A “Spooky” Family Devotional

Every Halloween children dress up in costumes and go from house to house in search of free candy. While some Christians debate the celebration or aspects of it, the idea of witchcraft, speaking to the dead and other black arts regularly make their way through circles of young people.

Your kids don’t have to be “goth” to be intrigued with the idea – or even just curious. As Houdini and one half of Penn and Teller can testify, mediums and witches often use basic tricks of magicians to make it appear as if they know things they can’t possibly know without the help of spirits or witchcraft. This devotional teaches older children and teens the techniques so they won’t be fooled by people who may try to take them down a very ungodly path.

This devotional is long, but can be divided into several sessions. Chances are your children will be curious and intrigued enough though, that they want to finish it in one sitting. (Please note citation for the information regarding the various tricks.)

Tell the story of King Saul and the Witch of Endor, being careful not to make it sound too scary. Explain that the fact that she could call up Samuel seemed to surprise even the “witch”.

Tell students that today many people have carefully watched people who pretend to talk to dead people and/or tell the future and have realized that they use tricks and not real magic.

Explain you will teach them some of the tricks people use to trick other people into believing they can tell the future and often taking their money from them to do it. The reason you are teaching them is so people claiming to tell the future or see spirits won’t trick them. Tell them it’s okay to do these tricks for fun, but not to really trick someone into believing they can do things only God can do.

Here are some of the most common tricks used by “seers”. Younger students may only be able to understand and practice one to have fun with their families, while older students may understand them all. Constantly remind students these are fun when everyone knows they are tricks, but wrong if people really believe they can tell the future. Only God knows the future. They should never use these tricks to convince people to do something or to make money.

The following information can be found at this link http://www.psychicscience.org/coldread.aspx. Please change the wording to be appropriate for your students.

The term ‘cold reading’ refers to strategies used by mentalists and by fraudulent psychics and mediums to give the impression that they can psychically discern personal information about a client.

The reading is ‘cold’ because it does not depend on any prior knowledge of the client. Instead, the ‘psychic’ combines careful observations of the client’s characteristics and behavior with a series of guesses that are based on deduction, knowledge of probabilities, and use of general (‘Barnum’) statements that are readily accepted by large numbers of people as being true of themselves.

There are several key techniques that form the basis of cold reading. These are

1. Setting the scene

The cold reader must set the scene for the client, manage client expectations, and elicit client cooperation.


It is vital that the client has full confidence in the professionalism and ability of the psychic or medium and this can be encouraged in various ways, for example:

By using professional props – e.g., tarot cards, crystal ball, pendulum, runes, or other items.

Managing expectations

Expectations must be managed by briefly explaining to the client what they may receive from the reading, for example:

“I will try to answer any questions you have about your past and future.”

Eliciting cooperation

Cold reading will only succeed if the client is cooperative and actively assists the psychic. This needs to be explained to the client at the outset. For example:

  • “You will need to help me to read the signs.”

2. Observing characteristics

The cold reader carefully observes the client. Important characteristics to note are:

  • Gender.
  • Age.
  • Ethnicity.
  • Weight, apparent health, personal hygiene and any noticeable disabilities.
  • Any scars, bruises or skin blemishes.
  • Clothing, hairstyle, jewelry and badges, body decorations.
  • Any transfers on the clothes (e.g., animal or human hair, grasses, mud, oil, or stains).
  • Voice quality (regional accent, pitch, pace and modulation).
  • Vocabulary.

3. Making deductions

From these observations, the psychic will be able to make some highly probable guesses about the client. This is sometimes referred to as the “Sherlock Holmes” technique.

For example:

  • An engagement ring will generally indicate an impending marriage.
  •  Educational level may be guessed from voice and vocabulary.
  • Wealth may be inferred from clothing and jewelry.
  • Particular interests may be guessed from T-shirts, badges, etc.
  • If the reading is done in the client’s home, much more information can be gleaned (e.g., from family photographs, bookshelves).

4. Pigeonholing and focusing

The cold reader will generally aim to pigeonhole (stereotype) the client into a particular category of person.

The most basic categories are based on gender and age (e.g., teenage female; middle-aged man; elderly woman).

More specific categories and stereotypes can also be useful (e.g., thirty-something, white, well-spoken, apparently affluent, female non-smoker with a New York accent). Consider, for example, what you probably could infer about such a woman.

Having pigeon-holed the client, the reading is then focused around areas stereotypically of concern to people in this category, and also around any specific deductions that can be made based on observations of the client.

 For example:

  •  A mid-teen female is likely to experience difficulties relating to popularity, peer pressure and boys.
  • A middle-aged, poorly dressed man, who is rather overweight and wears no wedding ring, may have low self-esteem.
  • An elderly person may have recently lost close friends or family, and may also have their own health concerns.

5. Using Barnum statements

So-called ‘Barnum statements’ are named after the American showman P.T. Barnum. Barnum statements are those that seem to relate to a particular individual but actually apply to everyone, or almost everyone. Such statements are a typical feature of horoscopes and they are used extensively in cold reading.

Research by psychologists (e.g., B.R. Forer) has shown that a person, if led to believe that the statements apply specifically to them, readily accepts such statements. Because the client easily accepts them, such statements also serve to enhance the client’s general faith in the psychic.

Examples of Barnum statements are:

  • “You have much unused potential.”
  • “You get a little anxious in new social situations.”
  • “You have been a victim of a theft or burglary in the past.”
  • “You have a strong need for approval and recognition.”

Experienced cold readers will develop their own extensive list of useful Barnum statements, which can also be tailored to particular categories of people.

6. Fishing

‘Fishing’ refers to making some very specific, seemingly improbable, statements that may or may not be true of the client.

If the statement turns out to be true, the strength of the “hit” will greatly impress the client, and the statement will be clearly remembered.

If wrong, then the psychic can simply move on to something else, and the client will very likely forget the ‘miss’. 

In general (to avoid embarrassing failures) it is best to choose fishing statements that are not too improbable but which are likely to be true of many people.

Examples of fishing statements are:

  • “The name Jane is significant in some way.”
  • “I am getting something about a car crash.”
  • “You were separated from your father during childhood.”
  • “You used to own a brown dog.”

Note that, when fishing, you should generally use statements rather than questions. (e.g., “The name Jane is significant” rather than “Is the name ‘Jane’ significant?”).

You can also go fishing using several baits in one sentence. For example: “I am hearing the name Jane, or perhaps it is Joan, or June, or John”. In this way you can maximize your odds of getting a ‘hit’.

Fishing is especially effective when cold reading with a large group of people (e.g., stage shows). Names make very useful collective bait. For example, “There is someone named George who has a message for a woman”. It is very likely that at least one woman in the audience will know a George who has died.

Experienced cold readers often learn the popular first names for both boys and girls for different decades.

7. Observing responses

Especially when fishing, you can gauge the accuracy of your statements by observing carefully how the client responds.

In particular, watch the face and hands, and also look out for any uncomfortable shuffling in the seat.

These responses can often give away how the client is feeling about what you are saying. In this way it is generally quite easy to tell if you are on the right track, or completely wrong.

If you are right, then continue along the same line; if wrong, then subtly change track.

8. Using verbal tricks

There are certain tricks and subtleties in the way that language can be used that will greatly enhance a cold reading.

For example

“Somebody here knows George”. This is a very useful trick often used by spiritualist mediums in group meetings. It is based on the ambiguity of the word “here” – it could mean either “here in the audience” or “here in the spirit world”. In this way, the odds of a hit are effectively doubled.

“I am getting something about a will”. This could mean either Will (the personal name) or an inheritance or legal document.

“The word ‘book’ is somehow relevant”. This could refer, for example, to an ordinary book (of pages), or “the Book” (Bible), or the telephone book, or a reservation for a show or flight, or a police booking, or a bookmaker (betting), or a financial account, or it could even be a surname.

