Delivering messages from beyond the grave
Jeremy Olds catches up with famed psychic Sue Nicholson and discovers an audience eager to get into the spirit of things.
On a stormy summer evening, the living and the dead convene in a small South Auckland theatre.
They've gathered to witness the paranormal powers of Sue Nicholson: self-proclaimed 'psychic medium'; famed resident psychic of TV's Sensing Murder; public enemy number one to the New Zealand Skeptics; inspirational status-updater to 110,000 Facebook fans. Below the excited pre-show din, Pharrell Williams' 'Happy' plays through a speaker at the front of the stage: It might seem crazy what I'm about to say…
At the back of the hall are friends Cathy, Susan and Janine. They've seen Nicholson's show before. "I'm into spiritualism," says Cathy. "I like coming along and picking up on everyone's excitement. And I absolutely love Sue." Janine and Susan nod. "She's very, very real," says Janine.
Susan hopes her father will come through tonight. "My dad went about 40 years ago… I just want to know he's okay – that he's happy."
Also present is Maree Bangerter, whose friend had a spare ticket. Is she hoping to connect? "Um," Maree hesitates, "my husband passed away 12 weeks ago. He had cancer for five years but he went very quickly at the end. We thought we had a lot more time. I don't know if I want to ask him anything, but I'll certainly be taking it all in."
When Nicholson finally walks onto the stage, the hubbub comes to a halt. The star of the show is 60 with red and blonde candyfloss hair, large sparkly earrings, white trousers and sandals. She looks like she could be on a cruise.
To her right are four empty chairs – for the spirits, she later explains – and to her left there's a small table on which sit a candle, clock, vase of flowers and tissues. "I've got laryngitis," she says in a husky whisper. "But we're going to get through this. The show must go on."
Tonight, Nicholson says, she will hear, see and feel the spirits of the dead. Like a postal worker, she will deliver messages from the deceased to a select few of the 110-strong crowd. They have paid up to $55 to be here. Nicholson doesn't know who will come through – there may be murder victims, car crash victims, people who took their own lives.
"Also, I get animals in," she croaks. "They talk to me telepathically. They show me pictures."
It will be an emotional night, she promises.
It takes 17 minutes for the first spirit, Harry, to arrive. There is a man with him, Nicholson rasps. His name is Ron. They both died of cancer and they're both from England. "Can anyone understand this?"
Two hands shoot up – a woman and her niece. The woman explains in a soft English accent that Ron is her brother-in-law's father, and Henry is her father. Yes, says Nicholson, it's Henry, not Harry, and they're here to speak to you. Both women start to cry.
"He's showing me a plane," says Nicholson. "I'm on a runway...
It's circling back around; it's landing. He's showing me the English flag. Are you on holiday?"
The younger woman nods. "I'm on OE," she says. "My mum and my nan, Henry's wife, arrived yesterday from England."
"I saw the plane landing," confirms Nicholson, but it's clear what she's really telling the audience: "Behold, the splendour of my powers!"
When I meet Nicholson the following day, she tells me there had been signs of her impending laryngitis. Spiritual ones. "They told me to buy a heap of vitamin C," she says. 'They' are the spirits she says are standing behind her as we speak. "I bought it, but I didn't take it."
She's pleased with how last night's show progressed, but she's always left with the feeling she could have done more. "If you're looking from the perspective where I'm standing, [the audience] are desperate," she says. "You can see the desperation – 'Please come to me.' I always feel I should have done more, but there's only one of me."
The roadshow is just one part of Nicholson's business as a psychic medium. For $250, she will perform a house blessing for those who fear their home is haunted; for the same price, she will give an hour-long personal reading, face-to-face or by Skype. She also sells a range of products through her online store, including CDs ($30), jewellery (up to $69.95), crystals (up to $79.95) and 'Butterfly Guiding Light Oracle cards' ($49). The price of her services varies depending on where you live, but from time to time, she says, she works for free.
Nicholson was born in Birmingham and began to see spirits at four, but her parents told her never to discuss them so she kept her visions a secret. When she was a young girl, the spirits told her she would marry a man named Steve, which she did when she was 23. They then told her she would move to New Zealand, which she did at 25. She was 40 when, after jobs as a waitress, selling beauty products and trading stocks and shares, they told her it was time to use her supernatural powers to help others.
She sees the spirits as a mist, she says, or – though it happens less often – as solid people. Their voices come to her as though through an earpiece. "There are words going through my mind, but they're not mine. They will be sending me a stream of words. It's like I'm looking at a screen – I'll see pictures and numbers."
People don't just come to Nicholson seeking to contact the dead: they want relationship advice, career guidance, business tips.
"I think they need insight or clarification that they're doing something right," Nicholson says. "Some people have major decisions in their life and [they're] very frightened."
