Montclair Psychic School sits above a florist’s shop in the town of Rutherford, New Jersey. On a Sunday in June, eight students sit in a yellow painted classroom, watching a mastiff named Axel sniff a bust of the Buddha.
“C’mere, Axel,” says a woman whose T-shirt reads: “Medicine heals the body. DOGS heal the soul.” She offers him a treat. “Good boy.”
Axel slobbers on her lap, then lopes around the room, sniffing amethyst crystals, a conga drum and a gold Tibetan singing bowl.
“Send your heartstrings out,” says Natalie Anderson, a special education teacher who moonlights as an animal communicator. “Connect. Ask Axel: what’s in his world? What does he know? What does he want? Don’t be shy.”
Axel drools on the rug as the students try to read his mind.
“He’s saying ‘hikes’,” says one woman. “He wants a job, so he feels like he has a purpose. Maybe he can get a backpack, so his job can be carrying water on hikes?”
A description of this seven-hour “pet communication” class reads: “You will learn how to send thoughts to your animal companions and trust what you are receiving back. It is only a matter of understanding telepathic communication, the natural mode of communication for all animals AND an inherent ability for all humans!”
“Say whatever’s coming to mind,” Natalie instructs. “Give me that spirit vomit.”
The students say: “He’s bored.”
“He wants a playmate. And some variety in his dog food.”
“He wants training. Focus. A task.”
Axel sniffs a rock painted with a butterfly and the word “BELIEVE”. A lava lamp glows on a wooden chest. On the wall, a clock with the words “I SEE DEAD PEOPLE” printed on its face reads 3pm. It’s time for Axel’s afternoon walk.
“Bye, Axel!” the students say. “Thanks so much!”
Everyone is psychic!
Montclair Psychic School was founded by a woman named Lee Van Zyl in 2006 on the premise that every single person has “psychic abilities”. The definition varies depending on whom you ask but here, in addition to animal telepathy, the school offers instruction in angel-channeling, mind-reading, psychometry and communication with spirits of the dead.
I first heard the claim that everyone could become psychic – a popular claim among scattered factions of the New Age movement – while working on an assignment in 2015. A Norse rune reader told me I possessed “dark magic”; a crystal ball reader told me I was “very psychic”; a dominatrix-slash-medium told me I was a latent witch.
I didn’t believe any of them; aside from going through a Wiccan phase at 11 and having a psilocybin-induced mystical experience on a golf course at 18, I’d never strayed much from a secular worldview. But I was secretly flattered – until I realized that most of these psychics’ clients probably got similar evaluations.
According to them, most people just aren’t aware of their innate paranormal abilities.
“I believe that 100% of us are psychic,” writes Pete A Sanders Jr, in his book You Are Psychic! “I learned to be psychic,” gushes Krishanti, a vlogger, in a YouTube video. “If I can do it, everybody can … It’s not brain science!”
I wanted to know what would happen if I took these psychic evangelists at their word. Maybe the Norse rune reader was right, and my mind was infinitely more powerful than I’d ever fathomed. Or, as most of my friends insisted after learning of this project, maybe all psychics are charlatans.
So from January to June of 2018, when I wasn’t at my job as a fact-checker, I listened to the podcast Everyone is Psychic; read books like Your Psychic Soul and You Are Psychic!; and attended “psychic development” classes promising students they would speak with the dead, see the future, or know for certain what’s inside others’ minds.
You seem like a mugwort person
On a freezing Tuesday in January, I attend a class called Herbs for Dreamwork and Opening Psychic Abilities at Catland, an occult bookshop in Brooklyn which gained minor notoriety in 2017 for organizing a ceremony to “hex” US president Donald Trump.
In a black-walled room lit by a single bulb, 17 students sit before Rebecca Fey, an aerialist acrobat and tarot reader wearing skull-printed tights and feather earrings. She’s listing herbs with purported mystical benefits. Mugwort, she says, is great for opening your Third Eye; wormwood helps induce visions; cinnamon raises vibrational frequencies; catnip attracts good spirits; wild lettuce can be smoked – Hopi Indians used it to induce trance states.
