A spiritual medium of international renown, James Van Praagh's work rests on the central tenet of communication with the dead. He believes that those who have passed on have not really “died,” as we understand the term, but have only transmuted into another state. He also believes that it is possible to reach out to and interact with those who are no longer among the living. Van Praagh has appeared regularly on television, and multiple movies and shows have been developed around his work and experiences.
Van Praagh has experienced supernatural phenomena since he was a child growing up in the borough of Queens, New York. Raised as a Roman Catholic, his intimate and familiar relationship with God manifested as visions of an open, glowing hand on the ceiling of his bedroom, as well as voices that spoke to him while he was in seminary. It was at this tender age of 14 that he began to turn away from organized religion. While he attended seminary, a spirit's voice whispered to him, “God is much bigger than these four walls; you must leave and find God in the outside world.” Although Van Praagh remains spiritual, he no longer considers himself a member of any specific religion.
As a young adult, Van Praagh majored in Broadcasting and Communications at San Francisco State University. Shortly after, he moved to LA, where he fostered an interest in spiritualism and met medium Brian Hurst. Hurst identified Van Praagh as a fellow medium, and told Van Praagh that with his access to the spirit world, he would be able to change “the consciousness” of the entire world. Van Praagh took this to heart, and has since embarked on a journey to redefine people's relationships with those they have lost to the spirit world.
Initially, Van Praagh worked with private clients to contact the spirits of the dearly departed. However, he soon moved on to performing for larger audiences. Through the distribution of books and audiotapes, he soon developed an even greater following. It was the publication of his book Talking to Heaven that truly launched his career, however, as it was with this publication that he became internationally renowned. The book discussed his encounters with the deceased. He spoke about the book with a number of famous talk show hosts, including Larry King, Oprah Winfrey, and Dr. Phil. Talking to Heaven also landed him on the New York Times Bestseller List, and held its place there for several weeks.
Van Praagh also worked as an expert for NBC's paranormal talk show The Other Side in the 1990s. For a short time in the early 2000s, he featured as the host of another paranormal talk show, Beyond with James Van Praagh, based on the success of Crossing Over with John Edward. Van Praagh performed readings on audience members, as well as on celebrities, and contributed his talents to the search for missing persons and other such investigations.
A miniseries, movie, and long-running serial television show have all been crafted around Van Praagh's experiences. The CBS miniseries Living With the Dead (2002) created a fictionalized scenario in which Van Praagh was called upon to assist in the investigation of the death of a teenaged boy, who had been murdered by a serial killer. The miniseries was directed by Stephen Gyllenhall and starred Ted Danson in the role of Van Praagh. The show received critical acclaim for its nuanced depiction of Van Praagh as a man whose connection to the spirit world caused him emotional pain, especially due to frequent visitations from his mother. The real Van Praagh also claims to be frequently visited by his mother, and says that she offers him guidance. In 2004, CBS aired the movie Talking With the Dead. Also based on Van Praagh's experiences, it featured Anne Heche as a woman whose antique engagement ring gives her visions of the former owner's tragic demise.
Most famously, Van Praagh worked as a co-executive producer on Ghost Whisperer, which was also based on his personal experiences. The show starred Jennifer Love Hewitt as a medium who works to help spirits find love and peace so that they can move on to the next world. The show ran for five seasons, from 2005-2010.
Outside of his TV work, Van Praagh has written multiple books. His works have been translated into a number of different languages, and have sold upwards of a million copies. Since Talking to Heaven, he has released Ghosts Among Us, which describes the nature of the spirit world, as well as Growing Up in Heaven: The Eternal Connection Between Parent and Child, which focuses on the journey faced by the souls of children who die, and several other volumes. Van Praagh has also worked extensively with The Compassionate Friends, a non-profit organization which serves families who have lost children or siblings.
Van Praagh has faced numerous accusations from skeptics, most notably the James Randi Educational Foundation. The JREF offers a One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. Any psychic who takes up the challenge must perform feats under agreed upon scientific parameters. Though hundreds of people have taken the challenge, none have yet succeeded according to the JREF's criteria. The JREF approached Van Praagh with the challenge via The Huffington Post, to which Van Praagh is a regular contributor. Van Praagh declined.
James Randi himself has accused Van Praagh of practicing a “huckster art,” and “preying on families' deepest fears and regrets.” He and fellow skeptics believe Van Praagh is an exceptionally talented cold reader, or someone with the ability to ascertain details about another person without being explicitly told those details are true. Other skeptics such as Joe Nickell have accused Van Praagh of also practicing hot reading, or the explicit gleaning of details from individuals and subsequent misrepresentation of those details as if they were learned through profound insight, rather than direct questioning.
Van Praagh has responded to critics and skeptics with a simple, “I believe everyone has a right to believe the way they are going to believe. I think it is good to be skeptical but not cynical.” He seems unbothered by the idea that someone would seek to refute his claims, rather focusing on the healing that may be brought about through his work. Whether he is seen as a mercenary or a spiritual leader, a fraud or the genuine article, he focuses on the benefits that he can bring to those who listen to his words.