Born in Bayside, New York, and the youngest of four children, James Van Praagh, remembers himself as being an average child, but having a tremendous fascination with death. Raised a devout Catholic, James served as an altar boy and entered the seminary at the age of 14. It was while he was attending the seminary that his "interest in Catholicism ended and his sense of spirituality began."
Although Van Praagh graduated from public high school and went on to graduate from San Francisco State University with a degree in broadcasting and communications, his direction would change slightly. He soon moved to Los Angeles and became deeply involved in the study of metaphysics and psychic phenomena. He was invited to a session with a medium who told Van Praagh that within two years he would be doing the same kind of work; that is, talking to the dead. At that time, Van Praagh claims he didn't even know what a medium was. His first reaction was that he had a hard enough time dealing with the living; why would he want to talk with the dead? Van Praagh would soon realize he would indeed continue in broadcasting and communications, just a bit less conventionally than what he studied at the university level.
At the young age of eight, while Van Praagh was fervently praying for God to reveal Himself to him, an open hand appeared through the ceiling of his room emitting radiant beams of light. Incredibly, he recounted, "I wasn't scared. It was actually very peaceful."
Perhaps this experience was an early sign that Van Praagh had an unusual sensitivity and gift to share between worlds. Often called a survival evidence medium, Van Praagh explained his discovered ability to bridge the gap between two planes of existence—that of the living and that of the dead—and has done so by providing evidential proof of life after death through detailed messages. "I'm clairsentient," he has said of himself, "which simply means clear feeling. I feel the emotions and personalities of the deceased. I am also clairvoyant," he added, clarifying that, "the first is feeling, the second is seeing, very much like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost."
When Van Praagh began doing psychic readings for his friends, although it seemed strange to him, he couldn't deny that the detailed messages he received were on target. Personality traits of the deceased come through as well as physical traits and death conditions or circumstances to validate the connection, he said. The true essence of the messages he receives from the departed are the "feelings behind them" and the actual "love bond" between the living and the dead—not words. "No words exist in the English language, or any other for that matter, which can describe the intense sensations," Van Praagh explained.
Learning how to fine tune and refine this gift into understanding what the emotions of the spirits wished to convey and how to relay those messages to the living, earned Van Praagh the status as one of the most recognized and foremost mediums in the world. His message has been broadcast on numerous appearances on such shows as Oprah, LarryKing Live, Maury Povich, 20/20, and 48 Hours. A CBS television miniseries is being produced on Van Praagh's first book, Talking to Heaven (1997). Also in production is a television talk show, Beyond With James Van Praagh.
Humble in his success, Van Praagh said, "If I convey recognizable evidence along with even a fraction of the loving energy behind the message, I consider the reading successful." He said of his work: "When someone is alone and overwhelmed by grief, life seems over. But, when someone is able to make contact with a loved one by utilizing the information…grief and loneliness disappear and proper closure can take place." His message is that "our personalities do indeed survive death."
There are, of course, skeptics. Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine called Van Praagh "the master of cold-reading in the psychic world." Marcello Truzzi of Eastern Michigan University said he has studied "characters" like Van Praagh for more than 35 years and described his demonstrations as "extremely unimpressive."