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Researchers study reasons behind popularity of pub ‘psychic nights’

10 November 2023

Events appear to serve up comfort as well as entertainment


Fabio Frizzi, composer of the film scores for The Psychic and Zombie Flesh Eaters playing live at the Union Chapel, north London, at the end of last month

Fabio Frizzi, composer of the film scores for The Psychic and Zombie Flesh Eaters playing live at the Union Chapel, north London, at the end of last m...

A REPUTEDLY haunted pub in Leeds was scheduled to hold an event this week exploring why people seek to communicate with the dead, as part of a new study of the growing popularity of “psychic nights” at English pubs.

Last week, Dr Adam Powell, a lecturer in medical humanities and religion at Durham University, one of the three researchers on the project, said that, while there were many assumptions about the audiences for psychic nights at pubs, no concrete research had been conducted. Among the assumptions were that people were attending purely for entertainment, that the psychics were either “in on the joke or outright fraudulent”, and that growing interest in psychic mediums must be linked to collective experiences of death, such as the First World War.

The event due to be held yesterday at the Pack Horse pub, “Spirited Conversations”, part of the Being Human Festival, promised “lively discussion”, asking: “Why do people communicate with the dead, and what do they get out of it?”

The research project — “Weekday Worldviews: The patrons, promise and payoff of psychic nights in England” — is understood to be the first look at the relationship between the beliefs and the psychological well-being of those attending psychic events. Funded by the International Research Network for the Study of Science and Belief in Society, it will explore the demographics of the audiences, including social class and gender, their beliefs, motivations for attending, and what they experience once there.

Dr Powell’s earlier research with mediums suggested that the standard view was “far too simplistic, and possibly completely incorrect”, he said. “Say you only have one person for whom it’s not entertainment, then we want to talk to that one person. How is it that they are understanding what is going on?

“Had we interviewed them the day before, would they have identified as an atheist or agnostic? Do they suspend their disbelief?”

Asked about whether demand for spiritualism and psychics indicated that the Church had failed to meet people’s pastoral needs, Dr Powell noted that the appeal of spiritualism had never died since the early 1840s. It offered a “very simple and straightforward and very hopeful understanding of death that does not require any complex theology or interpretation of sacred texts.

“It just literally says: ‘After your physical body dies, your spirit continues living in almost the exactly same way and in the same place.’” The vast majority of the mediums he had interviewed had had “very strange experiences” in early childhood, and, over time, spiritualism had become “the most resonate understanding” of this.

People turned to psychics for comfort, he said. “They may book their tickets thinking it will be entertainment, but many more people end up moved emotionally when they are there, and that has to do with death.” The appeal of such nights might also be connected to a contemporary context of “alternative facts and fake news and conspiratorial thinking”, he suggested. “You find this out for yourself.”

Dr Powell is working alongside Dr Caroline Starkey, associate professor of religion and society at the University of Leeds, and Dr Josh Bullock, a senior lecturer in criminology and sociology at Kingston University.

In an interview with Radio Leeds last week, Dr Starkey described herself as “team believer” on the project, with her co-researchers more on the sceptical side. The project had been conceived after she had attended a pub psychic night with a friend as “a bit of a laugh”. She had found herself “taken aback” by a packed venue with an audience “taking it very, very seriously”. Having since attended many such nights in Yorkshire, she described them as “moving. . . People really go to get comfort, to get support” in “a relaxed, democratic environment”.

The events had grown in popularity since the pandemic, she observed. “The fact that you can see psychics on TikTok, Instagram, at a private reading, or in the pub on many days of the week, demonstrates that academics are missing a rich area for research and study.”

Dr Bullock has suggested that, against a backdrop of decline in Christianity, psychic-night events and a “patch-and-make-do spirituality” may have emerged “to ease existential anxieties and improve general well-being”.

The project includes a survey open to anyone who has attended a psychic night event in the past 18 months: surveymonkey.com/r/3L7V2ZX

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