"Do you have strong feelings about shish kebab?" celebrity psychic Jesse Bravo asked me through the darkness, the forms of nine other people vaguely illuminated by street light in the otherwise blackened room. I had no idea how to answer. "Should...I?" I asked, knowing that was not the right response.
This was my first visit to Seance in the City, a biweekly meet-up group held in Edgar Cayce's Association for Research and Enlightenment, itself housed in a nondescript office building off West 30th Street. I'd received an email from Bravo a few weeks back after writing about this, in the event that I needed some additional commentary on the "realness" of Ouija boards. I did not. A follow-up email, though, was more intriguing: "Sorry I also forgot that I run a seance group here in the city for over 4 years," he'd added. Oh!
So on Wednesday night, my colleague Rebecca Fishbein and I found ourselves arranged in a circle with a handful of other people hoping to commune with the dead—some the type you'd expect (cat sweaters, aggressive eye makeup), others not—listening to Bravo lay down some ground rules for the evening. "There will be some phenomena," he said sternly, explaining that the lights would flicker, we might see some moving shadows, and that, most noticeably, the temperature would drop precipitously. "We heard a scream once," he said proudly. The important thing was not to run, since "you might break your face."
"Does anyone have any questions?"
On this particular day, celebrity psychic Jesse Bravo ("celebrity psychic" is a mandatory prefix imposed by his publicist) selected as his spirit-channeling outfit blue jeans and a Ralph Lauren sweater the color of baby skin. He has a warm, congenial face that's distinctly suited for TV, though summoning the dead is only a part-time gig: By day he's a stock broker, though he insists he would never use his clairvoyance to predict the market.
Seance in the City costs $20 per session (the fee was waived for reporters), an amount that Bravo regards as nominal. When he created the group four years ago, he did so with the intention of making it accessible to everyone, without any indecorous fixation on money. "Money and spirituality is a bad combination," he told us.
The two hour session was broken into two parts: In the first half, Bravo guided us through what I would guess you would call a meditation exercise, allowing us to tap into the psychic quadrants that dwell dormant in all of our brains. "You're going to leave here with something you didn't think you had," he said, pacing the room.
Edgar Cayce's center could use some updating. (Lauren Evans/Gothamist)
Want to know how to tap into you inner medium? I'll tell you for free. Close your eyes, and take some deep breaths. Do you like running water? Great. Picture some running water. Once you've got yourself good and relaxed, imagine yourself heading down a staircase with brass railing, greeted at the bottom by a cherished (but dead) pet. Say hello to your dead pet, and allow him or her to walk or slither or whatever along with you through a series of locked doors. You pass through one room, in which all of the earthly possessions you have ever or will ever own are stuffed, including all your houses and cars! Take a moment to arrange the items in the room. (Why was all my shit not just in my house(s)? Are all my lamps just lined up in one place, next to a heap of spoons next to a heap of towels? Now I'm picturing the pile of shoes in the entrance to D.C.'s Holocaust Museum. I'm blowing this.)
Author's note: Rebecca, what did you picture?
Rebecca: I was asleep.
So never mind that. Trek across this acres-long room, and approach a final door, which leads to a room with a table and two chairs, illuminated by candle light. This, apparently, is some sort of mental inner sanctum, where you may now call down a spirit of a loved one who has passed away, and ask that person a question.
Earlier that day, I'd been informed by my landlord that he was selling my building, and that I have to move out. I asked my Selected Loved One to show me an image of where I would wind up living, and a mental snapshot of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway materialized in sharp relief. Goddamn it.
Back in the room, having again retreated from our sanctums, we were asked to pick a partner, someone we'd never previously met. My partner was a pretty woman in perhaps her early 40s, wearing stylish plastic glasses and Halloween-themed socks. We were told to swap cell phones for a practice called psychometry, which Wikipedia defines as "making relevant associations from an object of unknown history by making physical contact with [a particular] object."
