When you’re setting up fake Facebook pages, it’s the little details that can mess things up. On a group computer call last winter, Susan Gerbic was going through her checklist of tips for her team’s latest sting operation — this one focused on infiltrating the audience of a psychic. It all started with maintaining their Facebook sock puppets — those fake online profiles. “American spellings everyone!” she commanded her half-dozen international colleagues through the Skype crackle.
Gerbic lives in Salinas, Calif., and while she is retired from the routine world of work, she has taken on a new job, as self-appointed guardian of Enlightenment Reason. She spends most of her days wrangling her far-flung group of Guerrilla Skeptics into common cause, defending empirical truth online. This usually consists of editing and monitoring Wikipedia pages — a cat-herding task she says she’s uniquely qualified for. “I was a baby photographer,” she explained. “I ran a JCPenney portrait studio for 34 years.”
Collectively, the group, which has swelled to 144 members, has researched, written or revised almost 900 Wikipedia pages. Sure, they take on the classics, like debunking “spontaneous human combustion,” but many of their other pages have real-world impact. For instance, they straightened out a lot of grim hooey about the teen-suicide myth “blue whale game,” and they have provided facts about the Burzynski Clinic, a theoretical treatment for cancer operating out of Houston.
Most recently, Gerbic’s members have focused on what they call “grief vampires,” that is, the kind of middlebrow psychics who profit by claiming to summon the dead in shows in venues ranging from casinos or any old Motel 6 conference suite to wine vineyards or the Queen Mary permanently anchored in Long Beach. Some regional favorites may sound familiar — Theresa Caputo, the Long Island medium; or Chip Coffey, the “clairvoyant, clairaudient and clairsentient” psychic.
These are good, extremely profitable days for the ectoplasm-related industry. According to one market analysis, there are nearly 95,000 psychic “businesses” in America, generating some $2 billion in revenue in 2018. Lately, technology has changed the business of talking to the dead and created new kinds of openings for psychics to lure customers but also new ways for skeptics to flip that technology right back at them.
For instance, many psychics still rely on “cold readings,” in which the psychic uses clues, like your clothes or subtle body signals, to make educated, but generally vague, guesses about your life and family. But the internet has popularized a new kind of “hot reading,” in which the psychics come to their shows prepped with specific details about various members of the audience. One new source of psychic intel is Facebook, which has become a clearinghouse for the kind of insider, personal detail that psychics used to have to really sweat for. If anything, “the psychics have just gotten lazier,” a team member told me.
The crew invited to last winter’s Skype meeting had been vetted by Gerbic to participate in a mission called “Operation Peach Pit” (and I was invited to observe). On my computer screen, we resembled the opening credits of “The Brady Bunch,” a tick-tack-toe board of men and women ranging from Daniel in New Zealand, Ruth in London, Kimon in Alabama, Robert in Maine and Michelle near Humpty Doo, Australia. Matthew Fraser, the target, is a young Long Island psychic who resembles Tom Cruise in the role of an oversharing altar boy. He has been on the circuit for years, has a book under his belt and works some Doubletree or Crowne Plaza back room every two or three days.
These Guerrilla Skeptics are hoping to catch Fraser on tape spewing intimate Facebook details that are totally false about the person the psychic is addressing. In fact, the details aren’t true about anyone, because they will be entirely fabricated by people like Michelle of Humpty Doo. At this stage, on this Skype call, the group’s only task is to create and maintain these fake Facebook profiles. These need to look normal — with regular updates of, say, a good New Yorker cartoon or a gif of Will Ferrell dancing, along with vintage Polaroid pics or posts expressing sly life sentiments. (“Still a little pissed I can’t fly or set things on fire with my mind!”)
“Post often, post cat pictures, memes, favorite foods, recipes,” Gerbic urged through the crackle and pop, and to ensure they don’t get caught too easily, “Make sure the pictures aren’t too Google searchable!” The Facebook pages are meant to be catnip.
“We want the target to see dollar signs, not question marks,” said Mark Edward, a mentalist and magician who collaborates with Gerbic in organizing these operations.
When the Facebook pages have aged enough to look real and the target psychic is in a town where some of Gerbic’s crew lives, she will call upon others of her SWAT team to leave their screens, don undercover identities of these Facebook sock puppets and head out into the mean streets of the corporeal sphere. The sting intends to catch the hustlers working their tricks, but Gerbic’s strategy also includes luring these most susceptible of audiences back into the ways of logical thought. To do this, she sends four or five of her shills to a show under these sock-puppet names and has them record the psychic when he approaches and spews all the made-up stories of life and death from the fake Facebook pages.