Students scribble notes as Fey explains how to rub herbs into a mirror to practice a form of divination called “scrying”.
“Does it have to be so dark in here?” one student asks.
“How do you spell ‘scry’?” asks another.
Scientific consensus regarding psychic abilities hasn’t changed much since a 1988 report by the US National Research council found “no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena”. While a few prominent physicists like Freeman Dyson and Brian Josephson have expressed heretical beliefs in the existence of telepathy, most contemporary scientists dismiss purported supernatural powers as the stuff of science fiction.
In the US, skeptics about psychic phenomena outnumber believers, but not by much. Polls tend to show that around one-third to one-half of Americans believe in phenomena such as telepathy and precognition. These beliefs fuel a $2bn psychic services industry that has been growing steadily since the 2008 recession.
When I ask which herbs are best for beginners, Fey says: “You seem like a mugwort person. Burn mugwort to hone your intuition. Stare into a candle flame. Ask what it wants you to know.”
After class, students mill around the shop, sniffing bundles of juniper, inspecting ankh pendants and penis-shaped candles. I buy an ounce of mugwort for $3. One woman spends $93.73 on pre-packaged “spiritual bath herb mixes”.
Later, I show a friend my new mugwort stash. “I don’t think you’d handle seeing the future very well,” she says. Still, when I get home I burn mugwort in a shot glass and stare into a candle flame, silently asking what it wants me to know. The candle doesn’t answer. The mugwort smells like crappy marijuana, but nothing happens when I inhale its smoke.
This is disappointing, though Fey had fairly warned me: “What you’re gonna experience isn’t like on TV, where you touch someone and suddenly see their whole life story. Don’t think of it as, like, zero to 10.”
I don’t think you’d handle seeing the future very well
The next morning, I go to my fact-checking job. Fact-checkers are supposed to ensure the accuracy of every grain of information in a given article. Under a president who makes an average of 6.5 false or misleading claims a day, the often tedious business of fact-checking has taken on new urgency.
While fact-checking in February, I confirm that a pair of cat-shaped Gucci earrings costs $2,390; that an average of 31 American women die from opioids every day; that 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school on Valentine’s Day; and that the Milky Way galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its heart.
At work, the tyranny of facts feels inescapable.
At psychic school, facts don’t matter.
“If it’s coming from spirit, then it’s true,” says Melissa Waite Stamps, a self-described clairvoyant medium who has Morticia Addams hair. “This world is totally nonlinear. It’s a different universe. It’s like being in a dream state.”
At age 11, Melissa was inducted as a priestess by her Irish nanny into the Pagan “path of goddess mysteries” without the knowledge of her Upper East Side socialite mother. Now she runs a weekly psychic development Meetup group.
On a Monday evening, in a cramped, windowless room near the Empire State Building, Melissa tells six students about how spirits might convey information to channelers: through dreams, goosebumps, flashing lights, radios randomly turning on and off.
Then she guides the group on a meditative trip.
“Journey now to non-ordinary reality,” Melissa lilts over a recording of singing bowls playing from an iPhone. “Allow your spirit guide to lead you to places where you find the missing parts of yourself. Crystal caves, star systems, universe below the ocean. Travel beyond time and human experience.”
After five minutes, we describe our journeys to “non-ordinary reality”.
A PR professional flew through the skies with her recently deceased pet monk parrot. A tired-looking nurse met a shepherd in Biblical Jerusalem who revealed her unlimited potential. A wellness blogger drank from a Thermos full of light. I swam in a grotto with Glinda the Good Witch.
When each person speaks, the students say: Wow. Amazing. Beautiful.
“I used to differentiate between imagination and reality, but now, it’s all real to me,” says Siréne, an artist from Tokyo. Siréne is “learning to speak dolphin”, because, in a past life, he was a “giant bipedal dolphinoid, with tiny little humans as pets”. He misses that life and, when he’s not painting pictures of winged muscle-gods, often returns to it during meditations.
