Sydney's psychic mediums do a roaring trade
Thirty minutes before he carouses and consoles and chats and makes funny with a room of dead people, Ezio De Angelis sits in his car with his eyes closed and hands on the wheel.
It's dusk but still steaming at Picton's golf club, south-west of Sydney, and he opens the window of his red Commodore to stop sweat staining his shirt. Galahs scream and pokies jangle as he mumbles prayers to any spirits who happen to hear him.
Inside the club's bistro - dress code: "smart casual preferred" - about 80 people are bent over plates of chicken schnitzel and chips, soft-drink cans and mobile phones. Race 6 at the Albury trots runs on a mute TV screen high in the corner while they wait for the show to start. They have come to this most ordinary of settings on the promise of an extraordinary evening. They have come to raise their beloved dead. They have come because they each paid $35.
They're so primed for an otherworldly encounter that by the time De Angelis, 51, walks to the front of the room at 7.40pm, the spirits are practically leaching from the peach-painted walls. He holds the microphone gently in his right hand, like a lounge-bar Lothario with his cleft chin and close-cropped hair, white shirt, snug grey pants and shined shoes.
He's feeling good tonight and jokes that if the plastic chairs start levitating, "I'm heading out the door and you can follow me." He introduces his invisible spirit guide Marcus - who, he says, looks like David Beckham, only more handsome - and tells the obliging audience to give themselves a round of applause.
"I have absolutely no idea where I'm going," he says, smiling through thick pink lips. He is guided, he says, by voices from beyond the grave. "I saw the word Frances and I think I want to go right to this group here," he says, turning towards that third of the audience whose seats overlook the ninth green. A young woman with dark hair raises her hand. Frances was her mother's middle name. De Angelis pulls a face. "Why do I feel sick? Did Mum get quite sick before she crossed over, did she?"
Coursing through his body, he explains, is the sensation of each spirit's passing: if they died by suicide, he will feel embarrassed; if they had dementia, he'll become confused; people who died from prostate cancer will poke him in the rear.
"I don't even have a uterus and I can feel like I've just had cervical cancer. You get a sharp pain down there somewhere," he says, pointing vaguely to his pelvis.
Frances, her daughter says, indeed suffered from stomach cancer. De Angelis will die a dozen more times tonight: by car crash, heart attack, drug overdose, aneurysm and a bullet to the brain.
Over 90 minutes he chats with dead mothers and fathers, children, ex-boyfriends and expired pets. Most spirits seem mainly concerned with establishing their bona fides to the living. De Angelis works at a frenetic pace, any missteps soon forgotten in the merry dance. No one claims knowledge of two deceased young girls named Holly and Sarah, nor of Greg, gone and apparently forgotten.
Each spirit wants their family to know they are here, they are happy and they love them. None come with bad tidings or misgivings at having to leave Paradise for Picton.
Several women weep as their late loved ones come to life in this stifling room by the back bar and TAB. Wendy Yule, 43, a Lifeline volunteer from Lurnea in south-west Sydney, kisses her hand and holds it up high after hearing an apology from a brother who committed suicide.
The final spirit De Angelis sees in the sky is roadkill: "Oh, who ran over the turtle? There's a turtle I can see squashed." A man in his line of sight raises his hand sheepishly.
The man's late grandma is here, too, De Angelis says: "She wants to let you know she's nearby."
The young man smiles at the thought that death is no great distance away. The medium's message is that we don't die, not really. Our loved ones live on and look over us. Paradise awaits.
De Angelis's polished performance - part counsellor, part comedian, part car salesman - would not be out of place in a shopping centre in midwest USA. But here he is plying his trade in suburban bistros, clubs and community halls. He is among dozens of mediums performing for paying audiences across the country. They are psychics of the suburbs, beating a path between this world and the next for hundreds of people at a time.
Don and Marion Wood sit barefoot in their lounge room, sharing a burden no parent should have to. Family photos fill the walls of their home in southern Sydney's Oyster Bay, overlooking the Georges River, but the mantelpiece is reserved for Shelley, their vivacious daughter who died aged 32 from adrenal cancer.
They have seen De Angelis perform as often as 10 times a year since her death in 2005. "It's like a double-sided sword because part of you is so relieved to know that they're there and they're around and watching you all the time," says Marion, 66. "But the other part is sad because ...all you want is that ability like Ezio. That's why we keep going."
Don considered himself a sceptic until, he says, De Angelis told them things only Shelley could have known. Marion recalls her first private reading. "One of the first things he said to me was, 'Did she have beautiful nails?' I said, 'Yes she did.' He said, 'She just showed her hands to me.' She had beautiful long hair and hands. He said, 'She's just given me a glimpse of herself. Was she a model?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'She could be.' "
Marion smiles at the memory. There were days, she says, when she couldn't stop crying for grief.