Once the psychic has been stung, the team will write up an account and then post the evidence — video or sound — onto a website dedicated to a particular debunking mission, which Gerbic gives a memorable name. In future events, other skeptics can simply slip into performances and just leave cards with these odd operation names printed on them.
“That’s why I do my stings with names that are ridiculous: Operation Bumblebee, Operation Ice Cream Cone, Operation Pizza Roll,” she said. “They’re all easy to spell and easy to remember. So even if you throw the card away, you might remember ‘Operation Pizza Roll.’ And you’ll say, You know what, I’ve got a couple of minutes before the show starts; I’m going to see what this Operation Tater Tot is all about.” Then you’ll work your way to Gerbic’s write-up about the psychic you are about to see and, just maybe, find yourself in a thicket of contradictions so intense, you can escape only by thinking.
Busting psychics has a history almost as rich as the rise of modern psychic belief, somewhere around the mid-19th century. Of course, there has always been a general sense that there exists a supernatural gift for seeing into the future, the present (sometimes called “remote viewing”) or the past (that is, communicating with the dead). The hope that this power exists reaches back to some of the earliest civilizations — the court seers of the Egyptians, the Oracle of Delphi just north of Athens, the bone-reading shaman of ancient China. Among the more recent big shifts in how we conceive of supernatural communication occurred around the time of Charles Darwin, when there was an explosion of secular interest in the numinous, called spiritualism.
This new popular pursuit found an audience across all classes and denominations. While the poor sought out their corner soothsayer, the smart set was happy to ponder the works of a Russian mystic named Madame Blavatsky, whose “theosophies” were a kind of modern mash-up of religion, science and philosophy. In fact, a lot of this interest took the form of science — people trying to measure these various powers or to discuss the supernatural in sober, logical tomes. These were the days when you might read the other books written by Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, a member of the London-based Society for Psychical Research who died insisting that he would rather be remembered for his paranormal works such as “The New Revelation” and “The Vital Message” than for his Sherlock Holmes detective stories.
And throughout this rise of interest, there was a parallel rise in debunkers. The poet Robert Browning once exposed the mid-19th century Scottish psychic, Daniel Home, who claimed to conjure the spirit of Browning’s infant son, who died young. Except Browning hadn’t lost a son. Worse, the poet lunged at the apparition to unmask it and found himself clutching Home’s bare foot. Helen Duncan was found to swallow a length of cheesecloth, which she could produce dramatically from her mouth as ectoplasm. During an early-20th century séance, Frederick Munnings deployed a long voice-altering trumpet across the room — a clever tactic undermined one night when someone accidentally switched on the light.
The idea of talking with the dead is one of those stubborn hopes that’s difficult for a culture to move beyond. Famous skeptics like Harry Houdini left precise instructions with his wife and friends as to just how he would reach out, if it were possible, after his death. Stanley Kubrick, in talking about his movie “The Shining” with Stephen King, confessed that he found optimism in stories about the supernatural. “If there are ghosts, that means we survived death,” he explained.
Gerbic got into the sting racket because of her mentor, James Randi, the famous skeptic who started his career as a magician, the Amazing Randi. After he began busting paranormal con artists as a hobby, Randi won a MacArthur grant that he leveraged into a variety of different venues, including annual ship cruises filled with skeptics, called the Amazing Adventure. On a 2009 voyage to Mexico, Gerbic met Edward, who was on board as the skeptics’ entertainment.
Edward himself is a mentalist and claims no powers other than to entertain. He once posed as an undercover clairvoyant to infiltrate the Psychic Friends Network, which became popular as late-night infomercials that offered psychic readings over the phone in the 1990s. For another Psychic Friends spinoff radio program, he climbed the heights of the organization and became the backup to the show’s Master Psychic. Edward wrote a book about his clandestine life as a medium, “Psychic Blues.”
After they became friends, Gerbic and Edward found themselves griping to each other that skeptics had become too much of a closed group, too often just patting each other on the back. Skeptics’ groups, Gerbic told me, “always seemed to be bogged down by bureaucracy and rules,” and she really wanted “to do something and stop talking about it.”
Then Edward happened upon a new way to lure people into the realm of reason. Instead of just busting psychics outright, he focused on helping the audience members discover the ruse. Edward was at a 2009 show featuring a giant of the business, Sylvia Browne, who was performing at the Gibson Amphitheater in Los Angeles, hosted by the TV celebrity Montel Williams. At the time, Browne was making a comeback from a few psychic catastrophes. Browne told Lynda McClelland’s daughters that their mother, who had disappeared, was alive and in Florida. Later, McClelland’s body was found near where she lived in Pennsylvania. Browne also predicted that an 11-year-old named Shawn Hornbeck in Missouri had been kidnapped by a brown-skinned man in dreadlocks and was dead. Then Hornbeck was found alive — kidnapped by a white guy with tedious hair.
