The story of James Hydrick has long been on my list of ‘screenplays I’ll write for films I’ll make someday when I’m not just some random dude.’ To my mind one of the most fascinating things that ever happened, it’s a tragically little-known tale that burned very brightly for a short time, before, for reasons that’ll become clear as the story unfolds, it was consigned to the historical waste bin. It exists online only in scraps — VHS rips of TV clips, transcripts, mugshots — and I wanted to unravel and piece together as comprehensive a take as possible. So settle in, because it’s a long ride, and you and I are going to some super weird and dark places.
In October of 1980, twenty-one-year-old Hydrick, mumbling through a bumfluff moustache, strolled into the offices of Utah’s Salt Lake Tribune, and announced his presence to the world by turning the pages of a book, spinning pencils, and making the leaves of a potted plant flutter; all with the power of his mind, like a newly-crowned prom queen dripping in pig blood. With local news always on the hunt for quirky time-fillers, Hydrick’s star began to rise, and inevitably, he quickly found himself manipulating stationery on the national stage.
He made his televised début that December, on an episode of That’s Incredible!, a hugely popular showcase for the weird abilities and true stories of regular folks; most famously, a little boy who was prodigiously good at golf, and grew up to be serial sex-haver, Tiger Woods. Appearing under the name Sum Chai, and clad in blue Kung Fu pyjamas, Hydrick drew audible gasps from the studio audience during an exhibition announced as “a demonstration of psycho-kinetic power,” immediately granting it a weird kind of legitimacy. A pencil swivels on the edge of a desk, a pool cue rolls on command, and toothpicks bounce atop a woman’s fingers. Toothpicks. As shows of psychokinesis go, it’s hardly Yoda raising the sunken X-Wing, but the hosts are wowed all the same. His demonstrations are dressed in gurns and showy flourishes of strain, held in poses for the camera; classical tableaux of a wise master; at one point, waggling his fingers over a presenter’s head as he helps her make a toothpick dance; an illustration of his claim that these undeveloped powers lay hidden within all of us.
No blowing, bro
Strangely, the demonstrations are so small and intimate, that they play more like a fedora-wearing Pick Up Artist’s party pieces than the next step in man’s spiritual evolution. But while you might not have your wig blown off by watching the awesome power of the third eye make a pencil wobble a bit, Hydrick’s most famous move, turning the pages of a book with his mind, on the surface, is genuinely baffling. The entire five minute segment is played completely for real, like he’s just wandered in to show off his yo-yo skills, and Sum Chai’s explanations are rooted in Eastern wisdoms that blind with the pseudo-science of a worldly traveller who knows what he’s talking about. A brief challenge comes from the sceptical host of the three, who tells Hydrick “I can hear you blowing.” Hydrick places the host’s hand over his mouth, then moves the pencil — “an ordinary pencil” — anyway, leaving him wide-eyed and able only to parrot the title of the show as Hydrick struts back to his seat. Back in the days before we were drowning in so much media we told our babies to call for a pizza if they’re so hungry, so we didn’t get behind on our gaming podcasts, Hydrick’s appearance, on a show with an audience in the tens of millions, made him an instant star.
Hydrick’s origin story, at least, the one he was telling, reads like a b-movie comic book fantasy. Growing up a normal, regular boy, his powers developed under the training of “an old Chinese master,” and when asked to expand on this, in a later appearance on That’s My Line, his response was a fantastically vague “Martial arts. Gung Fu, Kung Fu, and the laws of nature…” Further waffle about the inner and outer self, the fourth level of consciousness, and “matching the actions of the mind to the motions of the body” served only to drown everybody in a distracting stream of vagaries. The cultural idea of the Mystic East is a racial hangover from the days of centuries past, when brave explorers wrote of Indian rope tricks, and Arabian princes whose court tigers could speak, along with other shit they or someone else made up. It’s patronisingly crass in 1980, and thirty years on, India remains a gap-year gadabout for white folks who want to “find themselves, you know, spiritually,” by the corpse-&-faeces-infested waters of the Ganges. There’s a notion that our commercialised First World is so tied up with mortgages and Playstations that our spiritual senses have been dulled, and we’ve gotten away from the real questions, man, unlike those sweet little ethnic-types who kept it real by being poor and not knowing who Kim Kardashian is. From the wise old Native American tracker in cowboy films, to monks who’ve been fifty years without a single wank, the East, in the most general of terms, is considered last bastion of the true magic, by the sort of people you’ll find reading aloud their daily horoscopes on phones made by third-world child-slaves.
