Monday, June 2, 2008

Derren Brown Messiah on YouTube - go watch it!

Credit to Pharyngula for posting this so I might learn of it.

British stage magician Derren Brown apparently did a special called Derren Brown Messiah. It starts here on YouTube:

It's cool. Spoilers follow.

What he does is come to America, where no one knows him, and poses as five different people claiming to have paranormal powers of some sort - first as a psychic with remote viewing, then as a Christian with the power to convert with a touch, an alien adbuctee who could know people's medical histories (he assures us that abductees routinely claim to have these powers), the inventor of a machine that can collect dreams and, lastly, as a medium who can speak to the dead.

In each instance, he goes to a respected person in that field and tries to sell them that he's got paranormal powers. Part of the act is if anyone asks him if he's trying to trick them, if they ask if this is "real" or a trick in any way, he fesses up.

In every case, in all five cases, he gets at least some acknowledgment that he's got the powers he claims to have. Several of them are elaborately glowing in their praise and ask them to start doing things immediately on the grounds of his clear paranormal powers. None of them ask if it's real or not. They, on some level, just assume he's legitimate.

Of course they're tricks. I've seen Derren Brown's act before in different contexts. On his TV show, Trick of the Mind, he got some advertising professionals into his office and he pitched them a concept for them to brainstorm something and accurately predicted what they were going to brainstorm. He pulled back the curtain, then, and told the audience how he did it - he had, well, shills along the path the taxi took them from their office to his rented office, each of them with very noticeable signs and the like, knowing that they'd see them along the way - because they were so obvious - and likely incorporate them into their ads. They did. It as both eerie and fantastic.

But, here's this guy, a total scientific materialist skeptic, one willing to let people know how he does the trick, who tricked a bunch of "respected professionals" in their various paranormal fields that he had some kind of magic or psychic power! Often, their praise is elaborate, glowing, placing him as the best they've ever seen of that kind of thing.

And at no time did any of these professionals, nor anyone else with whom he dealt, openly criticize or doubt him.

All in all, absolutely fascinating because he offers a reasonable way that purely material events can cause the perception of the supernatural at the same time demonstrating it.

Which is something of a service the magician community does. Since at least the days of Harry Houdini, stage magicians have spent a fair bit of time, effort and energy throwing back the curtain on how religious, psychic, etc., "powers" are just psychology and performance. More than any other field, they blow away the clouds of obscurity from magical phenomenon. They show the the tricks are done. They do the tricks, but acknowledge that it's not magic, not supernatural powers, not psychics or aliens. Just real skills that can be learned by anyone with sufficient ability and drive - and tricks whose workings can be comprehended by anyone.

Interestingly, he doesn't accuse these people of insincerity. I think that's good to know, too. Because I don't think that they are being insincere, either. I think that even when people do start out as insincere, over time most of them teach themselves to think that this is what magic and psychic powers really are. In my own personal dealings with magicians, that is very much the case. They talk about how they're doing magic, but they're often just engaging in confidence scams - sometimes with themselves - and attributing the mundane to the supernatural. But they are sincere. They don't want to, and will not, see evidence that is contrary to their worldview.

Which, he very rightly points out, is what we all do. If I was in that room where he converted people by touch, I would have been intensely skeptical, because I think laying on hands and the like is very much just charisma and psychological manipulation of crowds (which was certainly the case with Jesus in Simon Peter), and I would be looking for the trick. And, looking, I would have seen it, how the crowds were self-selecting (people who don't have doubts about their skepticism wouldn't normally attend something like that), the people first selected I would conclude were either outright shills or people who were displaying emotional distress over what he was saying, and then once a couple of soft-targets had been used to prep the audience the mass conversion at the end would have been simple group psychology - no one there would want to openly criticize the "leader" of the group, and after you do that ridiculous falling down thing what are you going to say? How many people will really go "oh, damn, I was caught up in a sick group dynamic and totally got scammed", especially in public? Who would be willing to shame themselves thus? Few - particularly because they could easily be branded as weak hypocrites for coming out.

On the other hand, a Christian viewing the same event would likely draw the conclusion that their god was personally involved. That it was a miracle.

Which is a message I wish more people would internalize - that we're all gullible in some way.

Still, it was a nifty little show.


handmaiden said...

esp. the laying on of hands segment. I think you analyzed it pretty dead on. As one who has been painfully exposed to that sort of thing being brought up in the pentecostal sect by a zealous parent intent on converting me, I could pretty well predict how it was going to go. I applauded the people that left the room because they were uncomfortable. I've seen people do this a lot in Pentecostal churches. The explanation from the pulpit is always that the people that become uncomfortable & leave were being "convicted" (if you don't understand the terminology, it means the Holy spirit had reached their conscious & they were experiencing the guilt of their sinful nature)the church generally brands them as cowards & very much under the spell of the devil.

