Murder Week continues: Alex Casey spends an evening with Sensing Murder’s Sue Nicholson during her Answers From the Other Side tour, and doesn’t get a lot of answers.
Look, I’m not strictly saying I believe in ghosts. All I’m saying is, when I was 14 I’m pretty sure I talked to David Lange through a ouija board. It was a sticky Halloween afternoon, me and my friend crammed together in a small bedroom with the blinds shut. We said ‘are there any spirits in this room?’. The board said ‘yes’. We said ‘are you David Lange?’. The board said ‘I am’. Unsticking rogue Scrabble tiles that had embedded themselves deep into my sweaty kneecaps, I was very sure that was irrefutable evidence we had been in the presence of a ghost that day.
It was with the same inquisitiveness that I decided to head along to an evening with Sue Nicholson, flame-haired star of diabolical and extremely popular local series Sensing Murder. Returning tonight after a 10 year hiatus – even ghosts need a holiday – I’m sure you all know what Sensing Murder is by now. TV producers tear open decades of grieving and hurt to thrust a photo of a dead person in the hands of a few bumbling psychics. The psychics then dodder into the middle of a field somewhere wearing a blindfold, pointing to a patch of grass with a metal detector and confidently belching “the body is there”.
The body is never there.
Dropping a cool 50 odd bucks on tickets to Sue Nicholson’s live event “Answers From the Other Side”, I decided to bring my mum along just in case anything weird kicked off in the spirit world and I needed a blood relative to sacrifice to save myself. Mum was a complete psychic convert after attending a similar evening where she was told by a man in a ponytail that a spirit wanted to tell her “she would have a very nice time with the family this Christmas”. Mum burst into tears at the eerie prophecy. She would go on to have a nice time with the family that Christmas.
Wow, chills. There’s still time to click out of this scary story FYI. You have been warned.
It was a balmy evening when we rushed, late and sweaty, to The Sue Nicholson Encounter. I was already a few wines down having been in Hamilton that day for Wintec Press Club, and was slightly worried that my relaxed mind would make me an easier target for vengeful ghosts. The venue was a dull conference space nestled at the back of a motel lodge in West Auckland, hauntingly lit by the glow of a nearby Burger King. We grabbed the strongest drinks available at the small cash bar, determined to control at least one kind of spirit entering our bodies that night.
As sure as that vintage doll in the cabinet is going to kill you in the middle of the night, Sue Nicholson was there waiting for us at the door, all spiky hair and countless layers of bejewelled kaftan. She embodied a look that would be best described as ‘Shanton after dark’. Aside from maybe Kelvin Cruickshank’s frosted tips, there’s no denying that Sue has the most distinctive style in the Sensing Murder lookbook. Trends may come and go, but Sue’s dyed faux fur collars, stonking big earrings and immovable ‘can I speak to the manager’ haircut remain eternal.
Sue greeted us as we bustled in, focussed with the intensity of someone either in love with you or wanting to cold read your every move. I puffed up my chest like a pigeon and adopted an alarmingly open stance that made it hard for to get through the door. She wasn’t going to get a read on me, not tonight. The woman who walked in before us gave Sue an enormous hug, the woman after us limped to her seat close to the aisle. Mum and I sat at the back, placing whispered bets on who the spirits would choose to communicate to in this surreal, dimension-crossing version of schoolyard pickings.
The crowd was 200 strong, skewed well over 40 and largely comprised of women. Although I didn’t see any, I would bet my life savings that at least one person in that room was wearing one of those upcycled bracelets made out of a melted-down fork. There were couples and families dotted through the room, some more bleary-eyed than others. Mourners. Sue began, launching into an alarming stand-up comedy routine packed with innuendo, one-liners and anecdotes about her and her husband’s shenanigans. No ghosts as yet, but she assured us she could see a long line of them next to the stage, some of which were pestering her for the microphone.
Can a ghost… talk into a microphone?
Scrawling down observations in my notebook and absent-mindedly doodling, I suddenly became acutely aware that I was being watched. I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t crossed my mind that taking notes might anger prying ghosts somehow. Alas, the gaze was one from this terrestrial realm, the woman next to me watching every word I wrote like a hawk. Sue began getting a reading from somewhere in the room, touching on some too-specific details that I recognised from a recent local tragedy in the area. Gasps ran through the crowd as some family members of the deceased put their hand up for the roaming microphone.
Sue knew they would be there already, of course, if not through the spirit world then through the booking system that requires every person to fill out their very Google-able personal details. As the messages came in from The Other Side, she would hurtle quick-fire questions at the people affected (“I’m getting a young woman – do you understand?” “She’s sending me a car – do you understand?”). The speed at which she insisted “do you understand” was so brutal that people barely had time to say no. I began taking tally of how many times she asked it, and would later give up well past 50.
The woman next to me began jiggling her leg anxiously. With half the room in tears already after the first reading (the people did understand), Sue moved on to someone in the audience whose dead grandparent was trying to reach out. Hands shot up everywhere, but she elaborated that she was also looking for someone with an injured knee. Someone like the middle-aged woman who limped past her at the start of the show wearing a knee brace, perhaps?
With every person selected for the microphone that wasn’t her, the woman next to us sighed and wiped away silent tears. I tried not to look at her. Sue had moved on to a man in the front row now, who had a dead woman on his mother’s side (rare) that was trying to communicate something about a meaningful tree from his childhood. “Do you understand?” she crowed. “I don’t remember a tree,” the man said hesitantly into the microphone.
Sue called for a half-time break, at which point crowds flooded to the merch stand, stacked with tarot cards, amethysts and books. There were also piles of promotional material for upcoming events, one of which was an Australian psychic cruise called “Psychics Unleashed 4: Mediums, Miracles and Moving Forward.” The other was a Tupperware event called “Tupperware With a Twist”, where punters were invited to visit the Tupperware office to get the classic combo of 1 x free Tupperware and 1 x psychic reading with Sue.
When we returned to our seats for the second half, the woman next to me asked what I was doing taking notes. I mumbled something about writing, and she pleaded that I take notes for her, should she get singled out by Sue. Her voice cracking, she explained that her husband had passed away recently, and that she was struggling to cope with their adult disabled son without him. “I just need his help” she said to nobody in particular. I promised her I would help, hastily turning the page on my notebook that was covered in doodles of what looked like a giant sperm with legs.
As the woman hugged me thankfully I realised what a massive piece of shit I was, coming to this event all wry-eyed and sneering just an hour earlier. Every second person in the room had been crying, the feeling of both desperation and relief palpable as Sue babbled her way through various vague messages. For most people, it seemed like this was enough. And who am I to judge what is and isn’t useful when it comes to grief or faith or childhood tree memories?
All I wanted from that moment on was for the woman next to me to get picked, to get any vague sense of comfort beyond the idiot next to her taking nervous nonsensical notes. The woman leaned in. “I even hugged her on the door so she could sense my energy better.”
“I’m getting a budgie flying over here, do you understand?”
It was too late. We had moved on to the pet portion of the evening. Sue gestured her hands over a sizable portion of the room, indicating where the ghost budgie was flying around and probably, I’m assuming, doing ghost budgie poops on everyone. A few confused hands went up slowly. “Blue and white, do you understand?” One hand was left remaining, a woman who had indeed owned a blue and white budgie as a child. Next was a yellow and green budgie on the other side of the room, followed by a dog, the conversations never extending far beyond “oh, yeah, that’s mine”. Historically not the best conversationalists, animals.
The evening was wrapped up with a baffling slideshow, where Sue had seemingly lifted an assortment of buzzy images that she insisted were spirits captured on film, mixed in with inspirational artwork of fairies and angels that could be found on anyone’s auntie’s Facebook page. “Orbs: do you understand?” she said earnestly, clicking the clicker through to a slide that featured a multitude of orbs. Finally, Sue announced that one lucky audience member had a tarot card under their seat, and that they would win a live reading on stage. I smiled my biggest most hopeful smile at the woman next to me.
Everyone looked under their seats cautiously like a very earnest episode of Oprah, with a woman towards the front of the room excitedly holding up a hot pink tarot card emblazoned with green butterflies. The woman next to us hung her head and sobbed. Mum looked at me and I looked at Mum. We stood and up and walked out, silently wading through decades of dead budgies, all the way to the car.
Sensing Murder returns to TVNZ 2 tonight at 8.30pm. Click here for the rest of our Murder Week coverage including Paul Casserly on Sensing Bullshit and Emily Writes on being haunted by Kiefer Sutherland.
This content, like all television coverage we do at The Spinoff, is brought to you thanks to the excellent folk at Lightbox. Do us and yourself a favour by clicking here to start a FREE 30 day trial of this truly wonderful service.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.