During the Q. and A. session, Edward managed to get to the microphone. He told Browne he was possessed by spirits, fell into a trance and started to name them: “Lynda McClelland!” On YouTube, you can see Browne barrel onward, even as Edward pretends to collapse, and move to the next audience member with startling speed.
One day, at a skeptics’ meeting in 2011, Gerbic and some others realized that Sylvia Browne was just down the street. They decided to sabotage her show but with a slight twist. They couldn’t guarantee getting someone to a microphone; instead, they just handed out cards to people entering the show. The cards said nothing more than “Shawn Hornbeck” and “Lynda McClelland” — the idea being that for some audience members, a little curiosity and Google would handle the rest.
Gerbic told me that the group’s previous hot-read sting — Operation Pizza Roll — worked perfectly back in 2017. She and the other skeptics spent 10 days creating Facebook profiles in advance of Thomas John’s visit to southern Los Angeles. Gerbic used her Facebook sock puppets, “Susanna and Mark Wilson,” to register herself and her pal Edward.
John is a well-known figure on the psychic circuit. He names people’s pets and dead relatives with breathtaking first-attempt accuracy. He has a thriving practice on Madison Avenue, and on the West Coast, his press materials tout a host of Hollywood clients, including Sam Smith, Courteney Cox and Julianne Moore. His audiences admire him, but then they probably haven’t Googled past the first page of results to learn that before he popularized his gift for talking to the dead, he was Lady Vera Parker, a drag queen in Chicago who later got into some trouble when Thomas John Flanagan (his legal name) was charged with theft, fined and sentenced to probation — precisely what the specific charge was for, his lawyer explained in a statement, the psychic can no longer remember.
On the appointed night of the show, in came Susanna and Mark Wilson, dressed in fancy clothes and toting third-row V.I.P. tickets and unobtrusive recording equipment. Because Susanna’s Facebook page mentioned her losing her twin brother, Andrew, to pancreatic cancer, Gerbic arrived clutching a handful of tissues, a tactic she encourages because it sends the psychic the message that you will be an emotional and entertaining reading. Right away, Thomas John said he was tuning in to a twin brother who wanted to speak to his sister. Gerbic raised her hand.
“Somebody is making me aware of cancer?” John asked, and Gerbic choked up, yes, yes. John reeled her in: “I’m getting something right in here,” and pointed to his abdomen, “stomach or pancreas?” Gerbic acted emotional. And John went straight down the rabbit hole, all the while being careful not to bring the crowd down. He said of Gerbic’s fictional dead brother: “First off, he is making fun of you, teasing you for being here with me! He’s laughing about it!” And the audience laughed, too.
Over the course of the reading, John comfortably laid down the specifics of Susanna Wilson’s life — he named “Andy” and amazingly knew him to be her twin. He knew that she and her brother grew up in Michigan and that his girlfriend was Maria. He knew about Susanna’s father-in-law and how he died.
But about two-thirds of the way through John’s riffing, he seemed to sense something was fishy. All of which is, in fact, part of the experiment. Gerbic knows only some of the facts of her character’s life. Her thinking is that if John knows even more details than she does, then it’s absolute proof that he’s looked through the Facebook posts. Gerbic’s sting is placebo-controlled, double-blind. On the tape, it’s easy to catch the precise moment when John sensed that something was wrong. John was talking about the dead brother when he suddenly asked, “And ‘Buddy,’ who is that?”
Gerbic had no idea and improvised, “my father,” when in fact, Buddy was her fictional dead brother’s fictional dog.
John kept up the reading and then interrupted himself: “Oh, I understand — O.K., so I am being drawn over here,” and with that, he walked away.
Back home, Gerbic and Edward excitedly checked to make sure her hidden tape recorder captured the whole moment. Later, Gerbic explained: “One really odd thing happened to me a couple days after the event. I received a tweet from Thomas John to my Susan Gerbic account with only a heart.” How else could that have happened, Gerbic asked, other than that John was winking at her — going back to Susanna Wilson’s ticket purchase to discover it was paid for by Susan Gerbic.
When I reached Thomas John, he insisted he did not use Facebook. He explained away the incident without hesitation. “I do remember her coming to an event,” he said. “I recognized her because she was there with that other guy who wrote that book.” He went on to say that if there is tape of his giving them a reading, well: “I have my eyes closed for an hour and a half when I’m doing readings. If she spoke up during that period of time, I don’t remember that. It’s possible.” John said he didn’t remember sending Gerbic a tweet after the show, but added: “I tweet a lot of people. I don’t remember doing that, but it’s possible.”
