Flim-Flam and Other Such Scams

by Judson Cade Pedigo

Recently, I was looking through my daughter’s bookshelf for a bedtime story when I came across something that would change the course of my life forever, a Step Into Reading book about Harry Houdini. Some might call it fate or just my habit of being a packrat (I supply myself with such a steady stream of junk that I’m constantly finding things that I’ve bought but have totally forgotten about. So it’s like getting it all over again! I’m like the dude from Memento except with a staggering Paypal Credit balance instead of a dead wife.) but I became an instant Houdini fan. I guess I’d always taken Houdini for granted. I knew he was a master magician and also a lazy plot point for the writers of Last Action Hero to get that kid into movieland (Magic ticket my ass, McBain!) but that was about it. Now I know, Houdini is the greatest man who ever lived. What I’ve found most interesting is Houdini’s war on fake mediums. As spiritualism became fashionable in America following the end of World War I, for every sincere follower this new religion gained, it attracted just as many opportunists willing to take advantage of the bereaved for their own financial gain. These fake mediums engaged in swindles so dubious there was only one word to describe this chicanery, “flim-flam”. Houdini did not like flim-flam. He did not like it on a boat, with a goat, on a train or in the rain. He did not like flim-flam, he did not like these medium shams. It’s a little late in the game for me to bring any psychic frauds to justice, but what I can do, dear reader, is reveal to you the all-time fake mediums that I’ve met in the movies. I can do that without even leaving my living room. So, sit back and dim the lights. Be sure to put down that planchette and lock the spirit cabinets as I expose the worst fake mediums ever to disgrace the screen.

Madam Ruby – Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

When Pee-Wee’s prize bike went missing, he kind of lost it, falling into a deep depression, alienating his friends, even yelling at Amazing Larry! He was so desperate to recover it, he found himself within the red neon-colored glow of Madam Ruby’s den of iniquity. Even though Pee-Wee was bike-less, Madam Ruby still took him for a ride. She’s good, this Madam Ruby, I’ll give her that. Able to spot Pee-Wee’s desperation without a second glance, she drains him of his cash and proceeds to fill his head with empty platitudes, assuring him that his bike is doing fine at the Alamo…in the basement. Well played Madam Ruby. Funny enough, without her flagrant disregard for the truth, Pee-Wee would have never met Mickey or Simone or Large Marge or had a big adventure. In a way, Madame Ruby’s lies actually saved the day. Except I think she may have stolen Pee-Wee’s wallet which in the end makes her no better than Francis.

Emma and Harold Caswell - Amityville 3-D

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It’s hard to believe but, back before it went direct to video and every other low budget horror film threw Amityville in the title, the series about the haunted house in Long Island tried to conduct itself with a modicum of class. Even with it’s 3-D gimmick (this time the house is comin’ atcha!) the third entry in the franchise still wanted to be taken seriously as an actual movie. This one opens with the house up for sale (again) but it’s not quite empty. It’s being used as the base of operations for a shady séance operation run by Emma and Harold Caswell. What a racket! I’m sure séances in America’s favorite haunted house don’t come cheap. Harold leads the trusting participants to the house and the proceedings are officiated by Emma who certainly looks the part of a medium. I mean, she looks like she just stepped out of a portrait from the 1920’s, back when everyone looked elderly, dressed in black, and didn’t know how to smile. They put on quite a show, these two. Emma moans and wails, channeling the deceased while glowing orbs appear to float around the room. Complete and total flim-flammers. At this point in the Amityville series, they had just about run out of “true story” so the plot is more of an amalgamation of events surrounding the Amityville case. After the book and the movie, pretty much everybody in the paranormal field was stepping on their mother’s neck to rush out anything Amityville related. I think old lady Caswell was a comment on that. The real curse of that house was greed. It is an interesting way to start out this installment but the rest of the movie kind of falls short. Look, if I were you, just skip to Amityville Part 4, it’s about a haunted lamp. That’s right, a haunted lamp. You’re welcome.

Miss Victoria – Ghost Team

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In Ghost Team, a rag tag group of amateur paranormal investigators team up in order to escape the humdrum existence of their everyday lives. It’s not bad, the usual story of a group of “losers” making good, kind of the Bad News Bears meets Paranormal Activity. The real reason to watch this movie though is for Amy Sedaris. Put Amy Sedaris in any movie and I’m going to check it out. Here she plays Victoria, a washed up Miss Cleo style phone line psychic crossed with Jerri Blank, Sedaris’s drugged out sociopath from Strangers With Candy. Miss Victoria doesn’t mind slumming it with the Ghost Team as long as there are free donuts and a payday. Although her ghost powers turn out to be a sham, she’s not really hurting anybody. Sure she’s a bad medium but she’s a…well, she’s kind of a bad person too. She means well. Just go easy on Miss Victoria; she’s got a pretty nasty eye tic that tells me she’s had a rough go of it.

