Kelvin Cruickshank is Sensing Murder? I'm sensing comedy
OPINION: They call him "The Kelvinator", but not because he's big, or cold, or full of slowly decomposing food.
No, it's because his name is Kelvin, and he reckons he can speak to slowly decomposing citizens.
He sees dead people. Talks to them, too. Given half a chance, Kelvin Cruickshank likes nothing better than a good old chinwag with the dearly departed, even though the latter no longer have a workable chin.
Born in Ngaruawahia, a former chef now in his mid 40s, Cruickshank reckons he started "seeing spirits" at the age of four, much to the chagrin of his parents.
This alleged "gift" has since become a tidy little earner. Now a professional medium, Cruickshank has released six best-selling books, and appeared as a "psychic detective" on TV2's hit sur-reality show Sensing Murder.
He hosts holiday retreats in Vanuatu for the spiritually inclined, and regularly traipses from Northland to Invercargill giving public "readings" on his lucrative Soul Food live tours.
Have ghouls, will travel. Cruickshank and assorted invisible Caspers performed in Nelson earlier this week. His show was sold out, so I had to beg at the box office to snare a spare usher's ticket just before he strode onstage.
The audience was 80 per cent women, many of them elderly, with a fair scattering of New Agers in bright floaty blouses and multiple silk scarves.
There was a feeling of high excitement in the room, with the ticket price of $65 having scared off the sceptical to ensure a crowd packed with true believers.
Except for me. As a psychic, I wonder if Cruickshank already knows that people like him really p*** me off.
Here, after all, is a man who appears to be making money from the lonely, the gullible, the recently bereaved.
A heartsore widow's desire to have a few moments of post-funeral contact with her dead husband helps put food on his table.
Some credulous citizen's desperate yearning to find out how Granny or Uncle Ted or Tiddles the cat are doing in the afterlife - this is what pays his bills.
It's important to note that never - not even once, in any culture, throughout the entire history of the world - has anyone proven that they can receive messages from the dead.
It's a concept that belongs to more superstitious times, yet many still cling onto it, presumably because there's great comfort in the idea that your loved ones are still floating around in the ether feeling chatty after they die.
Mediums claim giant invisible herds of these disembodied spirits are swirling around us at all times, queuing up to tell us that they miss us as much as we miss them.
And mediums like Kelvin are the inter-dimensional switchboard operators who facilitate this communication, apparently, connecting the living and the dead. Stand by, caller!
People are welcome to believe whatever they like, of course. I believe myself to be a lover second only to Casanova in terms of sensitivity, skill and stamina. But believing something, no matter how fervently, doesn't make it so.
And it's not just harmless fun when people like Cruickshank show up on Sensing Murder, claiming to deliver messages about the final painful moments of some poor family's long lost daughter who's been raped and murdered.
Sensing Murder claims to uncover fresh leads in criminal cold cases by employing "credible mediums", the latter term belonging in the same oxymoronic camp as "real magicians" or "actual gods".
But the Commissioner of Police's office says psychic information has never been instrumental in solving a case in New Zealand.
Across four series, the Sensing Murder psychics haven't delivered a single useful lead, instead wringing high ratings from personal tragedy, wasting police resources and opening up old wounds for grieving families.
But fortunately, Cruickshank's live stage show is lighter, funnier and flakier than the TV series that made him famous, with a warmly communal, "gathering of the faithful" feeling like an old-school church revival meeting.
And Cruickshank is an engaging presence on stage, his act scattered with winningly rude anecdotes ("they put a vibrator in her coffin at the wake, but it turned out it was her mother-in-law's") and well-honed jokes.
This man is funny ha-ha as well as funny peculiar. If a more enlightened society were ever to demand that psychics stop talking to themselves and get a real job, Cruickshank could make a decent living doing stand up, though some of the funniest lines of the night came not from him but from his audience.
At one stage, he was following a line of enquiry with a slightly deaf old dear about the spiritual whereabouts of someone named Patrick.
"Where's Pat?", he asked. "Yes," replied the woman. "You're right. I have always banked with Westpac."
A message from a chicken
Later, he asked someone else "Who is Kevin to you, or maybe it's Kev?" The woman shook her head; she knew no one by that name.
"It might also possibly be a message about chickens," added Kelvin, because these spirit critters can be tricky blighters sometimes, and prone to mumbling. "Oh, yes - I was raised on a poultry farm!" said the woman.
The Spirits had been cracking a wee ghostly joke, apparently. It wasn't Kev, it was Kiev. "Chicken Kiev!" crowed KC, chest puffed up like a rooster. Nice one.
Running for almost three hours, his show was slick as an oiled eel. Assistants scurried about with microphones, a camera zooming in to project each subject's dumbstruck face on a big screen.
Cruickshank's technique was pure Medium 101 "cold reading": a mix of open questions, pop psychology, close observation and guesswork based on statistical likelihood.
Selecting an elderly audience member, he would make the unsurprising revelation that both their parents were probably dead.
"I see a John, or a Tom" he would say, or a Mark or Margaret, reeling off the names most common to the era when the deceased had been born.
Eventually, someone in the spotlight would say - "Oh, yes! That's my auntie" - then we were off, with Cruickshank asking leading questions while the bereaved party unknowingly supplied key details.
Regularly turning stage right to confer with shoulder-tapping ghosts, Cruickshank claimed to be receiving specific messages about terminal illnesses, suicides and fatal accidents, knowing full well that such tragedies have pruned branches from the family tree of every last one of us.
The sadder moments were spaced out for maximum emotional impact. There were brief outbreaks of weeping when Cruickshank zeroed in on people whose family members had died early, and he declared that these loved ones were now "in the white light" and no longer unhappy, disembodied but still talkative as all get-out, and eager to express their love to their earthly rellies.
When he talked to a young person, Kelvin would tell them a disapproving spirit wished they would tidy their room. When he talked to an older male, some airy apparition of a dead family member would pass on the message that they should cut their lawns more often.
When he got a key detail wrong, Cruickshank suggested the spirits were just a bit crap at pointing out their relative in the crowd, instructing audience members to pass the microphone along their row until someone eventually said "Cancer? Yes! That was my brother-in-law!"
When Kelvin confidently claimed someone had a cat at home and they admitted that, actually, no, they didn't, he said: "Just wait. A cat's going to show up at your house in the very near future."
'As crazy as a Trump rally'
It was a hoot, a blast, a circus of sorts. It was as crazy as a Trump rally. I loved it and hated it at the same time. At one point, Cruickshank channelled somebody's dead pet possum. I am not making this up.
Myself aside, the audience lapped it all up, the room clearly crammed with fans who'd be getting his latest book signed on their way out the door.
I felt like the sole dissenter: a teetotaller at a rave, a chemist at a homeopathy convention, the only atheist in a church full of evangelical happy-clappers.
Cruickshank struck me as a gifted flim-flam man, a skilled entertainer. But a spook-whisperer? Not so much.
During the interval, I admitted to a couple of women in nearby seats that I found all this 'gossiping with ghosts' palaver pretty, you know… weird.
I should "lighten up", they said. I needed to be "more open minded." After all, how could The Kelvinator possibly know all this stuff is he wasn't really talking to the spirits?
Perhaps I was just too sober for such mad spiritualist shenanigans. I headed down to the bar, and when I got back, the woman on my left had had a go at my notebook.
There, in the corner of a page of hastily scribbled KC quotes, she had made a splendid little drawing for me: a gift from a true believer to a sour old sceptic.
It was a tiny, floating ghost, and out of its mouth came an otherworldly moan in a speech bubble.
It said: "WHOOOOOOH!".