…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.
…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!”)…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.
…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 VIP 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 2⁄3rds 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—OK, so I am being drawn over here”, and with that, he walked away.