Criswell Predicts!

The eccentric and outlandish fortune-teller who has, bizarrely, been proven right more often than you might think.

“Ahh, greetings my friend. We are all interested in the future because that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”

Well, there’s no arguing with that – one of the few statements from legendary psychic Criswell that had any level of accuracy. Yet despite – or possibly because of – his outlandish claims for extraordinary future events that failed to come to pass, Criswell was a popular celebrity for many years, a mainstay of television and popular culture. Admittedly, it would seem that as many of his public appearances were on shows where he was treated as a figure of fun rather than a genuine fortune teller, but still.

Today, Criswell is best known for his appearances in Ed Wood movies, and it’s odd to think that a pop culture icon would turn up in such low-budget and, at the time at least, obscure movies as Plan 9 From Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls – not to mention the Wood-scripted nudie horror film Orgy of the Dead in 1965, the same year that he would appear on the New Year’s Eve edition of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But there he is, popping up at the start to offer doom-laden warnings of the horrors to come, and increasingly appearing throughout.

Criswell was, in fact, the sort of eccentric that Wood was drawn to – part of the inner circle of eccentrics, oddballs and outsiders that make his work and life so intriguing. You look at Criswell now and think, well, of course he would be in Wood’s life.

Jeron Criswell King, born in 1907, was a camp and eccentric figure who was immediately recognisable – his hair, his clothes and his voice have become iconic. He allegedly slept in a coffin – a man in love with death from an early age, he grew up in a funeral parlour and so found caskets entirely comfortable for sleeping in, though that brings up more questions than we might easily answer. He broke into radio by buying airtime to sell vitamins, and – as pills and potions could only take up so much airtime – began filling in the remainder of his slot with predictions of the future. Soon, Criswell Predicts had become the entire show, and he was on the way to a sort of celebrity. He would write columns for magazines, appear on other radio shows and from 1951 had a syndicated newspaper column.

Criswell became popular because his predictions went beyond the ordinary. His future was a science fiction world of both sexual liberation and repression, often simultaneously – titillation and scandal seem to sweep through Criswell’s predictions, alongside the usual end-of-the-world stuff (rather predictably – ho ho – being pegged as 1999) and other nonsense, including outbreaks of cannibalism, space rays turning metal into rubber, the first Interplanetary Convention taking place in Las Vegas and so on.

Yet while we might scoff at Criswell now, perhaps we shouldn’t. For the predictions on his 1970 LP – recorded at a time when he was already, for most people, forgotten – is unnervingly close to a world we might recognise. People split into a hardened political split of left and right that no one can switch from,  unisex fashions, the rise of body art, people who are famous just for being famous – all this is predicted in the first three minutes of the LP, and who can say that he is wrong? Perhaps his specific details are a bit off (so far we haven’t seen a lot of men advertising their political affiliations through painted genitalia), but the broader predictions are oddly close to the bone. It becomes a bit bizarre after this, however – brain transplants by vending machine? Still, listen and learn.

So was Criswell a genuine psychic? Well no, obviously. Whether he believed himself to have the gift is another matter. Many of those who knew him said that he genuinely believed himself to have psychic powers, at least at first – he once stated to a friend that the powers declined once he started to make money from them. Divine punishment for exploiting a gift to humanity, perhaps.

One of those who believed in Criswell was Mae West, who employed him as her personal psychic for some time. Well, why not when his predictions included the pair of them, alongside Liberace, flying to the moon and West becoming President (these are some of his less accurate predictions). So impressed by him was she that in 1955, she recorded the song Criswell Predicts, which is rather magnificent.

Criswell wrote several books of predictions – which are hit and miss with their accuracy, no matter how much you want to interpret them (i.e. London has yet to be destroyed by a meteor) but his fame rapidly diminished in the 1970s. Just as Ed Wood’s films vanished into obscurity until they were rediscovered by cult movie fans, so Criswell seemed to lose his fame in the new decade, only rediscovered as Wood’s work found a new popularity. He seemed unaware of the new generations finding his work – in those pre-internet days, news spread slowly and no one seemed to track him down to make predictions for a new age. He died in 1982, pretty much unnoticed at the time. A posthumous record – one that he’d recorded and specifically asked not to be released until after his death – was released by his friend and Ed Wood actor Paul Marco in 1995, with Marco performing the A-side, Home On The Strange, under his Kelton the Cop alias. Sadly, pretty much all of his work is now out of print or no longer in circulation.

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