He sees dead people

Nov 1, 2000 at 12:00 am

"No one can disprove what I do," insists alleged psychic medium John Edward, host of Crossing Over With John Edward, which premiered in the Sci-Fi Channel's late-night lineup this past July. The statement is meant to shift the burden of proof to the party to whom it clearly doesn't belong--vaguely reminiscent of '50s TV psychic Criswell's defense of the outrageous zombies-from-another-planet tale in Ed Wood's film Plan 9 From Outer Space. "Can you prove it didn't happen?" Plan's loopy narrator asked, throwing the gauntlet down.

But Edward's resemblance to any small-screen prognosticator, past or present, pretty much ends there. If you're picturing some geeky, turban-sporting mentalist bending spoons with his brain waves, you're off-base. The Sci-Fi psychic wisely bags the swami-style crystal-ball malarkey. Edward is a seer for the new millennium, a casually dressed, affable Gen X-er and Long Island native (with an accent to match) who pretty much spends all of his airtime (a half an hour, five nights a week) soft-selling and demystifying his seeing-dead-people shtick in such a way that, in the end, it all seems pretty convincing.

Sure, there's a lot of evidence to contradict him--such as the screen chock full o' legal disclaimers that runs after the closing credits, or that Crossing Over appears on Sci-Fi Channel, not the Sci-Fact. And, if that doesn't set off some bells, how about some good, old common sense?

But don't be such a killjoy. Crossing Over cops a bit of tent-revival ambience, and it takes a few cues--like little testimonials from satisfied patrons--from the infomercial format. Edward holds court in a New Age-y, azure-swathed Manhattan studio, surrounded by an audience who sound as if they're mostly from the tri-state area. (When asked where Crossing Over is filmed, Edward can't resist making the interviewer feel like a dope: "We tape it in Kansas," he deadpans.) He crisscrosses the room, seeking out otherworldly "energy" that helps him link up the living with the dead folks who continue to muck up their auras. Edward's like the Phil Donahue of the deceased, presiding over a talk show where, as the thundering promos for Crossing Over promise, "The dead will speak!"

So, what kind of stuff do the deceased blather on about? It turns out the dead are bursting to tell us:

"Hey, remember I had that cool drawer where I stashed all my toenail clippers and bunion pads?"

"I've been seeing a lot of my ex-boyfriend up here. You know, the one I could have married instead of your father."

"Thanks a lot for the pack of smokes you sneaked into my casket. Unfortunately, they're the wrong brand, Einstein."

OK, so the spirits don't spout these sentences verbatim--they aren't big small-talkers, Edward says. But the sentiments remain intact; they're all things that the dead have tried to communicate, with Edward's help, to their loved ones on the show at one time or another. Edward explains that he can't control who breaks through, who they want to talk to, or what they say.

"I'm not an operator, I can't dial direct," he says. "I think people have an expectation that psychics are omniscient. Cynics always say that I'm only telling people what they want to hear. But I stick to what's coming through, no matter what. I know what people want to hear--that their relatives are with them, that they love them, that they're still connected to them. But, sometimes, that's not what I'm getting."

And, sure, a lot of what the dead say seems pretty banal. But in-jokes and allusions to everyday things are, arguably, the shared currency of close, personal relationships. In one episode, Edward throws out a list of images--a particular stairway, a bedroom, a wall covered with sports paraphernalia. A twentysomething guy in the studio audience pipes up when he recognizes that it's his house being described, and the host asks why his ghostly brother keeps harping on the '86 Mets. The guy's eyes start to brim with tears. Turns out he and his late brother discussed the merits of the '86 team almost every day.

Then there's the woman who dabbed at her eyes when Edward nudgingly asks her, "How do you like those flowers in the backyard now?" The woman later explained that her husband had planted some ugly white blooms that she'd always hated, but after he died the flowers wilted, and a towering bouquet of purple perennials inexplicably sprouted up in their place.

Truth be told, Edward says that before he got into the psychic game, he had his doubts. He grew up in an Italian Catholic household, where his mother and grandmother were always inviting fortune-tellers to the house, "just for fun." He agreed to sit in for a reading once when he was 15.

"I thought that if this woman was at all psychic she would realize that I thought she was full of shit and wouldn't be trying to sell me this b.s." Edward recalls. She told him that he was psychically gifted, and that he would write books, host seminars, and have a TV show of his own. Out of respect for his mother, he stifled his laughter.

Then the visitor mentioned Edward's girlfriend at the time by name. Nobody else could have known her name because he had kept their relationship secret, he says: "She was quite a bit older than me. The reason why it was such a big secret was because if my mother found out I would have been dead!"

The experience sparked an interest in the supernatural, and as he began studying it, Edward discovered that what he always thought was just his way of daydreaming were actually strong psychic premonitions. He started making predictions about things that would inevitably come to pass. One thing that Edward didn't get a warning about, however, was his mother's death in 1989 from lung cancer. Devastated, he decided to focus solely on acting as a medium for others, providing his clients with the kind of closure and comfort he lacks in his own life as a way of honoring his mother's memory.

Edward says he likes to let his Crossing Over audience in on the fact that he makes mistakes--he contends that the program is edited for time, but never for content. An ongoing study conducted by the University of Arizona corroborates that Edward and the three other psychics who participated in the survey do make their share of gaffes, but less often than those of us who only have five senses going for us. The mediums averaged an 80-percent accuracy rate in responding to preset information about a group of deceased individuals; control subjects who took wild guesses about the same dead pool were accurate about 36 percent of the time.

Edward has some words of wisdom for those who plan on chatting up the dearly departed. "If you're gonna approach this, have an open mind and hold onto a healthy sense of skepticism," he suggests. "You should go to [a psychic] with some good word of mouth--not someone with a 1-900 number or a big neon palm print in their window."

He even allows that, in some cases, going through the hassle of lining up a credible medium isn't really necessary--memory and intuition are invaluable tools for after-death communication.

"There's nothing amazing about what I'm doing," he insists. "If people would just sit and quietly meditate and listen to what's around them, they would pick up on a lot of things."

Crossing Over With John Edward
Sci-Fi Channel, Sundays through Thursdays, 11 P.M.

Adele Marley writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to [email protected]