NZ Skeptic editor David Riddell finds Kelvin Cruickshank less impressive in person than he appears on Sensing Murder. A shorter version of this review appeared in the Waikato Times on 9 December 2009.

Sensing Murder has a lot to answer for. As well as cluttering up our television screens with its exploitative and unproductive re-warmings of unsolved murders, it has created three stars on the psychic circuit. Deb Webber, Sue Nicholson and Kelvin Cruickshank all regularly tour New Zealand, Australia and further afield, doing mediumship shows to crowded houses at exorbitant prices.

In early December I was asked by the Waikato Times to attend one of Kelvin Cruickshank’s performances and write a review. The last two issues of NZ Skeptic have carried reports of Cruickshank’s and Nicholson’s shows, but given the impact these people are having I think there’s more to be said. Cruickshank, by the way, told his audience a new series of Sensing Murder will go into production early in 2010.

For a skeptic, the most interesting bit came right at the beginning, while he as warming up the crowd. In this segment, Cruickshank spoke of his mediumship as being associated with the mental states prevailing around the fringes of sleep – known to psychologists as hypnagogia, though of course he didn’t use the word. I made an audio recording of the evening and below is a transcription of some of it. This is rendered verbatim, to give an impression of the relaxed, conversational style he adopts with his audience.

When you go to sleep at night time, you get that nice fluffy zone, where you just start to dribble, you know, like <slurp>, eh that nice feeling, eh. ‘Cos that’s the nicest feeling, eh, waking up going … aah. And you know when you’re asleep or just about to go to sleep, and you wake up ‘cos you snort? And you wake yourself? Well that’s where we communicate with our spirit on a clearer basis. That’s the … the in-between zones, it’s in the middle. I can’t be in the spirit full time, I’m not dead, or in other words I don’t live in the spirit world, I’m living in the physical. So to meet them half way, I train myself to stay in that little bit where we dribble and snort. ‘Cos that’s how it’s done, they come to us in our dreams.

Edgar Allan Poe (quoted in Hypnagogia: the unique state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep, by Andreas Mavromatis) wrote of his hypnagogic experiences as:

;…a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy, which are thought: they seem to me rather psychal than intellectual. They arise in the soul … only at its epochs of most intense tranquility … and at those mere points in time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams. I am aware of these ‘fancies’ only when I am on the very brink of sleep, with the consciousness that I am so.

Hypnagogic experiences vary enormously from person to person, but some have clear visions which, according to Mavromatis, may include encounters with the dead. If we can take him at his word, Cruickshank seems to be able to enter this state at will, through meditation, and to approach it during his mediumship sessions:

I can be in this zone, if you like, for a certain period of time. I’m not in spirit as such fully, because I haven’t passed away. I’m still living, and so I can meditate and go into this zone here [indicating on whiteboard] and I can see my Mum and my Dad and have a real good chit-chat, but for you guys I’m connecting with them half way. Fifty-fifty: if they give me 50, I give them 50, we should make 100. Some days you don’t quite get there, but some people are stubborn in spirit – they were stubborn in life, they’ll be stubborn in spirit as well.

So as a medium, how did he perform? Well, for someone who is supposed to have access to sources of information the rest of us lack, he certainly asks a lot of questions. He gives every impression of sincerely believing he can do what he claims, but his performance looks very much like a standard cold reading act. He throws out lots of questions, names and general statements which the recipients make sense of from their own personal experience. He would never say directly who a name referred to, but would ask, “Who’s Barbara?” and leave the recipient to fill in the gap. Barbara turned out to be the wife’s boss.

Almost all the names Cruickshank asked about were very common – John, Dave, Robert (amazingly, this one got no response – what pakeha New Zealander doesn’t know a Robert, or have one in their family?), Margaret, Sam, Catherine. The only uncommon one, Gwen (which happens to be my mother’s name), also got nothing at first, but he explained that his Aunty Gwen lived in Napier, where it turned out the woman being read had a friend. Sometimes spirit communicates in this way, he said.

Cruickshank would often worry away at a miss, determined to turn it into a hit. A question, “Who’s the fisherman?” morphs into something about a couple of goldfish someone’s kids had owned many years ago. A comment about Mickey Mouse ears got nothing, nor did Disneyland; in fact there seemed to be nothing in the entire US which had resonance for the woman concerned. In desperation he wonders if the Mickey Mouse ears could be Playboy bunny ears. Yes, says the woman (in her late 50s), she’d recently bought Playboy sheets, because they were on special. Big laughs all round. But he did less well when he went on an extended commentary about how she should look after herself and upgrade her old shoes. As it happened, the ones she was wearing were brand new.

On the other hand questions about a new trampoline for the kids, someone who played chess, and many others drew no response and were allowed to lapse. He also fell back on standard cold-readers’ responses when an enquiry came up blank, such as “Check your family tree”, or “Are you sure about that? ‘Cos it’s there.” It was nothing like his slickly edited Sensing Murder performances, where less than 10 minutes of screen time are extracted from a session which must extend over several hours.

In the nearly-three-hour show there were only a few readings, most of them quite protracted. Generally these would conclude with homilies about the value of family, or maintaining a positive attitude, or a strong sense of self-worth. Repeatedly, he told people their loved ones were watching over them and looking out for them.

There was plenty of laughter, and more than a couple of tears. It’s Cruickshank’s hits that most of the audience would remember. They will forget the misses, and the fact that they provided most of the details themselves.

No doubt most of the 300-strong audience would have felt the show was worth the $66 ticket price (that’s about $20,000 – not bad for a night’s work). But attend a few of these shows and the money would start to add up. A woman sitting next to my daughter, who accompanied me, had already paid for a more exclusive session with Cruickshank, in a group of 15. On neither that occasion nor the one I attended did she receive any supposed messages from her son, who had died a year before. Given the addictive nature of psychics’ messages (see Robin Shepherd’s article in NZ Skeptic 84) and the number of mediums currently touring (Jeanette Wilson is also still around – see NZ Skeptic 73 for more on her) I suspect there are a number of desperate people out there spending more than they can really afford on these events.

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