their psychic kids together during the break, at which time I escaped to the bar. Then at the bar, while slurping down my raspberry vodka and Sprite (I had less than 15 minutes), a middle-aged white lady with a very short, very unfortunate haircut and a commemorative satin jacket from Alcatraz ("The Rock") was telling some other lady about her life-changing experience with cars from the past and reliving her childhood to find peace with a dead loved one or something and I was texting my friends like, "OMG these people" because I am terrible.

There were lot of people walking around with VIP lanyards (pay extra to actually meet Chip) and Super-VIP lanyards (pay even more extra to meet Chip and do a paranormal investigation of the Wabasha Street Caves with him) who read pretty "ghost hunter-y" to me (Think: Paranormal Challenge contestants). Most people who were picked out of the many volunteers during the second portion of the show to have readings done either wanted to contact a dead friend or relative or to ask about, like, health problems they have or something. Chip was generally charming, he handles people well and didn't let anybody yammer on and on awkwardly. But of course his readings for people were incredibly general, and even some specifics seemed pretty easy to guess. He did (apparently accurately) mention boats in relation to two of the men he "read," but since this is Minnesota and practically everybody's got a cabin on a lake or at least a friend who has one, I'm not sure that's really narrowing it down much. As I watched the sad, mourning people gain comfort from Chip telling them their loved one says they love them and that they are okay, I was in some ways disappointed. Nothing amazing happened. Those readings could have been for anybody. I would still be open to getting a personal reading done some day (when I've got money to burn), just to see if they said anything actually applicable, but I feel as though it would be a lot like when I got my patriarchal blessing at seventeen and was like "Vague much?"

Though pretty decent entertainment, watching all those believers watch Chip do what he does, I just felt kind of sorry for everybody. Their eagerness to believe just reminded me of my church days. Of teenagers really trying to believe, to claim that the "knew" the Church was true, to "feel the Spirit" and cry and hug each other because of Jesus*** (or just sleep deprivation/peer pressure, but whatever). Of little children in testimony meeting repeating the words of truth and belief into the microphone that their parents whispered into their ears. And because I was there alone, I had nobody to snark to (a great tragedy) or to express my skepticism about certain claims that Chip or his fans were making. It was that community of believers that just kind of creeped me out a little bit. I would read the fuck out of an ethnography about psychic believers, but I would never, ever want to conduct one. I didn't even raise my hand to volunteer for a reading because a) What the hell would I ask? "Can you tell me some vague things about my future career as Amy Poehler?" "Please contact my dead grandparents, but not really because even in life it was awkward to talk to them on the phone, as much as I loved them, and what if this is real and they tell me I've ruined my life by not being Mormon anymore?" Also, b) I probably wouldn't have gotten picked anyway. I bet Chip would have been able to smell the cynicism on me. Though I did wear a semi-sparkly fashion scarf in scarf solidarity.

Anyhow, we all know I have a cold, blackened heart that cannot be touched by the power of love, hope, miracles, or the Invisible Hand of the Marketplace. This is not news. But goddamn if all that sincerity made me turn my skepticism up another couple of notches. Chip is great. Probably not actually speaking to spirits, though. Everybody else at the show last night should maybe think about getting a new hobby.

*Or at least that is maybe what I will write my dissertation about, but that is another essay in itself probably.
**Yes I do: snark. And avoidance. Just like when awkward situations happen on TV, I hide my face and/or do something else or talk over it for a minute because it is SO PAINFUL.
***Not this Jesus. I hug Him all the time, but only when we are both super-drunk. And then we insult each other affectionately and sing karaoke together. It is possible that my friend Brock is the Sexy Gay Jesus.

1 comment:

  1. Yes to all of the above, although I probably handle emotion better than you (all those years at BYU probably inoculated me).

    Also, along the lines of Mormons and psychics, I thought this interview was really interesting: