October 25, 1999 12:00 PM

A male presence has entered the room.” In a suite at the Smithtown, N.Y., Sheraton, George Anderson, 47, a neat, mild-mannered former Long Island telephone operator, is addressing a circle of 13 solemn clients. Anderson is a professional medium: He claims he receives messages from the dead and passes them on to the living. His fee: $400 per couple for a session. This particular “discernment,” as it is called (the word “seance” being passé in these circles), is for a group whose need for a messenger is poignantly acute: bereaved parents, still mourning their children. Anderson, who is coauthor of George Anderson’s Lessons from the Light: Extraordinary Messages of Comfort and Hope from the Other Side and is a sometime guest on TV’s Unsolved Mysteries, passes a pen over a pad of paper as if waving a wand—his personal method of focusing his energy—then peers intently at a middle-aged couple.

“The presence,” he says, “has directed me to you.” Moved, the couple nod in agreement, sure the presence is that of their son. Anderson tells the parents—correctly, as they know—that the boy committed suicide. Then he tells the father, “Your son says you pray for him on the sly, quietly.” The man nods. “Yes,” he says with a reserved smile, “I know exactly what you mean.”

Whether you believe in ghosts or think those who do aren’t playing with a full tarot deck, a lot of people these days seem to know—or want to know—exactly what Anderson means. For millions of Americans, mediums are the message they can’t get enough of. At the movies, the surprising success of The Sixth Sense, the eerie story of a boy with a megacase of ESP and the therapist who helps him come to terms with it, reflects a resurgence of fascination with things otherworldly. The movie, which seemed likely at first to be just another Hollywood spook show (never mind that it stars Bruce Willis), emerged as a surprise hit that reigned as No. 1 at the box office for five weeks and has raked in worldwide more than $250 million so far.

And the phenomenon is hardly restricted to theaters. In a 1994 USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll, almost 70 million Americans said they think it’s possible to communicate with the dead. Meanwhile, the afterlife business is booming in the U.S. Books about contacting the dead have crowded onto The New York Times bestseller list in the past two years, and the paranormal is at full boil on TV. Leeza, Montel and Larry King Live regularly feature segments on the spirit world. During a segment last month, California-based medium and author Sylvia Browne told King that his late mother was looking down on his then-5-month-old son, Chance.

More ghost stories have come to play at the multiplex too. Stir of Echoes conjures up spectral beings, and Stigmata takes on a religious miracle. On the Internet, hundreds of niche sites spread the ghostly gospel, including some devoted to home snapshots of eerie ectoplasmic forms floating around backyard parties, and instructions on how to have your own ADC (after death conversation) with loved ones.

What is it that stirs up such powerful and widespread feelings? Although their techniques differ, most mediums pass on the same basic and positive message from the dead to the living: “I’m happy over here, and I am watching over you.” For evangelist Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and president of Samaritan’s Purse, a worldwide relief organization, the hunger for such knowledge is basic. “All of us want to know whether there’s life after death, because we’re all headed there,” he says. “We all have an appointment with death.”

And too many of us have an appointment with a medium, according to James Randi, 71, a former magician (the Amazing Randi) who investigates everything from faith-healing to spoon-bending and believes that those who pass on messages from the Great Beyond are basically frauds. Behind the powerful yearning for the supernatural, he says, is the fact that “people want control over their lives. And they want some magic.”

Mediums such as James Van Praagh, the doyen of American seers, offer magic and more and profit accordingly. Van Praagh, a 40-year-old Queens native, has had two bestsellers since 1998, plays to packed auditoriums fat $25-$45 per person) and is working with NBC on a TV movie based on his life. At the end of this month, he will serve as a host on another of the Voyages of Enlightenment, a seven-day South Pacific cruise for which some 150 clients will fork over $2,800 to $6,000, depending on accommodations.

Van Praagh stopped giving private readings some three years ago, preferring to reach more people via group sessions. He does have some celebrity clients, though, including Cher. The singer, says Van Praagh, contacted her late ex-husband, Sonny Bono, who told her that he watched his whole funeral and loved Cher’s sentiments, but he does not like where he is buried (in a cemetery near Palm Springs, Calif.).

In one of many sessions she has had with Van Praagh, actress Cindy Williams (Laverne & Shirley) says she found herself in a heated discussion with her deceased mother. “I was having an actual argument with her through James,” Williams says with a laugh.

Van Praagh predicts confidently that interest in communing with the dead will continue to grow. “In two or three years you’re going to see more shows on mediums,” he says. “More people are accepting it and buying into it,” and, he suggests, out of conventional religion.

Many religious organizations are well aware of Van Praagh and his cohorts and are watching them warily. “It’s all based on money,” says Graham. “I just think they’re people trying to make an extra buck.” Full-time skeptics are even more dismissive. James Randi says mediums like Van Praagh use an old technique called cold reading, developed by carnival and nightclub performers. If parents tell a presumed psychic that they have lost a child, for example, the medium “doesn’t tell them any facts,” says Randi. “He’ll say things like, ‘You’re wondering what to do with his toys, aren’t you?’ and the person will nod yes. But that applies to every parent of a deceased child.”

And mediums, he says, know how to capitalize when they get something right and how not to get caught when they’re wrong. “If a woman says her husband recently died,” explains Randi, “the medium will say, ‘Did he die suddenly?’ If the wife says, ‘No, he lingered for a while,’ the medium then says, ‘Oh, because he’s saying to me, ‘I wish I had died suddenly.’ ”

But mediums are used to disbelief and take it in stride. Like his colleagues, Van Praagh, who admits there are some fakers in his field, insists that what he does is valuable despite the carping of skeptics. “When you try to change someone’s paradigm,” he says, “they will put up walls against you. My job is to have them open their minds if they choose to.”

George Anderson, for one, thinks the biggest misconception about what mediums do “is that it should be a perfect science. Every time a ballplayer steps up to the plate, he doesn’t hit a home run. But that doesn’t mean he can’t play ball.”

Mediums are accustomed to hecklers, and some deal with them bluntly. Best-selling author Sylvia Browne (The Other Side and Back), 63, was confronted in an airport by a man who recognized her and decided to stump her. “He said, ‘What’s my name?’ ” recalls Browne with a chuckle. “I told him, ‘I don’t give a rat’s ass what your name is!’ ”

Mediums insist their gifts are God-given and say that they don’t censor what the spirits say and do. Medium and author John Edward (One Last Time), 30, who also coaches ballroom dancing on Long Island with his wife, Sandra, 28, and counts actress Patty Duke among his clients, speaks for many of his colleagues when he says, “My deal with them [the dead] is, ‘You show me, I say it.’ ” But he may soften what he says to spare a client more stress. “My words are going to have a serious impact on someone’s life,” he says, “so I would never say something like, ‘You have cancer.’ ”

Like 8-year-old Cole Sear, who sees the dead in The Sixth Sense, most mediums say they came by their peculiar gifts early on. Anderson, who began seeing and hearing spirits after a childhood bout of encephalitis at age 6, finds the visitors’ presence benign. “People ask me, ‘Were you afraid of people in the hereafter?’ and I say, ‘No, I was more afraid of people here on earth.’ ” John Edward, who says he used to “astral-project” (leave his body) as a child, was brought up in a believing household. His mother, Perinda, who died of lung cancer in 1989 and with whom he now communicates off and on, was interested in the phenomenon and used to hold “psychic house parties,” he says.

For some, the discovery of the perceived gift is more harrowing. British-born Rosemary Altea, 53, author of a bestselling memoir of her life as a medium, The Eagle and the Rose, runs a group of New Age spiritualist-healers in England from her home in Dorset, Vt. She was terrified, she says, when she began seeing the dead early in childhood. “My grandmother heard voices, which terrified her, and she would voluntarily go into a psychiatric hospital,” says Altea. “When I started seeing spirits, my mother would tell me if I didn’t stop it, I’d end up like my grandmother. I didn’t have the courage to ‘come out’ until I was 34.”

The gift—or the claim to have one, at least—seems to run in families. Sylvia Browne says she can trace her family tree back through 300 years of psychics. Her son Christopher, 33, is a practicing medium who charges $300 per session. And his 6-year-old daughter, Angelia, is not only psychic, says her grandmother, but also possesses kinetic energy. “She’s not a bad girl,” says Browne, “but she can make televisions blow out. We don’t even let her near the computer room.”

Those who have visited mediums report conflicting reactions, but most seem awed by the mediums’ clairvoyance. Nancy Schroeder, 52, a retired banker from Mansfield, Ohio, attended a group session with Anderson last month after losing the son she had with husband Tony, 54, a manufacturing-plant worker. Scott Schroeder, 20, serving in the Air Force, was killed in 1994 after he lost control of the van he was driving near a Michigan air base. “As a bereaved parent,” says Nancy, “losing a child can totally change your life, change your future. By attending the session, it gave me great comfort and peace of mind to have that one-on-one communication with my son.” She says that Anderson, who she believes knew nothing previously about her family, became aware during the session of many details in their personal lives and told them Scott had been killed in an auto accident. “He was right about 99 percent of the things he mentioned,” she says.

Cindy Williams has had mixed reactions to sessions with Van Praagh. Sometimes, she says, he has been so cryptic that she has walked out unsure of what he related. But at other times, she maintains, he has been uncannily accurate. “Sometimes I burst into tears, thinking to myself, ‘There’s no way he could have known that,’ ” says Williams. ” ‘That’s something that’s only between me and my maker.’ ”

But a few “sitters,” as mediums sometimes call their clients, remain unconvinced. New York City freelance journalist Lynn Darling, 47, wanted to contact her husband, Lee, who died of lung cancer three years ago. John Edward, whose clients usually have only positive things to say about his gifts, told her that Lee wanted her to know he was, she says, “fine where he is” and provided several details about Lee as proof that he had spoken with him. Edward, for instance, knew that Darling’s husband had often Carried with him a small, ancient object. (Lee did, in fact, carry a small lacquered box, in which Darling now keeps her wedding ring.) Edward also told her that Lee knew she was buying new underwear, and that he approved. Darling admits she had recently been in a lingerie shop but says the session with Edward “was like eating Chinese food. I wasn’t really full. I started to note the stuff he didn’t get right. Logic took over.” Still, she adds, “I was moved by how much I wanted it to be true.”

That profound human longing is the key to people’s passion for contacting their loved ones, insists Los Angeles-based actress Kari Coleman, 32. Last year, Coleman pretended, after a week of study, to be a psychic-medium for an appearance on Sin City Spectacular, Penn and Teller’s variety show. “I can’t believe how easy it was,” says Coleman, who did “readings” in a Las Vegas casino as preparation for the show. “You can’t believe how vulnerable people make themselves. It’s disturbing.” Overcome with guilt after her performance, Coleman caught up with a man whose mother she had “contacted” and tearfully confessed to carrying out a hoax. The man didn’t seem angry or upset. “People,” says Coleman, “were happy just to have the chance to talk. They really just wanted someone to listen to their problems, their hopes and dreams.”

Coleman speaks for many when she argues that people’s obsession with mediums is basically unhealthy. “Until you deal with the finality of death,” she says, “you can’t move on. If you truly thought that there was a human being who could talk to your dead child, you’d remain stuck on that. You have to have closure.”

Predictably, mediums maintain that they promote peace of mind and well-being. “The most important thing with this work is the healing that can take place,” says John Edward. As an example, he points to a poignant moment in The Sixth Sense. “My favorite scene is the mother and the son in the car, and the boy brings her the message from his dead grandma. He creates a bridge, and that’s what this is about. It’s about that bond of love, and across that bridge the information can cross.”

Ironically, not even Sixth Sense writer-director M. Night Shyamalan—who says of his movie, “I was telling a story about a possibility”—completely buys into the phenomenon his film portrays. “I need more information before believing 100 percent,” he says. But Shyamalan, 29 (who says he was terrified of ghosts as a kid), is at least willing to entertain the idea of communicating with the other side. “With 6 billion people on the planet,” says Shyamalan, “there have to be a few of us who are better at contacting the dead than the rest of us. To a certain extent, it seems pretty natural.”

J.D. Reed

Ivory Clinton and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City, Eric Francis in Vermont, Fannie Weinstein in Miami, Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles and Glenn Garelik in Washington, D.C.

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