How psychics, mediums and astrologers work their craft

Gary Nunn and his sister dealt with the sudden passing of their father in 2015 in very different ways.

He embraced hedonism to escape the grief, while she went to see several psychic mediums to try to reach out to their father.

A close-up portrait of a man with red hair smiling at the camera.
Gary Nunn spent two years researching the world of psychics, mediums and astrologers. (Supplied: Pantera Press)

At the time they were worlds apart when it came to psychics — one a sceptic, the other a believer — and each worried about how the other was grieving.

It was this worry, mixed with a little bit of intrigue, that started Mr Nunn’s two-year journey into trying to figure out what draws people to psychics. And, although he still considers himself “rational minded and very pro-science”, he has changed his mind about a lot of things.

Who goes to psychics?

Before this experience, Mr Nunn didn’t take psychics seriously — he viewed them as a type of entertainment.

“I’d been quite dismissive of them,” he tells ABC RN’s Life Matters. “And perhaps of the people who went to see them as well.”

“I’d considered the people who seek out psychics to be vulnerable and fragile.”

But after countless interviews, extensive research and numerous psychic readings, which he details in his book The Psychic Tests: An Adventure in the World of Believers and Sceptics, Mr Nunn found this wasn’t always the case.

History offers numerous examples of powerful people who’ve sought psychic advice on all kinds of decisions.

For example, Erik Jan Hanussen was Hitler’s astrologer while Joan Quigley worked for former US president Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy.

Quigley claims to have used moon phases and planet conjunctions to help determine the timing of everything from presidential press conferences and debates to re-election announcements and military actions.

Ronald Reagan and Nancy Regan wave from limousine
Joan Quigley worked as an astrologer for the Reagans. (Getty Images: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum)

“I was so curious as to why really powerful people in the world were basically indulging pseudo-science and taking it seriously,” Mr Nunn says.

There’s also a case of UK jurors using a Ouija board to speak to a murder victim to ascertain whether the man in the dock was guilty or not, and an executive chairman of an Australian stockbroking firm who invested funds based on a psychic’s advice and sent his company broke in the process.

Mr Nunn thinks it might have something to do with the enormity of the decisions powerful people occasionally have to make.

“They are sometimes so worried about making the wrong decision that there is no-one left above them, other than the divine.”

“I think it’s a form of imposter syndrome, thinking ‘I’m not qualified to make this decision, I don’t want to make this decision’, but you have to.”

The power of charisma

He decided to give it a go himself.

In December 2019, at a professional networking event, Mr Nunn sat down with a psychic named Melanie.

“Everything blurred away and it was like we were the only two people in the room.

“I felt more alive than I’d felt all week. I felt very engaged and I kind of chose to suspend my belief.”

“She seemed to connect me to my dad, although quite a few other dud names came through before then,” Mr Nunn says.

Although Melanie gave him a message from his father — and one that he’d longed to hear — he doesn’t believe anything supernatural or spiritual occurred.

He says his experience with her helped him to understand why powerful people are drawn to psychics.

“I view Melanie’s gift as a very human gift of breakneck intuition and charisma — and an ability to stroke my ego.”

‘A spiritual realm’ for women

It wasn’t until Mr Nunn was well into his research that Felicity Carter gave him a fresh perspective on psychic mediums.

Carter had given astrology readings in an attic of a shop in the Rocks in Sydney during the ’90s, before giving it up.

“She revoked it all and said she made it all up,” Mr Nunn says.

He was at the point in his journey where he was close to writing psychics off completely and he wanted to speak to her because she’d seen “the light of reason”. Instead she told him something he didn’t expect.

“She discouraged me from laughing at them and laughing at the people who believed in them.”

“She made the comparison between people of faith and psychic believers. So many major world religions shut out women from positions of authority and don’t allow them to preach from the pulpit. And this is a spiritual realm in which women have traditionally been able to empower themselves, be heard, be listened to and give advice.

“Queer people, women and people traditionally shut out from the conservative doctrine of major religions have been able to find a spiritual place to indulge that side of themselves.”

It was something Mr Nunn had never considered before.

More than the supernatural

As part of his research, Mr Nunn also learnt the art of reading tarot cards and indulged in light-hearted readings for his friends.

But when a friend quit his job and another told him his prediction had come true and she’d started dating someone, Mr Nunn realised there was more power in the 22 cards than he’d realised.

“Even with the caveats I issue — that I have zero spiritual beliefs; that this is only a cold reading; that I’m a sceptic and using my creative language skills to build a narrative — I forget that people believe what they want to believe, despite what you tell them.”

A close up of tarot cards showing the lovers, the empress and king of swords.
For a while, Nunn found his niche as a sceptical tarot card reader. (Unsplash: Manik Roy)

Mr Nunn says a big part of why people believe is due to the psychological phenomenon known as the Barnum Effect, named after the showman and master manipulator P. T. Barnum.

Mr Nunn describes the effect as “that pleasantly eerie feeling that they’ve nailed you”.

“It’s used in everything from horoscopes to personality tests, where very cleverly worded, vague and ambiguous statements that are about you feel like they’re specifically tailored for you, and nobody else — but actually there’s something in there for everyone.”

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Written by ABC News



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