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Psychics as clairvoyants, fortunetellers, and earth-bound connections to the spirit world can be traced back thousands of years and as far away as ancient Egypt. As an element of American popular culture in the 1990s, the Psychic Friends Network is as close as a 1-900-phone call, though some who claim to be more serious clairvoyants scorn these $3.99-a-minute fortunetellers as charlatans.

The psychic movement in the United States followed closely on the tails of the Mesmeric and Spiritualist movements of the nineteenth century. Austrian doctor Franz Antoine Mesmer (1766-1815) captured followers' attention with his reports of psychic phenomenon such as "thought transference, clairvoyance and 'eyeless vision"' in subjects who came to be referred to as "mesmerized." Mesmer's popularity opened the door for acceptance of the Spiritualist movement by acknowledging the concepts of clairvoyance and communication with the dead. The mesmeric trance, as it had come to be known, led naturally to the idea of the mediumistic trance, the core of the Spiritualist movement. In 1848, Margaret Fox and her two sisters from Hydesville, New York, produced spirit "rappings" in response to questions from the audience. They moved to Rochester, New York, where they grew in popularity until their fame as mediums had spread across the Atlantic. Several imitators followed the Fox sisters, with varying routines: E.S.P. (extrasensory perception), table levitation or "turning," spirit-induced writing, and speaking in a spirit's voice while in trance, later referred to as "channeling." Spiritualism gained such popularity—even First Lady Jane (Mrs. Franklin) Pierce was an adherent—that many churches and societies were born of the movement. Incidentally, Margaret Fox later confessed to producing the "rapping" noises through her joints.

Connecting the Spiritualist movement with religion did little to shelter the movement from accusations of fraud. In 1882, Sir William Barrett (1844-1925), Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), and F. W. H. Meyers (1843-1901) founded the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) to scientifically investigate claims of psychic phenomena. The SPR made very few strides toward proving psychic manifestations and instead, uncovered a myriad of fraudulent activities, including those of the famed Russian psychic, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.

Interest in psychics waxed and waned throughout the twentieth century. In the United States, two psychics in particular had a strong hold on the popular imagination: Edgar Cayce and Jean Dixon. Cayce, known as America's "sleeping prophet," had a remarkable talent for learning clairvoyantly in his sleep, and for diagnosing ailments and describing an appropriate treatment while from a trance-like state. Consistently, doctors confirmed the diagnoses and the treatments were effective. Cayce's individual "health readings" eventually turned into predictions of life events, not only for individual clients, but also for the country and the world at large. Cayce successfully predicted the 1929 Wall Street crash, America's involvement in World War II, the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945, and the collapse of Soviet communism. Cayce also predicted a number of worldwide geological upheavals, many of which simply did not occur. By allegedly predicting the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Jean Dixon (1918-1997) became something of a media sensation, though she had won the confidence of followers from an early age. Dixon served as a consultant to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman and Britain's Winston Churchill. She successfully predicted the assassination of Gandhi, the suicide of Marilyn Monroe, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Despite her success, however, Dixon began to discredit herself by publicly showcasing her talents and authoring a syndicated horoscope column with worldwide distribution. Her annual "predictions," most of which did not materialize, became a prominent feature in supermarket-tabloid newspapers.

The pop-culture psychic of the 1990s emerged on the crest of New Age metaphysics, Hollywood hype, and a good TV infomercial. For a $3.99-per-minute phone call, the psychics at singer Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends Network could be consulted about love, money, careers, and even weight loss. In person, a look into the future can cost between $45 and $200. It is estimated that psychic hotlines gross approximately $1 billion per year. Investigative journalists have uncovered evidence that some psychic hotlines do not employ psychics at all, but hire unemployed actors or housewives who offer their consultations from prepared scripts.

Today's psychics are a far cry from the joint-rapping Fox sisters of the early psychic movement. Every large city, and some smaller ones, have their share of storefront "gypsy fortunetellers," and many ethnic groups have their own psychic traditions, such as the "roots" healers in Black and Caribbean communities or the psychics in U.S. Chinatowns that are regularly consulted for advice on business or romantic decisions. Others are more media-savvy, with their 1-900 numbers and Internet websites. Most, it appears, are seasoned entertainers, though they are far shrewder businessmen and women then their early counterparts, with technology clearly on their side. The evolution of the psychic from early charlatan to telephone fortuneteller is proof positive of two basic tenets of human existence: humankind will always have a burning desire to know what the future holds, and nothing, absolutely nothing, can escape commercialization—not even the paranormal.

—Nadine-Rae Leavell

Further Reading:

Cavendish, Richard, editor. Man, Myth, and Magic: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mythology, Religion, and the Unknown, revised edition. Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1994.

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience. San Francisco, Harper, 1994.

Melton, J. Gordon, and Leslie A. Shepard, editors. Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. 4th Edition. Detroit, Gale Research, 1996.

Poinsot, M. C. The Encyclopedia of Occult Sciences. Detroit, Gale Research, 1972.