By observing how the client interprets an ambiguous word, the reading can then follow up that particular meaning.

Stating questions negatively

A very commonly used verbal trick in cold reading is to ask questions in the negative form.

No matter how the client responds to these questions, the psychic can interpret the response as confirming the statement made.

For example:

  • “You’re not married are you?”
  • “You weren’t brought up in the country were you?”
  • “You’re not an only child are you?”
  • “You don’t believe in reincarnation do you?”
  • “You haven’t had a letter from your mother recently have you?”

If the client answers “No” to such questions, the reader replies with “I thought not”. If the answer is “Yes”, the reader can say “I thought so”.  The psychic therefore wins every time.

Repeating information given by the client

The cold reader should file away in memory every bit of information that the client gives during the reading.

This not only allows further deductions to be made from the information given, but the psychic can also exploit the fact that clients will often forget that they have said certain things.

This enables the cold reader to repeat back to the client, at some later point, information that the client has given, as if this information was being received psychically.

9. Reinforcing successes

Whenever the client confirms one of the psychic’s statements, this should be clearly reinforced by saying “That’s right”, or “Yes “, or “Good”, or something similar.

This will help to convince the client that the reading is succeeding.

10. Using ‘Outs’

Sometimes the psychic will say something that is contradicted by the client. When this happens, the cold reader should come up with a plausible explanation or excuse for the apparent mistake.

Magicians call such strategies for dealing with failures ‘outs’ and there are several types of ‘out’ that are useful for the cold reader.

Often, the psychic can save face by subtly blaming the client for not understanding or not agreeing with a statement  The implication is that the statement is true, but the client doesn’t realize it, and is wrong to disagree with it.

This strategy can generally be used whenever there is a possibility, however remote, that the original statement is true.

There are various ways this can be done, for example:

  • “You will understand this better later.”
  • “You should think about this later.”
  • “You should ask your grandmother – she will be able to confirm this.”
  • “No, there were definitely three brothers – you will discover this later.”

The psychic can also directly blame the client for any resistance to statements, for example:

  • “You must open your heart to these messages, my dear.”

Twist the statement

Often an incorrect statement can be subtly twisted to make it correct.

For example: “Your grandfather had two sisters.” “No. He had one.” “Yes, but there were two other girls, maybe friends or cousins who were like sisters.”

If all else fails, the cold reader can blame others for any errors made, or for any failures to come up with useful information.

For example:

  • “The messages are not very clear today.”
  • “The messages are a little mixed up tonight.”
  • “I’m getting some crossed lines tonight.”

11. Clinching the deal. At the end of the reading, the psychic should briefly summarize the key (correct) information that was given (including that which came from the client) aiming to do so in a positive way that will provide comfort to the client. This should be combined with a statement that reinforces how accurate and genuine the reading was.

For example: “So, your grandfather wants you to take away from this that he is alive in spirit and that he loves you very much. In particular he wanted to explain to you his sorrow over the will. The other information he gave about himself – working as a postman, about his sister and cousins, and about the soccer – I couldn’t have known any of this, could I? You can be certain that your grandfather has come through today and that he is still watching over your life with love.”

Preparing your children for when they are exposed to mediums and Wicca can protect them from getting fooled by it. It’s worth taking the time and effort to teach them about these tricks.

Published by

Thereasa Winnett

Thereasa Winnett is the founder of Teach One Reach One and blogger at Parenting Like Hannah. She holds a BA in education from the College of William and Mary. She has served in all areas of ministry to children and teens for more than thirty years and regularly leads workshops for ministries and churches. She has conducted numerous workshops, including sessions at Points of Light’s National Conference on Volunteering and Service, the National Urban Ministry Conference, Pepperdine Bible Lectures, and Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration. Thereasa lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband Greg, where she enjoys reading, knitting, traveling and cooking.

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