Fierce bitch Blavatsky, lookin’ fly
History’s self-proclaimed mystics have always milked this teat until it bled, with the likes of Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky similarly giving weight to their magickal personas with tales of sixth-sense-enriching travels, with the latter likely just pretending to have hung with Tibetans, as the occultist’s equivalent of “Chuck Norris totally taught me the death-kick, so watch out.” Lobsang Rampa, a Tibetan astral traveller who’d had a third eye drilled into his forehead, and authored a series of million-selling guidebooks on how to float outside of your body, was revealed to be plain old Cyril Hoskin, a plumber from Devon, but continued to shift books to New Age flakes the world over.
So too, James Hydrick found credibility in résumé references from the East, a guru passing on knowledge from the “Chinese master,” coupled with an extraordinary athletic ability. Whether jump-kicking basketball rims, or demonstrating Bruce Lee’s one inch punch on winded reporters, he must have seemed like something from the Kung Fu movie craze of the previous decade; like Lee himself, but with added superpowers. You can see how people may have made the leap, believing that a person with such control over the body could have similar control over their mind. He had a slightly otherworldly look, and with the cartoonish Chinaman’s bowl-cut, PJs and slippers, there was more than an element of yellowface, never further than a grotesque pair of comedy buck teeth away from the full Benny Hill. Personally, I always thought he looked like the Star Wars Cloud City Guard figures.
Hydrick and friend
Back home in Salt Lake City, Hydrick had amassed over 300 students-cum-followers, as the head of his own dojo, a centre that blended the training of martial arts and psychic powers, like a hybrid of Professor X’s mutant academy and the Cobra Kai. Envisioned by Hydrick as a monastery, with plans to expand into living space that could house and train 150 families, the whole enterprise was bankrolled by a local divorcee, who’d been so taken with the lad, she’d ‘adopted’ him, donating $16,000 of funding to help further his cause. Clearly no noob to the world of messianic figures, his ‘adoptive mother’ sent Hydrick on a fact-finding mission to the Ananda Church of Self-Realization, a Yoga-based cult centred in California. Fittingly, his patter that we all had the potential to do what he could produced something far closer to idolatry than the normal student/teacher relationship. Unknown to them at the time, Hydrick occasionally sent his disciples on field trips down-town, where they’d be attacked by local-street toughs that he’d paid off, as a test.
Dressed as a ninja and sneaking up on deer, yo
Like all good folklore, now a local celebrity, stories of Hydrick’s power grew in each retelling. Upgrading from the table-top magic of That’s Incredible!, his followers now spoke of his ability to turn the phone book pages from ten feet away, of blocking punches and finding hidden objects while blindfolded, and of sneaking up on deer to choke them out, like a redneck ninja. At this time, he also found the scientific seal of approval, having his powers authenticated by a science professor at the university of Utah. But not everyone was sold. A local couple, having taken him into their home as mentors, knew a part of the backstory that TV viewers didn’t, namely the jail-time he’d served in LA for kidnapping and robbery; but they weren’t worried. Not so the Utah police, who’d started to take an interest. With a violent criminal record and considerable fighting skills, he was already on their radar as a potentially dangerous threat to society, and now, he had a growing number of devotees, utterly convinced that their leader possessed superhuman abilities, and they could too. One of these disciples, a young man so obsessed with Hydrick’s powers that he suffered a complete mental breakdown, was eventually committed to an institution by his family. The man’s brother, fearful of Hydrick’s influence, wrote a desperate letter to a friend; investigative journalist and professional sceptic, Danny Korem. This cry for help, inspiring Korem to board a plane to Salt Lake City, would be James Hydrick’s psychic death warrant.
The Blow-bra Kai dojo
Meanwhile, Hydrick made his second big TV appearance, on the show That’s My Line. Hosted by Bob Barker, Line was That’s Incredible! in all but name, but this performance contained one important element the first performance hadn’t — James Randi. Possibly best described as Richard Dawkins playing Santa Claus at the office party, Randi’s made a career out of the casually methodical destruction of what he calls “Flim-Flam.” Psychics, dowsers, faith healers; all have seen their claims crushed beneath Randi’s tiny feet, as he brushes off their tricks and excuses like one would a cider-filled bluebottle from a shoulder at a summer picnic. At this point, Randi — billed as The Amazing Randi, the stage-name from his days as a professional magician — is 35 years into his life-long crusade, almost twice as long as Hydrick’s been alive.
Hydrick, as has everyone who’s faced him while claiming paranormal abilities, will be awarded $10,000, straight out of James Randi’s pocket, if he succeeds a demonstration to the sceptic’s satisfaction. It’s no spoiler to say that the cheque — raised to a million dollars in 1996 — remains unclaimed to this day, and exists as a hilarious tool to watch “psychics” like Sylvia Browne squirm, accept when pressured, and eventually back out of with pathetic excuses, like someone who said they’d go out to dinner with you when they were drunk.
“During the war…”
As James Hydrick is introduced (under his real, Western name), the most startling thing is the sub-normal level of charisma on display. The man with hundreds of disciples back home is vague, awkward and mumbly, and when he finally tells Barker “I’m gonna move a pencil for ya,” you might be forgiven for being a thousand miles back from the edge of your seat. But he’s clearly upped his game since the first show, and makes a gigantic meal of the pencil trick, first taking an absolute age to precariously balance it on the very edge of the table, and then in the actual performance. This one a freebie before Randi’s conditions are put into place, is comprised of incredibly theatrical hand motions and gurns of concentration, manipulating the air with weighty dramatics, and unlike That’s Incredible!, it’s a full, long 40 seconds of pained face-pulling and uncomfortable silence before the pencil shifts. The telephone directory trick is similarly beefed up, like a magician who’s been told to work on his presentation, with Hydrick shaking his head as if defeated, something familiar in the work of mediums. At one point, he walks away in “failure” before returning to immediately flip the paper to applause, laying groundwork for the idea that his powers can’t always be made to work on cue.
As ponderous as this section is, it was edited down from 40 minutes of Hydrick staring down the phone book. Notably, during these initial performances, he refused a clip-on mic, insisting instead on an overhead boom. But the time for luxuries was over, as the two opposing forces were set to duel. Randi and Hydrick made for a visually interesting duo, side by side, with Hydrick in his full-on Kung Fu regalia, and Randi, as always, resembling a garden gnome that ditched the fishing rod to become a professor. Typically unfazed, unblinking, and mildly irritated, he was straight to the point, plainly accusing Hydrick of blowing with his mouth.
“We meet again, old friend…”
Unknown to the Kung Fu Kid, Randi had taped the previous day’s studio rehearsal, with a mic pointed at Hydrick’s mouth, which when jacked up to high volume, detected strong puffing noises at the moments of movement. Randi’s first deathblow is to demonstrate how normal air currents can affect a pencil teetering on the edge of a desk, and with a quick swish of the hands, he mirrors what Hydrick did with a covered mouth on That’s Incredible! As the panel of early 80′s nerd-men doctors and astrophysicists are introduced, polystyrene packing peanuts are scattered around the phone book. If Hydrick is blowing, and the page moves, so will they. If not, ten grand’s his. As the test begins, the theatrics are going full-bore. Squatting, pacing, throwing shapes and hand motions like a mime pretending to finger a ghost; Hydrick’s psychic showcase is reduced to a series of stalling tactics. After 45 minutes of silent nothing, during which the fidgeting audience are let out for lunch, the first cracks appear in Hydrick’s Zen aura, as he tersely blames his failure on a static charge caused by styrofoam heating beneath studio lights. Immediately shot down by Randi and his panel of suits, with a scalding “The question is not valid because it’s making an assumption which is not true,” nonetheless, they humour him by having Barker “shake off the static” from the book. But Hydrick, who earlier refused Randi’s suggestion of a medical mask, is all out of stalling tactics, and after brief swishy poses and, in a break of character, laughing to himself, has nothing left but to admit defeat. In a final ignominy, having lost the chance at $10,000 to spend on a decent haircut, the show closes with James Randi perfectly replicating Hydrick’s trademark phone book piece.
Most devastating peanuts since that George Dawes outtake
James Hydrick left That’s My Line humiliated, but not beaten. He’d given enough excuses and “outs” for the believers to tell themselves he was still legit, and who could doubt when he was doing it right in their very hands? He returned to the dojo, where he’d continue to build his followers, and the JH brand, but two months later, his fifteen minutes ticked into the final five, when Danny Korem rocked up to Utah with a documentary crew.
Blocking (really weedy, slow) punches blindfold
Korem, like Randi, is another highly skilled magician, but with an angry investigative journalist bent, and his motive goes beyond that of the usual tabloid TV takedowns. For Korem, bringing down James Hydrick is personal, not for only the mind-broken brother of his friend, but at the fear of what happens if he doesn’t. Only three years out from Jim Jones sweet-talking 917 followers into fatally poisoning themselves, and twelve from the Manson Family slashing up the Hollywood hills real good, cult leaders and what they were capable of were fresh in everyone’s minds. Korem was driven by the fear that Hydrick would become the bad Christ behind the next mass tragedy; a man who could be stopped only by someone with the skills to reveal his techniques as mere tricks, before something terrible happened. In hindsight, this is way less melodramatic a concern than it might initially seem.
The show itself, a special exposé entitled Psychic Confession — aptly as it turns out — ponderously broken up into Acts and narrated by Jack Palance, opens on footage of Hydrick in full Bruce Lee pomp. The physical prowess of the man can’t be denied, throwing Enter the Dragon faces and lightning fast punches, and doing push-ups on a single thumb. The urgency of Hydrick’s threat sees the defenestration of narrative subtlety, with savage edits cutting from the smiling devotion of Hydrick’s bankrolling divorcee to news footage of the Manson girls, and good ol’ Charlie himself, jovially chatting through his murder trial. When Korem lands in Salt Lake City, Hydrick’s the talk of the town, but by the time the credits roll, he’ll be a pariah.
After this, Roger Cook assaults the Ghostbusters
Unaware of Korem’s motives to destroy him, Hydrick happily shows off a huge arsenal of crazy (and deadly) looking martial arts weapons laid out over his bed, like a kid making you kiss their favourite dolls goodnight. The stony-faced, but inwardly-shaking reporter patiently sits through the demonstration of the various ways to maim or kill a man, with Korem’s body used as the training dummy — “…this one breaks a man’s arm — like this.” — which must have only steeled his resolve to put an end to the charade.
Not pictured: penis guillotine
Korem’s goal was to break down and replicate the psycho-kinetic trickery, as Randi had, and initial taping sessions, similarly restricted with a clip-on mic, resulted in Hydrick’s failure. It was too quiet, said Hydrick, can’t you put some music on? A second session, where Korem faked a feedback problem and instructed the crew to turn the audio levels down, saw the pencil and pages flying once more. Hydrick’s main weapon in creating believers had been his proxy-demos, where a touch of the shoulder or waggle of the fingers would transfer some of his power, allowing a person to move the object themselves, showcasing that psychic potential that he could help unlock, so it was natural he’d want to convert the news man. Korem, however, didn’t wait for the master to take control, and the look of bafflement on Hydrick’s face as Korem’s pencil moves of its own volition is amazing. When his newest, greatest trick, the rotating of a dollar bill balanced on a pin beneath an upturned fish tank, is — after much pre-show practise — performed perfectly by Korem, an open-mouthed Hydrick is left so confused that, until the reveal, he believes Korem to possess genuine psychic abilities. This unfamiliar loss of control, and sudden shift of the power balance, leaves Hydrick deeply rattled. In the film’s most astonishing section, an anxious, agitated Hydrick, shifting uncomfortably in his seat and rubbing his head, maintains that “something ain’t right,” refusing to even attempt the phone book trick. Finally, with a bewildered “I don’t understand, man. This ain’t cool at all,” his temper explodes, slamming his fist down onto the table before violently kicking it over. With this, he accepts the inevitable. It’s all over.
U WOT M8
We’ve become conditioned to a certain response when people in the public eye get caught doing or saying something they shouldn’t, which is a thing that happens with increasing frequency in these witch-hunt-on-a-bangwagon times. PR Team micromanagement kicks in, shoving perps into grovelling statements filled with backpeddling and penitent promises of fixing themselves, and only now, in the glaring light of public shame can they see what they did was wrong. Nobbed around on your wife? Off to rehab. Built your career on a house of lies? Chat to Oprah while looking down at your shoes. That’s how it’s always worked, and we know the familiar beats of the story arc before it plays out. Anyone publicly recorded dropping N-bombs will soon be off on a historic walking tour with Al Sharpton, while homophobic religious mega-pastors will blame their love of men’s anuses and crystal meth on literal Biblical demons, and vow to put it all behind them. For busted psychics though, it’s a little different. Admission of guilt sends that one-trick pony career to the slaughter-house, so they’ll fall back on furious self-denial and threats of lawsuits that never see the light of day, to keep the true believers on-side, because the sceptics never bought it anyway. But Hydrick? What he did was essentially tell the world to go fuck itself.
Once he’s calmed down from hoofing over the table, we get our Oprah session anyway, in highlights from two and a half hours of Frost/Nixon that’s part confession, part much-needed therapy. There’s a sense, as Korem opens with the line “Tell us, James, who you really are,” that he’s just happy to have somebody listen, although what he has to say often isn’t easy to hear. The real origin story of James Hydrick begins with his birth, and mother Lois, fifteen at the time and married to a thirty-year-old wifebeater, would abandon James when he was three. Already a victim of abuse and neglect, James’ father remarried to a woman who treated the child as though he were a dog — literally — making him eat and live outside, and chaining him to a tree having renamed the boy ‘Spot’. Hydrick was regularly gagged and beaten, and claimed to have suffered so many head injuries at his father’s hand, that merely remembering his past caused him physical and emotional pain.
Act III: The Prestige
The young Hydrick’s only route of escape was to retreat into a fantasy world, a place imagined up during the periods his birth parents would lock him in a darkened closet. The fantasies of Eastern monasteries and peaceful, Zen landscapes were so vivid, he could no longer discern between hallucinations or outright astral projection, and it was there he met the oft-mentioned Chinese mentor, Master Wu. He talks of Wu, a coping mechanism and imaginary friend, as though completely real, and the lines between truth, lie and fantasy are clearly blurred. It’s difficult to take the word of proven fantasists at face value, but Hydrick’s claims are corroborated in interviews with his mother and father, and aunt, who tells a story of the mother anally violating him with a paddle for crying in the night. While his father, an ex-chain gang convict, worked shifts bouncing at honky tonk bars, James would sleep in the car outside, before eventually being offloaded into the care system, where he was shipped around various foster homes. Aged nine, he was sent to “an institution for the mentally retarded,” a hand-washing solution for unwanted kids the system didn’t know what to do with, where his increasing outbursts were calmed with doses of tranquillisers. At sixteen, legally free to leave, the dog was now stray, and upped to South Carolina where he was homeless, but survived with the help of various church groups.
The following year, aged seventeen, he hitch-hiked to California to reinvent himself. His final foster parent would receive a number of letters informing him of Hydrick’s exciting new life, where he was starring in Kung Fu movies as “the new Bruce Lee.” In truth, those were penned from the jail where he was serving a three and a half year sentence for kidnapping, filling his time studying the manifesto of “Alphabet Bomber” terrorist, Muharem Kurbegovich, and perfecting a series of party tricks. Back in the present, Korem hits him with the classic shamed-celeb question, of whether he felt bad over what he did.
One of many super-subtle cutaways to Manson
“I don’t feel bad at all,” he replies, with an admirable lack of repentance, “I tricked them for their (own) good.” Like Korem had been too, Hydrick was fascinated by magicians as a kid, particularly in the sense of wonder and adoration, and the power they held over an audience. Quite openly, he admits to presenting the tricks as powers to get attention, merely wanting to be known and recognised, and as someone who’d never been shown any love, to just have people give a shit. “I tricked the whole world” he says, with a smile, playing off the whole thing as a successful experiment to see just how dumb America and the world really was. Though, it’s more telling when he wonders aloud how come, if the people were so-called intelligent while he was so-called dumb, he got away with it, concluding “Surely I’m here for a reason?”
With that off his chest, Hydrick whips back the curtain to reveal his secrets. Yes, it was all just super-focussed puffs of air, without moving his mouth or face, a skill perfected during an 18 month stint in solitary confinement. Terrified guards gave him a wide berth, thinking he was possessed, and his cell haunted, as they felt ghostly winds on their necks, and the prison chapel was filled with regular demonstrations of the Lord’s power. Having befriended the chaplain, who’d been teaching the illiterate Hydrick to read, he challenged himself to convert twenty inmates a day to the everloving arms of Jesus, by calling out for God to show himself by turning the pages of a Bible and, well, you can figure it out. Post-jail, he travelled to Egypt, performing for the family of president Anwar Sadat, where he faith-healed a woman who’d had a heart attack. Hydrick knew he was a phoney, but she’d believed, and that was enough, which seemed to be the mental light-bulb that lit the way to the offices of the Salt Lake Tribune on his return to the US.
The Hydrick trademark
It’s easy to think Korem might have been overexcited in his fears about the potential for another round of killer cultists, and that, sociopathic tendencies aside, Hydrick was little more than a damaged fantasist, but the doc ends with him imprisoned once again, having been arrested two days after recording for receiving a batch of stolen firearms. Previously, while noting his inability to read and write, Hydrick claims that he’d been contacted by the Alphabet Bomber of nerve gas terrorists, Aliens of America, and Sirhan Sirhan — who’d assassinated Robert F. Kennedy while claiming he was under CIA mind control — with a view to using him as a messianic cult figurehead, to brainwash and recruit members with promises of psychic powers. There’s also a clear parallel between Hydrick’s backstory and that of Charles Manson, with each having spent very little of their adult lives in the outside world; being abused, passed around, and raised by the system, and re-entering society with the skills of people-control they’d learned inside, having completely reinvented themselves. Korem’s film ends with a jail cell interview, where Hydrick laughs off an attempted hanging as a prank, “just playing dead,” before it cuts to black with a caption that plays like the set-up to a possible sequel.
“On October 23rd, 1982, Hydrick escaped. And he has not yet been found.”
Home is where the heart is
As with the Manson similarities, Hydrick’s brutal upbringing is the psychological recipe behind every classic serial killer, and had he not been drawn to the more passive ideas of Eastern mysticisms, it’s easy to see another ending to this story. There’s something about the world of martial arts that seems to attract Walter Mittys. It’s a posturing sub-culture filled with men who need to let everyone know how tough they are, where being better is easily defined by belt colour, or, like Alan Partridge shouting in a carpark, the number of Dan’s at the end of your title. As with the tall tales of Steven Seagal, Frank Dux, or Count Dante, it’s a shadowy world just mysterious enough to keep things unverifiable. Hydrick’s Chi powers and ninja stories bring to mind Marcus from Big Brother fighting 100 men blindfolded, or the fabled Dim Mak Touch of Death, which every eighties kid’s hard older brother was alleged to know. Even Hydrick’s arsenal reeks of playground boasts of owning nunchucks which were always “at the cleaners” when you went over their house.
Even so, aspects of the story are particularly remarkable. You have to admire the moxie of a street kid with a third grade education, reinventing himself to finally take that affirmation he’d been craving. He had fooled the world, if only for a little while. More curious is his status as a martial arts badass, even if it was just the kind of showy bullshit that looks good on film (His one full-contact karate contest ended in defeat). There’s only five years between his hitch-hiking to Cali and That’s Incredible!, with a mere 18 months of that time spent free, but he was jiving and kicking like someone who’d been training his whole life. There was no evidence of any martial arts background before he emerged reborn as Sum Chai, claiming to be entirely self-taught, until an interview in ’89, where Hydrick claimed to have witnessed, aged six, his brother being beaten to death, and took up karate to protect himself and his siblings. But as always in this tale, the truth remains a murky, half-glimpsed ghost.
Where Hydrick’s story, which seems tailor-made for retrospectives or big-screen adaptations, becomes trickier, is in the part following Korem’s film. But things will always get uncomfortable when the correct answer to the question “Where are they now?” is: “In a maximum security unit for violent sex offenders.”
In 1988, Hydrick was charged with multiple counts of molestation, of three boys aged 10-13. Having travelled back to California to attend a karate tournament, he ended up staying, integrating himself into the Huntington Beach martial arts scene, and befriending Elvis’s karate teacher, Ed Parker. When a warrant was put out for his arrest, Hydrick, living out of state, was extradited back to California. Evidently, neither the years, nor Psychic Confession had dulled his legend, as freaked-out guards from the DA’s office became terrified as Hydrick “used supernatural powers” to make the van they were travelling in rock violently, and on reaching their destination, they warned the jailer not to look him in the eye, lest he cast a spell. I can’t help but think back to Manson at his own trial, catching the gaze of prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who looked down to find that his watch had stopped, before glancing back up at a winking Charlie.
The ensuing court case was a medium-sized media sideshow, with Hydrick — by this point, rechristening himself as ‘Sir James’ — reliving past glories like Danny Korem never happened. Now notorious for slipping out of handcuffs and multiple prison escapes (downplayed by one official as “walking away from minimum security facilities and some pretty rickety jails.”), Sir James fell right back into the fantasy world of Chinese masters and mind-magic. Speaking to a Kung Fu magazine, he talked of escaping from 148 prisons, and conjuring up 80mph desert winds for Egyptian dignitaries. However, in a phonecall to the press regarding the trial, he was quick to establish himself as a regular guy who breaks bricks and concrete with his hands, and, “If I have supernatural powers… I don’t know it.” At this point, if Korem had asked Hydrick to tell us who he really was, I don’t think he’d have known, and news reports of the time paint his frazzled public defender trying to bat away endless questions about wacky superpowers.
Interestingly, he introduced a third, brand new backstory into the narrative. This time, a Tibetan monk encountered during a wilderness year spent wandering Georgia’s Savannah River takes the wise old mentor role, imparting all the Kung Fu and psychic ability that’s now back to being completely for real. Meanwhile, his siblings talked up the escapes in interviews, hexing the guards and strolling out of the exit, while prison officials countered with less paranormal tales, like the time he rather unmystically karate kicked a steel door off of its hinges. That said, feats like the kicking down of concrete walls, and 1982′s pole-vault over a prison fence are impressive in their own right. After he’d been charged, the cover of Inside Kung Fu magazine, a big deal in the martial arts world, featuring Hydrick bore the headline “No Guard Could Break Him, No Prison Could Hold Him.”
Hydrick’s pencil trick > Joker’s
As his fame caught a second wind, Hydrick’s life had become a constant battle between the ugly truth, and the fantastical lies he’d seeded whenever he opened his mouth. A persistent thorn in the side of law enforcement, Sir James is described by one weary sheriff as someone who had “made a right good pest of himself.” He was even appearing on television again, with a shot on Sally Jessy Raphael talking up his psychic powers leading to his rearrest, when he was recognised by a law official.
In the summer of 1989, pleading guilty in a bargain to avoid prosecutors pursuing a 33-year maximum sentence, thirty-year-old ‘Sir’ James Hydrick was sentenced to 17 years. According to police reports, Hydrick would take the boys to his home and teach them tricks in exchange for sexual favours. Character witnesses relate a Michael Jackson-type figure, childlike himself, and preferring the company of children to adults, having been robbed a childhood of his own. Today, still known as Sir James, Hydrick is 54, and deemed too dangerous for release. Refusing to participate in treatment programs, he’s been diagnosed with paraphilia, paedophilia, and anti-social personality disorder. Regardless of the terrible things he’s done, his story is one of the weirdest, most intriguing rise ‘n falls in history, and though it’s all but been forgotten beneath the folklore of more celebrated monsters, like the Mansons of this world, in the system that became his home, Hydrick’s reputation continues to precede him. In May of this year, at the hearing petitioning for his release, 33 years since his televised début, tricksy escape artist, habitual liar, dojo master, convicted sex offender, and one-time World’s Greatest Psychic, ‘Sir’ James Hydrick, was ordered by the judge to be chained to the defence table, just in case.
Until Hollywood options this piece for a movie and hires me as the screenwriter, you should check out my Beach Diaries books on Amazon.com or Amazon UK so I’m not forced to fake psychic powers just to feed myself.
Also, if you dug this, check out some similarly-themed stuff I’ve posted on here:
* Exorcising Ghostwatch
* The Mad Lies of Hulk Hogan
* Forgotten Forteana — The Werewolf Trials
* Jimmy Savile and David Icke, All the Pieces Matter
* My Greatest Fear (aka the mental health slide of conspiracy theorists)
* “Back off, man! I’m a fantasist!” (aka the Ballad of Derek Acorah)
* Alan Moore and Chums (aka Alan Moore sends a letter to the Fortean Times, along with a photo of him and a ghost)