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Bullshit and Bodybags: Sensing Murder is back from the dead

To mark the return of Sensing Murder – and to kick off Murder Week, our ill-advised week-long celebration of the show – long-time skeptic Paul Casserly tries his best to become a convert.

So Sensing Murder is back. Ten years ago I hated this show with such a vengeance that I took to it with the biggest stick that I could find. Being of cowardly stripe, this was not an actual stick, you understand – knowing me it would probably contain splinters or would bounce back and smack me in the mug as I tried to beat the bejesus out of Deb Webber, Kelvin Cruickshank or the one with purple hair that talks to animals.  

My stick was provided by the TV show I was working on at the time, Eating Media Lunch, a shambolic, satirical shitshow that was also screened on TVNZ.

Unafraid to bite the hand that feeds – ill-advisedly so, given we were soon to be cancelled – we got stuck into Sensing Murder, a televised charade that purports to investigate unsolved murders by employing the services of magicians, or “psychics” as they prefer to be called. With all the subtlety of blunt force trauma we called our rebuttal Sensing Bullshit, and took to this abomination with much glee – even having a crack at the usually sensible Nigel Latta, who for some mysterious reason appeared on an early episode, helping to legitimise the gruesome shenanigan.

I felt a twang of anger and self-righteousness familiar from my teenage years as a stridently anti-religious former Catholic. Like many young teens I became filled with the spirit of science, fizzing with an incandescent rejection of a religion now revealed as absurd and – for want of a better term – slightly evil. I fancied myself as a jihadist for reason. Mostly I was outraged that I had lapped it up all like a puppy: heaven, hell, the whole kebab. I had even been an altar boy, for fuck’s sake.

Of course I couldn’t wait to convert others to my new faith, to wake the sheeple from their slumber, and knew with certainty that all the world would soon come crashing to its senses. Surely religion would soon go the way of other doomed things, like dodos, black and white TV and backyard fires.

But I was wrong. Not about the bullshit, the hypocrisy, the mind-numbing sermons – but about religion. Obviously, it hasn’t and it won’t go away.

It provides that thing that many people need, it fills the so-called ‘God shaped hole’. It also supplies community, refuge, hope. There’s heaps of bad shit, but there’s heaps of good shit too. Also, the rituals can be fun, and, apart from the Destiny-type operations, the buildings are usually cool.  

Mostly I noted that my mum’s twice-weekly attendance at mass made her happy. Thus I gradually relaxed my fundamentalist sphincter.

I tried to remember this after being asked by the Spinoff to tear Sensing Murder a new one – not that I have the skills to deliver a Chris Hitchens-type bashing, a “If Deb Webber had an enema before she died, they’d have to bury her in a matchbox” level zinger. God knows she deserves it more than the others, if only for her pathetic boast that she foresaw the deadly Christchurch earthquake, but only thought to mention it after the carnage.

Herald on Sunday, March 6 2011

Shortly after the quake, Webber posted a message to the people of Christchurch on her Facebook page: “We are praying that you are all safe as we know that this earthquake has caused considerable damage … My compassion is with you, however I feel this will not be the last of the devastation.”

It was because of the surprising accuracy of her previous prediction, Webber said, that she was going public with her warning of further devastation.

Webber said she wasn’t completely sure if “further devastation” meant another earthquake was on its way or whether it reflected the current situation.

Even fellow psychic Kelvin Cruickshank took issue with Deb’s apparent belief in her own bullshit. “The people of Christchurch need support and faith from the rest of New Zealand,” he was quoted as saying at the time. “They do not need to be living in fear from persons who think they can predict events such as earthquakes, tidal-waves, and major disasters.”

Most tellingly, Deb hadn’t been at all accurate in her prediction: she didn’t mention Christchurch before the fact, but was still keen to claim the ‘vision’ as a victory. An earthquake in the Shaky Isles? Nostradamus’s cat could have forseen that.

But as much as Sensing Murder galls me, I find myself unable to join the chorus of people wishing it dead. I applaud those who expose it for what it is, but so long as no one in the police takes it seriously – which, as far I can tell, they don’t – I’m not sure there’s that much harm in satisfying the desire of some viewers to wallow in supernatural delusion.

While it hasn’t been easy, I’ve forced myself to fight my jerking knee, and come up with some arguments not to take Sensing Murder into a forest clearing, chop it into bits, and bury it in a plastic sack, where no one, especially Deb or Kelvin or the one with the purple hair who talks to animals, will ever find it.

Here goes.

1) The show gives the family of the dead or missing (or at least some members of the family) a chance to tell their story, to be heard, to keep the memory of their loved one alive. And, though it’s so far eluded the show, the mere rehashing of a crime does have the potential to jog someone’s real-world memory.

2) It entertains people, and rates well. This means it helps sell more adverts than some low rating worthy factual show, or a smart-arse satire. This, in turn, helps TVNZ to return a small profit to the government, and in the age of post-charter, National Party-run TVNZ, this is what the company is all about. I look forward to someone in a future government turning this madness around, but that’s what we’re stuck with for now.

3) For those who really want to believe in the after-life – or in the ability for special people to talk to the dead and possibly their pets – it’s affirming and it’s comforting. More than anything, Sensing Murder is saying that death is not the end. A hell of a lot of people want to hear that.

4) It’s brought back Dr Sarah Potts from the other side.

5) Okay so I couldn’t come up with five reasons, but thought I should point out to the few of you who don’t already know, that Dr Sarah Potts (RIP) was a major Shortland Street character played by Amanda Billing, who now presents Sensing Murder. Perhaps a spinoff show, with dead Shorty characters talking to Deb, Kelvin and the one with the purple hair who talks to animals could be on the cards?

I’ll cut short my rant about the negatives; I won’t admonish the makers and state-owned TV for inflicting more stupid on the world. I won’t even bang on about the zero times these psychics have turned up real evidence and the many, many times they have got it completely wrong. To suggest that these magicians are in touch with anything other than their imaginations, and possibly Google, is clearly insane, but I won’t mention that.

I’ll even concede that Deb, Kelvin and the one with the purple hair who talks to animals may not knowingly be dishonest. Perhaps I’m being kind, but I suspect that many a bullshit artist can’t smell his or her own bullshit. Orson Welles does a great job at explaining this phenomenon in a clip I came across on YouTube, retelling the time he posed as a psychic after learning the tricks of the trade from some retired practitioners.

Welles spent a day demonstrating his newly acquired cold reading skills on unsuspecting customers, before finally pulling the plug when he realised that he too was starting to believe his own bullshit.


Sensing Murder begins Thursday on TVNZ 2 at 8.30pm, we predict we’ll be covering it all week in our inaugural MURDER WEEK

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