British broadcasting in the early 2000s brought us to the pinnacle of car-crash television. From the morally questionable drama of ‘The Execution of Gary Glitter’, to starkers game shows like ‘Naked Jungle’, it came as little surprise that televised séances for newly-dead celebrities soon entered TV listings, writes Kate Cherrell
‘Michael Jackson: The Live Séance’ brought in approximately 600,000 viewers; quite the feat for a satellite channel. It has been called cruel, exploitative and hilarious in equal measure, and was broadcast just 6 months after the star’s death. Sky One’s seance was voted the worst show of the year on a Yahoo poll, brought in hundreds of complaints both before and after broadcast, and entered the record books as one of the most controversial programmes ever. Quite the feat for some unconvincing chat with the dead.
When Michael Jackson unexpectedly died at the age of 50 in 2009, the world of pop culture was shaken to its core. Music’s most infamous oddball was no more, and the outpouring of public grief was both tangible and unavoidable the world over. His televised memorial service at the Staples Center in Los Angeles attracted an estimated 2.4 billion viewers globally, numbers usually associated with royalty, not pop stars. Large guerrilla-shrines cropped up in most major cities, with London branches of HMV covered in messages of love and adoration. Not since the death of Princess Diana in 1997 had such a visible tsunami of sorrow emerged and affected so many.
It goes without saying that Jackson’s earthly life was mired in controversy. Hounded by the press since childhood, his erratic behaviour and ever-changing appearance was tabloid fodder for nearly five decades. Accused of sexual misdemeanours from 1993 until his dramatic acquittal in 2005 (and later, posthumous accusations), fans remained rabid and devoted throughout, ultimately selling out his ill-fated 50-show residency at London’s O2 Arena. At the time of death, Michael Jackson was not simply a popstar, but a cultural icon – an image owned by all of us, and as some would see it, fair game for exploitation.
‘Michael Jackson: The Live Séance’ was the jewel in the crown of Sky One’s King of Pop-themed programming event on 6th November 2009. However, it was not a stand-alone show. Throughout the evening of the 6th, viewers would be treated to in-depth MJ content, including a supernaturally-angled documentary on his life, ‘Michael Jackson: The Search for His Spirit’, with the evening ultimately culminating with ‘Michael Jackson: The Live Séance’.
‘The Search for His Spirit’ gave a little inkling of the unsettling tone yet to come, where those who knew Michael came forwards to offer their own insight and beliefs as to the nature and wellbeing of his mental state and ‘soul’. As with most Michael Jackson content, those speaking as confidants weren’t household names, or anyone notably close to the singer, at least from a public perspective.
As with many shows concerning deceased celebrities, ‘close friend’ is a title for hire; a cloak to be worn for the evening, before collecting pay packets, exposure and then returning to everyday life. If ‘Search for his Spirit’ is anything to go by, Jackson had so many ‘personal’ professionals that he could easily have employed a reasonably sized town to fulfil every facet of his needs.
There were co-stars from his Thriller video, his personal astrologer, biographer and his spiritual advisor. The latter, Rev June Gatlin, has been vocal about her involvement with Michael, as both a spiritual healer and advisor, with news articles and recollections of her time with the King of Pop spiking dramatically following his death.
According to reports, Jackson had contacted the softly-spoken healer in 2008 and asked her to fly to Las Vegas to perform a ‘spirit reading’, a task she completed so successfully that she would perform many taped oracle readings in the year preceding his death. According to Gatlin, Jackson wrote in a note to her, “It’s like being baptized in the sea of life.”
Establishing Michael as spiritually sensitive was integral for the success, or at least the coherence, of the evening. If we are to understand that Jackson himself believed in the immortality of the spirit and the potential of after-death consciousness, then performing a séance seems both inevitable and almost fitting.
June Sarpong was the unfortunate sacrificial lamb tasked with presenting the evening’s entertainment and did so with a professionalism that would outfox most of us. Sarpong later confirmed that she was sold the package as a reputable set of documentaries, with no mention of a séance. Yet despite this unfavourable start, June comes out of things relatively unscathed, and by all accounts had a very nice kitchen fitted from the proceeds.
Sky One ultimately found someone almost as controversial as Jackson himself to lead the séance, the infamous (now-deceased) scouse medium Derek Acorah. Acorah made his name as resident medium on Living TV’s ‘Most Haunted’ before the public exposure of some less-than supernatural methodologies ultimately forced him from the show, not long before the Jackson show was due for broadcast.
Nonetheless, Acorah remained synonymous with the format, and was famously possessed by a whole manner of spirits, from jailers to highwaymen, often without warning. This ability to be suddenly taken over by ineloquent spirits saw us blessed with the immortal line ‘Mary loves Dick’, among others. Undeterred by sceptics and naysayers, Acorah commanded the celebrity séance room with the confidence of a man with Michael Jackson on speed dial.
For all of Derek’s efforts, the interviews and discussions outside the séance room offer some of the most interesting, and baffling, content across the evening. Joining June Sarpong, presumably with the hope of adding an identifiable link to Jackson, was David Gest. The entertainer, being a known associate of Jackson’s for decades, offered a few small pieces of inane personal insight into life with the singer, including childlike food fights at KFC and bowling trips where they would deliberately throw the balls into the gutter.
