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JREF Recruits Zombie Horde to Carry Psychic Challenge

by Daniel Loxton, Oct 25 2011
JREF zombie banner. Photograph by Eduard Pastor

JREF President D.J. Grothe coaches zombie horde. Photograph by Eduard Pastor

Just in time for Halloween, our colleagues over at the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) have enlisted a (rather modest) zombie horde to carry a serious consumer protection message: if psychics who accept money for communicating with the dead cannot actually do so, then they are taking unfair advantage of the bereaved. Led by JREF President D.J. Grothe, these volunteers carried the JREF’s Million Dollar Challenge to alleged spirit medium James Van Praagh.

Uncouth as zombies are known to be, Grothe and JREF Communications Director Sadie Crabtree assured me that this particular group of undead Americans excelled in politeness. Van Praagh’s event was not disrupted, and the group left when requested to do so.

“All of our volunteers were determined not to disrupt the event; we just wanted to get James Van Praagh to come out and talk to us, or to capture on video the fact that he’s hiding from our Million Dollar Challenge,” Grothe told me. “We stuck to the publicly accessible area and we left when we were asked. We didn’t do the action to disrupt an event, but to highlight the offense to reason and conscience that these stage mediums cause when they take advantage of people suffering from loss.”

This planning highlights two key ingredients of a successful protest stunt (as I’ve discussed previously): agreeing in advance on rules of engagement, and designing that engagement to keep the protester on the moral high ground. In this case, as Grothe explains, “Everyone was clear from the outset that we wouldn’t engage with any audience members, and we deliberately arrived outside after most people had already been seated. The ones who saw us were mostly just confused by the costumes, and the ones who got it seemed to understand that we weren’t there to make fun of them, but to confront Van Praagh.”

Video and JREF press release below. (A Picasa photo gallery is available here.)

Video: Zombies bring challenge to celebrity ‘psychic medium’

Dodging questions, James Van Praagh won’t even talk to dead people about JREF’s Million Dollar Challenge

Laguna Beach, Calif.—James Van Praagh has made himself rich by claiming he talks to the dead on daytime TV and at pricey ticketed seances—but he wouldn’t talk at all when ‘the dead’ actually turned up at his $100-a-head seminar to ask why he won’t prove his psychic powers.

A video released today by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) shows a small horde of costumed ‘zombies,’ carrying signs reading “Van Praaaaaaagh” and “talk to us, we won’t bite,” shambling up to the building where Van Praagh’s “Spirit Circle” was set to begin, and asking to speak with him. Led by JREF President D.J. Grothe, the groups asks why Van Praagh is dodging questions about whether he’ll accept the Foundation’s million-dollar challenge to prove his claimed psychic medium abilities. Van Praagh’s representatives first promise to get someone to talk with the group, but instead have the group kicked out by security.

Van Praagh has refused to answer emails and certified letters about the JREF’s challenge, and has refused to comment to the media.

JREF representatives say they’ve seen nothing that distinguishes Van Praagh’s performances from common psychological tricks traditionally used by magicians and phony psychics.

“If James Van Praagh is making his living by faking psychic powers and pretending to speak to people’s deceased family members, that’s truly shameful,” said D.J. Grothe, JREF president and a former professional magician. “That’s why we put a million dollars on the line and gave him the opportunity to prove he can really talk to dead people.”

“It seems that when James Van Praagh is asked to prove his ‘psychic’ powers, even dead people get the silent treatment.”

This release and further info is available from the JREF, here.

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15 Responses to “JREF Recruits Zombie Horde to Carry Psychic Challenge”

  1. DAN LEWIS says:

    The so called psychiatrist on this show should sign up for therapy himself. He’s an idiot.

    The people who fool others regarding the dead should be behind bars.

  2. Kenn says:

    My thoughts:

    • Talking to the dead is no hoax. It happens frequently.

    The challenge is getting the dead to talk back.

    • When Christians pray to Jesus, are they not talking to the dead?

    When Christians suppose Jesus answers their prayers, is that not similar to a psychic claiming the dead are responding?

  3. Other Paul says:

    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?

    — Henry IV Part 1.

    But how much of a problem is this for van Praagh, really? He’s not obliged to respond to such a challenge. It’s not even all that suspicious for him to appear as if he’s avoiding a million dollars. He can always just say he doesn’t need it. As Larry David might put it in that mock smug ‘voice’ – “I’m doing very well on my own, thank you very much. Very very well.

    • It is a prize he will never collect and engaging in debate would cost him his cash cow of followers. Eventually he would see him for what he is. He can now claim the high moral ground for not engaging in these juvenile tactics.

  4. Mark W says:

    RE: ” He’s not obliged to respond to such a challenge.” Not really. If it is a gift he has, just think of the vast contribution to science he could make if it is really real. It would turn just about everything we know upside down. He would be another Newton, Copernicus, or Edison. Hoarding this “gift” is very selfish when all it would take is a few hours of his time to rock the world. Plus there are many charities he could donate JREF money as well. If it is a God given gift, then do God’s work with it for at least a few hours.

  5. JREF stunt is juvenile and counterproductive.

    • Well, it was silly. Whether it was counterproductive (or perhaps ethically bad) is I suppose a judgment call. I usually have serious reservations about skeptical stunts: often they assume facts not in evidence, or ridicule believers, or even mislead the public about the nature of the claim under discussion.

      In this case, I see little harm, and it feels to me good-natured. The audience of the event was not mocked (or even engaged). The message read to me as “it is ethically important to test ethically weighty claims,” which is a message with which I agree—and which I think most people should agree, regardless of their position on any given claim.

      Still, skepticism could do with more quality control in general. To that end, peer criticism is a virtue. I throw this open for discussion: was the JREF stunt appropriate, or inappropriate, or somewhere in between? Could it have been improved?

      • Other Paul says:

        I’d not even say it was counterproductive. Simply that it didn’t demonstrate that JVP’s refusal to engage was anything that would inform either him or his followers. His refusal could have other, simpler, explanations like “I don’t give a toss about this challenge”.

        Not that he or his followers would grasp the concept of Occam’s Razor of course. Let’s not go overboard here.

  6. Steven says:

    Besides…he talks to the dead, not the UN-dead! Sheesh…

  7. Jason Loxton says:

    I vote appropriate. This had nothing to do with engaging JVP. It was about creating a media friendly event to broadcast the general JREF message and to undermine JVP credibility (if he doesn’t care about money, why does he charge so much, etc.). It think it succeeded. DJ and Crabtree we both very articulate. The protest was cute and did little harm. I say well done.

  8. arjun says:

    I contend that talking to the dead is natural and that most people do it. I often talk to my dead mother and sometimes to my ancestors that died before i was born, which i find comforting. The big difference is i never expect them to respond. If you find the dead talking back to you, you’ve got a problem, but i don’t think talking to them is at all weird.

  9. steelsheen11b says:

    Watching that video made me realize how much I miss Rubys man they have good food.

    AS far as the stunt went I don’t think it achieved much except for getting some internet play. They needed to revamp the idea and be much more confrontational.

  10. Kenn says:

    If there were a “for entertainment purposes only” disclaimer, I would have no problem with his performances.