In her book Your Psychic Soul, Judith Pennington explains how you know if a past-life memory is true: “Deep inside, you will feel whether it is true or not. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. What is real in the mind is what is real in your present life.”
From this perspective, the question of what is objectively true becomes irrelevant; fantasy and reality are interchangeable.
Can you read the colors in your partner’s aura?
Next, Melissa has us pair up to practice “aura reading”.
The modern conception of auras – color-changing, emotion-reflecting fields of light that supposedly surround every human, invisible to the non-clairvoyant eye – was first popularized in the late 19th century by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society. Some 12 decades later, many professional psychics specialize in aura reading.
“Using your clairvoyance, give your partner a message from spirit based on the colors you read in their aura,” Melissa tells the Meetup group.
I sit across from the PR professional grieving her parrot. She gazes at me, takes deep breaths, and says she sees “a crown of green and white light, like the Statue of Liberty’s”, emanating from my head: “It’s very clear.”
I stare back and see no colors surrounding the woman, save an orange glow from a lamp on her black hair. I wonder if she really sees a gleaming crown on my head. I find myself doubting it – I don’t feel any crown of light; I have a headache – but, ultimately, I have no way of knowing what she sees or doesn’t see. Psychic lessons aren’t working on me, and I can’t telepathically inhabit her mind to discover if she’s telling the truth.
Studies suggest we’re not as skilled at divining other people’s thoughts and emotions as we might like to think we are. According to social psychologist William Ickes, a pioneer of “empathic accuracy” research, “strangers read each other with an average accuracy rate of about 20%” when videotaped and asked to record their moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings. Close friends and married couples are only slightly better at reading each other, with an accuracy rate of 35%. One meta-analysis found that people’s ability to distinguish truth from lies is just a few percentage points above a random coin flip.
When Melissa checks in with me and my partner, I tell her that if I were to claim I saw glowing colors, I’d feel guilty of making stuff up.
“Everyone feels like they’re making it up at first,” Melissa tells me. “Make it up.”
When I squeeze my eyes shut, greenish floaters appear.
“I guess I’m getting a green vibe,” I tell my partner, “but maybe that’s because you’d look good in green.”
“What do you think it means?” Melissa says.
“Maybe it would help you to spend time in a green space,” I try. “Like a park?”
“My bird was green,” my partner says.
“There you go!” says Melissa.
I deliver a message from the floaters behind my eyelids: “Maybe you could visit the green monk parrots who live in [Brooklyn’s] Green-Wood Cemetery.”
“I didn’t know parrots lived there,” my partner says.
Like speed dating … but with ghosts
The notion that every human can develop supernatural abilities has captivated Americans for centuries. It wasn’t just the counterculture that was seduced: the government bought it, too.
In the 1970s, the US army and the Defense Intelligence Agency launched a secret program that, among other things, trained intelligence professionals to become “remote viewers”, purportedly capable of clairvoyantly spying on events from a great distance. The army also entertained a proposal for developing a new military of psychic super-soldiers who would “sense plant auras, attain the power to pass [through] walls, bend metal with their minds, [see] the future [and] be able to see and hear other people’s thoughts”.
These parapsychology experiments were, in part, a cold war government’s response to the fear that Soviets were using “psychoenergetic warfare”. The $20m Stargate Project was declassified and shut down in 1995 after a CIA report concluded that it had not produced any actionable intelligence information. Its legacy, however, lingers.
In recent years, belief in mediumship has gained prominence in pop culture. Oprah Winfrey, Dr Phil and the Real Housewives all feature mediums on their TV shows. Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s $250m lifestyle juggernaut, promotes mediums – as well as animal communicators and “Psychic Vampire Repellent” – on its heavily-trafficked website. At the brand’s recent In Goop Health conference, a medium claimed that “death does not exist”.
In March, I attend Montclair Psychic School’s nine-hour Unfoldment Into Mediumship class. A course description claims that, by the end of this workshop, students “will have conducted spirit contact with proof of life”.
