It was the psychomanteum that broke me. In episode 5 of Netflix’s Life After Death with Tyler Henry, the self-professed California medium asks his dad to build him a “psychomanteum.” He explains it’s a practice that dates back to Ancient Greece. What it ends up being is a room in Henry’s house, painted the colour of Doctor Who’s TARDIS, with the pencil scribbles he does to meditate hung up in black frames and acting like windows. Inside the dark room, Henry spends an hour looking into a mirror that’s angled away from him, trying to get impressions from the afterlife. It’s the only time we see Henry’s father on the show. I can only imagine the impressions that went through his head when his son explained to him why he needed this room.
Tyler Henry—jolly, clean-cut, seemingly in his early twenties, with strands of blond-highlighted hair he keeps brushing away from his face—came to fame as the star of the television show Hollywood Medium, in which he used his self-professed gift to relay messages to celebrities from their dearly departed. Now, he has been added to the ever-expanding Netflix catalogue of feel-good hooey, which includes Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop lab and Zac Efron’s travels with his health guru. On Life After Death, Tyler Henry gives readings to the fans on his long waiting list, while a B-plot finds him literally powerless in the face of a family mystery.
As a skeptic, I feel it important to first confront the central claim made by this show: that Tyler Henry can get impressions from the dead. There is no good evidence that the dead talk to us. What can play the role of mediumship, however, are two techniques called cold reading and hot reading, and while the former can appear banal when described, it can be very convincing in the right hands, especially if the “sitter,” whom the medium “reads,” is vulnerable and misremembers the details of the session.
If I wanted to pretend that I could hear from the dead and didn’t have any information about the client sitting in front of me, I would use cold reading techniques. I would state a personality trait and its opposite: “The deceased was quiet and reserved, but when the mood struck, they could be quite the life of the party.” I would use flattery: “They were a good person.” I would say their death was tied to something in the chest area, a fuzzy fact that can be spun to include heart attack, difficulty breathing, any cancer in the chest, or even simply someone’s last breath. I would use the vanishing negative: “She didn’t work with children, did she?” Whether the answer is yes or no, it will be remembered as a hit.
These tricks have been described by Ian Rowland in his book The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading and by many others, because they work and continue to fool people. I don’t know for a fact that Tyler Henry uses cold reading on the show, but it often looks like he does. The vague impressions he gets have to be clarified by the sitter, prompted by Henry asking, “Can you fill in the blanks?” Only, the blanks aren’t rare; they’re pretty much the whole text. He often has to ask for the dead person’s name, and the vague bits he does volunteer are often confirmed by very visible changes in the sitter’s disposition: they look at their friend with awe in their eyes or they start crying. You don’t need to be a world-class observer to notice you’ve hit gold.
Given the unhelpful cues Henry seems to receive from the hereafter, the show can be summed up as a Macaulay Culkin lookalike who clumsily plays a game of Guess Who? with someone’s trauma.
While trying to help a private investigator with a cold case, the miraculous information he gets from the dead is that the case was “mishandled.” Why else would you contract a private investigator if you did not believe the case had been mismanaged by the police?
The opposite of cold reading is hot reading, and the show tries very hard to convince us that hot reading was not in the cards. Hot reading is cheating: it means to gather information about your client beforehand and to let it trickle out during the reading as if it were whispered to you from the afterlife. With social media, hot-reading someone can be as easy as scrolling through their Facebook posts.
There are instances on Life After Death where I suspect hot reading may have been used, despite the reassurances that Henry has no idea who he’s about to read and that neither his assistant nor his mom, who drive him around, know who is waiting for him. A reading he does in episode 9 is peppered with three names that hit their targets. “Is there a Harold?” he asks. That’s the name of the deceased grandfather they had been discussing. He then mentions precious stones. “Opals, rubies.” Aunt Opal was Grandpa’s sister. Later, he asks, “is there a Luke in the family?” That’s the nephew. While a medium on television amply benefits from the editing out of misses and the showcasing of hits, this one seems a bit uncanny.
And then there’s the apparent hot reading that gets cold real fast. In episode 4, Tyler uses Tarot cards before leaving his hotel room to see what today’s reading will be about, and he gets the impression of a mother who passed away. When he’s driven to the house and meets with a woman, he asks about an old lady, but it’s a miss. Turns out that the woman’s young son died drowning in Belize on a school trip and he was wearing a GoPro camera, which means that his death, horrifically, was recorded on video. Henry does not pick up on any of this: he doesn’t see “water” and he doesn’t talk about a “third eye” watching the events. He asks questions about whether the mom was away from him when he passed and whether anyone else was around him at the time, but he does not have the answers.
It turns out that the woman whose son drowned does not live in this house. And the “mother who passed away,” who Henry claims he can see by the shed, is the mother of the homeowner, who is asked to come out of the house and confirm this. She’s a fan of Henry’s. And there is indeed a photo of the deceased mother by the shed, which the production acquired and shows us.
Did Henry look up the owner of the house he was being driven to? Was he fed information about her from his assistant? I have no way of knowing, but the brilliant thing about mediumship is that anything can be excused. You may think the impressions are about someone in your client’s past, but it may turn out to be the ghost of the homeowner’s mom or the family of the associate producer overseeing the shoot, a trick that was used on Netflix’s The goop lab. And as Henry mentions in episode 5, “Sometimes, people we’ve never met can come through.” That’s awfully convenient.
