Celebrity psychic Thomas John turns out to be a mildly camp 30-something Brooklyner dressed in a remarkable checked-purple-shirt-and-purple-tie ensemble. He’s certainly charismatic and engaging — he commences the evening by explaining that what he’ll be doing is speaking with the dead, who are apparently all around us. He admonishes the audience sternly not to try to trick him (“Don’t screw with me!”) and also not to be shy if we think one of the spirits he communes with is trying to connect with us (“You can’t hide from dead people!”). I wonder if I’m allowed to take notes, but then I figure: he’ll know anyway, won’t he? And then we’re underway.
Basically, speaking with the dead goes as follows: CP Thomas John walks up and down the aisle, pausing when he feels he is “with” someone. And here’s the thing: if this is a setup, it’s an elaborate and remarkably effective one, because in the course of speaking to about 50 people over the next couple of hours, John doesn’t really get anything wrong. At all. As you might have guessed from what I’ve written so far, I’m pretty skeptical of all things paranormal, but this shit… it’s uncanny. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of generalized prompting of the sort one tends to read in horoscopes, etc. — John seems to deal in specifics, and he gets names right, he gets dates right, he gets weird little details right.
A typical interaction goes something like this:
John: Does anyone have a Nancy? A grandparent? It feels like she passed recently. Audience member: [Shoots up hand] Me! John: And… she’s showing me the letter A. Who would that be? Audience member: Her husband, Albert. John: OK, I think I’m with you. [Walks over to audience member.] Nancy passed first, is that correct? Audience member: Yes. John: I feel like she passed quite quickly, is that right? Audience member: Yes. John: She says she’s glad her family were the at the end. She’s watching over you.
It’s easy to see how this could be managed, but some of the details are remarkably specific: for instance, there’s a long discussion about a sister who died quickly, and had adopted a daughter that her family is now taking care of. The sister apparently wants to thank her family for looking after the little girl, and for managing various financial affairs, and also to apologize for going so quickly (she had some sort of head injury, apparently.) She’s also got a great deal to say — John laughs and tells the audience that the spirit is speaking right in his ear, and will continue to do so until she’s good and ready to be quiet.
Clearly, this could still all be set up. Ultimately, I have no way of knowing either way. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel real, especially considering that John interacts with about half the audience. The alternative, of course, is that he really is speaking to the dead — I’m not really sure which way Occam’s razor slices here, but either way, the whole thing makes for a helluva strange experience.
A couple of the interactions are genuinely moving, too. Take this, for instance:
John: Whose grandmother is Isobel? Audience member: Me. John: She passed a long time ago. Audience member: Ten years. John: And who’s John… is that your father? Audience member: Yes. John: OK, so he’s here with Isobel. And… [pauses] Oh, I’m so sorry. Your son passed on? Audience member: Yes. [Starts sobbing softly.] John: He was very young? Audience member: Yes. [Starts crying in earnest.] John: OK, he’s here too. He sends you his love. I’m going to give you a hug.
As person after person shoots up his or her hand to John’s promptings, I get to thinking about the existential implications of this whole thing. If he really is communing with the dead, what does it all mean? Are we given to understand that all what awaits us after death is floating around in a sort of impotent cloud, “watching over” people who haven’t “crossed” and waiting for someone like CP. Thomas John to render our existence meaningful? Is death just like receding to the other side of a glass wall that separates you from reality, or like sinking into the carpet, Trainspotting-style? This isn’t exactly a comforting thought, to be honest. Not that it seems to bother anyone here — they’re all keen to get a fast five minutes in with people on the other side.
Also unanswered: what exactly are these spirits supposed to know? Does death bring prescience, or omniscience, or is your dead grandpa basically the same as he was in life, only, y’know, dead? Some of the spirits who John’s claiming to channel certainly seem to possess some sort of insight, like the one who’s got news about an audience member’s sister’s illness (“She’ll be fine,” apparently) or the dead mother who has a financial warning for one of the three men with mullets (“This summer will be rough”). Others seem all too human, like the father who’s apparently realized in death that he was bipolar in life, and has an apology for his daughter for the way he behaved (“It all makes perfect sense, and I always suspected,” she sighs ruefully). The dead seem to talk a lot about dying and being dead, discussing what happened “toward the end,” etc. (one dead relative admonishes his son that the whole Catholic funeral was unnecessary, much to the son’s obvious consternation and everyone else’s amusement).
Shit gets really weird when the spirit of a miscarriage manifests — John explains that such spirits turn up periodically, and while they’re not as articulate as fully formed people, they still feel love and communicate in generalized emotion. I guess that CP Thomas John is probably not big on abortion.
By the end of two hours, the idea that this dude is chatting happily with ghosts seems like the most normal thing in the world. No one manifests to me, perhaps because my spirits are across the Pacific, or perhaps because I just don’t really know many dead people — my parents are alive, I didn’t really know my grandparents, etc. Or, more cynically, because I’m not part of the show. Whatever. Either way, I’m glad — the idea of anyone I know occupying this shadowy world that John’s spirits seem to inhabit is a pretty horrible one, to be honest.
As the clock winds up to 9pm, John stops talking to dead people and starts talking to the living, fielding questions from the audience. Someone asks if John can turn off his “gift” when he goes to bed or wants to relax, etc. He explains that it’s kind of like having the television on — you can learn to ignore it. I ask if he has any opinion on how long the spirits he communes with loiter for — do they fade over time, or just kinda hang around forever? He replies that he’s spoken to spirits from centuries ago (including one, hilariously, who someone apparently summoned because they wanted to check details for their genealogy project).
And then, finally, someone asks John if his family share his gift. He laughs and asks his mother to answer the question — she answers that no, she’s not psychic at all, and that Thomas’s imaginary friends caused all sorts of consternation at home. But shit, wait, I’ll be damned if his mother isn’t the aforementioned Susan, the woman who came and sat next to me at the start of the evening, the one whose name occurred to me unbidden.
What does it all mean? As everyone files out, I sit for a bit longer and see if I can feel any spirits manifesting around me. But I feel nothing. Nothing at all. It’s quite a relief, to be honest.