When I arrive, Lee Van Zyl sits puffing on an e-cigarette before one man and five women, all middle-aged. Wearing sweatshirts and mom jeans, they look more like a focus group on suburban Costco shoppers than a circle of aspiring necromancers.
“We are here to prove the soul survives,” Van Zyl says. A dark-haired ex-lawyer from Cape Town, she calls her students “darling” as she explains how, in order to channel spirits, “we must learn to quiet our analytical left-brain voice”.
“I gave that nagging, critical voice a name,” Van Zyl says. “I call her Frankie.”
Throughout class, Lee refers disparagingly to “Frankie Talk”, personifying the voice of rational thought, which, she explains, should be silenced whenever possible.
“Frankie” interferes with trust in the “five clairs”, which are like supercharged versions of the five senses. The best known is clairvoyance, which makes symbols and images appear on a screen behind your forehead. There’s also clairaudience, clairsentience, clairalience and clairgustance.
As an example of how clairgustance, the “gift of clear taste”, works, Van Zyl says: “You might be sitting with someone and taste bitter lemon. Why? Well, maybe the person likes lemon, but maybe they’re feeling bitter.”
Next, Lee guides us through an exercise that’s like speed dating, but with ghosts.
“Close your eyes and project yourself into the corner of the room,” she says. “There are spirit people over there. Go introduce yourself. Ask: ‘What was your life like? How did you die?’ Be friendly. Some might be shy.”
I close my eyes and try to summon spirit people.
“Hi, guys. How did you die?” I mentally whisper. No one responds.
Lee suggests icebreakers: “Ask spirit people who are somehow connected to water to introduce themselves. Maybe you’ll meet a surfer, a fireman holding a hose, farmers watering their lands.”
I wait for dead surfers and firemen and farmers to appear. Nothing happens.
“Now spirit people are gonna tell you how they experienced illnesses,” Lee says. She suggests summoning spirits who died of emphysema, tuberculosis, heart attacks, Alzheimer’s or sugar diabetes. “‘Frankie Brain’ might say: ‘Oh, shit, I’m not getting anything.’ Make it happen.”
I picture clusters of ghosts floating by the water cooler, showing me their ruptured aortas and emphysemic lungs.
When we return to the mortal realm, Lee asks: “How’d that go?”
One student expresses doubt that the spirit people she met were more than figments: “I don’t know – is it just in my mind, or is it really real?”
Another student brags about her spirit world networking skills.
“I met a skier named Bernie,” she says. “And a pale woman, in a white gown, who was ‘desperate for company’, and a poor little peasant boy.”
Lee looks pleased.
“The thing about this work is you start to dislike living people,” she says. “It’s much more fun to talk to dead people.”
The grief vampires
After weeks spent googling terms like “animal telepathy”, targeted advertisements pop up in my Facebook feed soliciting me to participate in a research study about the early signs of psychosis.
“BELIEVING OR HEARING THINGS THAT OTHERS DO NOT?” the ads ask. “LOSING CONTROL OF YOUR THOUGHTS?”
Advertising algorithms are reading my mind. When I click the ads, a website explains that “psychosis [makes] it difficult to know what’s real and what isn’t”.
In the mediumship class, students nod when Van Zyl describes how, as a shy, bullied teenager, she heard voices that others didn’t. “I thought I was schizo,” she says. “I saw the movie Sybil and thought: ‘Oh god, they’re gonna lock me up, because I’m worse than her.’”
It wasn’t until she started attending séances with her father, also a medium, that she came to believe she was hearing spirit people.
Eventually, these voices “just shut off”, and she became a lawyer. But after noticing that her two-year-old daughter “seemed to be talking to spirits” in 2006, Van Zyl quit her job and founded Montclair Psychic School.
When she came out, in middle age, as gay, Lee’s family cut off contact with her. “My living family were no longer speaking to me,” she says, “but the dead were. I still felt like I had family who loved me, because the dead became living and the living became dead.”
