Aliens are still poking around on television, though by now you'd think they'd have found what they were looking for, and God has certainly been holding His own on TV lately, what with angels and miracles and the like. But now, finally, dead people are making something of a play--or, rather, the people that dead people talk to and appear in front of and otherwise generally pester. On Saturday nights, they have their own network show, and with excellent patrons: X-Files producers, the directors of Gods and Monsters, The Shining, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and even Steven Spielberg, whose DreamWorks Television is their home.
The Others, a Sixth Sense knockoff/homage--they see dead people!--debuted in February as NBC's highest-rated Saturday night premiere since 1996. The Others are a motley, Scooby-Doo-ish crew of New England psychics, each with his or her own particular skill, who band together to "help troubled souls see the light." There is Marian, a wide-eyed college student, who sees the past and the afterlife ("How do you tell someone that half the people you see are dead?"); Warren, a nervous, messy-haired, mentally unstable "seer" who picks up signs from the other side ("I guess I see things that aren't there--or are"); Satori, a beautiful blonde "sensitive" ("It's like seeing colors in a world that's full of people who are color-blind") and the only one who makes money off her clairvoyance; Mark, a beautiful blond medical resident and "empath" ("I pick up on other people's feelings"); Albert, an ornery middle-aged man whose "sixth sense" was heightened when he was blinded in Vietnam ("All I can see are psychic visions I wish I were blind to"); and Elmer, a wise-man type and the only African American in the crowd, who at 82 is the senior medium ("I've been talking to the other side since before I could talk to folks on this side"). They meet regularly, support-group style, in Elmer's house. Their "group facilitator" is Dr. Miles Ballard, a professor of mythology and folklore who has no psychic skills, but wrote his doctoral thesis on "apparitional materialization."
With The Others, psychics are getting their best shot at televised legitimacy, mainly through the normalization process that is TV's specialty. The premiere episode, for no reason more complicated than television's need for identification and likability--they want you to invite these people back next week--works hard to establish that psychics are regular folks and that if we were they, which we could be, we would have no doubts about the reality of the paranormal. Marian is a normal college student, except she has nightmares in which a rotten corpse reaches up at her from the bathtub, and she repeats in her sleep something that sounds like "my killer's dead," and in class she enters a trance state and scribbles wildly. When Professor Ballard reports that a young woman, Diane, had died the previous year in her dorm room's bathtub, Marian adamantly rejects the suggestion that her nightmare was a visitation and refuses to be spoken to "like I'm some freak." This is just denial, of course, and resistance is futile. Eventually Marian goes to a meeting of the Others. They blow her mind with their clairvoyance, tell psychic coming-out stories, take her to where she sees bloody dead people. She comes to find that she is not alone, gains acceptance into the quirky family, and begins to harness her raw powers. By the end of the episode, she has taken a trip to the spirit world, danced with Diane's corpse, and become Diane for a spell. "I was lost," Marian says to her new friends in the last scene. "Thanks for finding me."
This movement from skepticism to faith is a reliable source of dramatic tension and, therefore, a staple of the show. Each episode proves once again that nightmares might actually be messages from the great beyond, accessible to people with higher powers, who look like kooks only to the ignorant and/or spiritually impaired. Marian's colleagues are hip to the cheesy, crackpot reputation of psychics. They make dismissive jokes about "that crystal ball schtick" and "gypsy babble," which goes to show that they are the real thing. Besides, there is plenty of physical evidence of the supernatural--unlike real-life accounts, The Others can provide video footage--and the crew includes that M.D. and the Ph.D., so psychic phenomena have obviously stood up to the scrutiny of both the natural and social sciences. Survey research is also apparently on their side. "Do you realize that 70 percent of husbands and wives who lose their mate," Satori asserts, "experience after-death communication?"
This is a fantasy program, of course--where else would you find a man who is handsome, a doctor, and deeply attuned to other people's feelings?--and it isn't as if viewers watch this as documen-tary. But the fantasies it provides are telling. The Others may be a series of ghost stories, and pretty fun ones at that, but it takes its place much less in the genres of horror and science fiction than in the genre of New Age pop spiritualism. It bears all the hallmarks of the loose group of philosophies and practices charted critically by Wendy Kaminer in her recent book Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: It works from "a general belief in immortality and the existence of extraterrestrial or celestial beings devoted to our welfare, as well as a general disdain for reason"; it celebrates feeling and intuition as the paths to truth; it views "skepticism with contempt, as the refuge of the unenlightened."
In fact, the folks from the other side, much like those on CBS's hit Touched by an Angel, deliver a series of mawkish pop-spiritual messages: "No one ever really dies," and "We come to this side to learn and grow on the other side," and "Everything has a purpose." The first episode ends with dead Diane inhabiting Marian's body in a hospital bed and settling "unfinished business" with her surviving boyfriend, informing him that she died accidentally and did not, as he thought, kill herself after they fought. "Stop torturing yourself," Marian/Diane says. "It's keeping me here." Meanwhile, a house turns out to be haunted and set on fire by its owner's late husband, but only so he can lead his widow to a hidden pile of money. On another episode, Satori goes to visit a woman whose husband and baby have been in an auto accident. "Your husband has a message for you," she says. "He needs you to move on." Once the woman has accepted the tragedy, her husband sends her an "I love you" message via cell phone. When demons torture an arrogant yuppie who has just had eye surgery (one ghoul pulls his face into a bowl of miso soup at a sushi restaurant), the cure involves getting him to conquer his "fears or weaknesses or flaws," on which demons allegedly feed. While spinning dybbuks attack him wildly, the man is told to look into the eyes of blind Albert, who has spent the episode facing his own Vietnam-guilt "demons." "Take away their weapon," Albert yells. "You!"
Ultimately, it's always about you--you face your demons, in the metaphorical sense, and the literal demons run screeching away; you move on, metaphorically speaking, with your grieving process, and the actual ghost moves on to the other side. Spirits aren't generally evil, anyway, just restless and eager to get on with the business of enjoying the afterlife, and maybe a bit sloppy. