Skepticism

Psychic TikTok is a Cesspit of Sylvia Brownes

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In the past few years, I’ve seen a resurgence in a “belief” in astrology, at least amongst my friends and social media follows. I say “belief,” with quotation marks, because honestly I’ve never been sure how much people actually believe in it. Like, the smarter people I know MUST understand that it’s just stupid fun, right? Even I can appreciate sort of “witchy” culture as a way to daydream about a more magical world, particularly a world where women and other marginalized groups come out on top. Where we have secret knowledge of esoteric arts. Where we can make a rapist’s dick fall off by burning some incense or whatever. I know, that escalated quickly but it’s kind of the point! Many years ago I used to give a talk about “women’s intuition,” and about how the idea of women having some “magical” way of knowing things arose in part due to their oppression, and due to men monopolizing science and technology. In a world where women are told their stupider, and then denied basic education, how could women find power? And when women DID demonstrate superior knowledge and understanding of something, how could society explain it? WITCHERY!

Astrology, psychic powers, and other superstitions propagate in environments where people are uncertain, anxious, and feeling helpless. Over the past five years, women in the US have dealt with a president who openly bragged about sexually assaulting women and who suggested that women (but not men) should be “punished” for seeking abortions (after he beat a competent female politician for the job). Sure enough, he stacked the Supreme Court with anti-woman judges and now abortion has been effectively outlawed in Texas.

Obviously there’s plenty more going on both in the US and around the world — and thanks to social media, regardless of whether or not we’re experiencing more equality than ever before, our perception of our own inequality, and the continued inequality women experience around the world, is what really matters here. Seeing all the bullshit happening as we doom scroll our lives away, it’s understandable that we’d find some comfort in the idea of unplugging and losing ourselves in sage and crystals and candles and spells and magick. Magick with a “k.” No one wants to see your card trick, Kyle, we want to summon an Elder God to devour your sanity.

But — and there’s always a “but” for your local skeptical killjoy, isn’t there? But lurking beneath the fun has always been the true dark side of superstition. Not ghosts or demons or swamp things but the human monsters who, knowingly or not, severely fuck people up with their “psychic skills.”

Skeptics of the 90s and early 2000s saw this happen during the glory days of “psychics” like Sylvia Browne. Browne was a mainstay on daytime television where she would tell people about their dead loved ones, like when she told a woman that her boyfriend drowned (he was a firefighter who died on 9/11 and Browne claimed she was seeing hoses) or when she told the mother of Amanda Berry that the missing girl was dead, and added that the mother must know it because Amanda wouldn’t NOT call her. The mother told local news that she “98% believed” that Browne was telling the truth, saying “Please don’t misunderstand me. I still don’t want to believe it. I want to have hope but, after a year and a half, what else is there? It seems like the God-honest truth. My daughter would always call home.”

The mother died of heart failure a year later, believing her daughter was dead. Nine years later, Amanda Berry escaped her captor and was found alive. (You may remember her case due to the heroism and meme-ability of her captor’s neighbor, Charles Ramsey.)

That wasn’t even the first time that happened with Browne. In 2003, she told the parents of Shawn Hornbeck that their missing son was dead, only for him to turn up alive and well a few years later. When Jon Ronson asked her about what went wrong, she said “”I think what I did was I got my wires crossed. There was a blonde and two boys who are dead. I think I picked up the wrong kid.”

That’s all, she just got the wrong kid! No big deal. Sorry, Hornbeck family, for causing untold despair on top of your already unimaginable pain! Wrong kid. Another kid is dead. Whatever.

Part of me hoped that “psychics” like Browne were a thing of the past, but a smarter part of me knew that humanity would never evolve into something so good. Which is why now we have #PsychicTikTok.

This came to my attention because of the currently ongoing case of Gabby Petito, a young Instagrammer who was documenting her tour of the US in a van with her fiance when she suddenly disappeared, and her fiance emerged thousands of miles away in Gabby’s van refusing to tell her parents or police where she was or why she wasn’t with him. With our society’s current true crime obsession, this became perfect fodder for social media detectives. It’s bad enough that idiots on TikTok were loudly proclaiming that Petito’s fiance was guilty because he was seen reading a book “about groups of people exploring uncharted terrain that go missing.” The book was Annihilation. It’s…it’s got nothing to do with domestic violence and murder, or even #VanLife.

The amateur detective shit, and the obvious profiting from the (likely) murder of a young woman for social media clout, is bad enough. Worse, in my opinion, are the “psychics” who smell blood in the water. In the same way that Sylvia Browne profited off the pain and uncertainty of the families of missing people 20 years ago, people like Angela “the Unicorn Witch” (nearly 120 thousand followers and 2.6 million likes) have hopped on TikTok to let the world know that she psychically discerned what happened to Gabby, and she would be happy to share her knowledge if Gabby’s grieving family gets in touch with her. According to her website, she only charges $150 for a 45-minute spiritual reading! A real deal, considering that she has exactly the same amount of psychic ability as Sylvia Browne (zero), who charged something like $400 an hour.

The Unicorn Witch isn’t the only one — TikTok is absolutely infested with people claiming to have a link to the spiritual world that will tell them what happened to Gabby, like this parasite.

I’m sure that at least some of them are “closed eye” psychics, as described by M. Lamar Keene in his expose “The Psychic Mafia.” A lot of people think they have special powers and enjoy playing around with this stuff. But Keene (who was a professional psychic) points out that once you start charging people for readings, it becomes impossible not to realize at some point that you can’t perform as well as you’d like, and you start buffering your performances by knowingly cheating — researching clients beforehand and feeding them the information you know (hot reading), or taking cues from what you see around them or on their person like a wedding ring (warm reading) or improving your ability to “cold read,” which is using generalities like “I see an older man with a name starting with “J” and waiting for the client to fill in the details.

That’s why while I understand the desire to play make believe, it’s so important to make sure that people know the real con going on behind the “magick.” Suspend your disbelief if you’d like when dealing out tarot cards or playing with an ouija board with your girlfriends, but don’t be fooled by scam artists who are taking advantage of grieving people. 

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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