The rise of a new grief vampire

I don’t write about psychics that often. Most commonly, when I do, it’s about psychics making claims that could be construed as medical claims, such as when America’s Quack, Dr. Mehmet Oz brought psychic scammers like John Edward and the “Long Island Medium” Theresa Caputo, even going so far as to imply that psychics can actually talk to the dead and that their act can even be therapeutic for grief.

This time around, I’m learning of what is arguably the most despicable use of a psychic yet. It’s so bad that Susan Gerbic labeled this particular self-proclaimed psychic a “grief vampire,” and so he is. The psychic is, quite literally, the new kid on the block as far a psychics go; his name is Tyler Henry, and apparently the basic cable channel E! is really pushing a TV series featuring him, Hollywood Medium With Tyler Henry. His website describes him thusly:

Tyler Henry (born January 13, 1996) is a teen clairvoyant medium oringally from central California. Born with a unique gift, Tyler has helped countless people acquire closure, comfort, and proof that consciousness transcends physical death. Working as an evidential-based medium, his ability to provide specific, detail-oriented specifics has allowed him to share what he sees with medical professionals and missing person cases.

As Tyler’s grandmother was terminally ill with cancer in April of 2006, he began having strong intuitive hunches that would later turn into a series of profound visions that proved to be true. After a series of life changing events (including a near death experience), Tyler’s passion, calling, and life purpose has been to bring clarity, closure, and evidence to those he is privileged to read.

Marvelous. The next generation of psychic scammers is here, led by a handsome, boyish-looking 20 year old who is being advertised as three, three, three psychic scammers in one. First, he claims to be a medium, claiming that he can communicate with the dead. Second, he claims to be a clairvoyant, implying that he can predict the future. Third, and finally, he claims to be a “medical intuitive,” defined as having the “innate ability to describe the cause of a physical or emotional condition through the perception or feeling of another’s energy.” E!’s website claims that while performing a reading, “Tyler can often physically sense the prior medical conditions of the spirits he is attempting to communicate with.”

OK, I know what you’re thinking. So what? This guy is just another in a long line of psychic scammers. He’s young. He’s charismatic. He’s telegenic. In other words, he’s like a young John Edward and perfect for television. What’s the harm? It’s just entertainment, right? Well, it is entertainment, but it’s far from harmless, as Susan Gerbic points out:

Reading more, I stop and hold my breath. Here it is. The part that makes it clear whether he is a psychic entertainer who is up-front about his act or just another grief vampire. Henry tells the interviewer his goal for the future. It is to work with parents who have lost their children to suicide. I can feel my blood pressure increasing and the hackles on the back of my neck starting to rise. He isn’t just a grief vampire; he is aspiring to be one of the most despicable types of grief vampires, tying for first place with those who work as psychic detectives. These are the people who prey on families when they are the most desperate and vulnerable. I’m appalled that he thinks this is something to aspire to. Something to be proud of!

Indeed. This is the sort of thing that makes my skin crawl. It is at this point that I can’t help but point out that psychics aren’t the only kind of grief vampires. Cancer quacks are a particularly despicable form of the monster. They prey on the grief and desperation of cancer patients; psychics prey on the grief of those who’ve lost loved ones. Sylvia Browne used to be among the most despicable of these, but there are many others who haven’t achieved national or international prominence who function similarly. Worse, there exists an entertainment industry that promotes them. Henry will be on Dr. Phil’s show today, and you might remember that Dr. Phil has fallen for a psychics before.

Gerbic makes an observation about Henry that I thought of as soon as I learned of him: Where did this guy come from? I had never heard of him before. He seems to have appeared out of nowhere! He already has a show. The hollywood hype machine is promoting his show. He’s all over Twitter and Facebook. There are articles in the entertainment press about him and, of course, ads for his new television series. Clearly, a fair amount of marketing muscle is being placed in the service of his show, complete with bits showing him doing readings on various celebrities. There are interviews like this:

It looks as though there’s some editing there, but I don’t see anything that doesn’t look like a combination of your basic run-of-the-mill cold reading with an awkwardly scripted conversation. But, hey, Tyler’s a skeptic, ma-an:

Lots of people feel either that [my gift needs] to be proven or that, on a personal level, they need the validation that their loved one is ok. Some people come to readings with a ‘prove-it-to-me’ mentality and others come with an openness.

I do inherently understand both sides. I think it’s important to have a healthy degree of skepticism. I myself am a very skeptical person. In readings, my goal is to bring up information that there really is no way I could know. I don’t like saying general things. I don’t like saying information that everybody knows. I focus on information that can’t be researched or googled, and that usually includes inside jokes or sentimental pieces of information that only families really know.

As Gerbic mentions, this sounds like something that should be fairly easy to test. If Henry really is a skeptic, surely he’s be up for a carefully designed and controlled test of his “powers.” Somehow, I doubt that’s going to happen any time soon. More likely, at some point, if his show takes off (which is, of course, by no means a given) he’ll get someone like Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil to “test” him, and you know how worthless that will be.

Both Steve Novella and Susan Gerbic ask the question: Does Henry believe in his ability? Is he nothing more than a scammer or is he just a misguided young man who, by whatever means, has come to believe that he possesses special “gifts”? I tend to agree with Novella on this one: Practically, it doesn’t really matter. Moreover, it’s likely that there is a spectrum along which psychics exist from pure scammer to pure believer, with most of them falling somewhere between. It doesn’t really matter that much where on that spectrum Henry falls. What matters is what he does.

It might well be that, as long as Henry restricts himself to doing readings on celebrities for his show, all he’s doing is harmless entertainment. The problem is that we already know he isn’t restricting himself to that. He already advertises private bookings on his own website. (We don’t know how much he charges because that isn’t listed.) He has stated that he wants to “help” parents whose children have committed suicide, and no doubt before too long he will do that. Likely the producer of his show is looking for such grieving parents right now, fodder for the grief vampire, to be shown for the morbid entertainment of the masses.