Psychics and fortune-tellers entering the mainstream

Hope or scam?;
IN THE CARDS; Widespread belief in the supernatural brings psychics and fortune-tellers into the mainstream

Richard Lanza remembers the complaints. People came into Open Doors, his metaphysical book store in Braintree, to tell him he was doing Satan’s work. Others called to warn him that he would find life after death a very unpleasant experience.

The town didn’t exactly welcome him with open arms. It took a year to get permits to open in 1994.

These days, the complaints are few, and since 1999, the store has turned a profit.

“My theory is that given all the scandals and controversies in the traditional churches, not as many people have time to criticize us,” Lanza said. Once shunned as part of the black magic world of the occult, fortune telling, astrology and card readings are becoming downright mainstream.

There are at least a dozen psychics operating on the South Shore, four in Weymouth alone. Community groups have held psychic fairs as fund-raisers and some restaurants have used Tarot card readings to draw lunchtime crowds. Despite skeptics, many Americans say they believe in the supernatural.

A recent Harris Poll of 2,200 adults illustrates the trend:

84 percent of those surveyed said they believe in miracles. 51 percent believe in ghosts. 31 percent believe in astrology. 27 percent believe in reincarnation. Regina Russell, whose Quincy tea room has been in business since 1973, said she has seen the shift in attitude.

Years ago, the late Quincy Police Chief Frank Finn was suspicious of the shop.

“He thought we were involved in some sort of scam, and he even sent in some undercover police officers to see what we were doing. But when he found that we were honest, he later became a good friend. We’re very proud of our 30-year reputation. We seldom if ever get any complaints,” Russell said. Lanza and Russell said their shops often have a waiting list to get a psychic reading.

Those who believe in psychics are passionate about the topic.

Carol Michener of Marshfield says psychics have been very helpful to her. She was so impressed with them that four years ago, she started an annual Psychic Fair to raise money for the Friends of Marshfield Community Christmas, an organization that helps needy families during the holiday season.

“We’ve raised as much as $1,000,” she said, “and everyone who comes for a reading has fun.” But for Michener, seeing a psychic is more than just entertainment; it can offer comfort. After her son died, she went to Pennsylvania to see television psychic John Edward, host of the syndicated show “Crossing Over.”

Edward claims to receive messages from the deceased, and Michener was hopeful he would make contact with her son. Although it didn’t happen on that occasion, she still believes such things are possible.

“There’s nothing wrong with hoping for a miracle,” she said. “There are things that we can’t always understand.” Not everyone thinks psychics are so benign. In addition to people who still object on religious grounds, there are skeptics who point out that many television psychics, such as “Miss Cleo,” are frauds who cheat the gullible out of their money.

“The underlying assumption of someone who consults a psychic is they believe they have no earthly control over their life,” said Sheila Gibson Stoodley of the New England Skeptic Society. “It seems to me that people go to a psychic when they want someone to listen to their problems and empathize and maybe provide some vague happy platitudes for dealing with life,” Stoodley said. “If you know you are responsible for your own future, you have less interest in paying someone to throw down some pretty playing cards and dictate it to you.”

Ira Apple, former program director of Channel 4, recalls how every time he had a psychic on the air, the phones would light up. “They are intuitive to the extreme and at the same time have polished the vagueness of their answers and the agility to move on when they are not on the right track,” he said.

But for Carol Michener, there is a much simpler answer. “They can give you hope,” she said. “That’s why people go to see them.”

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