They can't keep you from checking out the website, though, and thus you learn that Eckankar is a religion of light and sound whose members connect with God through a song called "HU" (pronounced like the word hue). There's also discussion of past lives, dreams and "soul travel," which seems to be another term for "out-of-body experience." The St. Louis ECK Center is in Winchester. Other ECK Centers sponsor wholesome activities such as ice-cream socials.

The secrecy makes you suspect that this is a front. Eckankar is clearly a sinister shadow organization bent on world domination.

The Scientific Method, Part 2

RFT Photo-illustration. Illustrated elements by Mark Andresen.

Raymond Moody isn't the only person at the conference who's trying to study metaphysical phenomena in a scientific way. Julie Beischel and her husband Mark Boccuzzi have established the Windbridge Institute in Tucson to perform scientific studies — using a thorough scientific method, with control groups and hypotheses — on mediums.

Like a lot of people at the conference, Beischel's interest in the afterlife was precipitated by a death, in this case her mother, who committed suicide when Beischel was in grad school. Beischel was studying pharmacology and toxicology (she eventually got her PhD) and turned to existing scientific literature to try to understand what happens after death. Eventually she hit on mediumship.

The studies at the Windbridge Institute operate under the assumption that mediums really do talk to the dead. Beischel says each of the twenty mediums she works with went through a rigorous blind testing process. "They can't just say, 'She loves you very much,'" Beischel explains. "They have to know about the dead person's personality, hobbies and interests, and cause of death. They're not getting the information from normal sources. The data demonstrates that they seem to be communicating with the dead."

Now Beischel is trying to determine whether there is something in a medium's psychological or physiological makeup that makes them particularly susceptible to a conversation with a dead person. She has already administered the Myers-Briggs personality test (the vast majority are type NF: intuitive and feeling) and plans to do blood tests before and after readings to see if there are any changes. None of the mediums gets paid for working with the center, so they have no incentive to lie.

That's all very well, you think, except that this whole thing is predicated on living people talking to dead people. And seeing dead people. Also animals. (Terri Daniel says that at last year's conference, medium Suzane Northrop saw two horses gallop through the hotel ballroom. A conference attendee claimed them; it had, apparently, been a bad year for his stable.)

Then you go see actual mediums at work.

hey Walk Among Us, Part 1

First up is Roland Comtois. He discovered his psychic abilities at age ten in 1971 when his recently deceased grandmother appeared in his bedroom. ("Was I afraid?" he asks rhetorically. "No! It was my grandmother!") Now he routinely encounters dead people bearing messages. Since 2005 he has written down the messages on large sheets of purple paper and hopes that, eventually, he'll encounter the people the messages are intended for.

"In all my years of channeling," Comtois tells the crowd in the main ballroom, where the lights have been dimmed for his presentation, "I have never heard a spirit say, 'Give 'em the bad news! Tell 'em I hate 'em!' Love is everlasting. I'm here because it's my mission."

Then the messages start coming, fast and furious. Comtois speaks quickly, almost hypnotically, sometimes sobbing, his Rhode Island accent thickening at more intense moments.

"He's waiting to talk to you," he tells a woman in the front row. "He doesn't creep around Heaven, he's not like that, he's creating a commotion from Heaven. He likes to razz you, he says, it gives him something to do, he says, he loves you, he says."

He turns his attention to a young woman sitting in the back row. "Girl with the wedding ring, he wants me to tell you he's hanging on to you. He says he wants me to talk to you about the wedding ring. He wants to give you another one, he says. He shoulda bought it himself, he says." The woman starts to cry. Comtois points to her companion, an older woman sitting next to her. "Hey, ma! He's got a lot to say. When you're sitting on the edge of the bed at 11:01 a.m., it's he that holds you together. He did what he had to do, he says. He had no pain, he says, no suffering. He didn't feel that. They carried him across to the other plane. Whoosh! Whoosh!" Comtois turns back to the younger woman. "'Will you take this ring?' he says. It's his heart and soul. You were his soulmate from the minute he saw you, he says. He loved you from the second you met."

The two women hold on to each other and sob.

Comtois goes on like this for an hour. Aside from a few people crying, the whole room is silent. Everyone is mesmerized. You begin to understand why mediumship was such great entertainment back in the 19th century. Evidently this room is packed with dead people jostling for Comtois' attention. A lot of them have the same message to deliver — that they're fine now and no longer in pain and that they send lots and lots of love. Either the afterlife is very uneventful, or people send very similar messages when they're short on time and individual attention.

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