The spirit world is competitive, De Angelis says. "They will use whatever they can to get your attention, to make them stand out from everybody else." Some cast images into his mind's eye, others write words on the wall like, "Not suicide, accident."
De Angelis, who does about 20 psychic shows a year, is a former corporate services manager who likes renovating his home on weekends. He has a year-long waiting list for private consultations at the Revesby office he shares with his wife and fellow psychic Michelle, 43, a former speech pathologist.
Their shows at Wests Tigers and Penrith Panthers leagues clubs attract up to 350 people at a time, including several De Angelis calls "groupies" - "stalkers", says Michelle.
"Some people come to be convinced of the afterlife, some come to be convinced we're frauds," says De Angelis. "A lot of people come along repeatedly because they love being part of someone else's experience. It's like reality TV."
In the United States, the psychic services industry is worth $US2 billion annually. Here in Australia, half the population believe in some form of psychic power, such as extrasensory perception, according to a 2009 Nielsen survey.
Global financial uncertainty has prompted a "big rise" in the number of mediums, says Australian Psychics Association president Simon Turnbull. "People want to feel assurance and mediums provide that reassurance."
We meet in the brown-brick apartment near Sydney Airport he shares with 11 cats. Why so many? "It used to be 13, but two died," he says.
The pale-skinned Turnbull, 62, says he is telepathic and a "remote viewer" who can see far-away places such as Wagga Wagga or Jupiter without leaving his office.
The Association started in 1983 with about 50 psychics and now has close to 1600 members, he says, a third of whom speak with the dead. "It's a quest for God," he says. "We might be scratching our arses doing this, that and the other, but the bottom line is, we really want to know why we're here."
His Japanese-born wife, Hiromi, arrives with mugs of tea. After she has left the room, he says, "She's psychic, but she's more on the admin side." Anyone can learn to talk with dead people if they have sufficient motivation, he says.
To test this theory, Good Weekend signs up for a short lesson with the 2013 Australian Psychic of the Year. Signs on her office door, above a skateboard shop in Sutherland, read, "Debbie Malone, spirit medium, psychic, clairvoyant" and, "We welcome Visa, MasterCard and eftpos."
Inside, hundreds of toy fairies squat on shelves and nest in an elaborate "fairy tree". Malone, 49, who describes herself as a "sceptical medium", is wearing a necklace with silver pendants saying "Believe" and "You are never alone". Sometimes, Malone says, she sees spirits fly out of her bedroom television. "Would you like a cake?" she asks, proffering a Portuguese tart.
She teaches people on weekends to speak with spirits, for $200 including light refreshments. "Psychics are the new rock stars, they're the new thing," she says.
To speak with the dead, you must first be relaxed and quiet, she says. Today's lesson is in psychometry, or the ability to "read" an object and its owners by touching it.
She hands me a brown felt hat, which is dusty and floppy and has a hole torn in the front. "Don't try too hard. Don't think about it. Write down what you see," she says. I close my eyes and see an old man with a small head in a country town. Perhaps he once worked as a stock agent.
As it turns out I'm not even close. The hat's owner was a cross-dressing roustabout who has gone missing in Rockhampton, Malone says. But she is encouraging. "You have made a connection."
There are three types of mediums, says Melbourne "celebrity psychic" Harry T (who requests we use his stage name): those who believe they are psychic but are no good at it; those who are good psychics; and the bad guys.
"Some people are full of crap and you just know it," he says. "Genuine mediums are out there to make a positive difference in the world. It's not hocus-pocus, it's not con work, it's a form of healing."
Harry T is in his mid-20s, with short, slicked-back hair, and says he started receiving messages from dead people at 14, after his mother died. A good medium must be good on stage, he says. "You want to be entertaining, you want people to have a good time, you want them to laugh and smile. Sometimes I find people go to these shows as an entertainment thing or to relax, like going to the movies with a group of friends."
At another bistro, this time the first-floor lounge of a Sydney pub, a few dozen members of the Australian Skeptics gather each month to worship rationalism over fish and chips, cocktails and beer.
President Richard Saunders, middle-aged and square-jawed, waves an oversized fake cheque for $100,000 for anyone who can prove the existence of psychic powers. Most people who claim they speak with the dead are sincere but deluded, he says, though "a small minority of people are just out for the bucks".
Sceptics say mediums are not so much getting answers as asking questions, or "cold reading" their subjects. They fish for information and use flattery. "If a person cannot think of somebody who had a little black dog or played the piano or had a red car, it doesn't matter," Saunders says. "A psychic might say, 'Well, you do, somebody you know has. Now go home and ask your family.' Now the audience thinks, 'Wow, this psychic knows something about this person they don't even know themselves.' If that person goes home and still can't find any information, who cares? The show's over."
