Theresa Caputo is the winner of the 2012 Pigasus Award for Performance. But she is better known as the Long Island Medium, which is also the title of her reality TV show aired on the ‘Learning’ Channel (TLC). Like Sylvia Browne, John Edward, James van Praagh and many others before her, Caputo is yet another psychic medium who claims to be able to talk to the dead, and while she has artificial talons like Sylvia Browne, her blond helmet hair, jewelry and tan are all fake too. When it’s eventually axed, there will probably be room for the cast on Jersey Shore.
According to TV executives, psychic mediums shows are passé, so they are looking for new ways to present the paranormal. In accordance with this new formula, Long island Medium showcases Caputo’s rambunctious personality and also features her family. We watch her daughter learn to drive, and her husband getting a new tattoo, but with a twist. Caputo can’t grab a morning coffee or shop for groceries without providing spontaneous readings to strangers along the way.
Of course, these are just cold readings of stereotypical subjects; usually older ladies who are asked, “Did your mother/father pass?” Obviously, she/he had, so Caputo proceeds to share a stock message, such as she “loves you”, he has “found peace” or he is telling you it’s time to “move on”. Alternatively, Caputo performs the same tricks for groups, like a kind of psychic Tupperware party. As believers, these people are pushovers, and with a larger pool of subjects she never fails to strike with questions like, “Did someone here lose a brother?” Making her task even easier still, she never guesses the name or the initials of the deceased. To “validate” contact, Caputo makes vague references that have the appearance of being specific; special songs, handwritten letters, and items of clothing and jewelry. Those read are interviewed afterwards, gushing that they are indebted to Caputo for helping them come to terms with the death of their loves ones.
Caputo is best known for her exaggerated displays of emotion. There is rarely a scene where she isn’t in tears or claiming empathetic abilities, such as, “I could feel your tears running down my cheek.” In one episode she announces that the spirit of a deceased 6 year-old boy has become “attached” to her. Convinced that the only way to free the spirit is to meet with his mother, she tracks down the woman whose details she happens to have in an appointment book. Caputo appears to be greatly distraught by the little boy’s constant presence, but she is strangely unavailable for a session until the following week. She spent this week in apparent spiritual agony, yet still had time to have lunch with friends, all the while complaining about her invisible friend.
Caputo is celebrated for confronting and converting the skeptics. During a live interview for Long Island radio station KJOY, a line of eight “skeptics” are pitted against her. Visibly stressed at first she asks the group, “Who lost a sister?” A woman acknowledges this question, and the medium quickly finds her stride, achieving perceived “hits” with her staple “validations” about clothing and personal letters. Caputo had emotionally disarmed the woman who was taken in by what a real skeptic would readily recognize as a classic cold reading. Skilful editing seems to have ironed out any misses and genuine skeptics.
There is also the potential for Caputo to perform hot readings. For example, she ‘converts’ several ‘skeptics’ in a motorcycle shop. However, these are her husband’s friends at his place of work and she could easily have inside information about them. She does a reading for the woman who grooms her dogs, but she has been a customer for years. Then there are the too-specific private readings with clients at their homes. Of course, she has all of their personal information and comments provided at the time of booking. Then there are the other signs around their homes including photographs and other possessions that tell a story. Much of the show seems scripted too. Caputo offers a commentary throughout, but always wearing the same clothes, suggesting that the ‘running’ commentary is filmed post events, and that she’s just acting.
Long Island Medium is a great show for doing RiffTrax to; for skeptics to hone their skeptical skills, catch fallacies, and detect cold and hot reading tricks and techniques. Unfortunately, there are plenty of episodes to do this to with two existing seasons and a third to air later this year.
Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author, skeptical paranormal investigator and a research fellow for the James Randi Foundation. You can follow Karen on Twitter here.