‘If someone is using trickery to convince someone they have supernatural abilities then that is fraud and we should be stopping them, exposing them for what they are like when Randi exposes Peter Popoff.’
We spoke to Ash Pryce about psychics, ghosts, skepticism and his show How To Talk To The Dead. Here’s what he had to say. (Please note that if you’re going to see Ash perform the show there may be spoilers below.)
What is it that first interested you in the paranormal in the first place?
Ash: I’m not sure there was ever one unique moment that piqued my interest. I just always from a young age seemed to gravitate toward the paranormal. My favourite film as a kid was Ghostbusters, a movie I rented on video as often as I could- usually during school lunches giving me a shortened experience of the film and for years I just assumed fighting Slimer was the big finale! But generally, from a young age I always found ghosts and ghouls far more interesting than football or whatever it is kids are *supposed* to be in to.
Were you always skeptical or was there a Eureka moment?
Ash: No, I wasn’t always skeptical. I think part of my early love of the paranormal was because I believed it. One of my fondest memories is visiting a Spiritualist Church with my Grandfather and seeing Table Tipping which stayed with me for years, unable to explain it. Even as late as a decade ago in my early twenties I was still a believer – in fact out of all my non-skeptical beliefs, the one in ghosts and psychics was the last to go. Me and a college friend would sit for hours discussing theories and explanations for ghosts- the Stone Tapes Theory (though we didn’t know its name then) was a popular idea and if you don’t think too deeply about it then it can be a very sciencey and rational sounding explanation.
Ultimately what turned me skeptic was working for a ghost tour company in Edinburgh. Being in that environment day in day out and seeing how and why people reacted to certain things got me looking more critically at ghosts and the supernatural.
How long does it take you to develop a trick or an aspect of your show?
Ash: That’s actually a really difficult question to answer because different sections, routines and aspects of the show really vary in how long they take to develop. Some routines, such as the levitating table I perform took a long time to work on and is probably the most rehearsed section of the show. Same with most of the more trick based sections- they can take a few hours to get the basics but then its constant rehearsing- I’d even go as far as to say these are continuous and I never really stop rehearsing them.
How to Talk to the Dead has evolved and changed over the years and, though I’d likely recognise some of it, I imagine looking back on the very first show would be a very different experience. Also, I don’t tend to write jokes, I am more comfortable ad-libbing and seeing what sticks.
Would you ever share the secrets of the tricks?
Ash: Oh, look out the window. SQUIRREL! [editor: there was no squirrel]
What are your thoughts on people who use tricks but don’t tell their audience?
Ash: I think it depends on the situation. Someone going to see a ghost story that involves the use of Peppers Ghost might not know it’s a classic stage trick, but then they also wouldn’t likely assume it’s a real apparition. If we look at the Davenport Brothers of the 19th century, they were on very dodgy ground as they were seen by many as genuine spiritualist mediums. It was only later in life that one of the brothers admitted they hadn’t set out to be mediums at all but very much got swept up in the growing Spiritualist movement.
How much truth there is in that I couldn’t say but they certainly used deception in their work without being honest about it. But I would say that if someone is using trickery to convince someone they have supernatural abilities then that is fraud and we should be stopping them, exposing them for what they are like when Randi exposes Peter Popoff.
Do you find it easier to spot psychics and tricksters for what they are?
Ash: I think I’m certainly aware of what can be causing certain paranormal phenomenon, be it cold reading for stage mediumship or some magic routine for physical psychic trickery. I have seen people on Youtube using James Hydricks old pencil telekinesis routine and claiming it genuinely psychic when they’re simply blowing on the pencil.
But as with anything, I might not always spot anything- there may only in reality be a handful of tricks, but there are so many ways to perform them that I may only be able to say “I know that’s a trick, but I can’t show how its done” which of course makes me look like I don’t know what I’m talking about and supports the viewers belief that the alleged psychic is genuine.
What tell-tale signs can people look out for if visiting a psychic?
Ash: Always get a recording of the reading so you can listen back as it is quite common to miss and forget the things that don’t stick, and people focus on the hits. I’d also be wary of vague statements such as “money worries” or “there is a change on the horizon” or if common things are mentioned like heart problems or cancer that could be an indication the psychic is just fishing for information. Chest conditions especially – most things that kill you are chest related and even with a bit of a stretch you could make things like Aneurysms tie in (aneurysm, blood clots anything related to the blood therefore to the heart basically).
For cold reading to work the reader needs you to be vocal and interactive with them, simply sitting still and not responding would be enough to stop a cold read. Also try and insist on surnames- a psychic might give you the name Michael, but in and of itself that is pretty useless and if they get a clear forename then I always fail to see why even a soundalike surname cant be given.
