If Yelp hits are any indication, you can’t throw a rock in Yorkville without hitting someone offering to tell you about your future.
Marla* is one such medium. The titular proprietor of Fortunes by Marla, her parlor is located in New York’s Upper East Side, the city’s unofficial mecca for psychic readings. What stuck out to me about Marla is that she came highly recommended from her clients. Marla boasts a perfect five-star rating, with unanimously great reviews. Angel S. calls her “one of a kind,” writing that the session left her “actually speechless.” Shaun L. also sings her praises: “I’ve been to plenty of psychics and she is the only one that has made me get shivers down my spine by how accurate she was.”
Despite the surfeit of raves, not everyone was so pleased with their fortune. On the Ripoff Report website, user coolgirlfriend alleges that the psychic coerced her into spending nearly $1,000 to cleanse herself of “negative energy.” “[She said] that 2 women from my past took something from me and had done some black magic on me because they were envious and jealous of me and my family,” the commenter writes. “She highlighted that they probably took a piece of my hair from a comb.” After informing her that these women had cursed her with cancer, Marla instructed her to get a cash advance and withdraw money from her 401k—an additional $9,000. After seeing Internet reports that Marla was a scam artist, she declined to make the payment.
Is Marla a prophet or a fraud who preys on the vulnerable? Like every medium, she is perhaps both.
• • •
Conventional wisdom is that gambling, beer, and death are the ultimate recession-proof industries. But after a housing market buoyed by bad debt caused a 2008 crash—followed by years of economic slowdown—we might want to add another field to that list: the booming business of psychic prediction.
Up-to-date figures are hard to come by, but in 2013, the research group IBISWorld found that the psychic industry had grown by an average rate of 2.5 percent over the five previous years. By 2012, revenue was up to $2.1 billion, with the Internet proving a particular boon to profit. Believe it or not, the psychic industry has come a long way since the mid-to-late ’90s, when Miss Cleo urged insomniacs to dial her 800-number for a reading. Today, websites like Kasamba offer to connect users with the industry’s top intuitives—charging up to $5.09 a minute. This means that if you logged an hourlong reading, you’d be out $305.
Watching Marla get just about everything wrong taught me something I didn’t expect to learn: The most important questions were the ones I still needed to ask myself.
While apologists for the industry argue that these are outliers—just a “few bad apples”—there’s a reason psychics flourish during hard times. Psychics aren’t immune from a recession but a product of it. They need people who are lost and looking for guidance, willing to pay just about anything for an answer. No one seeks out a medium when they are already feeling happy and fulfilled but rather, when they need to be told that they are “on the right track” or that they will be—that is, after they buy some magic crystals for the bargain price of $59.99 each.
I visited Marla for a reading at her studio, a single room that was almost completely white. While making the appointment, I gave her a slightly different name and lied about my occupation so she wouldn’t be able to research me ahead of time; from the moment I sat down at her table, I could feel her trying to read me. While her devotees might feel as though she’s sensing their energy, I’d seen enough gangster movies to know Marla was just sizing me up.
In at least one respect, she had me immediately pegged: I was incredibly nervous, and it was showing. “What do you have to be so worried about?” she asked. I explained that I’d never been to a medium before and that I’d always been something of a skeptic. However, I’d been strangely interested in getting a reading done—eyeing the street-corner psychics peddling $10 fortunes with a bemused curiosity—and I was open to being convinced. “I’m often wrong—about lots of different things,” I said. “I’m willing to be wrong about this.” All of that was true, even if I was fairly positive I knew what I was getting with Marla. After all, we were sharing the session with her gimlet-eyed Shih Tzu, who refused to stop barking.
We agreed on the full package—both the tarot and palm readings—and she asked me to place my hands on her deck, instructing me to relax and make a wish. For those unfamiliar, the tarot is a deck of 78 cards featuring 21 different archetypal characters, known as the Major Arcana. The popular figures that appear on these cards include The Magician, The Empress, The Lovers, and Death—although they signify different meanings depending on the order in which they are drawn. Although tarot is thought to have been a product of Egypt’s Mamluk Sultanate, the decks appear as early as the late 14th century in European culture.
