Actress Linda Evans sat in the back on a folding chair. Joyce DeWitt, another television star, sat on a crowded sofa. About 60 other "high grade successful people" occupied the slate stairway and a dhurrie rug in the hilltop house high above Malibu where for the past hour they had been watching a young blonde woman in a blue silk lounging suit.
Now, her eyes narrowed and blinking, she said, "We will 'Om' thrice."
They closed their eyes. They turned their palms up. They ooooooooooommmmmmm ed .
The woman changed the chant to unfamiliar words, ma - ra - keesh, a - ma - roosh, al - ma - me - oh , her arms undulating in martial arts and papal gestures. The sounds resonated in the living room like a slow Gregorian chant in a Gothic cathedral. Then, coming louder and faster God I am! Love I am! Light I am! the words raced to a dramatic finale with the leader's arms raised high, wrists bent back.
'This Was No Performance'
"I've been an actor," said a commodities broker and Clint Eastwood look-alike in the group, "and I can tell you, this was no performance."
The woman he was referring to was Penny Torres, 27, last year an Alhambra housewife and this year's hottest new commodity in metaphysical chic.
Like the broker, nearly all those present at the Malibu gathering said they believed, or were open to the possibility, that it was not Torres who had just spoken on love and reality but Mafu, a highly evolved "entity from the seventh dimension" last incarnated as a leper in 1st-Century Pompeii. Torres, they say, is only serving as a human radio to channel Mafu's message from beyond: love yourself; you are God.
"For a while, people were having (telekinetic) spoon-bending parties, then clairvoyant parties. Now channeling seems to be a big hot thing, especially in California," said Marcello Truzzi, a sociology professor at Eastern Michigan University and director of the Center for Scientific Anomalies Research, a network of independent scientists and scholars concerned with evaluating claims of the paranormal.
Channels are mediums who purposefully enter a semi-conscious or unconscious trance state to communicate with the unseen "spirit realm," which is variously considered to be long dead spirits or extraterrestrials or the "collective unconscious." Speaking as the "spirit" in the trance, they may lecture or answer personal questions on past lives, events, romantic, business or health matters.
Looking for Alternatives
"It's for do-it-yourselfers in the new age (human potential) movement," Truzzi said. "People . . . are looking for alternatives and are finding they're as capable of it (mediumship) as their gurus."
Various skeptics have called channeling a "dissociative reaction," fraudulent or demonic. But it's really a "kind of religious behavior that's been with us at least 150 years," said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions, author of the Encyclopedia of American Religions and visiting professor in Religious Studies at the UC Santa Barbara.
Channeling was faddish in the 1890s and has grown steadily since the 1950s, he said. "The new channels are mostly trance mediums," people who are able to "tap into" an altered state of consciousness also called a waking dream state, he said.
"Their audience is people who've never seen a trance medium and are very impressed with it. They've plugged in to what we used to call the yuppies, people who have been alienated from church but are looking for something spiritual. Many of them are fallouts from earlier new age movements, people who are bored and this is the latest thing to come down the pike."
Los Angeles is the hub for ordinary people who claim they are "channels," or mediums, for enlightened spirits, said Margo Chandley, a former college drama professor who studied 50 channels for a Ph.D. in transformational psychology from International College, a private college in Westwood. She estimated there are 1,000 "channels" practicing locally, compared with two a decade ago.
Some of the better known are Thomas Jacobson, a psychic counselor aired over KABC radio who claims to channel "Dr. Peebles," a 19th-Century doctor of philosophy; Darryl Anka, a special effects designer who channels "Bashar," an extraterrestrial, and Jach Purcell, a financial investor and gallery owner who channels "Lazaris," a "multi-dimensional energy," Chandley said.
"Their basic message is always the same--we have the power to create our own reality, nothing is outside ourselves," Chandley said.
But only two in the U.S.--J. Z. Knight of Seattle, who as a spirit called Ramtha has reportedly drawn hundreds of followers to the Pacific Northwest, and now Torres--are known to speak their words of wisdom from an unconscious state, also called a "full body incarnation."