The Amazing Kreskin And The UFO Invasion

The mind-reader and TV magician staked $50,000 on mass UFO sightings in 2002. Can you predict what happened next?

There are odd things that stay with you as a memory from childhood, and for me, one of the oddest was The Amazing World of Kreskin. I remember the show, though not what actually happened in it – rather, it’s part of a collective recollection of afternoon TV that includes The Galloping Gourmet and Fyfe Robertson wandering around the countryside aimlessly and endlessly. Shows that were never especially interesting, but which you would find yourself watching anyway because there was nothing else on.

The Amazing World of Kreskin should’ve been just up my childhood street, dealing as it did with psychic phenomena – but my memories are of a talky, plodding show that was closer to a magic performance crossed with a talk show, without the glitz and spectacle of either. Unlike many of his contemporaries like Uri Geller, Kreskin never claimed to have supernatural, paranormal powers. His act was perhaps closer to the sort of thing Derren Brown does now, but in a more prosaic manner, involving persuasion and manipulation. One of his regular stunts was to have his check for the evening’s performance hidden somewhere in the auditorium, which he would then find – a nice stunt if it goes well, a rather boring affair when it doesn’t and Kreskin spends much of the show searching in vain for his payment. One show saw him carrying out the search for over half an hour, which must have tested the patience of the audience to the limit.

Kreskin was born George Joseph Kresge in 1935 and was inspired to become a mind reader by the suave comic book character Mandrake the Magician, a crime-fighting illusionist. He soon became a regular TV performer, and by the mid-Sixties was well-known enough to produce a series of books, records, toys and games that have continued, on and off, from 1967 until 2015 (and may yet have more in him). He made it clear that his act was all an illusion and did involve ESP, but this didn’t prevent him from fudging the issue somewhat in things like Kreskin’s ESP Booklet and the LP The Basic Principles of Kreskin’s ESP, where eager would-be mind readers were given a primer in the Kreskin technique. While he refers to it as a fun game, he also suggests that you can use the principles to test your actual ESP abilities, which feels a little like having your cake and eating it. Those of you eager to learn just how ESPy you are should give it a listen, especially with such intriguing track titles as The Sex Detector and How To Catch A Murderer.

The Amazing World of Kreskin was first broadcast in Canada in 1970, and as well as being syndicated across America quickly made its way to the UK. I can’t recall very much about what happened on the show beyond it not being all that amazing, but clearly, it hit a nerve in the paranormally-fixated early Seventies – while Kreskin made it clear that he didn’t have any powers, he still explored the world of the paranormal on the show, and it would run for five years – and then was followed by a virtually identical series, The New Kreskin Show, for another two. He was also a regular on talk shows throughout the decade and beyond. The appeal of a man who seemed to blur the lines between the psychic and the stage magician, complete with Criswell-like ‘predictions’ of the future, was hard to resist.

In 2002, however, he almost blew it all. For decades, Kreskin had been talking about the possibilities and dangers of ‘the madness of crowds’ – the idea of ‘hypnotising’ large numbers of people into mass panic and hysteria. As he stated in a 1973 interview, “using suggestion, I could never make someone do something he didn’t want to do. But it’s different in a crowd. Psychologists don’t know why, but somehow the level of morality is lowered and responsibility is lost.”

It’s the theory that explains how people can be convinced to kill their neighbours in civil wars or buy into crazy and increasingly violent conspiracy theories – something we’re increasingly seeing with the QAnon crowd now. All things considered, it’s perhaps not the best theory to try to put into practice, but in 2002, that’s essentially what Kreskin did. Admittedly, he did it in a fairly harmless way, stating that between 9.45pm and midnight on June 6th, there would be mass UFO sightings across Las Vegas. Had he stated that there would be an invasion of bloodthirsty Martians, perhaps his prediction would have been more foolhardy – or possibly just harder to believe, though as we know, it would only take one person to go online and say that they saw a Martian killing someone to cause a mass panic amongst those already inclined to believe it.

Kreskin said that if there was no sighting, he would donate $50,000 to charity – a less risky bet than it sounds given that it was essentially guaranteed that at least one person, if not dozens, would see something that they believed to be a UFO – with an emphasis on the ‘U’ bit. You probably don’t need ESP to see where this is going…

The mass sightings failed to happen. In fact, no sightings at all were initially reported – clearly, the real aliens were having none of Kreskin’s nonsense and stayed home that night. Interviewed after the fact by radio host Art Bell, Kreskin explained that the prediction was never intended to be true in the first place – it was, rather, a stunt designed to show just how susceptible people were to suggestion and a warning that a foreign power or terrorist group could just as easily pull a similar stunt to destabilise America. This explanation brings up a few more questions than it answers, frankly.

Firstly, we might ask just how the stunt would prepare us against such an attack; indeed, we might think that he had effectively given hostile forces a great idea, one that is now being used extensively online by the Russians and the Chinese. Kreskin either predicted the future or inspired it, you might think. On the more positive side, the stunt clearly failed – there were no mass sightings of UFOs reported, even though hundreds of people – the type who you might assume were already psychologically primed to see UFOs – had camped out for the night awaiting the arrival of our new alien overlords. If even these people were not tricked into seeing what they had been told to see, it suggests that mass manipulation is a lot harder than Kreskin thought. The madness of crowds might also be the common sense of crowds, as large groups all need to be convinced of the same thing and that’s a lot harder than just tricking one person.

This might have been simply considered an interesting social experiment or publicity stunt with no harm done – after all, no one killed themselves while fearfully awaiting the Men from Mars. What was more problematic for Kreskin was his churlish refusal to pay up the $50,000. Someone with more understanding of publicity might have figured that fifty grand was a reasonable price to pay for the attention given to the stunt, but Kreskin absolutely refused to hand over the cash. He claimed that some witnesses had seen glowing green orbs in the sky, conveniently after TV news crews had departed. By definition, these orbs were ‘unidentified’ and so his claim was technically true – though it was hardly the mass sightings that he had predicted, and everyone knew exactly what he had meant by ‘UFO’. Art Bell immediately banned him from his show, which probably didn’t matter that much – Kreskin made three appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon during the decade, has published five books since the incident and appears annually on both Fox News and CNN to give New Year predictions – because everyone loves a psychic, even if he has admitted to having no powers. The Amazing Kreskin (now his legal name) still performs live and his mean-spirited publicity stunt is barely mentioned. Like many a miscreant celebrity, he has found that if you just carry on, people will quickly forget about your bad behaviour and welcome you back. Now that’s a prediction we could all have made.

DAVID FLINT

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