Then John pivoted, arguing that the entire experiment wasn’t really scientific enough. “For Susan to come to a reading and get a two-minute reading and say, well, ‘I made a fake post about my dog, Buddy, and my father who died,’ it’s really not any sort of scientific testing of psychic powers.” He added, “First off, someone will have to be a scientist to do a scientific experiment, not someone who used to be a photographer at Sears.”
Since the sting, Thomas John used his prestige out West to launch “Seatbelt Psychic,” a show on Lifetime in which he “surprises unsuspecting ride-share passengers” when he “reveals he can communicate with the dead.” James Corden, the host of “The Late Late Show,” gushed that he is “obsessed with the show,” which resembles Jerry Seinfeld’s Netflix series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” except instead of comedians drinking coffee, it’s folks talking to the dead.
By March of last year, the new fake Facebook pages were up and running, and they were fantastic — credible fictional characters built out of regular posts. Online, “Ed Caffry” was such an obvious good-time guy, a goofball who had just posted a picture of a bottle of red wine wearing a pair of sunglasses with the caption, “I made a wine cooler. …” He lives in Vegas and suspects his apartment is haunted. He has also posted a few pictures of “ghost orbs.”
Follow his friends, and you find yourself in the company of zany “Zoe Bertino,” and she’s such a nut, too. She wears blue wigs, posts easy aphorisms about life and is excited to be visiting America right now from Australia. Anyone with a forensic eye for Facebook life wouldn’t be surprised if she and Ed Caffry hooked up on this trip.
I met Zoe and Ed on a cold winter morning in Cheltenham, Pa., at the home of Donna and Kenny Biddle. They were getting into character. Donna adjusted Zoe’s blue wig, and Kenny was bounding around Ed-style, popping off with big, goofball energy. Three other new friends were there, and they were also in their characters. The five of them were chattering nervously, excited to be heading out on a real mission.
The only remnant of Kenny Biddle on Ed Caffry that morning was an odd necklace, which upon closer inspection was a tiny replica of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. In passing, Biddle explained that one reason he signed on for this adventure is that once he was a full believer in the paranormal. He is a convert to skeptical thinking. In fact, he used to be a ghost hunter in Pennsylvania. In 2003, he started a group: PIRA — Paranormal Investigative Research Association.
When they went to catch a ghost, Biddle arrived with lots of camera equipment. He was really into it. He had protocols — double cameras so that he would not only shoot the haunted space but also shoot the camera shooting the space to prove that the shots weren’t rigged. He made blueprints of each house and wrote out lengthy plans to capture the spirits on camera. He loved the paperwork. “We had reports for everything,” Biddle said. “I was going all Sheldon Cooper, making a form for every damn thing possible.” (Sheldon Cooper is the hyper-retentive perfectionist on the TV comedy “The Big Bang Theory.”) “Oh, my God. I think the interview form that I had was 12 pages long.”
But then a funny thing happened. As he got better and better at the mechanical part of ghost hunting — the photography — he discovered that good photography was precisely what skeptics used to disprove the physical existence of ghosts. So Biddle started looking into their work. He picked up Skeptical Inquirer magazine. “I started reading more and more of that stuff,” Biddle said, “and saying, Wow, you know, this makes sense. So it was just a gradual shift from there over to the skeptic side. Now I’m learning how to test equipment better, learning how to properly investigate mysteries, looking at every detail, interviewing the witness and not leading them, stuff like that.”
These days, Biddle still goes to paranormal conferences and sometimes even hosts a skeptics’ table, trying to disprove the claims at every other booth in the show.
“Tell the Ginnie Wade story,” his wife, Donna, suggested. Ginnie Wade was a 20-year-old woman during the Battle of Gettysburg, and in 1863, she died by a stray bullet, the only civilian casualty during those three bloody days. A man visiting the battlefield had a picture that his daughter took and discovered a ghostly image in a window of a woman in period clothes. Certain that he had captured the ghost of Ginnie Wade, he submitted the picture to Biddle, who wasted no time in returning to Gettysburg, using the same camera and taking the same shot, revealing how “the old wavy glass created an image and made it look like the back of a woman dressed in an old Civil War period dress. And we were able to recreate it and show him.” Donna added, “Kenny just crushed his dream; he was literally in tears.”
“This is why I wear a Thor’s hammer,” Biddle said, smiling.