Finding a happy medium
The show works really hard to convince you that Tyler Henry, who has over half a million Facebook followers and a bit more on Instagram, is an aw-shucks “medium next door.” His fake smiles and grimaces, like a child’s idea of how an adult therapist behaves, are contrasted with his growing fatigue. He is a gifted man on a mission to help people at a great cost to his health. But through the lens of skepticism, the illusion falls apart.
His consultation with the private investigator, who needs help on a missing woman case and on a cold case, is all for naught. He claims the missing woman used a different name but doesn’t offer it. Of the cold case, he mentions difficulty breathing, but it turns out it was a hit-and-a-run, and when he meets with the victim’s mother, he claims her son “went very fast.” The mother feels her son was set up, but Henry does not pick up on this. A title card informs us that the police still do not know if foul play was involved and that the investigation remains open. At least Henry knows not to commit Sylvia Browne’s sin. Browne claimed to be a medium, and on a daytime talk show, told the mother of a missing girl that “she’s not alive, honey.” The girl would be found alive nine years later.
While the show seeks to distinguish itself from Henry’s Hollywood Medium by spotlighting “average Joes,” many of the participants are either related to celebrities or are known to Henry himself. There’s the sound engineer who works at the studio of hip hop duo OutKast. There’s the owner and president of the Los Angeles Lakers, Jeanie Buss. There’s the woman who worked for actress Bette Davis. In his psychomanteum, Henry saw a woman with a birthmark above her lip. He thinks it’s a hit for Davis because in one movie, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, they drew one on her cheek. Henry also gives readings to a former teacher of his who saved him from committing suicide; the director of the place he volunteers at; the owners of the tea room where he began his mediumship career; and his school’s librarian. Not exactly strangers. The show also often selects affluent people who live in opulent homes. Those who don’t are shuffled off to public locations. On this show, every ghost is blissful and poverty does not exist.
Throughout, Henry is cast as the self-sacrificing hero. His lung collapsed on stage in early 2020 and his boyfriend reminds us, on the eve of Henry’s new fifty-city tour, that he “almost died last time.” Henry reports a three-hour panic attack in episode 7 because of his visions. In the final moments of the series, he boldly states, “Standing on that stage could be a risk to my life! But I have to do it.” The money he makes doing this cannot be ignored. A ticket for his upcoming show in New York City costs anywhere between USD 65.50 and 384.00. His audience does not seem to care that he neither predicted COVID-19 nor his collapsed lung, which put him in the hospital for months at the beginning of the pandemic.
Something else Henry did not predict: Matt Lauer’s history of sexual misconduct and the assault allegations that were levelled against him. In 2016, Henry sat with Lauer, then the co-anchor of The Today Show. And even though on his Netflix show Henry says he gets messages from living people as well, none of Lauer’s victims seemingly came through. But Lauer’s deceased dad came through: he was “immensely proud” of his son, according to Henry.
In fact, the B-plot on the show—of Tyler’s mom finding out, through DNA testing, that her mother is not biologically related to her—showcases Henry’s kryptonite: when it comes to getting clues from the great beyond to help his family solve their mystery, the ghosts are mute. He claims to be too biased. The family house in New Orleans gives him “no context” for his impressions. In a bit of irony, he has to consult another medium, who apparently proceeds to cold-read him and his mom. Like so many of Henry’s own clients, his mom resonates with what the medium tells her and feels a sense of peace.
The medium is the message
In Henry’s universe of muffled ghostly connections, spirits don’t have much to say. They acknowledge the birth of a child they were not around to meet. They say justice will be served but holding on to guilt is no good. They are proud and at peace. These are messages we can readily glean from Hallmark greeting cards. If Henry really picks up on the garbled transmissions of spirits, what use is this power if all the ghosts have to give us is an A-OK signal? They never reveal the name of their murderer, or where their secret stash of money is, or the winning numbers of next week’s lottery. They simply love you and want you to know that everything is good. Love is the Achilles’ heel mediums exploit.
So what’s the harm if this bit of emotional manipulation serves as an alternative therapy for grieving parties? I reached out to two people who investigate mediums regularly. Michael Marshall, project director for the Good Thinking Society in the United Kingdom, reminded me that not all mediums offer pablum: “At one psychic show I attended, a lady was told that her son’s death wasn’t suicide; it was murder. From that moment on, rather than bringing her comfort, the psychic set her out to look for evidence of a killer who doesn’t exist.”
Susan Gerbic, who has written about Tyler Henry for Skeptical Inquirer, told me that “anyone not having a positive experience is not going to make it in the final cut.” It is television, after all. Some of the people who get a reading and then start to doubt its authenticity end up getting in touch with Gerbic. “They sense they just got taken for a ride. It’s not the money [they spent] so much as the feeling that someone was manipulating you, got into your brain, and rumbled around.” These victims let their guard down and found themselves betrayed by their own instinct to trust.
There is a good reason why psychics and mediums are often referred to as “grief vampires.” Unwittingly, or perhaps as a wink to the skeptics, Tyler Henry says the following in the closing moments of the show: “There’s a lot at stake. […] People are desperate for any semblance of a connection to their loved one.” (Italics mine.) Indeed. People are desperate. They have suffered incalculable grief. One of the sitters on the show lost two young daughters in a catastrophic mudslide. These people are vulnerable. To Out magazine, he once said he wanted to work with parents who lost a child to suicide. It makes my skin crawl.
A lot of money at Netflix is riding on Tyler Henry looking good for the camera. We would do well to remember how Tyler Henry is credited on the Internet Movie Database. Under his name, it simply says, “Actor.”