If the iconic cards have become a staple of street fairs and storefronts, they remain a mystery as obtuse as the untranslatable origins of the word “tarot” itself (thought to possibly come from the Arabic for “ways”). That, of course, is an advantage to psychics—because the array of figures spread out before the customer could signify just about anything and everything. There are codes and rules to follow, sure, but reading the signs is likewise a matter of playing jazz. If you’re inclined toward belief, you might argue that psychics are merely gifted at picking up the connections between individual music notes. Otherwise, you might get the impression they’re making it up as it they go along.
The first cards Marla flipped over were The Devil and The Lovers. According to Marla, this combination meant that I was unlucky in love, and she looked at me expectantly, waiting for confirmation. The prediction was a safe bet. Seeking guidance about an unfulfilled romantic life is the most common reason customers consult psychics. According to the New York Times, Times Square psychic Priscilla Kelly Delmaro made $718,000 over a 20-month period on a client who sought her out to solve an unrequited love that weighed heavy on his heart—and was convinced they were being kept apart by dark forces.
However, I’m far from star-crossed: My boyfriend and I have been dating for over a year, and we’re mad about each other. We frequently talk about getting married after he finishes grad school.
Basically, every psychic is the highest-rated psychic on Yelp.
“That’s not accurate at all, actually,” I responded. She was clearly stunned to get such a harsh rebuttal and quickly backtracked: Perhaps the card was about past relationships? “Not really?” I shrugged. For most of my life, I’d been single—but not miserably so. Marla amended the prediction yet again, flipping over new cards that spun a new twist in my sordid tale. “Someone is conspiring to come into your life and come between the two of you,” she warned me. “Someone from the past.” I looked at her, stunned. I had no idea what the hell this woman was even talking about anymore.
Throughout our reading, I learned all kinds of things about myself: Marla informed me that I had a great sum of money—in the form of an inheritance—waiting for me. In addition, she told me that I have a channeling gift, as spirits are naturally drawn to me. “It must be my magnetic personality,” I joked. She also mentioned that a female friend (“someone close to you”) had recently died of cancer. That was nearly accurate: Last year, my best friend, Shawn, died of a sudden coronary due to an undiagnosed enlarged heart. “A heart attack, you mean?” I asked, wanting to help Marla out a little. “No… I see cancer,” she insisted.
In these moments, I realized something I hadn’t expected: I very badly wanted Marla to be the real deal. I waited for her to say my best friend’s name or provide me with an unexpected detail that she had no way of knowing—like the last words my friend and I spoke on the phone before I got the news. I don’t even remember what they were, or the last time I heard her speak, but I was open to suggestion. I would likely have accepted just about any answer to have heard Shawn’s voice—even through the mouth of a quack—one last time. I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear it, nearly two years after she passed, but I did.
Of all the things Marla got wrong—and there were many—she got a couple things just right: During our palm reading, she guessed I was a writer (despite my fib) and told me that my business would bring me great fame and fortune, which is more or less what everyone wants a psychic to tell them. But in addition, she kept probing me to speak up. “There’s something on your mind, I can tell,” Marla said. “What do you want to ask?” She was clearly fishing, but she was onto something here—even if she didn’t know it. When they come to a psychic, everyone is looking for an answer, whether that’s great acclaim or news of an unexpected fling on the horizon. Instead, a good reading is about soliciting the right questions.
I highly doubt Marla is a seasoned scammer—someone with the intent to harm her clients by ripping them off. In an interview with the BBC, psychologist Richard Wiseman argued that most mediums are “fairly sincere,” even if he found no evidence of actual predictive ability among psychics. What gives the reading power is that, as he suggests, it’s a kind of shared delusion. “We want to believe that the statement is true, that it applies to us,” he said. “So we tend to buy into it.” There’s no greater evidence of this than the fact that Marla was hardly alone in having a high Yelp rating: At least 50 other New York intuitives have perfect scores on the site. Basically, every psychic is the highest-rated psychic on Yelp.
If that’s a lot of happy customers, I left our appointment feeling strangely good about the reading. After all, Marla does what just about anyone could do: Ask questions and feel around for a response that serves her narrative (and her piggy bank, if all goes well). While I expected to be the one who had my views about the occult challenged, watching Marla get just about everything wrong taught me something I didn’t expect to learn: The most important questions were the ones I still needed to ask myself.
If the occult is bigger than ever, the reason isn’t that we’re all suckers. We all just need something to believe in, even when that something is total bullshit.
*Marla’s name and business have been changed.
Illustration by Bruno Moraes