During my classes, I witness many total strangers cry and talk about loss. In the animal telepathy workshop, a nurse breaks down, saying: “I’m lonely. Everybody I’ve loved has been taken away. My father, my two children, my three dogs. Every time I see the light, it’s like, boom. Gone.”
In Melissa’s aura reading class, a wellness blogger moves her hands around in the air like she’s miming washing windows, because, she explains, she’s been “going through a spiritual kundalini awakening” since her father died in 2017.
In the mediumship class, a woman in a floral blouse weeps as Lee claims to be channeling the spirit of her son, who died of a drug overdose. “When I feel him all around me, is that him?” the woman asks. “Yes,” Lee says. “He’s saying: ‘You’re my best friend.’”
Siréne, the artist from Tokyo, tells me that, for years, he was depressed and suicidal: “I felt like a sponge, absorbing everyone’s feelings, cursed with empathy.” Now in psychic school, where teachers often frame mental illnesses as signs of undeveloped mystical gifts, he feels “more at home”. He’s focusing on “psychopomp work” – the guiding of newly dead souls into the afterlife. After a close friend from childhood killed herself, he says he shepherded her spirit toward a portal in the sun: “You imagine they have wings. Tell them: ‘There’s a better place than here. Fly toward the sunlight.’”
As homework for his yearlong psychic certification course at the Edgar Cayce Association for Research and Enlightenment, Siréne has to give 10 readings to strangers. I offer to be his guinea pig. We sit near a sculpture called Durga Killing the Buffalo Demon at the Rubin Museum of Art.
Siréne closes his eyes. For three minutes, his eyelids twitch crazily, his mouth agape, like he’s possessed. Then he draws what he saw during his “REM trance”: a Scandinavian man he claims I’ll meet while hiking in France. With swishy blond hair, a tiny chin and a giant neck, the man in the sketch looks like a Disney cherub on steroids. We will have three children, Siréne says, and our family will be like “a harmonious dolphin pod”.
Siréne’s yearlong course costs $2,700. I ask if he plans to charge money for his readings. He says no. “If I did, I’d feel like I should be paying the spirits. I don’t think these messages are coming from me. I’m like a telephone.”
Stories of self-proclaimed psychics conning clients out of vast sums are legion. Recently, there was the Times Square fortune teller found guilty of grand larceny after bilking a recovering addict of $550,000, having promised to revive his lost love using a time machine and a golden bridge. But this industry rife with scammers attracts plenty of true believers, like Siréne, whose motives seem entirely immaterial.
“We’re led to believe we’re just this physical body,” Siréne says. “Right now, I happen to be Asian with black hair. But in reality, we’re everything. We can be a dolphin, an extraterrestrial, a reptilian, an insect. I was a dwarf in the 17th century. The psychic thing lets you know the truth, not just the material self.”
Skeptics often call mediums “grief vampires”. They argue that any comfort derived from paranormal belief is false, and comes at a grave cost. Some warn of the potential political ramifications of such belief.
In an age of total epistemic confusion, the mainstreaming of parapsychology and related New Age practices seems to run parallel to other anti-scientific trends: climate change denial, the anti-vaxxer movement, conspiracy theories from PizzaGate to QAnon. A recent study found the espousal of conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and belief in the paranormal turn out to be highly correlated with one another.
After six months, I drop out of psychic school. I don’t have the patience to stare into a candle flame for 15 minutes a day, and my mugwort stash has been sitting untouched in my underwear drawer for weeks. Since the animal telepathy class, I often try to read the mind of my roommate’s cat, but all I ever gather is that she wants food.
Over the phone, I thank Melissa for her teachings.
“I hope you find your way back to your goddess roots,” she says.
I think I detect a note of pity or motherly concern in her voice, like she’s looking down from the astral plane, feeling sorry that I haven’t found my way back to my goddess roots. But I might just be projecting.
I’m not sure. I can’t read her mind.
Illustrations by Gabriel Alcala