Psychic and fortunetelling services are a big business. According to the Pew Forum 15% of Americans have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic and some mainstream news outlets have even claimed that the practice is recession-proof. Recently, Time Magazine and the BBC have both looked at a growing trend of stricter regulations against psychics being enforced by local governments. But where is the line drawn between reasonable safeguards and oppressive control over speech and commerce? The Wild Hunt’s series Psychic Services and the Law speaks to noted figures within the worlds of fortunetelling and psychic services to get their view on this complex and sometimes contentious issue.
For this installment we turn to Salem, Massachusetts, the “Witch City”, where its infamous witch-trials in the late 17th century have spawned a seemingly unlikely modern tourist industry based around modern-day Witches (reportedly around 10% of the population), psychics, and all things Halloween. There, Salem business-owner (Hex and Omen) and promoter Christian Day, who campaigned three years ago to relax regulations on psychic services, runs the annual Festival of the Dead, an event that features the city’s longest-running psychic fair. I was lucky enough to conduct a short interview with (the currently very busy) Day about psychic regulations, Salem’s laws, and the future of the industry.
First off, what are your general opinions concerning the regulation of psychics, should they be singled out as an industry by local governments? Do you think regulations that call for background checks or letters of reference are fair?
I prefer a free-market approach to the psychic industry, where licenses are available to anyone who wishes to ply their trade as a psychic reader. However, I do support the licensing process because this is an industry prone to fraud, I have no problem with the requirements for criminal background checks, especially since I have nearly 30 psychics working for me in October and would prefer not to have those who have a record of fraudulent activity. However, I do not support caps on the number of any sort of business in a town, not even liquor licenses, for that fact, because, in my opinion, the good restaurants, hairdressers, bars, and, yes, psychics, will ultimately rise or fall on the merit of their talents. If the restrictions are too draconian or difficult, then it smacks to me of an unnecessary restriction of trade.
Salem’s ordinance on “fortune telling” does include such restrictions as having to live in Salem or own a business in Salem for a year or more (unless you work for someone who fits that criteria) and that a business hosting psychics be 50% or more metaphysical. The former seems fair enough to me to ensure that a business or individual is committed to Salem in the long term, though the second seems to place an undue burden on city employees having to decide what constitutes metaphysical and what doesn’t. As a practicing Witch, I can touch any object and make it magical. That said, Salem’s ordinance as a whole seems the best way to establish that people seeking to do readings in Salem do not have a history of fraud while opening up the playing field to all who want to play. The ordinance prior to 2007 was somewhat similar to the current one but it also featured a very narrow cap on the number of people who could read.
Salem recently made some changes to the way it regulates psychics, a process that you were a part of. Could you briefly talk about what the old rules were like, what the new guidelines are, and what the controversy was concerning the changes?
Prior to 2007, Salem allowed 5 individual readers who could read anywhere in Salem with their licenses and 4 shops to feature five psychics per shop. Since there were 11 individuals reading at the time the pre-2007 ordinance was enacted, 6 of them were grandfathered in and those licenses were too be dissolved as the license-holders gave them up. License holders were subjected to criminal background checks and there was no specification for psychic fairs.
The current ordinance allows for an unlimited number of shops and individual license holders. The individual license holders, however, are no longer allowed to read anywhere, but rather can read only in their house. The ordinance does not allow the individual licensee to override the guidelines for shops. So, if a shop has its maximum five psychic readers, the shop’s owner could not then employ an additional psychic holding an individual license. In addition to that, the individual licensee cannot be hired to override the requirement that a shop be considered 50% or more metaphysical. Thus, CVS Pharmacy can’t feature a psychic in October.
Salem, unlike some areas, see pyschics as a money-making industry and aren’t interested in passing ordinances that would drive them away. How difficult is it to get licensed in Salem? How would compare Salem’s regulations to other places in America?
On the contrary, the previous ordinance was designed for exactly that purpose–to drive psychics away. Contrary to what many people think of Salem, for many years the powers-that-be spent exorbitant amounts of money to rebrand the Witch City as a family-friendly, arts and culture seaport with boutique-style shopping and fine restaurants. I came into this culture as a business owner in 2003 and was not allowed to join the tourism agency that I now sit on the board of directors and marketing committee of. And, while much has changed since and we now have a mayor and a re-tooled tourism agency that gets it, there is still a mindset coursing through the city that rejects the idea of Salem as a destination for psychics, Witches, or the paranormal. I have worked long and hard to transform some of these perceptions but there is still much to be done and few of my fellow Witches in town understand either the idea branding or the need to be involved in its definition so I remain the only Witch-owned business represented on the marketing committee and board of directors of our city’s tourism organization. Many of them support me behind the scenes, but I’m working to get them more involved. For more info on the whole rebranding of Salem effort of 2003, click here.
As someone who’s been running psychic fairs and occult shops that employ psychics, what do you see for the future of this industry? Will more places try to pass restrictive laws, or will they follow the example of Salem and try to benefit from it?
I think that Salem runs in cycles. I imagine someone will suggest that psychics become limited again in the future, but because revenue is being generated and the sky hasn’t fallen in, and even the Chamber of Commerce says we’ve had more restaurants opening than psychic shops, I don’t imagine we’ll be revisiting the psychic licensing issue again soon. I’m quite sure that City Council won’t want to visit it again considering how contentious the issue was for them in 2007. As for other places, while I’m sure some cities and towns would rather not see psychics, I think most of them just hope to prevent fraud like Salem. Many, many people love to go to psychics, but they also want to know that they aren’t visiting criminals. That’s certainly an interest any city or town should want to address so I support background checks and hope that other psychic businesses like mine work hard to screen their psychics so that they are offering the best talent to their clientele.
I’d like to thank Christian Day for taking the time to speak on this issue, and hope you’ll stay tuned to further installments of the Psychic Services and the Law series. I also hope you’ll check out the previous interviews with Mary K. Greer and Rachel Pollack. This is an issue that has become intertwined with many modern Pagan individuals and businesses and it behooves us to stay informed and engaged.