My introduction to the paranormal didn’t come from a deeply spiritual place; I didn’t find God and I never met a ghost. Instead, I first learned about the concept of past lives through an episode of The X-Files. But for many people, the notion of reincarnation, or having your soul be “recycled” and born again throughout periods of time, has deep-rooted religious ties. (As opposed to being gleaned through Scully osmosis.)
This transmigration of the non-corporeal self is a tenant of religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism. And like Western culture often does, this idea has been compacted into a plot device for supernatural TV shows and packaged as a pop culture phenomenon, one that I happily exploited in my role as an Internet psychic, reading past lives for $5 at a time.
I was a freshman in college when I discovered that there are a plethora of psychics biding their time on the internet, eager to access people’s past lives for a small fee and offering the opportunity for you to join their fray. A quick Google search will reveal thousands of sites — even Etsy has a booming psychic section. I was 18 years-old and strapped for cash, and the appeal of easy work was too much to pass up.
I have absolutely no preternatural powers, but I’ve always had an interest in the mystical, the mysterious — the inscrutable unexplainables that populate our world. When I started college, I brought a deck of tarot cards and a Buffy The Vampire Slayer Ouija board with me. My vague tarot readings had made me a hit among the girls in my dorm and I used my knowledge of their lives to deliver pointed predictions. When reading for strangers, I would use guesswork and make their readings ambiguous enough that I couldn’t be held accountable when my predictions weren’t true. And, as impressionable teenagers are known to do, they took my vague messages and ran with them.
When you actually try, it’s shockingly easy to deceive people. As Fox Mulder would say, it’s because we want to believe. Our minds, in a natural search for answers, will latch on to the smallest detail that seems familiar. Without realizing it, we succumb to the power of suggestion. It’s how people come to believe in ghosts, or imbue coincidences with poignant meaning. And, as a fake psychic, it’s how I was able to use the right suggestions and ambiguity to leave my clients convinced.
With my powers of obfuscation already honed, the decision to offer my services seemed obvious. I deliberately chose to offer past life readings, because the market for general psychic readings was flooded. And while there are a large number of psychics offering insights into reincarnation, it’s a smaller field, and one that has a relatively low risk of being exposed. After all, there’s no way to fact check the details of your past life.
I paid a woman named Moon Goddess $10 to read my past life for me, so I could get an idea for the process. After answering a few questions, I was promptly provided with a Word document informing me that I was in my third cycle of incarnation, and I was not a very old soul. In one life, I had died in childbirth. In another, my family was shot by Confederate soldiers. The psychic informed me that this is why I was anxious about having children. She said that the trauma of being killed by the soldiers would stay with me, and I would “constantly be in the shadow of the Civil War.” I was shocked by the accuracy of her reading; I am terrified of having children, and I attended college at a Virginia university practically built on top of a Civil War battlefield.
I began poring through my answers, trying to figure out how she worked. As a young female, I rationalized that it’s not unheard of to be nervous about motherhood, and we had corresponded via my university email address. She had clearly provided the childbirth detail as a lucky guess, and had done research on my school to add some meat to her reading. I was alternately horrified and impressed by her craftiness — and made a mental note to remember this trick of the trade. In the psychic business, this is called cold reading — a practice that requires no previous knowledge of a person, and instead uses a combination of observations and guesswork. Some of your guesses will be completely wrong, but as long as one or two land home, your reading has been successful.
With a fervor, I launched my new profile on Fiverr, a site where you can sell anything for $5. It offers a strange assortment of services, and I figured that I would run the lowest risk of being exposed by working from there. Under a fake name, I created my own questionnaire to send to clients and added bonus packages to my service. For $20, I would read them and their significant other. For an extra $40, they could provide me with the names and birthdays of friends and family, and I would map out how they had all interacted with the client in previous lives.
The orders came flooding in, faster than I could keep up with them. It had never occurred to me that there was any kind of a demand for my services — especially not on a site as random and hodgepodge as Fiverr. It hardly seemed like a go-to destination for those seeking reputable psychic aid. But the money was good, and as I typed up my fiction on my phone between classes, I would use contextual clues, check them out on social media, and make generalizations to provide my readings.
I counseled Internet strangers over whether their significant other was a recurring player in their life, gave insight as to why people didn’t get along with family, offered explanations for their recurring dreams, and fabricated solace for those seeking it. It was, in every possible way, complete fabrication and deception.
For true believers, I understand that my actions are abhorrent and I’m one of the frauds who taints the practice and lends it a bad name. There are many Internet psychics who take their work far more seriously than I did. They charge more, provide more insight, and often prefer to speak to clients by telephone. I won’t speculate as to whether they have any actual abilities, but I will consider that many of them likely believe they do.
Even then, I had small twinges of guilt. I wouldn’t tell my friends and family about the job that kept me in my dorm on Friday nights, but I didn’t dwell enough to consider it closely. It was good money, and I needed it. When I finally closed my account, it was because my workload was picking up, not because I had a change of conscience. My past life as an Internet psychic became a humorous story I pulled out at parties and to break the ice. But as I get older, these stories seem increasingly less funny, and I often feel uncomfortable making light of how much money I made by deceiving people who were looking for answers to the things that troubled them.
I’ve rationalized it to myself, of course. In our current culture, interest in the occult and the paranormal is at an all time high. A 2005 Gallup Poll showed that three out of four Americans believes in the paranormal. It is an industry unto itself, one that I happily — and somewhat naïvely — considered myself a part of. People willingly submit themselves to fabrications like horror movies that are labeled as true stories, and even many who don’t believe in ghosts or demons still eagerly seek out their horoscope or fortune cookies. We may dismiss the obviously supernatural, but many of us are still subconsciously allowing ourselves to believe. And anyone seeking an Internet psychic wanted to believe, and had to be reasonably aware that they were likely being scammed.
Because of this, I’ve never been able to truly understand why people sought out my services, and I used to dismiss the possibility that they actually believed me. As a person who again, is drawn to the unexplainable, I can understand the desire to believe in something you can’t prove, of having an open mind to the mysteries of the universe. When I first started using tarot cards — despite not believing in their mystical fortune telling powers — a begrudging part of me allowed that they could be a convenient means for the Universe to send me subtle signs.
As the years have gone by, I’ve realized I’m not much different than my clients. Despite abusing the mysteries of the universe for easy money, I still believe that there’s something out there. I too, want to believe.