Using mystical powers to reach into the past

Derek Acorah and Tessa Dunlop

Derek Acorah and Tessa Dunlop

Some people have always claimed to have psychic powers that can bring them into contact with the dead. It has taken some time for archaeologists to realise the potential of these psychic investigators. If their powers really work then why bother with those time-consuming and expensive excavations? Egyptologists have finally woken up to this potential and found themselves a new scholar of the ancients: TV “psychic” Derek Acorah. Acorah is the middle-aged, Liverpudlian co-star of LivingTV’s Paranormal Egypt. Thanks to the power of the net many great clips have been archived on YouTube.

LivingTV describe the program on their website like this:

Psychic medium Derek Acorah returns to LIVING with historian Tessa Dunlop in to explore Paranormal Egypt as they attempt to solve some of the World’s oldest mysteries. Join Derek and his team of investigators as they investigate some of Egypt’s most famous locations, in a bid to contact the spirits of Tutankhamen and Nefertiti to uncover the truth behind the country’s darkest secrets”.

Note: this is an attempt to solve mysteries and not merely an entertaining but ultimately vain attempt at conjuring the spirits of the pyramids.

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, apparently

Each episode of Paranormal Egypt is about 70% melodramatic “possession” within famous Egyptian sites by “psychic” Acorah and its encouragement by “historian” Tessa Dunlop. The other 30% is expert introduction to the sites and the mysteries connected with them. This is the cynical way to make popular archaeology television, with the generous spoonful of sugar helping the public to swallow the bitter pill of educational content. To treat your audience with contempt, to assume they are incapable of appreciating location, personality and factual information is insulting and lacks imagination. As Charlie Brooker has observed, TV executives regularly assume that their audience are as stupid as they are themselves. The results of such an assumption are television shows like Paranormal Egypt.

However, the programme’s website does contain a fair amount of interesting information about Egyptian archaeology, as well as a great gallery of pictures. OK, it’s not as good as the BBC’s efforts but this is a different audience all together and they clearly don’t have the same level of resources. Paranormal Egypt is trying to be two things at once: an educational programme telling us fairly conventional information about ancient Egypt while at the same time being a vehicle for unintentionally entertaining spiritualist nonsense of Derek Acorah.

Derek Acorah

The ever-reliable Andrew Billen of The Times (05/09/07) offers his own opinion of Acorah and the show, “Egypt: land of secrets and curses, pharaohs and fakirs. And so it was to Egypt that Living sent its biggest fakir, Derek Acorah, the footballer-turned-security guard-turned-TV medium”. He is a regular subject of study (not to mention the butt of many jokes) made by the comrades over at

Acorah’s reputation was supposedly left in tatters after being roundly exposed as a charlatan in the “Kreed Kafer” episode. It will not take you clever folks long to realise that Kreed Kafer is an anagram of Derek Faker. Mr Kafer was an imaginary historical persona whose name had been suggested to Acorah by parapsychologist Ciaran O’Keeffe whilst filming the popular TV show Most Haunted. O’Keeffe left the show after becoming tired of routine fakery in the filming process.

Such exposure has not dented Kreed Acorah’s enthusiasm for melodramatic television. He told The Sun (23/08/07) newspaper of his traumatic experiences in Egypt: “We were filming in the main chamber of the Great Pyramid and I could tell there was a lot of spiritual activity going on… I heard something approaching and then ‘bang’, it hit me hard in the face and I started choking because I couldn’t draw a breath. There was a paranormal substance or powder that went across my mouth and into my nostrils, basically suffocating me. Thankfully the symptoms subsided but then I felt really sick and had to rest until the nausea passed. I’ve no idea what the entity was, but it’s obvious something didn’t want me there in the Great Pyramid”. Yeah Derek, which member of the Supreme Council of Antiquities was that I wonder?


It does not come as a surprise to find Paranormal Egypt on LivingTV. Its schedules are filled with the kind of real-life stories you find in the less intellectual examples of the tabloid press, they are dominated by what might be described as the proverbial housewives’ favourites (celebrity gossip, chat shows, US sitcoms, paranormal stuff etc.). LivingTV broadcasts for 6 hours of primetime what many other channels would judiciously screen for a maximum of 1 or 2 during daytime.

Expert involvement

The involvement of experts and (especially) Zahi Hawass is surprising. Hawass (the granddaddy of contemporary Egyptian archaeology) seems unaware of the nature of the program. Despite never missing an opportunity for self-promotion, it seems unlikely that he would have knowingly allowed Acorah to run around his precious domain spouting spiritualist nonsense. Was he really aware of what he was endorsing? On some occasions the on-screen experts can barely contain their giggles as Acorah flails wildly around the pyramids, their amusement tempered by concern that he may damage the monuments to which they have just granted him access.

Acorah gets inside closed-off areas of the pyramids whilst claiming to be “possessed”. In one episode, he ends up climbing into an open sarcophagus. These are sensitive ancient monuments, access to which is often highly restricted. Again, the question must be asked as to how such access was granted and whether the Egyptian authorities were aware of the nature of the programme.

