Desperate faith

True believer syndrome and spiritualism

by Emma Louise Rhodes © 2007

In his book The Psychic Mafia, one-time medium M. Lamar Keene applied the phrase ‘true believers’ to those who continued to have faith in his Spiritualist church, regardless of the fact that he had personally debunked it. However, since then the term has been used to describe the unshakable belief in a number of facts that have been confirmed beyond all reasonable doubt to be false - from crop circles to supposing that the earth is flat. Its origin can also be found in Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book, The True Believer, which dealt primarily with mass movements and fanaticism.

The term true believer (as related by M. Lamar Keene) relates to an individual who maintains belief in a (usually mystical) conviction, regardless of the fact that it has been one-hundred per cent proven to be fake or fraudulent. But just why do certain individuals refuse to trust what is recounted to them first hand, or carry on regardless of such important information? And why, despite the fact that certain Spiritualist mediums openly confess to deceit, do particular members of their ‘following’ continue to believe in the unbelievable?

James Randi and the ‘Carlos Hoax’

In 1988, performance artist Jose Alvarez was approached by James Randi to create an imaginary spirit guide, Carlos, along with a fictitious list of TV and radio credentials. Culminating in a (real) performance at Sydney Opera House (performed on a complimentary basis), the scam convinced millions of people, before Alvarez revealed it to be a hoax on the Australian TV programme, The Sixty Minute Show. However, regardless of this disclosure, many still believed in the ‘Spirit of Carlos’. Robert Todd Carroll writes in The Skeptic’s Dictionary:

‘The "Carlos" hoax also demonstrated how gullible and uncritical the mass media are when covering paranormal or supernatural topics. Rather than having an interest in exposing the truth, the members of the media were obsessed with "Carlos" the phenomenon and transformed his character from a hoax to a myth … Every journalist should know that the first sign of an authentic fake guru is greed.’

Regardless of the fact that both Randi and Alvarez had demonstrated fraudulent mediumship on a grand scale, the actual enormity of the scam and the masses who were taken in by it (and, indeed, still are in spite of the exposure) is easily forgotten or glossed over as an unfortunate blip by those eager to believe in spirit channelling.

Further examples of psychics and TBS

M. Lamar Keene stated that even though both he and his partner in Spiritualism (referred to as ‘Raoul’) admitted that they had simply feigned contact with the spirit world, there were those in the church who remained devout members of the congregation regardless. After Keene’s exposure, ‘Raoul’ returned to Spiritualism and his church continued to flourish, with those who were present at the revelation standing firm regardless.

Keene stated that:

‘The true-believer syndrome is the greatest thing phoney mediums have going for them. No amount of logic can shatter a faith consciously based on a lie.’

In 1992, British medium Colin Fry was exposed (while working under the name ‘Lincoln’) and the incident was brought to light in The Psychic News, which ran the headline ‘MEDIUM CAUGHT HOLDING TRUMPET’. During a meeting of the Noah’s Ark Society at the chairman’s house in Norfolk, Fry produced a demonstration of his ‘psychic’ abilities. However, during the séance, which was being conducted in the dark, an overhead light came on to reveal Fry holding a spirit trumpet which had previously miraculously floated around the room, as if on its own. Devout Spiritualist medium Betty Allen commented:

‘Although the light was on for only four or five seconds, it was quite sufficient for people to see him standing there. There was a deathly silence … I was shocked. There were 30 disillusioned people there that night.’

Fry, who had allegedly blamed the incident on a mischievous spirit named Daniel, asked to be tested by a committee and was told that he could not demonstrate at séances until his name had been successfully cleared. However, five months later, the Society issued a statement, explaining that:

‘We feel that Lincoln now needs time to strengthen his mediumship within the confines of his home circle and will, therefore, not demonstrate publicly until such time as his guides give explicit instructions for its resumption.’

Seven years later, Living TV broadcast the first series of Sixth Sense with Colin Fry and the ‘trumpet incident’ was apparently forgotten, until the magazine news programme Focus reported the episode. This, along with sceptic Tony Youens’s in depth exposure of Fry,[1] culminated in the incident again coming to light, exposing the fact that ‘Lincoln’ the fraudulent medium was none other than Fry.

Despite the public revelation of Fry’s deceit, millions still tune(d) in to Sixth Sense and attend(ed) his theatre tours. Fry is perhaps one of the best examples of a psychic becoming a household name since Doris Stokes and, in spite of his obvious duplicity along with the scorn poured on him from mediums such as Craig Hamilton-Parker, countless Spiritualists continue to believe in his abilities and make life-changing decisions based on his judgment.

Of course, the difference between Keene and Fry is that Keene confessed to being counterfeit, whereas Fry covered up his alleged fraud by claiming that he had been possessed by a bad spirit wishing mischief on him. Yet, in spite of the fact that the Noah’s Ark Society severed all ties with Fry, Spiritualists nationwide continue to trust in his powers.

The psychology of the true believer

In his brief analysis of TBS, M. Lamar Keene noted that:

‘The true-believer syndrome merits study by science. What is it that compels a person, past all reason, to believe in the unbelievable? How can an otherwise sane individual become so enamoured of a fantasy, an imposture, that even after its exposure in the bright light of day he still clings to it – indeed clings to it all the harder?’

Most religions are built upon a flimsy framework of beliefs handed down through the ages, with very little true historic fact to back them up. Spiritualism, however, is a relatively new religion (just over one hundred and fifty years old) and its infamous history is well recorded.

The founders of modern Spiritualism, the Fox sisters, were revealed to be fraudulent when Margaret, the eldest, confessed that they had deceitfully cracked the joints in their toes to produce spirit rapping. Regardless of this, the sisters are still to this day hailed by most Spiritualists as true mediums, and Margaret’s signed confession is ignored. On the basis of this, the very nature of Spiritualism is that of a religion attracting individuals who could easily be categorised as true believers. The majority of followers are interested in Spiritualism’s roots, yet reject certain parts of it, keen to believe in what they perceive as a message from spirit but what is, in all likelihood, a calculated cold reading. After her confession Margaret Fox, finding herself poor and lonely without her circle of Spiritualist friends, allegedly retracted what she had said, and it is this thin glimmer of hope that most Spiritualist believers cling to.

For many, the belief that there is life after death and that loved ones live on in Heaven is a necessary part of their day to day existence. To doubt this would mean reconsidering and questioning the entire nature of our existence on this earth, something which many people feel incredibly uncomfortable about. Spiritualism takes this basic Christian belief to another level in a very tactile sense and fulfills expectations of the afterlife, along with offering what seems to be a ‘quick fix’ to bereavement. Instead of having to wait for heavenly reunion, the Spiritualist faith presents its followers with earthly contact with the dead which, regardless of its credulity, is highly addictive. It is this very factor that, despite the countless exposures and revelations, will always stoke the fire of Spiritualism and, sadly, line the pockets of fraudulent mediums for years to come.




  • Carroll, Robert T., The Skeptic’s Dictionary, John Wiley and Sons, 2003
  • Hoffer, Eric, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Harper Perennial, reprinted, 2002.
  • Keene, Lamar M., The Psychic Media, St Martin’s Press Inc, 1976
  • The Psychic News, ‘Medium Caught Holding Spirit Trumpet’, Saturday November, 1992