Why do they choose to see her and not, say, a qualified counsellor? "Because I can see things that haven't happened yet. If you went to a counsellor, they'd say, 'Do it if you feel it's right.' They wouldn't say, 'I'm being told you shouldn't do it.'"
Her messages are often deeply upsetting, and over and over during that night in South Auckland people are brought to tears. One of the spirits to arrive is Thomas, a dapper British man. "Anyone know him?" she asks. After a few tentative hands are raised, it is decided Thomas is the father-in-law of audience member Liz Walkinshaw.
"Okay – you're married to his son. Are you still married to him?" Nicholson asks.
"He passed away," replies Liz.
"Oh. Sometimes, you know what happens? A soul will open the door for somebody else to walk in," explains Nicholson. Then, nodding, "I feel your husband now. I feel his energy. He says you like everything neat and tidy. Do you understand?" Liz nods and sobs. "He couldn't stand people who wasted his time," says Nicholson. "Yeah, didn't suffer fools lightly," agrees Liz.
Thomas takes Nicholson inside Liz's bedroom, shows Nicholson a nightie with flowers on it and a pile of books by Liz's bed.
"He tells me he comes around [to see] you every single night... he comes between 8:45 and 9:10," says Nicholson. "There's a photo frame next to the bed, and you kiss him good night. He says: 'I answer you and say goodnight to you.' He lies down by the side of you and he says [he] lies there until morning comes."
At half-time, Liz stands outside the theatre in the cold, arms crossed and eyes red. "I needed that," she says. Her husband Raymond died three years ago from asbestosis – she discovered his body in their Whangarei home. Does she truly believe Nicholson spoke with Raymond?
"Yes. Especially when she said about the photo beside my bed. No one knows that's there. No one knows. It was amazing."
In August 2013, Nicholson did something few psychics would do. She agreed to speak at the New Zealand Skeptics' Society annual conference, a meeting of critical thinkers who believe only what can be proven to be true. They are her harshest critics.
"I wanted to say, I am who I am," she says. "I accept people for who they are, yet [the Skeptics] bad-mouth me all the time – who I am, my principles, what I stand for and what I believe in."
The criticism started in 2006, shortly after she joined Sensing Murder, once the country's highest-rating TV show. Nicholson was one of a team of psychics tasked with using their powers to dig up new information about unsolved murders. The show made the psychics famous, but the Skeptics said they were taking advantage of the stressed and vulnerable, giving false hope to those who had lost loved ones.
After her lecture to the Skeptics, Nicholson opened up the floor to questions, and the crowd pounced. "Are you just a high-functioning… schizophrenic's the wrong word…" someone asked. "You could humiliate us Skeptics by accepting one of our challenges and demonstrating that actually you do have these powers. Would you agree to be tested?" asked another. Nicholson answered their questions good-naturedly but was, unsurprisingly, defensive.
"[Nicholson] is to be commended for being willing to come to the conference," says Vicki Hyde, the society's spokesperson. "Most people dealing in this sort of industry refuse to come anywhere near us. The willingness to engage is usually a sign that the person sincerely believes in what they are doing."
Nicholson is emphatic she doesn't care what the Skeptics think. She doesn't want to do their tests; she doesn't feel the need to prove herself. But do they have a point? Is she exploiting the vulnerable? "I don't ask people to come to me. [The Skeptics] go, 'Why do you charge people?' But I do free readings, I do free healings," she says.
"I take my job very seriously. Every day is very stressful. Some people say, 'Why don't you give it up?' But even if I help one person, that's my journey. That's what I was meant to do."
Some attendees had found solace, but by 10pm Nicholson's show was beginning to drag. The spirits' messages seem very pedestrian. "Have you had a problem with bloating in your stomach?" Nicholson asks a woman who has connected with her late grandmother. "She's saying 'No bread, gluten-free."
The show ends with some earnest and desperate questions from the audience. "When twins die, do they stay together?" Yes, says Nicholson. "Do you age when you die?" That's your choice. "Can spirits move a picture or stop a clock?" Yes.
Maree Bangerter puts up her hand. "How do you know if you're seeing a spirit, or if grief is making you see things?" she asks. "They come in when we're grieving," Nicholson replies. "Sometimes what you've got to do is trust and really know it's not in your head."
She continues: "There's a male behind you at the moment. He's got his hands on your shoulders. All I can hear him say is, 'Bear with it, things are going to work out.' He's giving you a red heart… He didn't want to go. He went very fast. [He's saying] 'Tell her my heart is still with her.'"
After the show, Maree stands in a line with the other audience members queuing to speak with Nicholson. She cried throughout the reading. Did the comments make any sense?
"Yeah," she says, "they did. I've got a house full of red hearts. There are certain things that have happened that make a bit more sense now – I'll be in the bathroom and turn around thinking I've seen him and he's not there.
"You don't know if it's the emotion, or your imagination… your mind does all sorts of weird things when you're grieving."
- Sunday Magazine