Mediums deliberately relay vague ramblings that are difficult to contradict, says leading American sceptic James Randi. "When Grandma dies and you ask, 'Grandma, where is the will?', Grandma says, 'Oh, I love you dear and I love the dog and cat as well and I love you all, you're all in my thoughts, goodbyeeeee.' And Grandma goes away instead of simply saying, 'It's on the second library shelf behind the encyclopaedia.' There are never any useful answers that would prove maybe Grandma really was speaking."
Most people who go to mediums are already believers, creating "an atmosphere of acceptance", says Dr Krissy Wilson, from Charles Sturt University. The more someone believes in the paranormal, the more likely they are to think that what they have seen has a paranormal element, "so memory can be influenced by belief", says Wilson. This increases the chances of seeing meaning in random events and creating connections when there is nothing but coincidence.
Professor Chris French, an expert in the psychology of paranormal beliefs at Goldsmiths College, University of London, says some psychics genuinely hear voices in their head. "Rather than having to think, 'Oh my gosh, I'm not well', these people are actually thinking, 'I'm special, I'm gifted, I can help other people.' "
It is healthy for the bereaved to eventually deal with their grief by acknowledging their loss and getting on with their lives, says French. "Having said that, it might be quite helpful in the short term that someone is there saying that person is still around in some sense, that they will be reunited."
Death seems to spark psychic ability in many mediums. Louise Hermann's brother drowned when she was 10 but liked coming back home to play marbles in the hallway. Later, when studying economics at university, "the spirit world came banging on my door and they said, 'You will travel the world and change the lives of millions.' "
She works from her rented apartment in Dee Why, on Sydney's northern beaches, for an IT company. Sometimes, she says, lowering her voice, she will be sitting on the couch at night watching Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman, when she hears a voice call "Helloooooooo".
The spirits typically swing by the night before a show, to check she can hear them. "It's what I call a sound test," she says.
How do you respond? "I don't respond."
How do spirits know you can hear them? "I might respond mentally, saying, 'I hear you.' "
Does she ever think she might be mad? "No, no, no, no. I don't hear voices all day and night."
Hermann, 39, is lean with blonde hair and a small chin, and performs about 60 live shows a year, including once a month at Drummoyne Community Centre. On a recent Friday night, her small team of volunteers are busy setting up the room with 130 chairs. Hermann introduces them: there's Marisia, whose husband and father are dead; Angela, who lost a son; Elke, who lost both parents and two brothers.
She has 58 volunteers helping her set up for performances around the country. Hermann calls tonight's show "the full service": connecting with the dead, meditation and a motivational talk. The subject of tonight's talk? "Death."
Hermann, dressed in knee-length black pants, black slip-ons and a blouse, bids the audience to sing Wind beneath My Wings and What a Wonderful World. People wave the song sheets to keep cool. The ceiling fans are still because they interfere with the spirit energies, explains volunteer Elke.
When connecting with spirits, Hermann paces with her eyes closed, her right hand out as if searching for something beyond her grasp. She is part pastor, part self-help guru and all over the shop tonight. "Your father is in the spirit world, correct?" she asks one woman.
"No," the woman responds.
"Okay, there is a father figure that is coming forward here. If it is not a father, father-in-law?"
"He has passed away, my father-in-law."
"Okay, I will go with that," Hermann says, with a big, full-teeth smile.
So the evening goes, punctuated by long, awkward pauses as audience members try their best to match their experience to Hermann's estimations. A spirit she sees throwing candy about is connected with a woman who happens to be wearing a pink candy-coloured shirt. Still the audience applauds loud enough to wake the dead.
"Now has somebody purchased a trampoline or done something around a trampoline," Hermann asks a woman, who shakes her head. Hermann tries again. "Is there somebody you are here with who has purchased a trampoline?" No. "Or is on a trampoline at the gym or is getting on one." No. "And you haven't gone to a gym and you were on a trampoline, nothing like that?" No. "And there was no incident on a trampoline?" The woman pauses. Then, "No."
"My spirit team often say, 'Louise, this is like finding an air pocket through mud, that's how difficult it is,' " Hermann says later.
Outside, beyond the glass doors, the wind is whipping up the park trees. Tonight's audience have paid $10 each, but Hermann says she operates at a loss. "Our costs last year were $80,000 and I only brought in $62,000 or $63,000 ... I often say to people if all this was just a sick joke, why would I put in $15,000 of my own money, thousands of hours, all my long-service leave? ... A cynic does not have the ability to grasp another world."
The show ends after 9pm with five minutes of meditation. The lights go out and Elvis appears (via CD only) singing Can't Help Falling in Love. The audience sit in the dark, eyes closed. Organs play, then - as inevitable as death itself - comes the sound of pan pipes.
Hermann sits in front of them, her back straight, hands on legs, beads of sweat on her upper lip. She has seen much tonight of death. Outside, life goes on. In the glare of park floodlights, a woman bends down to pick up poo from her Scottish terrier, as storm clouds gather overhead.
-Sydney Morning Herald