June 04, 2004

Protesting the Power of Suggestion

Monday, Mrs H and I watched a sťance. I know, I know, you are all shocked. How could we do such a thing? Dabbling in the demonic!

Dabbling in psychology, actually. The sťance was conducted by Derren Brown on Channel 4. Mrs H is a huge fan of Derren and I'm fairly impressed as well. He is hard to describe, but the term most often used is "psychological illusionist". Knowing Derren Brown, we knew it was a setup.

The show became the third most complained about television programme in British history. It managed to do this before it was even aired. And it was all thanks to Christians. As it was hyped on Channel 4 adverts for weeks in advance, the Church had time to mobilise.

It reminded me of all the petitions sent by churches into the FCC against a non-existent proposed ban on religious broadcasting alleged to be mastminded by Madalyn Murry O'Hair. Because Christians didn't check out the facts, but instead decided to shoot from the hip, they come out looking the fools - and I don't mean some sort of fools for Christ - just fools.

That's why there were 695 complaints lodged with either Channel 4 or the meida regulator Ofcom before the broadcast and only 30 after. Apparently some of the protesters didn't realise it had already been shown. Either that, or because they wouldn't have actually watched it, they just assumed what was going on.

In fact, what happened was that Derren took 12 college student who he psychologically tested for suggestability, made up a story that they were in a building where a suicide pact had been carried out, subtly drew their attention to a picture of one of the "victims" and through the use of a Ouija board had them chose her to later call up and channel her spirit. At the end of it all, he brought in the actual person they were "channeling", who had been waiting in a trailer off-site.

By the use of nightvision cameras (since sťances take place in the dark) he exposed the psychological hoax. The 12 people were absolutely convinced that they had had a spiritual experience. In both the promo adverts and at the beginning of the programme, Derren had encouraged people to participate at home, particularly with make-shift Ouija boards. Unsuspecting viewer phoned in on a special voicemail line (which was live), thinking it was all live and that they were participating in a live event, reported paranormal activity, though it became evident at the end it had been taped and had been a setup.

I wonder if the resistance by some Christians to proving that much of spiritualism is fake and a product of suggestion and psychological illusion is because it hits too close to home. I spent my days as a charismatic sifting the wheat and the chaff. There were many incidents where people thought they were having a valid spiritual experience and it appeared to everyone else that they were just caught up in the moment.

I look back now and I see even more spiritual ecstacy that was purely a product of the mind. That isn't to say that everything that ever happened was self-generated. Rather, the environment suggested what was to take place. I would dare to ruffle a lot of feathers and suggest that traditional charismatic liturgy of music progressing through certain speeds/volumes/styles/themes conditions the congregation for certain instances of divine utterance and supernatural intervention.

This also has implications for practices used predominately by charismatics in exorcism. I don't run in charismatic circles anymore, but I get the impression that the fad for casting out devils, so prominent in the 1970s and '80s, has become a much more back-burner topic and practice. Time was when everyone needed "deliverance" and every Christian was infested with a variety of demons. Not exactly a biblical model, but there you go. Many people had so many demons they required weeks of regular sessions to get rid of them.

Eventually some people realised that "deliverance" was being used as a panacea for dealing with personal and psychological problems. We talked about people who could find a demon under every rock. Yet those people still managed to conjour up strange voices and black vomit. Makes you think...

It all comes down to people wanting validating experiences, whether those are valid or not. And when people are looking for something, they can usually find it, whether it is a dead person, a demon, or divine intervention.

Posted by david at June 4, 2004 12:15 AM | TrackBack