Before multiple self-proclaimed spiritual mediums began hosting TV shows, James Van Praagh was on the scene; he was even an executive producer of a TV series on the subject.
He’ll be appearing at the McCallum Theatre at 7 p.m., this Sunday, Nov. 17.
During a recent interview, Van Praagh was very open about the world of spiritual mediums, as well as the criticism and skepticism that many people have. He’s a part-time resident of Palm Springs, although he said he’s selling his home here.
Originally from Bayside, N.Y., he said experienced his first encounter with a spirit at the age of 8 in his bedroom.
“I often say it’s like the movie The Sixth Sense. Mine was very much like that, but I didn’t see negative impressions; mine were always very positive impressions,” Van Praagh said. “I see lights around people, colors, and an aura. I would tell my mother these experiences. I asked her, ‘Who are those people at the end of the bed with the lights around them?’ She said, ‘Oh, them? Those are God’s angels. You see them, too? When I was a little girl, I used to see them all the time. They’ll always take care of you. You don’t need to be afraid of them; you’ll always be taken care of, and you’re loved by God.”
Van Praagh said he didn’t pay too much attention to these experiences as a child, and his ability to see them faded away, but never disappeared. While living in Los Angeles, he said he was “dragged” by a friend to see a medium named Brian Hurst—who led him to a life-changing revelation.
“As soon as I walked in, Brian Hurst told me, ‘You’re a medium.’ I said, ‘I’m a medium?’ And he said, ‘In two years, the spirit world will use you, and you’re going to be used to change the consciousness of the planet. I thought, ‘Ok, I’ve heard California is the land of fruit and nuts.’ I thought the guy was crazy.
“I was working at Paramount Studios in the contract department, preparing contracts for TV shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Arsenio Hall Show. I remember that it was after lunch, and I was in my cubicle, and a co-worker went into her cubicle, and behind her was a lady—a dead person. She looked right at me; it was the weirdest thing. She looked at me like she looked through me. She said, ‘I’m her grandmother; tell her about Idaho, the yellow house with the white shutters, and the needlepoint and footstool cover.’”
When he told the co-worker what he saw, she told him that her grandmother promised to her that she would find a way to come back and tell her she loved her—and it was through Van Praagh that she received that message. All of the details were correct—things that only she knew.
When he called Brian Hurst later in the day, things became even stranger.
“I ran out of Paramount Studios and went back to my apartment. I called him and said, ‘Brian, I saw this dead lady. and she told me things to tell this girl at work. What do I do with that?’ He said, ‘James, don’t you remember the spirit-world prediction? James, that was two years ago today.’ I was blown away.”
He said he eventually accepted the ability he had as a medium after working with Hurst on meditation, the energy of the body, the chakra system, and much more. He eventually became a full-time medium.
“I was very nervous. I didn’t know what to charge people; I didn’t know where I was going to find people, and I never advertised. I charged $10 to $25 for readings. I charged just enough to get groceries and pay my rent. I knew I had to charge something, because it’s an exchange of energy. There’s got to be a balance someway. I believe to this day, you can’t overcharge, because that’s abuse.”
He found himself on Unsolved Mysteries, The Joan Rivers Show and the talk-show circuit displaying his abilities. His book Talking to Heaven spent several weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. He was also a producer of the show Ghost Whisperer, which for five seasons on CBS starred Jennifer Love Hewitt as a medium. He said he had occasional clashes with the studio, including one when he was told that “sex sells” after he questioned showing more of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s cleavage.
“Anytime you have spirituality in television, and mediums, it’s a bad train wreck,” he said. “I come from a place of integrity. Television is the greatest teaching tool we have; when it’s used correctly, it can enlighten the world. I told CBS that every episode of the show has to end on a positive note; you can scare the shit out of people for all I care, but I want to be responsible. So every one of the episodes of the show ends with the ultimate healing: They go into the light; there’s forgiveness; and there’s healing. They kept that in. In that respect, I love the show.
“But how they demonstrated a lot of the stuff on that show was bullshit. I got into a lot of fights with producers, and I said to them, ‘It doesn’t happen that way!’ I actually wrote a list of ghost rules as an educational tool for them. I wanted to make sure it was done right, and I had so many fights with the producers.”
As one of the world’s most-beloved mediums, he—like other well-know mediums such as Sylvia Browne and John Edward—has had to deal with criticism from skeptics like James Randi, who offers a $1 million prize to any medium who can prove legitimacy on Randi's terms.
“It’s hard when someone says, ‘You have to say the nickname of my father, and then I know this is real.’ I can’t do that. It doesn’t work that way,” Van Praagh said. “The Amazing Randi is a joke. He’s a former magician, and he doesn’t understand this work at all. He wants to apply these physical laws to something which is of another dimension. How can you apply physical laws and properties to another dimension? It just doesn’t work that way.”
Van Praagh explained, in his words, how Randi’s test works.
“He’ll set up this test for people, and then he changes the rules at the last minute. You can never win with someone like that. People like that have an agenda: The agenda is that they’re skeptics. They wouldn’t have a job if they weren’t skeptics. You can prove (abilities) by the evidential information that comes through.”
Van Praagh said he’s also quite skeptical of his profession—but that skepticism can come without cynicism.
“I’m skeptical of people who claim things. There are mediums I test through my website with three levels of testing,” he said. “I have people who do readings from all over the world on my site, given I can’t do private readings anymore, because I’m teaching or traveling. They’ve been tested, and they’re pretty accurate. I’m skeptical in that they have to come through with the evidence, and that’s what it’s about, not embellishing bullshit. You have to be honest.
“I’m very skeptical, anyway, because that’s just my nature. I think it’s good to be a skeptic—an open-minded skeptic. A cynic is not a skeptic. A cynic already has their mind made up.”
So does Van Praagh have a gift? It’s hard to say. However, he did offer this in regard to how he got to where he is today: “I think in life that it’s really important we go with our gut. What I’ve learned over 30 years is all souls have a physical experience.”
An Evening With James Van Praagh takes place at 7 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 17, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 to $65. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.