Gest wasn’t the villain of the piece, but another strange linchpin, who opened the séance for his dead friend with a series of intense compliments, crooning ‘you have the most beautiful lips and the most prettiest white teeth I’ve ever seen in my life’ to an increasingly baffled June. Gest is quick to discuss his own spiritual interests where, apropos of nothing, he excitedly says how he always has ‘little people on stage [with him] as they bring me good luck’, pausing only to deliver the stranger still ‘I believe in leprechauns too.’ If any interaction was to signpost the tone for the evening, this was it.
Gest went on to say that he had met with the Jackson family before attending the séance, and tactfully reported that Michael’s mother was not a fan of the idea, but that Tito said, ‘good luck’, but tonally, we can’t be sure how Tito truly felt (although we can all take an educated guess).
The séance took place in the rooms of Ballinacurra House in County Cork, a Georgian mansion where Jackson stayed to write his last album in 2006/7. While the house is undoubtedly stunning, in the shadows of séance (spirit contact works best in darkness, for practical reasons that seem to continually escape us), they may as well have been in a studio. However, being in a place directly associated with Michael, it was hoped that such a connection would aid Acorah in his efforts to contact the spirit world.
All seances need sitters and the Michael Jackson séance was no different. While Acorah sat at the helm, a cross section of fans – some with their own levels of infamy – joined him in a semi-circle of spiritual lunacy. Four fans were brought to the table, two of whom were dressed as Jackson at different stages of his career.
While the format is somewhat laughable, the trauma experienced by these people is unarguably real, and begs the question, how on earth were these people ever allowed into this environment. One fan speaks of how part of himself died along with Michael, yet is placed into a position where his devotion and grief is magnified, dramatized and reframed as entertainment. The fans speak of how they couldn’t meet him in life, yet are so desperate for connection with their idol, that they seek a connection in death, however unlikely that may be.
As an ill-fated nod to ethical conduct, a parapsychologist was inexplicably posted to a lifeguard’s chair within the studio, presumably with the intent of suggesting some element of moral guidance, safeguarding or overseeing. However, this physically elevated role was barely a gesture, as he remained largely silent throughout, and was ultimately impotent against Acorah’s intense channelling.
Derek explained that a connection with the spirit world can’t be guaranteed, but we all know that with a live broadcast to fill, Michael would be knocking on the studio door in seconds. After spiritually protecting the fans against any unwanted spirits who may wish to ‘dishevel’ them, the séance commenced with instant success. With little respect for the confines of live TV, Jackson’s ghost appeared to Derek during an ad break, aided by Derek’s spirit guide, Sam. It’s said that when Jackson first made contact, Derek claimed that he was with Elvis, but this premise was quickly dropped when the cameras switched back on.
For the duration of the broadcast, Michael spoke largely uninterrupted. At first, Derek communicated what he saw Michael’s spirit doing in his mind’s eye, seeing his hat thrown into the air and falling down ‘like a falling star’. Later, when channelling the man himself, profound insights such as ‘will someone say hello to Quincy Jones for me?’ fall on increasingly confused ears.
Aided by the introduction of Michael’s hat and latest CD, the fans fondle the brim and weep as Michael’s American-ish accent emerges with Derek’s scouse tone. As fans pose questions to their idol, ‘Michael’ answers sobs of ‘Do you know how much I love you?’ with affirmations of how love and sensitivity, rather unpleasantly, ‘oozes’ from them all.
As awkward and amusing as Derek’s messages are, in many instances, laughter stops abruptly with the cold realisation that four desperate and damaged strangers are sitting with Derek Acorah, weeping. As Derek strokes their hands and reassures them with encouragements to continue with their love and passions, he seems Christ-like, redeeming his followers with a twisted authority he had no business in adopting.
Derek delivers strange wishy-washy messages about tabloids and his treatment by the press, offering no strong views on any aspect of his life on earth or in heaven, save for a sudden anger that he was not laid to rest beside Marilyn Monroe, as an anonymous burial away from the Hollywood icon would make him ‘inconsequential’ in death.
As the night progressed, the fans became borderline hysterical with grief, and watching them felt like an imposition, and a deeply personal violation. Fully immersed in Derek’s narrative, ‘Michael’ continually thanks his fans for their love, before the séance is suddenly brought to a close. In an unsurprising break from spiritualist tradition, the parapsychologist, descending from his lifeguard’s chair, taps Derek on the shoulder (as though he was being asked to leave the dancefloor) and is told to wrap things up.
What has been learned from the Michael Jackson séance, if anything? Ultimately, spirit contact is a matter of belief and a submission to the intangible, but in exploring the supernatural, we don’t necessarily need to suspend our moral duty to one another. From talent competitions to compilations of home movie mishaps, modern entertainment is built on exploiting the misfortune and unbridled emotions of others for the entertainment of the masses.
While such programmes are rarely ethically sound, television – especially those who produce it – is rarely a paragon of morality. There have been celebrity seances for generations, and this paranormal tradition only develops and evolves with each new technological advancement. With the advent of livestreaming, people can hop onto social media as soon as a death is announced and attract viewers with an instant séance to try and contact their celebrity of choice.
Perhaps the trick isn’t to dissuade would-be séances, but to regulate them, or provide the aftercare and vetting procedures that projects such as the Michael Jackson séance clearly lacked.
 Fubar interview – IB show