Do you think visiting a psychic can be harmful? Should it be discouraged?
Ash: Can be? Sure. Is it usually? Not so sure. I think if you visit a psychic and they give you incorrect information it can be quite damaging depending of course eon what that information is. Sylvia Browne was a particularly nasty example of emotional harm- she was frequently a guest on the Montel Williams show and would “help” parents of missing children. Several times she got it wrong, telling parents their child was alive when they were not and then telling parents their child was dead when they were still living. The parents of Shawn Hornbeck were told he was dead by Sylvia Browne, but he was alive. Amanda Berry who spent years as a prisoner of Ariel Castro was allowed to watch television in her cell and saw her mother on the Montel Show along with Browne, who told her mother that Amanda was dead.
Amanda was apparently screaming at the TV and begging Castro to let her mother know she was indeed alive. This obviously didn’t happen and her mother died a short while late, never finding out that Browne was wrong and apparently a changed women from the moment Browne told her. That is some very real harm there, how much impact the Browne revelation had in relation to the mothers dying we can only speculate, but at best it certainly didn’t help her. As to whether it should be discouraged, I honestly don’t know. The examples above are the exceptions, I think the majority of people get genuine comfort from visits to psychics and if it is helping then I’m not sure I want to be the one to say “Sorry, your baby is actually dead forever and not a ghost. Sorry”. [Learn more about Shawn Hornbeck here, and Amanda Berry here]
Why do you think people still believe in ghosts in rapidly developing societies?
Ash: I think there are a variety of reasons why people continue to believe. If you wake up in the middle of the night, unable to move, feeling a presence, pressure on your chest and even seeing an entity and you HAVEN’T been aware of sleep paralysis I can see why some might attribute that experience to a ghost- what other explanations could there be for some? We are brought up in a society where the majority believe in ghosts, so there is also the idea that if so many have experienced X then X must be true- along the same lines as why people think homeopathy works, or belief in gods.
Also, and I don’t think this is necessarily the main reason but its up there, the idea of a loved one being gone for ever is difficult for some to accept, and the belief in an afterlife gives them comfort. Then there are also people who might not have been told anything different, that they believe because they always have, because they were raised that way and it makes sense. I imagine you could get quite a hefty book out of just looking at why people believe in ghosts and nothing more.
Spiritualism seems to be as popular now as it has ever been, what do you think sets it apart from other religions? What similarities are there?
Ash: Spiritualism has links to Quakerism in its origins as the Fox Sisters who all but founded Spiritualism had radical Quakers among their first converts, but also has been greatly influenced by Protestant Christianity, emerging from a world deeply steeped in it. The Bible isn’t a key part of Spiritualism, but there is certainly a belief in a monotheist deity of Abrahamic origins and I’d imagine many see Spiritualism as just a part of the large umbrella of Christianity- my grandfather certainly did. One of the biggest differences between Spiritualism and say Christianity is how they view the soul and its existence after death.
In Spiritualism the afterlife isn’t static, its not as simple as good people go to Heaven, bad ones to Hell. The soul can continue to interact with those in the living world. Although its not entirely a Christian belief, with many Christians seeing it as dangerous or simply wrong, I’d say it is close enough to it that you could be forgiven for seeing it as just another, albeit radical, denomination of Christianity or at least Abrahamic monotheism.
What is your favourite non-fiction ghost story?
Ash: The story of Annie. Here in Edinburgh there is an old section of the city that was sealed up called Mary Kings Close. It’s a collection of streets, now underground, that haven’t changed in centuries. Back in the 1990s a psychic called Aiko Gibo visited and said she felt a young girl tugging at her hand, apparently the girl died during the plague and was sad because she lost her dolly. Gibo went out and bought her a tartan covered dolly and since then tourists have left various gifts for Annie- including a Westlife CD, though they were considerate enough not to leave a CD player. Gibo visited at the height of a myth that was circulating saying Mary Kings Close had been bricked up with hundreds inside riddled with plague, but now we know that story was made up, I think Gibos story loses some of its charm.
What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever experienced?
Ash: A lot of things that happened in my Grandparents house. It was an old house and at night it was not uncommon to hear what sounded like footsteps on the landing, that always freaked me out. I also remember one time after I’d taken tourists on a ghost tour to the Underground City of Edinburgh a couple came into the office and showed me some scratches they’d found on their lower back. This was when I was still in my believer mind set and it really made me uncomfortable. Then there is sleep paralysis- I can completely understand why some might think it supernatural if they hadn’t heard of it.
See Ash Pryce on tour with How To Talk To The Dead – check for local shows here, or keep up to date with all of his work by checking out his website.