The Valley Forge Casino in King of Prussia, Pa., is one of those modern revenue-enhancement ecosystems whose carpets ease the crushing of your soul with faded earth colors. The wall décor is best described as bankrupt-dentist’s office. Down a football-field length of sterile corridors is a conference room with a poster outside of a beaming Matthew Fraser.
To open his show, Fraser deployed some self-deprecating jokes, salted with some spicy obscenities, to warm up the crowd. The audience was sizable and mostly women; the few disgruntled husbands in the crowd wore the faces of men who had been blackmailed. Zoe and Ed and the other Guerrillas sat near the front in hopes of being noticed. I sat alone, about four rows behind them.
Fraser walked down the aisle and straight to my row. Right off, he said he had a vision and asked the dozen or so of us to stand. I was momentarily terrified, not only because I had prepared nothing, but also because if he asked me why I was there, I would feel obligated to tell him I was there to observe a secret sting operation.
The crowd was older, and without much trouble, Fraser easily divined the very likely fact that someone’s mother on the row had passed. He quickly identified a woman near me and handed her a microphone. “Your mom is acknowledging that I have to speak to my daughter,” he said, and then let the woman know that Mom was O.K. in the afterlife. “Your mother says that she wants you to know that she loves and cares about you.”
It was a classic cold reading, all generalized notions searching for something slightly more specific to move to. Fraser often nodded his head as if to nudge her to go along. “Your mom tells me that she was angry before she left this world, and you don’t want to talk about that.” Fraser stepped back, held her gaze and encouraged her, “You understand that?” She agreed. As he teased the story along, Fraser might, oddly, crack a joke to ease the tension but then take the room right back to this quiet place. Fraser said, “I need to apologize to my daughter because every day she deals with the stress and the burdens.”
Suddenly, the real sorrow of this stranger’s loss was here, near me, on my row. And then the whole room felt it. “Your mom says I am taking responsibility for that.” I could barely look up. This little moment felt so intimate and private. Grief is one of those emotions that doesn’t happen publicly too often, and so when it does, the mood easily dominates the room. With each reading, Fraser was, in fact, summoning the dead because all these middle-aged people had lived lives. We all knew death, family death, deeply felt. One by one, everyone in the room was reliving some loss. Helplessly, I thought of my own father, who died when I was 11, and those old emotions, stored away but never far off, took hold of me as if I were graveside.
By the time Fraser inched his way to the other side of the auditorium, people were even more forthcoming. Fraser came to a middle-aged woman dressed in a colorful scenic sweater. Her burly husband with a snow white goatee and veteran’s cap was beside her as she revealed losing two of her sons, in tragic ways. She said she missed them every day.
The audience was with her; our grief held her. We were all wrapped in rich, old memories of aching pain. Maybe dead spirits aren’t real. But these emotions were. My exhausted father waking up early on his Saturday off to watch cartoons with his little kid. Decades disappeared. I squeezed back a little boy’s confused tears. “Sonny boy,” my mom said one morning, “I have something sad to tell you.” I so miss him.
Fraser consoled the mother with news. “Your son says he’s O.K.,” Fraser said, speaking in the voice of one of her deceased boys. The mother sobbed and sank into her husband’s big chest. “More important, they are together on the other side.” Fraser learned that Christmas was no longer celebrated at home, and Fraser crushed the room: “He says you have another son, who needs you?” The husband nodded; she nodded. “He says to me, just because we’ve passed, it doesn’t mean my mother stops her life.”
Even the most stoic of men were overwhelmed, heads turned away, into shirt sleeves. Fraser stepped toward the couple and took both of them in a long, sobbing group hug. Then he moved away.
There were a few more readings, each a little bit easier emotionally. Fraser was a brilliant performer, cooling off the room. With a couple of light jokes salted with naughty words, he bolted onto the stage, and then disappeared into the wings. Eventually, Gerbic’s Guerrillas will produce an account, and Operation Peach Pit will be online with the hope of reaching a future audience with logic. But there was no denying the real power of what we all felt in the room. “Reason,” wrote the philosopher David Hume almost 300 years ago, “is and ought only to be the slave of passions.”
The real world was out there, in fact, just down this hall, but it was hard for me to get there as the crowd inched along. Fraser appeared in the corridor at a table with stacks of his book, “The Secrets to Unlocking Your Psychic Ability.” On the cover was oversmiling Tom Cruise bathed in heavenly light, clutching a gigantic key longer than his forearm. Out the corner of my eye, I caught a blue wig in the line of fans. Zoe couldn’t quite get out of character as Fraser signed one of his books for her: “Trust your own psychic voice.”
Jack Hitt is the creator and a host of the 2017 Peabody Award-winning podcast “Uncivil.” He last wrote about the strange case of a missing James Joyce scholar.