In the year 1925 a group of pale men in dark suits and neckties gathered around an oak table. Less than a decade before the wings of World War I swept across the globe and claimed the lives of an estimated nine million soldiers. A shroud of heartbreak descended over the citizens of many nations. Survivors faced not only the intimate losses of children, siblings and spouses. The deeply personal presences in their lives perished along with acquaintances and distant family members. The world as survivors knew it was utterly ravaged by war, leaving within its wake devastation and a complete loss of familiarity. Solace was hard to come by in this new world filled with tragedy.
The path to healing is rarely easy, but it is almost always vulnerable. It is one of the great injustices of life that vulnerability is not always treated tenderly. Acclaimed illusionist, Harry Houdini, was determined to fend off the predatory practices of those who would take advantage of the bereaved. He sat behind the oak table, surrounded by congressmen as spectators, illustrating how Spiritualist mediums conducted compelling seances to those seeking contact with their deceased loved ones. A year later, in 1926, he would lobby congress for prohibitions against fortune telling, seances, and the removal of spells. On Halloween night of that same year, following a packed performance in Detroit, Houdini died of a stomach injury. His death was considered to be the result of a dare gone awry. Many believe that his death was no accident but truly a murder; instigated by his feud with the Spiritualist community.
Debate over what is fraudulent fortune telling and mediumship versus authentic took place on the Capitol Building floor nearly a century ago. The constitutionality of banning psychic services was also discussed. Congressman Houston remarked during the hearing that divination took place in “some of the best homes.” The Spiritualist religion was growing in popularity amongst a supernaturally-curious set of affluent society, prompting perhaps more sensitivity from congress to religious freedoms than was historically awarded to other demographics.
Over the decades the same conflict between protecting the rights of practitioners and vulnerable consumers persists. Psychic fraudulence has migrated from spirit boards in dimly lit parlors to Tik Tok reels and Instagram DMs. While convulsions and the spewing of ectoplasm may have been replaced by digital messages claiming to be from an ancestor, the intent is the same: payment in exchange for a message delivered by someone claiming occult wisdom.
Financial extortion, and the way it has undercut the credibility of authentic practitioners of mediumship and fortune telling, is a major problem. Testimonies of elderly customers who have given their life savings to spell-breakers and amulet peddlers are plentiful. More and more followers of marginalized spiritualities such as Santerìa, Ìsése, brujeria and Indigenous-American traditions find hard won efforts to bring respect and dignity to their works facing damage. Practitioners who have worked to establish credibility also find their social media presences copied by scammers soliciting payment from their followers.
Worse than the financial extortion, though, and the damage done to build equity for less advantaged spiritual faiths, are other aspects of manipulation. Vulnerability and the search for healing and connection to answers is a fragile business. Sexual abuse has been closely linked to Catholicism in the media. It is truly a harrowing issue, but it is not limited to any one religion. Many communities with a spiritual element to their congregation, often labeled “cults” (a loaded and politicized word), also grapple with the issue of abuse. Sadly, those fleeing religious trauma may find themselves exposed to the same predatory patterns they’re seeking shelter from.
Susceptibility to negative influence from those who have promoted themselves as healers or spiritual counselors is something we should all be taking into serious consideration. In this day and age, when we need to seek wisdom and support for what ails our hearts and spirits, we also need guidelines to help us navigate towards genuine care. Concrete support for those looking to engage with integrity-filled fortune tellers, mediums, and practitioners of witchcraft is limited. However, there is a growing effort to bring awareness to the multitudes of ways in which individuals can be taken advantage of in a spiritual context. Here are some helpful insights gathered from specialists of spiritual abuse, as well as from my own research and experience on the topic.
- It is common for predators to single out an individual. You may receive a DM from a psychic claiming to have a personal message, or perhaps you’re tapped by a charismatic leader of a group because they have something specific they would like to address with you. An integrity filled practitioner will not initiate services with you.
- You should honor your gut feeling. Individuals may instinctively feel uneasy in the presence of someone predatory, only to have their instinct undermined by persistent flattery and attention from the predator. When their approval is withdrawn it leaves the victim in search of the validation they were used to receiving. This tips the power dynamic in favor of the predator. If you get the creeps, take it seriously.
- Secrecy is a common theme in environments where abuse takes place. You may be provided with compelling reasons to keep silent about activities that occur. For instance, you may be told that knowledge of a particular act is not meant to be shared with others who are not as spiritually advanced as yourself. You may be told that others will not understand the rationale behind an abusive act. This happens in occult, Pagan and non-religious spiritual communities just the same as it does anywhere else. Although silence regarding certain practices is not uncommon in occult organizations, silence about physical, emotional or financially damaging instances is unhealthy.
- Being taught to fear is a red flag. An integrity filled witchcraft practitioner will not claim that a terrible spiritual force is making love or health impossible for you. Nor will a trustworthy source claim there’s an evil spirit attached to you. Abuse is sometimes justified by claims that an individual is cursed or demonically possessed. It’s enough of a crisis that there’s actually an emerging field of law to protect victims from damaging exorcisms. In short, if someone is creating fear for you and then proposing to have the solution, it is a sign to end your relationship with that party.
- Vet and research who you’re placing your trust in before you share anything sensitive from your personal history with them. This can be information that leaves you emotionally fragile, like the loss of a loved one. Or, it can be something you don’t often publicly discuss. Shame is also a powerful weapon of control. No spiritual counselor or authority should be producing feelings of humiliation or degradation in any context.
Abuse is fluid and difficult to define. In many ways concretely identifying it is a contributor to the challenge of ending it. There are common traits and environments it occurs in, exploitation is truly a ubiquitous issue. Although many damaging and harmful practices are out there in the world, there are just as many kind and compassionate people and communities. Healing is possible, and a better world is possible. Faith and trust in ourselves will light the way towards that world.