Dr. Acula – Night of the Ghouls

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This was my first Ed Wood joint and having grown up in a world where Wood was billed as the worst director of all time, I have to say, this was not as bad as I was expecting. In fact, I kind of liked it. Ed seems to love monsters, science fictions, and the occult (just like me!). The only problem is, he throws them all together without any regard for pacing or plot and hammers all the pieces until they fit, awkwardly or not. In Night of the Ghouls, Dr. Acula, fake medium extraordinaire, is trying to convince a recently widowed dowager that her inheritance would be better spent paying for his séance services. The séance sequence in the movie is surprisingly close to how an actual séance might have gone, although through the dime store lens of Ed Wood. Trumpets rise and play themselves (instruments were often employed by mediums, appearing to perform of their own accord). A bed sheet ghost shuffles from one side of the screen to another (in the darkened rooms of séance parlors some mediums would employ an accomplice to dress as a spirit or sometimes they would themselves emerge from their medium cabinet and roam the room as the very spirit the were conjuring up). He’s even got a crystal ball with a skull inside (okay Dr.Acula, that’s a little much). Don’t worry friends, Dr. Acula gets what’s coming to him because in a Shyamalan like twist-ending, a gang of spirits actually does show up and they want to drag him back to the grave with them. Turns out this phony baloney medium wasn’t so fake after all. Too bad he didn’t know that. I think the police chief put it best when he says (in typical Ed Wood fashion), “There’s a lot of things about this case I don’t understand. We know he was a phony medium bilking people, now he’s dead. How did he die? Where’d those bones come from?” Where indeed Chief, where indeed?

Blanche Tyler – Family Plot

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Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot opens with yet another phony medium trying to swindle a wealthy old woman out of her millions but this feels less of an egregious transgression because this psychic is played by Barbara Harris. As Blanche Tyler, she’s a lot of fun. As the kids would say, she’s charismatic AF (which I assume means “always fun”). As she consults her spirit control “Henry” (sneaking peeks from closed eyes to gauge the reactions from her sitter) we learn that old Mrs. Redbird is looking for the long lost heir to the family fortune and she’s willing to pay a rather large sum of money for that information. This is not the nickel and dime jobs that Blanche is used to; this is an invitation to take a dip in the money bin, Scrooge McDuck-style. This task is too big and too important to mess up but luckily she doesn’t have to handle it alone, she’s got her boyfriend George (played to clueless perfection by Bruce Dern) to help her out. You kind of cut them some slack on the whole scamming old ladies thing because they aren’t malicious about it. They’re just a couple of blue collar stiffs trying to make a living any way they can. They’re just like us. When their lunch is interrupted by a phone call offering a clue to the Redbird heir, Blanche wants to grab another sandwich for the road. Me too Blanche! I want another sandwich! When you compare them to the real villains of the movie, a pair of upper class kidnappers and jewel thieves, pretending to talk to the dead seems downright quaint.

Claire and Dr. Louis Berger - WNUF Halloween Special

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I hesitate to use the word “fakes” when talking about Claire and Dr. Louis Berger because they’re just so damn sincere about what they do. Let’s just say, if they were a pumpkin patch, the Great Pumpkin would visit them every year. I give them a pass because they come from the days when occult paperbacks lined the spinner racks at the grocery store and “In Search Of…” was on television. There were mysteries out there that people needed explained and the Bergers, along with contemporaries like Hans Holzer and Joseph Dunninger were more than happy to offer their expertise. I get it; it was the 70’s. There was a market for this stuff and if writing a few dozen books about the paranormal will get you paid, hey, you do you. Plus they involved their cat Shadow who was said to possess psychic powers of his own which is pretty rad. Ghosts, demons, poltergeists, nothing was left out as they were reported to have investigated 212 cases of spirit infestation. Their last known public appearance is documented in the “WNUF Halloween Special” a recently uncovered broadcast that was once thought lost, airing only once, October 31st 1987. For years the special was notoriously hard to find and only existed on hand dubbed third generation bootlegs that circulated among collectors. The live broadcast was plagued by technical difficulties, which led many to believe that something otherworldly was going on that night. In the business of the paranormal, the Berger’s were able to walk that fine line between optimism and capitalism. They were able to do so without becoming too crass unlike my final pick who were more concerned with helping their bank accounts than anybody in need.

Ed and Lorraine Warren – The Conjuring

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That’s right. Ed and Lorraine Warren, everybody’s favorite husband and wife team of demonologists are the number one pick. Demonologists? More like fraudsters, hucksters, and charlatans! We’re talking flim-flam of the highest degree! “But wait” you say, I’m only supposed to be going after fake mediums in media and in the context of The Conjuring flicks, aren’t they the real deal? Exactly! In those movies, they are the real deal, almost saint like in their portrayal, which makes the characters in the movies a sham of the worst kind. Let’s go through the list of offenses. In The Conjuring, the Perron family tracks down the Warrens because they were totally the best at spooky stuff when in reality they just showed up out of nowhere asking, “You got any spooky stuff around here?” You remember the heartwarming scene in The Conjuring 2 where Ed serenaded everyone with a rousing rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to help calm the rattled nerves of a family plagued by the paranormal? Never FUCKING happened. You know why? The Warrens were barely FUCKING there! According to Guy Lyon Playfair, one of the REAL investigators of the Enfield Poltergeist, they showed up uninvited, stayed for about a day and told him how much money he could be making off the case. Even worse, when author Ray Garton was penning the book In a Dark Place (based on a case of the Warrens which became the basis for the movie A Haunting in Connecticut) he noticed that the stories of the participants weren’t matching up. He brought his issues up with Ed who told him, “They’re crazy. All the people that come to us are crazy. Use what you can and make the rest up. That’s why we hired you; you’re a horror writer. You write scary books. We want this to be a good story and we want it to be scary.” Oh yeah, and Annabelle is just a Raggedy Ann doll. As much as I like the idea of the husband and wife team of ghost hunters, the real-life versions are far less noble than their cinematic counterparts suggest. I think noted skeptic Joe Nickell put it best when he said, “I’ve not met a house that I thought was haunted. I think the Warrens have never met a house they didn’t think was haunted.” Just goes to show that sometimes a little real-life flim-flam is even more devious than any haunting a Hollywood screenwriter can come up with.