Sensing Murder: A cold case of tricks or something more?
On the surface, the psychics on Sensing Murder seem to hit their mark with extraordinary precision. Name, age, personality of the victims. Where and how they died, and even "clues" about the identity of the unknown murderers.
But the reruns of the still popular series have also reignited deeper questions: Is it sensing murder or just sensing ratings? Is it all just slick tricks that offer false hope to families of the victims?
Fuel was added to questions about the worth of the series last week when Tasman police went public with the hope that the the repeat screening of the instalment about the vicious 1993 murder of Kevin O'Loughlin in Nelson would prompt someone to come forward with new information.
O'Loughlin, a 30-year-old builder, was stabbed six times in central Nelson after a night out. No one was ever charged with the crime.
"Knowledge of a murder is a heavy weight for anyone to carry for 23 years and we are very hopeful that the publicity of this event will prompt someone to come forward with the information that has not been shared with us previously," Detective Inspector Paul Borrell said in a statement.
He added that police were keeping an "open mind" about the psychic element to the programme.
Asked for further explanation he said: "Police welcome any opportunity to generate fresh information on investigations, and it is important to acknowledge any avenue available to do this. Police welcome any discussions or thoughts these methods may trigger, which could result in information we may previously have been unaware of."
After the programme on O'Loughlin's murder first ran in 2007, police fielded a number of calls but said no fresh information had been produced. After Thursday night's re-screening they said some information had been received from the public that they would examine and follow up where appropriate.
In one sense (not the sixth) it is easy to understand the police interest in the programme's focus on cold cases. The first half of the show is a detailed documentary-style review of the murder mystery, with re-enactments of the crime and interviews with family, friends and witnesses.
The second half introduces an Australian and New Zealand psychic, chosen after "extensive" tests for their ability to connect with the victims' spirits.
Supposedly without any information supplied to them they can mine a wealth of personal details about the victim from a photograph, and pinpoint the murder scene and method of death. This is apparently intended to establish the credibility of the psychic connection before the show moves on to the whodunnit phase.
But as the New Zealand Skeptics Society points out the details of all of New Zealand's unsolved murders are only a mouse click away.
Skeptics Society chairman Mark Honeychurch said with just over 60 murders unsolved in New Zealand since 1902, it would be easy for the psychics to research and memorise these before appearing on the show.
"I'm not convinced that any psychic powers have been shown. My understanding of the show is that there are many hours of filming for each episode. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a lot of selective editing going on there."
Honeychurch said a regular psychic on the show had admitted spending "many many hours sitting in a room with a photo basically talking and going over her thoughts".
"It's what you call the scatter gun approach, just throwing so much out there that something is going to stick."
He said another trick often used by psychics in personal readers were "Barnum" statements that felt profound, but applied to most people such as" "You feel a need for people to like you", "you have unused potential that you have not tapped into yet" and "although you can be outgoing at times, you often feel shy".
Another technique was to use statements in the form of questions that were true whatever the answer, such as "You don't like boats, do you?".
Honeychurch said it would be "kinda nice" if psychics were real but no controlled study had been able to prove the ability exists.
He said without such proof it was unethical for psychics to claim to be able to speak to the dead.
He said of the crimes featured on Sensing Murder, there hadn't been a "single case" that a psychic had helped with to the point of being useful to police.
In response to an Official Information Act request in 2013, national police headquarters told the Skeptics Society that police did not pay for "mediums, clairvoyants, or other psychics to provide them with information. Police will listen to information offered by any member of the public. Any follow-up action is based on what factual corroborating information can be used to support the information provided".
Nelson clairvoyant medium Tracey Woods said she had known psychics who had helped with police investigations around New Zealand.
Woods said she had not officially aided police but information had come to her several years ago about the O'Loughlin attack which she had passed on to police.
She said she looked for a link, a photograph, a person's name or a date of birth to make a connection with the spirit. Once the spirit was in the room, they can "just have a conversation".
"It's exactly the same as when you dream; you see things, you smell things, you see colour, you see everything and it's like a video screen in your head and it's the exact same screen psychics are seeing vision on."
Woods acknowledged the Skeptic Society's stance on psychics.
But she said psychics could not work successfully in the field for a long time by being a "cold reader".
Whatever your views, Sensing Murder remains a popular show.
TVNZ spokesperson Emma-Kate Greer said more than 300,000 New Zealanders have been tuning in to the re-run programmes.
"We thought there would still be interest in the cases and you never know."