On the night of Monday
the 31st of May, 2004
, psychological illusionist Derren Brown
performed a séance
live on the UK
’s Channel 4
. It has become one of the channel’s most controversial programmes for reasons that I do not believe are justified.
The “séance” has received opposition from Christian groups and Channel 4 received somewhere in the region of 700 complaints (a pretty large amount as TV complaints go). It is telling that about 75% of these were received before the show had even aired.
I think the problem is that people heard the word “séance” and reacted without thinking about what the programme was actually about. They ignored the fact that Derren Brown is a “psychological illusionist”, and, although interested in the occult, not in the habit of casually raising the dead on TV. Derren Brown has a unique (and not paranormal) talent of effecting people’s minds, and that is all that was displayed in his “séance”. There was nothing supernatural about it – and Derren Brown would be the first to admit it. In fact, he pretty much said so in the show.
Brown gathered together 12 students, all fully informed and consenting, no doubt chosen for their suggestibility, and conducted his “experiment” with them. The first stunt in the show involved what I believe was termed a “spirit chamber”. This consisted of a “box” chamber made by drawing a curtain around a chair and a small table. On the table was a tambourine and some sheets of paper. Brown selected a girl from the students and induced her into a kind of hypnotic state. He then closed the curtain and we hear the tambourine get knocked to the floor. Brown opened the curtain and shows the girl still sat, apparently asleep, in the chair. The curtain is closed again and the next thing we know, the tambourine is hurled out of chamber into the watching students. Then the girl is brought out of the trance and the chamber, and had no recollection of anything, insisting she did not touch the tambourine. However, Brown knew different and showed CCTV footage of the girl inside the chamber in which she is clearly seen to throw the tambourine about.
Brown began the stunt by claiming that “sprits guide people” inside the chamber. In fact, he ends the trick by telling us that the induced trance state is responsible and there is no spiritual influence. He similarly influenced and second student who entered the chamber and was bound with a rope. The papers on the table were seen to fly up into the air over the curtain, followed by the panicked and fearful screaming of the student inside the chamber. Brown quickly brings him round and calms him down, and of course, the student had no idea why he was screaming, but all he knew was that he wanted to get out of the chamber.
The spirit chamber stunt was in no way dabbling with the occult or contacting the dead. All that happened was some impressive psychological manipulation, presented within a context.
Now, Brown conducted the “séance”. He began by presenting a story (probably fictional) of a group suicide by 12 students in the very building they were in. He placed on the table 12 pictures of the “dead” students. He then commanded the séance group and the viewers at home to focus on a picture, and by some clever manipulation and trickery, managed to force everyone to end up choosing the same picture – a picture of “Jane”. I chose Jane. My girlfriend chose Jane. In fact, the situation was such that you were almost certain to choose Jane. This would be the one that would later be contacted.
One student was then sent to another area of the building, where she had to choose to enter whichever room she “felt” she was drawn to. There was more trickery by Brown here – it turns out that she had chosen “Jane’s room”.
While this other student was sitting alone in the darkened room with a pen and paper, Brown asked everyone to picture the person they had chosen from the set of photos and try and picture the town or city where that person came from. This was impressive, classic Derren Brown manipulation. It turned out that most of the students chose London. In fact, I chose London, as again did my girlfriend. It was the first thing that popped into my mind – ok, so it is a fairly obvious choice, but it was clear that Brown had somehow triggered me, and almost everyone else watching, to think of London first.
Brown’s next trick was to get the student alone in the dark room and one chosen student with him to rest a pen on some paper and “let their hand go where it wanted”. Both students wrote “London”. This, again, was not the spirits guiding the students’ hands. Rather, it was a subconscious action, influenced by Brown.
Then Brown presented his ouija board. The students, and viewers at home their own improvised ouija boards, were required to let the glass move across the board to the surrounding letters of “its own accord”. In response to the question “Is there a spirit present?”, the students’ glass moved to “Y” for “yes”. My own glass bizarrely moved to “N” for “no”, probably reflecting my scepticism on an subconscious level. The spirit was then asked to give its name and the students’ glass moved to “J”, then “A”, then “N”, and, of course, “E”. My glass didn’t really move at this point.
Brown explained afterwards, that it is not the spirits that are guiding the glass, but rather the glass is moved subconsciously by the students themselves. Indeed, I think this is what happened with me when my glass moved across my home-made ouija board. I wanted to get an effect, and was confident enough in Derren Brown’s abilities to believe that he would effect me in some way. Hence, I moved the glass – tellingly to “N”, as I did not believe I had a spirit in my room with me. It was a bizarre effect, as although I was certain that it was me that was moving the glass, it certainly felt like it was moving somewhat by itself.
Of course, the highly suggestible students were completely freaked out by this, but more was to come. They were all taken to a room where they were told to link hands to create a circle to channel the spirit of Jane. A student was selected to be a medium for Jane by a random (or indeed “random”) process. This final stunt was the most incredible of Brown’s manipulations throughout the evening. He presented it excellently by setting it in the dark, and having the spirit “ring a bell” on the table when she arrived. The chosen medium then proceeded to respond to Brown’s questions as if it was Jane answering. It turned out that Jane was training to be a nurse, looked after her grandmother in London, was from Manchester, and her father was a builder.
After the contacting of Jane, an envelope was opened which contained a letter supposedly from Jane’s brother which repeated all the details that the medium had just given. Somehow, Brown had got the student to come out with all this information.
The whole event was another of Derren Brown’s fantastically presented psychological tricks. There was nothing occult about it. The spirit chamber was nothing to do with spirits, the ouija board is a intriguing effect, but rooted in the subconscious mind rather than the spirit world, and the actual contacting of Jane was a complex psychological trick. In fact, Jane wasn’t even dead. She was waiting outside the room.
It’s a shame that the reaction to things like “ouija boards” and “séances” can be so thoughtlessly negative. Of course, there are people who do believe that things like this should not be messed with and that should be respected, but the people I am criticising here are those who denounced Derren Brown without stopping for a second to think about what was actually happening. Particularly I criticise those who objected before they had even seen the programme. At no point did Brown give the impression that he was actually contacting the dead, and it was all clearly a clever illusion and a trick.
If Paul Daniels, or David Blaine “contacted the dead”, people would react as if it was a magic trick. It is only Derren Brown’s unique style and presentation that has guided people into, rather carelessly, assuming that it is either real or there is something wrong with it.
The programme really was just some harmless fun. No-one was hurt, physically or mentally. And the only spirits that were encountered on that evening by Derren Brown and his group of chosen students were in the bar afterwards.