Cell phone in hand, we then closed our eyes and returned to the sanctum the way we got there, passing all the locked doors and dead pets and confusing assemblage of lamps and houses. I tried to focus on the first thing that floated into my mind. On the round oak table, I envisioned a partially eaten package of purple Starburst. I guessed I saw a Golden Retriever, holding in its jaws a stuffed toy alligator? I looked deeper into the shadows, and was surprised to see a rotund naked man covered in mud. He looked upset.
We swapped cell phones back, and I told the woman about the Starburst and the dog and the toy. She nodded sagely. All of this, she told me, made sense to her.
I decided not to tell her about the naked man.
After a short break, we entered the second half of the evening, the part in which spirits would allegedly stroke our hair and whisper into our ears. A steady stream of expletives ran through my head like a news ticker as Bravo switched off the lights, plunging us into darkness. The temperature in the room plummeted, a phenomenon Rebecca attributed to someone turning on some surreptitious A/C unit, and one that I attribute to ghosts, man.
Despite Bravo's promises of shadow people and ghoulish shoulder-taps, neither Rebecca nor I were visited by anything more powerful than extreme boredom. It turns out that listening to other people's messages from visiting spirits is excruciatingly dull, particularly because said messages were more of the nagging mother/crummy fortune cookie variety than haunting or salacious.
Here is Rebecca with her experience:
As previously mentioned, I napped through the meditation part, so perhaps my psychic door wasn't cracked open enough. My poor psychic exercise partner didn't get much from me other than a description of a piece of basil that floated into the forefront of my mind, but she did tell me she saw a man in a trilby and a vest give me flowers. Clearly my thrift store dress screamed Brooklyn.
I did enjoy the seance portion of the evening, though I was disappointed by the lack of otherworld interaction. Celebrity Psychic Jesse Bravo and his counterpart, a professional medium named Angelique (I think?) gave everyone a message from "beyond," which was sort of like getting your fortune read. Some of the messages were pretty eye-raising—it's easy enough to tell someone about their past lives, because who knows what your soul was doing back in 1885!
My reading, though, was disconcertingly spot on. I won't get into all the details (that's for my therapist, if I can ever afford one!), but suffice it to say that Celebrity Psychic Jesse Bravo hit enough of my personality points to unnerve me. Most chillingly, early on in my reading, he asked me who Bunny is. Bunny happens to be my still-living grandmother, and sure, there are lots of Bunnies and bunny rabbits and Boon-ays around but it was quite a coincidence.
I didn't really care about anyone else's spirit ancestors or past lives or unnerving personality traits, though, so I mostly zoned out for the rest of the readings. I saw no shadow people (I was promised shadow people!) or odd light movements, and I'm someone who fully accepts ghost stories as fact and I'M CONVINCED my grandparents' house is haunted, so that was disappointing. Also, apparently Lauren's and my spirits are aligned, so if you rail at one of us in the comments, you're railing at us all.
Thanks, Rebecca. For me, Bravo explained that I have a very kind, gentle spirit, but that there's a sizable red streak coursing through it. Do I have an explosive temper? Perhaps. He asked several pointed questions about my relationship with barbecues, and shish kebab in particular. Do I love shish kebab? (Love is a strong word, Jesse.) Do I attend to a lot of barbecues? (Roughly the usual number? How many barbecues is normal? How many barbecues is too many barbecues?)
He also had a message for me, from an elegant woman wearing an ornate jeweled necklace. (I know of no such person, living or dead.) I absorb information easily, she told him, and...he paused, seemingly searching for phrasing that wouldn't embarrass or insult me. "She thinks you could be doing better," he said finally. "Have you thought about grad school?"
When the two hours were finally up, Bravo walked us through the process of "closing the window" of our brains, to ensure that "nothing followed us home," and assured us we'd have strange dreams that night.
I got home, ate some soup and fell into bed. In the past two days, I haven't thought much about what Celebrity Psychic Jesse Bravo told me. I will continue to attend the exact correct number of barbecues, and will probably never go to grad school. But I also haven't slept with the lights off since.