James Van Praagh is an author and television personality who markets himself as a clairvoyant and as a spiritual medium. Apparently he chose this career path after someone told him he was a medium and that the spirit world would assist him in “changing the consciousness of the planet.” He quickly rose to some fame as the resident “expert” at the NBC paranormal talk show The Other Side, and has since appeared on a variety of shows, having, in the words of James Randi, “turned the huckster art of cold reading into a multi-million-dollar industry, preying on families’ deepest fears and regrets.” His televised “live” appearances are also edited to differ significantly from what actually transpired, and there is some evidence of hot readings, though his standard techniques are shotgunning and fishing (the resources of a good psychic are further detailed here). One of his “success stories” is recounted here.
Van Praagh has also written a number of books, including the best-selling Talking to Heaven, Ghosts Among Us, which gives you his musings about ghosts and the spirit world, and the particularly tastelessly exploitative Growing Up in Heaven: The Eternal Connection Between Parent and Child, which portrays what allegedly happens to the souls of children after they die. According to Van Praagh there is no death and people who have passed away still exist, only in a different form. In their present form these spirits are there to guide him – he regularly talks to his deceased mother – and have told him plenty of stuff that he would have liked to hear and that makes no particular sense, such as there being “many levels of Heaven and we get to that level we have created by our thoughts, words and deeds while on earth.” Indeed, Van Praagh has claimed that his gift allows him to hear messages from just about anyone who is dead – you just have to give him a name, and he will claim that some dead person going by that name is contacting him in words, fragments of sentences, or that he can feel their presence in a specific location. Throughout his sessions and books Van Praagh is very careful about telling people exactly what they want to hear. The mechanics of his approach is well illustrated by what happened when Shermer debunked Van Praagh on Unsolved Mysteries: the audience was wholly unsympathetic to Shermer and one woman even told him that his behavior was “inappropriate” because he was destroying people’s hopes in their time of grief. Exploiting the grieving for money is ok, however. Van Praagh’s refusal to face reality has earned him a Pigasus Award on at least one occasion.
Though invited to take the Randi Million Dollar Challenge, Van Praagh has thus far declined, for obvious reasons.
Praagh was also co-executive producer for the CBS series The Ghost Whisperer, apparently based on his life (the morale of which seems to be that people who don’t believe in ghosts are close-minded), and for a while he hosted a paranormal talk show called Beyond with James Van Praagh. The miniseries Living With the Dead, starring Ted Danson, is based on Van Praagh’s life and ideas, and the movie Talking With the Dead is similarly based on his experiences. He is currently a regular blogger for Huffington Post.
Talkshow host Charles Grodin is a big fan, though he has raised questions about whether Van Praagh may not only be reading the minds of the audience instead of actually talking to the dead. The mind boggles.
Diagnosis: Probably less loony than his audience is led to believe.