Why Is Fortunetelling (Still) Popular?

11 min
A crystal ball display at the San Francisco Psychic Fair. (Carly Severn/KQED)

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ou’ve probably seen them around the Bay Area: roadside signs advertising “Psychic Within” or “Fortuneteller Inside.” Perhaps even a bright neon palm in the window.

Sights like this might cause a skeptical mind to wonder: Who, in 2018, is still visiting fortunetellers?

The short answer: Many people. And if you aren't among their number, you almost certainly know somebody who is.

Many Detractors, Many Fans

As a paid service, the specter of fraud — or scamming — often looms large over this world in the popular imagination. Cases of fraud involving fortunetellers can attract public attention because of the large sums of money involved, and often, the vulnerable nature of those targeted. If you’re a fortunetelling skeptic, you might consider any kind of psychic service as dishonest by its nature, and the people who pay for it as duped or exploited. (For an in-depth look at how fortunetelling became legal in California, read part one of this Bay Curious series.)

A San Francisco sign advertises a fortunetelling business. (Carly Severn/KQED)

Amid the stereotypes and worst-case scenarios, it’s easy to overlook just how much this world can mean to those who fully buy into it — with a commitment that borders on faith. In San Francisco, the place to meet many of those folks is at the annual San Francisco Psychic Fair.

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In a cozy tearoom space on Fillmore Street, a young, diverse crowd gathered to mingle, drink tea and get a reading. Beyond a set of heavy wooden double doors, 10 fortunetellers were waiting for them in a softly lit hall, seated at low tables with cards, crystals and candles.

Psychics and their clients gather in the reading room at the San Francisco Psychic Fair. (Carly Severn/KQED)

"It's an art form that has been with humanity since ancient times," says Malcolm Trimnell, one of the fair's attendees. “I think in today's society we're all looking at screens, and we kind of lose that human contact. It's relaxing to know that someone can read you, in a way.”

Over near where crystals, books and herbs were for sale, Sheyda Pakkhoo says she sees "intuitive reads” as something that “allows the person that you're reading to get their own insights within themselves.” A tarot reader herself, she says that she felt like a reading “can get somebody to think about their own life.”

San Francisco Psychic Fair attendee and tarot reader Sheyda Pakkhoo talks with seller Fernando Caldera. (Carly Severn/KQED)

This idea, that a psychic consultation is actually about facilitating self-discovery in the client, was echoed by Brittany Clark, who’d come to the fair as research for a novel she was writing. She says the reading she received “validated, in some way, some things I was already thinking about” regarding needing creativity in her life.

Medicine for the Soul?

Regardless of how much you believe in psychic ability, getting a reading of some kind can be a compelling experience. The process — with the fortuneteller sitting close to their client, focusing only on them — is intimate. As is the sensation of being "seen" in some way, even if what a person is being told is ultimately generic.

Diviner Devin Antheus awaits clients at the San Francisco Psychic Fair. (Carly Severn/KQED)

The more you hear people explain their motives for seeking out psychics, the more fortunetelling can sound almost like therapy — albeit far more spiritual, and maybe more affordable. Yet looking at the cultural history of fortunetelling, this is not an unusual concept.

Spiritual Foundations

“I'll tell you the way my clients describe me: ‘spiritual teacher,’ ” says George Eli, a Roma fortuneteller who’s also a filmmaker and activist.

For many, the word “fortuneteller” is automatically associated with the people known as the Roma, or Romani. (You may have heard this community referred to as “Gypsies,” a term that is considered offensive by many.)

Yet the word "fortunetelling" doesn’t even exist in the Romani vocabulary.

A sign advertises fortunetelling in San Francisco. (Carly Severn/KQED)

“It's not an internal word that lives in our community,” Eli explains. Instead, the Roma speak of “Drabarimos, which originates from the word Drab, which means medicine. Spiritual medicine administerer: That's the word that lives in our culture."

For the Romani, Eli says, what non-Roma folk call “fortunetelling” is not just a livelihood. It’s a deeply held way of looking at the world that goes back centuries. It lives just as much in Roma homes, within families as a daily spiritual practice, as it does behind storefronts.

“Everybody I knew, my aunts, uncles, my ancestors to my lineage back to a thousand years were drabarni,” Eli says.

As a way of seeing the world, Eli believes these practices date back to the Three Wise Men of the Bible. The foretelling, the interpretation of dreams — that's exactly what the Magi did, he says.

A sign in San Francisco advertises a psychic's services. (Carly Severn/KQED)

Romani voices in San Francisco were some of the loudest in opposing the city’s introduction of permits for psychics in 2003, though Eli believes some regulation is necessary. For him, it’s all about intent on the part of the regulators.

“If the intentions are to brand us as ‘the other’ or, say, make a statement that we're not born here, of course that's wrong. And that's not American,” he says.

Eli says police investigations of psychics often fundamentally misunderstand this practice’s spiritual place in the culture.

“If you're charging this woman, or this man, for a con game and manipulation, for charging somebody [money] to help them with their emotional problems or whatever darkness that is around them? Then you have to go to your local church and you have to arrest everybody in there,” he says.

A sign advertises palm reading in San Francisco. (Carly Severn/KQED)

Big World, Big Business

It’s not just the Roma who view fortunetelling in this remedial way. Elements of these practices have deep roots in many cultures, like the Latino folk-healing tradition of Curanderismo, Afro-Cuban Santeria, Chinese suan ming and Indian Vedic astrology.

To outsiders, this world is so much bigger — and older — than you might think. Yet as a business, it’s also keeping up with the times.

In the Bay Area, you can now find psychics online, rank them by their Yelp ratings, and pay them via Venmo. Some fortunetellers even offer virtual readings in addition to in-person consultations.

“I do it by Skype or a lot of different internet chat tools, and I also do by email,” says San Francisco psychic Wanugee, whose business Golden Dragon Fortunes is the city’s No. 3 on Yelp. “So we have options in different price points.”

San Francisco psychic Wanugee doing a reading at Hang Ah in Chinatown. (Carly Severn/KQED)

A business graduate who previously worked in corporate marketing, Wanugee may not fit the popular idea of a professional psychic. Years ago, he says, he realized an innate spiritual intuition in himself, and began giving readings on the side, before going professional. (Several of the psychics I spoke to for this story were balancing this line of work with part-time or even full-time employment.)

Wanugee’s fortunetelling style uses mahjong tiles, spread in front of the client for them to select from, to “look at the Qi energy flowing in your future.” He admits that “you can’t taste, touch, or feel it, but somehow, something's there, or these things wouldn't be around for centuries.”

Around 500 people have seen him more than once at some point over the last five years, and they don't fit one stereotype.

“From nurses to students, to doctors, to lawyers, a judge, software engineers — all types, all types of ethnic backgrounds,” he says.

Mahjong tiles used by San Francisco psychic Wanugee in his readings. (Carly Severn/KQED)

An Enduring Appeal 

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People have questions, troubles and heartaches in all phases of life. Yet for those in that “spiritual but not religious” camp, the suggestion offered by a psychic reading that there might be a plan to it all obviously has appeal — especially during those years that can feel particularly turbulent. How much a person buys in, of course, is entirely up to them.