On the other hand, a Christian viewing the same event would likely draw the conclusion that their God was personally involved.

Pentecostals are so indoctrinated with biblical explanations for this sort of thing, that they cannot entertain any other explanation.

As was illustrated in the video, even before a person is drawn into the experience the suggestion is planted as to what it is. The church's goal is to continually reinforce this.

What was amazing & frightening to me was how darn easily he did it!
Like you I don't think I would of went for it, but that's only because I've been through it & am totally repulsed by that sort of thing.

divabeq said...

There is a wonderful book called "Influence" by a guy named Cialdini that everyone should read, in my opinion. It does this sort of "pulling back the curtain" thing, but it does it in reference to advertising campaigns, political campaigns and religion (though he sorta softballs about religion by talking expressly about "cults". I felt it was strongly in the subtext that it was all religions, but I don't remember him being expressly negative about religion generally, alas)

The book is both a terrific eye-opener and very readable: a regular page turner. To me, the key to not buying into a lot of this stuff is in knowing how the trick works. And even knowing how group dynamics work, I know for my part, sometimes, I find there is some deep psychological stress with going against a group.

Chris Bradley said...


Yeah, for me the conversion was the most powerful one, too, along with the medium one. I mean, the other three segments had Brown dealing with people who already explicitly accepted the existence of the paranormal. Buying into the whole paradigm, sure, they could be easier to manipulate.

But the religious stuff, in particular, was with self-avowed skeptics. And in a couple of minutes - just a couple of minutes - he was able to get these people, some of whom avowed atheism publicly in front of cameras, to disavow it with an assertion of the existence of god!

And because I've been scammed, I know that even a person such as myself - I consider myself fairly suspicious, generally - can be tricked. But it was still very powerful seeing it happen, very personal for me. It was great stuff.


You've recommended that book, before, hehe. As some point I'll have to get it. I really do want to read up on this sort of stuff, cold reading and other techniques of psychological manipulation.

handmaiden said...


I just looked up the book you recommended. I'm ordering one from Amazon. Thanks! I does look to be a good read.

Chris I think there a avowed atheists who haven't explored religion from that angle.

Chris Bradley said...


Yeah, I know that a lot of people haven't viewed religion as a giant con game - or if they do, they do it sort of distantly and intellectually, with little experience with how confidence games work.

Anonymous said...

Derren Brown is an OCCULTIST, he uses the powers of the devil/satan, like many many others before him. Many of his techniques are from an old school occultist by the name of Aleister Crowley Google Him, but don't get involved with this stuff - It is very real).

Derren Brown is eager to disprove Christianity, just as the devil/satan is. Satan is the Father of Lies.

The world is full of fake churches, full of people who think they are Christian, many of these pentecostal churches are just that, demonic spirits posing as the Holy Spirit.

I tell you now none of this occultist stuff will work on a person TRULY born again by God's true Holy Spirit.

Derren Brown is on a path to HELL, as is Satan, both trying to drag as many as they can with them.

Rev 21:8
But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death."

Don't be fooled.

Anonymous said...

In reply to Anon 9th sep 2009:
Boy, have u misunderstood D brown! He isn't any of those wicked characters u quoted from Revelation 21:8. Did u mean he was a "liar" or practitioner of the "dark arts" for example? Rot! He's an illusionist for entertainment purposes. Look him up. He's under no illusion who he is, and nor is any intelligent enough viewer/any body who knows him, so give us a break with your theist dogma/rant, it's sickening, just as a previous commenter stated who had had a very sad background in being victim of attempted indocrination by her mother. All too common a story, and that doesn't mean i approve of the opposite, ie. a parent indocrinating their kid with "hostile" atheism either. Kids shld b encouraged to question, think and be themselves (not coerced into faith, whatever colour or creed) What a sad, manipulating world we live in sometimes (often)

Anonymous said...

Derren Brown used a satanic rites book to trick a guy to give his soul to satan.I am not surprised that he is both homosexual and an antichrist.The mocking of Christianity is on the increase in the western world exactly as it was before WW11 when the Jews were mocked and then it turned to agression and extermination.The same thing is happening with Christianity even in Britain.That is the homosexual agenda all over the media.Read the book "After the ball" and you'll see that the authors admit to lies like "your born gay".They openly admit to using the media to push their agenda.

Anonymous said...

Religion is just the biggest scam going. people who fall for the god delusion are no different than worshipers of zeus or any other deity. God is as real as the easter bunny.

Anonymous said...

Darren Brown isnt an Occultist, what a load of rubbish. He claims to be nothing than a cognitive psychologist. He uses age old tricks used by stage magicians, fake spirtual;ists and illusionists, thats all, all of which can be found in various boosk on those subjects, some from the last century. Its nothing but clever trickery, and he admits that quite openly.