The complicity of Tessa Dunlop and the on-screen experts is concerning. The predominant response (as it comes across on screen) is that these experts genuinely believe Acorah is for real. This is demonstrated when they earnestly ask questions of historical concern when Acorah claims to be “possessed” by the ancients. At such times Acorah begins his routine by breathing strangely and swaying back and forth. On one occasion Dunlop asks in a quiet, questioning voice, “Tutankhamen? …we’re here to understand why you died”. Such earnest questioning suggests she really believed this stuff and presumably was expecting Acorah to answer as Tut. Seemingly unaware of the madness of the situation she continued, “Is it you, king Tut?” Alas, on this occasion, old Tut was not forthcoming.

Dunlop is constantly saying things like “I don’t like this!” or “this feels spooky!” or “do we have to do this?” or asking after Derek’s well-being and asking him to calm down when his acting gets a bit over the top. The Times’ Andrew Billen again observes, “Tessa, playing the easily frightened companion, is the better actor, although I fear for her credibility as a historian and pray Oxford does not rescind her degree”. We shall have to see if Billen’s powers of prayer are as successful as Acorah’s powers of persuasion.

Is this archaeological investigation?

Acorah, when “possessed”, or describing the different “energies” which come to him, is able to utter fairly sensible pronouncements on the biographical details of the ancient Egyptians. Andrew Billen “… felt the spectral presence of Wikipedia”. Basic research is a key weapon in the armoury of the successful psychic. The other is building off the clues provided by your audience.

Acorah uses this tactic throughout the series. He obviously can’t remember all the fine details of Egyptian history so has to use what he does know to maximum effect. He does this by beginning with a kind of Barnum Statement, one so widely applicable the audience instantly latches onto it and involuntarily feed the psychic more information. Acorah does this in Episode 1 (Ramesses) and Dunlop obliges with all the information he needs to sound convincing. However, archaeological and historical facts are not as readily accessible as details of one’s own personal history (the regular domain of TV psychics). As a result Acorah has to be careful not to sound too detailed as even the best-informed scholar issues a note of caution when pronouncing on matters of historical detail.

For example, when Mansour Boraik (the expert at hand) is asking how did Ramesses III die – a perfectly legitimate question and one which would enhance our understanding of Egypt (it is generally thought he was assassinated) – Acorah struggles and comes up with “problems”, “ailment”, “illness”. Do you know of anyone whose death wasn’t a result of these?! Dunlop prompts him by asking “inflicted?” and he responds “I feel yes”. Acorah trails off and gets a bit confused but quickly brings it back to where he’s comfortable, creating a plausible story from basic facts he knows about Ramesses. “I’m in Paris, I see Paris” exclaims Acorah/Ramesses (i.e. he’s in the Louvre). Amazing!

Like all the other pages in this section (forthcoming), we have to ask whether this is a legitimate methodology for investigating the past. All those involved in Paranormal Egypt clearly think it is. So why do we waste our time training as archaeologists, making life difficult for ourselves? First of all, there are some simple problems with the premise that the past can be reached via spiritual mediums. Your three-year old child would point this out but hey… come on, let’s just offer three very simple questions:

Why do the ancient Egyptians who are in control of a “possessed” Derek Acorah&hellip:

  1. …talk like a middle-aged 21st century Liverpudlian?
  2. …not tell us anything about their lives which cannot be found on Wikipedia?
  3. …not show complete wonderment about the presence of strangely-dressed people in their tombs, not to mention a camera crew with their magic light-emitting machines?

Such questions don’t concern the cast and crew of Paranormal Egypt. When asked by Dunlop, “You’ve solved an age old mystery, how does that make you feel?” Acorah replies, “I’m absolutely thrilled, I’m absolutely privileged, I’m absolutely humbled, I’m absolutely ecstatic. This will stay with me for the rest of this physical life and beyond”. Something tells me it will stay with Derek Acorah much longer than it will with us archaeologists. His name will not join those of Howard Carter and Flinders Petrie in the pantheon of Egyptologists.

Is this good archaeology television?

Is archaeology corrupted by this association with cheap spiritualist mumbo-jumbo? It needn’t be. The raw materials of Paranormal Egypt are a set of amazing archaeological sites and their associated mysteries. The corruption or debasement of archaeology results from the televisual techniques which are commonplace in spiritualist TV shows. The mock drama and false tension is unnecessary – unless you are trying to manufacture a story which would otherwise seem implausible. Throughout the series Acorah regularly finds himself in moments of physical stress and Team Acorah are never far away. Whenever the action gets too heavy they are on hand to carry him to safety and caress his delicate and worn-out temporal body. This often makes for the most unintentionally hilarious television – however, you do become concerned that he receives such sympathetic treatment by local Egyptian experts unused to someone faking a panic attack or suffocation.

All of the footage with Dunlop and Acorah is filmed with a weird night-vision effect and of course there is tension-building music throughout. TV would be very boring indeed without effects such as this but they do detract from what could be a series of spectacular unadulterated locations.

The past is mysterious and holds many unanswered questions. Archaeology provides the tools by which the past becomes accessible. Acorah and his Paranormal Egypt tell us nothing new about the past. It does show a great deal about the human appetite for fantasy and delusion. Unfortunately, archaeology is roped in as an unwilling accomplice by media-hungry “experts” and “historians” who would lend their name to a project regardless of its sanity or quality.

|Written by James Doeser