Just beyond the front gates, Georgetown University students come across several psychic shops on neighboring Wisconsin Avenue and M Street. Within 3 miles of the Hilltop, students can find 12 locations for tarot card readings, palmistry and promises of connecting with those who have passed away.
From fortune tellers and frauds to clairvoyants and mediums, psychics are labelled differently depending on who you ask. They use crystal balls on our TV screens, promise us routes to another world for just $100 and hear about our deepest life concerns.
While some students are looking only for entertainment; others consult psychics for career or relationship advice. Though customers may leave feeling scammed, people continue to visit psychics because of life’s unpredictability, according to sociology professor Sarah Stiles.
“People are searching for answers, and when there is a time of uncertainty, especially among marginalized people who can’t find answers, they don’t have power and they are searching for something,” Stiles said in an interview with The Hoya.
A wide range of psychics, with different specialties and practices, exists, according to Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer Magazine. Radford has investigated psychics and paranormal activity for over 15 years, using scientific approaches to shed light on topics he labels pseudoscience, from ghosts and alternative medicine to astrology and aliens.
Certain psychics claim to predict the future or solve criminal cases, while others practice numerology, the belief in the mystical relationship between a number and coinciding events. Clairvoyants can connect with people who have died or are not physically present with the client. The average psychic storefront or medium is usually run by a woman who claims to have — and believes to have — special sensitivities, according to Radford.
While many people are tempted to label all psychics as scams, Radford cautioned against this stereotype.
“Most of these psychics are sincere. To be clear, there are hoaxers and scammers among psychics, but they are the exception rather than the rule,” Radford said in an interview with The Hoya. “The psychics that I have encountered both professionally and personally are sincere people. They genuinely believe they have these powers.”
Nabil Kapasi (SFS ’20), who recently visited Readings by Mrs. Jessica on M Street, did not doubt the intentions behind the psychic who told his fortune. (Full disclosure: Kapasi is a former member of The Hoya’s editorial board.)
“I got the sense that she believed in what she was doing,” Kapasi said. “It was not just a business but something she saw as an art almost and wanted to give people insights that would be helpful to them.”
But Danae Alogoskoufi (COL ’20), who visited the same psychic shop as Kapasi last year, was not convinced.
“The psychic said both general and specific things about me,” Alogoskoufi wrote in a message to The Hoya. “The general statements could be applied to anyone, so it felt pointless. The more specific predictions and inferences were completely inapplicable to my life. So overall, I left very unimpressed and felt scammed.”
Jessica declined to give an interview with The Hoya.
Charley, a psychic who has practiced spiritual healing in Washington, D.C., for over 30 years, called herself a “seventh-generation psychic healer,” as the tradition has run through her family for centuries.
Charley explained that she regularly encounters people who do not initially believe in her abilities.
“I actually love to read a skeptic because they usually walk out a believer. I’ve definitely read skeptics,” Charley said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “I don’t force myself on people, because this is all based on energy. So if you are very guarded, it’s harder to read, and I just believe that energy-wise you should not invade people’s personal space.”
Tricks of the Trade
Charley runs The Psychic Shop in Dupont Circle, where she offers a range of different services, such as alternative medicine and ancient meditation practices.
“My shop is considered a wellness center,” Charley said. “I do reiki healing, chakra work, tarot card readings, palmistry and many more.”
The most popular readings at The Psychic Shop are closely tied between tarot cards and palm readings. While palm readings are more individualized to each client’s experiences, tarot cards focus on more of the social aspects of people’s lives, according to Charley.
“Palm reading is more personal and about yourself and your path,” Charley said. “Tarot card readings are going to give information about yourself but also significant people in your life: lovers, families, coworkers. So if people have relationship questions, we would suggest a tarot card reading. If you have more questions about your own path like, for example, what kind of career you should follow or something like that, then we would probably do a palm reading.”
Both Kapasi and Alogoskoufi opted for palm readings at Readings by Mrs. Jessica because it was cheapest, at $10.
“She basically just asked to see my dominant hand and started saying things about my past and my future,” Kapasi said. “It was pretty interesting.”
Though it was Kapasi’s first time visiting a psychic, he said he would return because of the perspective he gained.
“I was curious, I thought it might be helpful to get an outsider perspective on my life, I guess, and just see,” Kapasi said. “I didn’t think there was any harm in trying and I’m glad I did it.”
Approximately 25 psychic shops are scattered across D.C., according to Yelp, with many more lacking an online presence. Before working in Dupont Circle, Charley began performing readings near Capitol Hill in 1989.
“I started off near Capitol Hill, I had an office on Second and Penn. I stayed there for a few years and it got almost a little boring because I felt like I was reading the same types of people over and over again,” Charley said. “And then I took a ride through Dupont and fell in love with the area and felt like it was such a melting pot and I’ve been in Dupont ever since.”
Charley is one of the capital’s top three fortune tellers, according to Washington City Paper. Being a psychic in the District means people ranging from politicians, young professionals, The George Washington University students and older residents stop by to get a reading from Charley.
“It’s such a mix; that’s why I love being in Dupont, because I’m not far from Georgetown or GW,” Charley said. “Even here in Dupont we read some of the people that work in government since we’re in D.C.”
Psychic shops’ locations are important for their business model to survive, according to Professor Stiles.
“They wouldn’t be here if there weren’t a market. It’s a business,” Stiles said. “Every business you’ve got to make money and you’ve got to make enough money to stay in business. You’ve got a whole college population between GW and Georgetown who are up for something new, something interesting. It’s inexpensive: five bucks, it’s been five bucks forever, and that’s to get you in the door.”
Positions of Power
Last month, British comedian John Oliver called out the $2.2 billion psychic industry in his popular late-night show, blaming sensationalist media outlets for promoting an industry of psychics, mediums and healers that, in Oliver’s account, scam customers. Approximately 40 percent of Americans believe psychics can give accurate readings, according to a 2018 poll by Pew Research Center.
As a psychologist and prominent U.S. skeptic, Radford echoed Oliver’s takedown of the psychic industry, blaming the rising social acceptance of a psychic’s abilities on the media and entertainment industry.
“People need to keep in mind that what you’re seeing on TV, it’s entertainment — it’s not informational. The goal of the show is to entertain you and make you believe that the psychic is real, but they are not telling you the other side of the story,” Radford said.
For some students, a trip to a local psychic is more of a way to pass time than genuine belief in such special powers. Julianna Hoff (SFS ’20) said both her visits to nearby Georgetown psychics were for entertainment.
“I went more for a laugh rather than to take it seriously,” Hoff said. “It was more something to do with my friends than me going seeking answers. The psychics were very interesting; I feel like they really played the role of psychics. They try to make themselves look more mysterious than they actually are.”
With many Americans believing in the ability to predict the future, some clients make serious life decisions based on a reading by a psychic. Radford said in certain cases people choose who to date or marry, what job to take or where to live based on a reading.
“There is this appeal to authority,” Radford said. “So you can look at the position that psychics have in society as similar to a priest, or a rabbi or a witch doctor. Someone who is claiming to be a conduit to another world. In some cases it’s fine; in other cases it can be easily abused. It’s in some cases, the courses of people’s lives are being changed based upon information of psychics.”
Despite claims to special powers, psychics are generally harmless, according to Hoff.
“I think it’s part of the human psyche to want to know the future,” Hoff said. “There are some people that take it way too seriously and actually base their life decisions on these readings. I don’t see too much harm in it as long as you take everything they tell you with a grain of salt.”