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A Day at the Psychic Fair
Rip-offs and the high cost of true belief

By Joanne Agate

This article originally appeared in Skeptical Briefs (Newslatter of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) 16(4), 1 & 9, December 2006. During ber seven years as one of the driving forces bebind the Pagan Federation International, Joanne Agate became skeptical of organized religions, spirituality, and the New Age. She now spends much of her time trying to talk sense into people.

Earlier this year, in Bilzen, Belgium, a friend of mine asked me if I'd like to accompany her to what is called a psychic fair. These fairs have nothing to do with what US citizens might consider psychic or paranormal (ie ghosts etc) but are instead opportunities for the unscrupulous to fill their pockets.

I paid the entry price of eight euros and then toured the entire fair in five minutes. The usual items were on sale: crystals, amulets to protect one from evil (but not from high admission prices), incense, books on shape shifting, feng shui, reiki, pendulums, and, as usual, the ever-present readers of tarot cards, runes, and auras.

Psychic fair in USA

A psychic fair in Arizona 1981 that would be similar in layout to the one described in the article. Much of the floor space is occupied by stalls selling books and the usual psychic items. At left a customer is receiving a reading.

As I looked around the fait, I was upset to see that many of the people waiting in line for a tarot reading were wheelchair-bound or otherwise physically challenged. They had come to hear words of hope, and words of hope they would certainly hear -- so long as they paid thirty-five euros per reading. [One euro is roughly two Australian dollars]

One well-known witch of Belgium -- rumoured to use her coven's initiations as a way to have sex with young men and women -- was more interested in looking at me than at the tarot cards laid out in front of her. For the money, the least she could have done is pay attention to her work.

At the aura-reading stand, my head nearly spun around like Linda Blair's in The Exorcist. If I could have, I would have vomited up pea soup for the visual effect. For twenty-five euros, one could have a photo of one's aura taken. And for forty euros, one got an explanation along with it. The "photographer" snapped a Polaroid picture, and along with a few other people, I waited for the result: a photo entirely covered with opaque orange, red, and yellow blotches. It looked like a work of modern art, but was it an aura? Not a chance. The photographer then gave the woman her "reading." Reaching for the book, Color Decoder (seven euros at the local bookstore), he proceeded to tell her the meaning of her so-called aura's colors. No one seemed to notice that this resident expert aura reader needed to use a mass-produced book -- appropriate for a twelve-year-old's reading level -- in order to look up the answers.

Psychic readings

Personal readings taking place at the psychic fair in Arizona 1981

Together with her daughter, the customer oohed and aahed over the amazing fact that via the orange and red in the photo, the photographer could see that she had a lot of stress in her life and that she should get out more into nature. I rolled my eyes and told her that this applied to everyone and that I could have told her the same thing for free. But did anyone in that aura-photo line care? Not in the least. The next in line stepped up and handed over forty euros. I calculated his profit from the first reading at thirty-two euros -- deducting one euro for the Polaroid snapshot and seven for the book (which, of course, he reused the entire day). Not bad for five minutes work!

There was also a lecture on reincarnation being given that I attended. I have to say that the lecturer was very dynamic. He did an excellent job of convincing the attendees that he remembered all of his past lives and how that had helped him to heal his present life both physically and mentally. He conveniently left out the fact that he represented the Church of Scientology, which, in Belgium, is officially listed as a cult. I was pleasantly surprised when he announced that since he had now dedicated his life to helping others, each of us would be given a copy of L Ron Hubbard's Dianetics after the lecture.

Each of us were indeed given a copy, and as long as each of us paid twenty euros for it, each of us could keep it. Through the price is six euros. He sold copies of the book to at least fifteen happy customers. Even if the books cost him the full price at, his profit from that one lecture was 210 euros.

As the day passed, people came and went from the fair: some happy with the knowledge obtained via a tarot-card reading that love was in their near futures, some armed with the knowledge that they needed to go out into nature, and some feeling relieved that the amulet that they purchased for twenty-five euros would repel negative energy. One thing was certain, everyone left the fair with a wallet significantly emptier than when they had arrived.

As for me, I left considering how much money I could earn by simply flipping tarot cards a few weekends per month and telling people exactly what they wanted to hear. Then again, I prefer to sleep at night.

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