By Mal Vickers
After the self-promotional video Sally walks on stage to applause:
“Now, there is a young boy here, as I walked on, he came on with me. I’ve not had a chance to process him. His name is James. He is saying (putting on the voice of a little boy) ‘I am sorry, I am sorry’.”
Sally Morgan’s show is underway.
For the benefit of readers, I set aside an evening along with fellow Skeptic Tony Pitman to report on popular UK psychic Sally Morgan’s show. Braving a very cold mid-winter’s Melbourne night to attend, we sat amongst 500 people in the audience of the Athenaeum Theatre which was at approximately 50% capacity.
I did a little research before attending; well, when I say ‘research’ I mean that I watched a few of Sally Morgan’s promotional You-Tube videos. The most obvious difference between the promotional videos and the actual live gig is that the videos are edited in such a way as to suggest Sally is correct 100% of the time. As you may imagine, her ‘hit rate’ in an unedited live performance was much lower and required a significant amount of audience help and interpretation.
In my humble opinion, the show was full of good old-fashioned cold reading; slick yet professionally conducted.
As the methods of cold reading become more widely known, it’s considered slightly passé for a psychic to stand up on stage and say: “I’m getting a ‘J’. It could be a Jenny, Josh, Jan, Jill, Jen or Jeremy. Does this make sense to anyone?”
Sally’s banter is a modified version of that approach. While I didn’t ever hear her mention individual letters of the alphabet during the evening, I did hear:
“The name Ian is really important, did someone have a heart attack and pass? …Does it make sense to anyone in here?…
Someone just whispered, they went… Bev, Beverly, but I feel whoever whispered at me possibly died of cancer in their throat…
Who is Steve? Stevie? Very, very sure like Stephen it would be”
– and many more such name prompts. She did this almost all of the time.
Sally has her little speeches ready when things aren’t going well and no one is responding – for instance:
“Let me just tell you that there is no other opportunity to do this, I’m not here [Melbourne] tomorrow. Just to let you know that.”
“You see this is it. You’ve bought tickets haven’t you? D’ya know wha’ I mean? Tickets cost money and it’s like what are you doing if you don’t put your hand up. You are here hopefully for a message.”
Sometimes this prompting of people’s names can go too far. At one point during the evening Sally was trying to engage with one particular lady’s personal story.
Sally Morgan: “Who’s Tina?”
Audience member: “Errr… she was my personal trainer?” (Audience laughter)
Sally uses an unusual technique when dealing with audience members who stand up in response to her prompting. I’ve not seen other psychics ‘stacking people’ as Sally does. Allow me to explain. At any other psychic show someone from the audience might respond to the prompt of a name or the circumstances of a death. They put up their hand, receive a microphone from an attendant and then engage the audience and the psychic with their personal story. Another stage psychic might try to tease out or guess as much of the story as possible without hearing the details from the audience member. Once the story reaches some kind of conclusion the psychic will move to another prompt and try to get someone else to stand up.
Sally encourages more than one person to stand up when someone takes the microphone. She explains that the story she’s getting might actually be for the friend or relative of the person holding the microphone. In addition, anyone can put up their hand at any time if Sally prompts a name, even if it’s during someone else’s personal story time. At one point during the evening, three people held microphones and six people were standing up. Any of these people could have engaged with Sally’s prompting as well as anyone in the audience, casting the net quite widely. The mixing of multiple stories can get very confusing and messy. I must tip my hat to Sally’s ability to keep all these people’s stories in memory and ask people to sit down and stand up at various times. I didn’t get the feeling that anyone’s stories were confirmed in great detail, yet everyone was treated with great respect.
Sally was perhaps a little over-confident of having the right people with her in spirit. For example, after hearing a few details of one story, very sadly the lady in question had lost both her son and husband.
“You’re so brave to stand up and tell us all that. You know if anything happened to any one of my lovelies I’d be straight off Putney Bridge. I don’t know how you cope. They [the spirits of the lady’s lost son and husband] are here, they are with you.”
Whilst we are on the happy subject of death, I know it’s going to happen to everyone eventually: however I remain uneasy about using death as a source of entertainment.
Sally’s management had a projected slide up before the start of the show saying:
“Due to recent European legislation we are required to inform you that tonight’s performance is intended for entertainment purposes only and has not been scientifically proven.”
I’m very sure about one point after seeing Sally’s performance: the audience members that stood up were all honest and sincere. I’m troubled by the thought that for such people, the lives and stories of their loved ones are being used ‘for entertainment purposes only’. In my humble opinion, all psychics that put on the big shows and deal with such sensitive issues should be scientifically tested.
Magicians and skeptics who claim no psychic abilities have duplicated the performances of claimed psychics and that’s a worry for the big name psychics.
I’ve been listening to a podcast recently called ‘Oh No Ross and Carrie’ (I recommend it). The way Ross and Carrie wrap up their skeptical investigations on this podcast is quite good. I hope they don’t mind if I wrap up my review of Sally Morgan’s Melbourne performance in the same way.
I’ll rate the show using the following criteria:
Level of pseudoscience; creepiness; danger; and pocket-drainer (cost).
Level of Pseudoscience
Sally calls herself ‘Psychic Sally’. There’s no question about what she’s claiming to be, although there were no claims that what she was doing was ‘science’: quite the contrary. I did note the projected disclaimer slide stating that what Sally was doing was not ‘scientifically proven’. I’m not sure the audience took the disclaimer seriously however, they didn’t act as though they took the disclaimer seriously. As the audience are a big part of Sally’s show and there appears to be such a lack of critical thinking about psychic abilities, I’ll give the show a high pseudoscience rating: seven out of ten.
I felt very uncomfortable at Sally’s show. The worst moments for me were Sally voicing deceased children. Definitely creepy: nine out of ten.
The audience members who put up their hands and allowed Sally to guess their personal stories were clearly under duress. The tears were real. While I’m not a psychologist, I’d tend to think that if you were one of those audience members, such a personal experience would probably not be good for you emotionally. However I don’t think that it would put you in great danger. For everyone else, a Sally Morgan psychic show is no more dangerous than seeing any live performance: two out of ten.
I’ll set the scale for ‘pocket-drainer’ as follows. A rating of one is something that doesn’t cost you very much or perhaps nothing at all, whereas a ten would be something very expensive.
The ticket price was $75.50. That’s about what you pay for a mid-level / mid-range live show. If you were on a pension, that’s a lot of money; you couldn’t do it every week. Sally did advertise ‘Sally’s Psychic Team’ phone number. Calling that phone number often could get quite pocket-draining. For the audience members who are still very keen to make some kind of connection to lost loved ones, repeatedly going to psychic shows could become costly – over and above going to a qualified grief counsellor for example. Sally Morgan doesn’t come to Melbourne very often, so spending all your money on Sally really isn’t an option. Pocket-drainer rating: six out of ten.
On the whole, if you have the choice of staying home on a cold winter’s evening with a nice chicken soup, or seeing ‘Psychic Sally’, I highly recommend the soup.
I’ve added a few links below that may be of interest.
– Tony Pitman, mentioned at the start of my post, has also reviewed the same 24 June ‘Psychic Sally’ show on his podcast, Reality Check. Look for episode 67.
– A Guide to Cold Reading by Ray Hyman
– Australian comedian Tom Gleeson interviews psychic John Edward – funny.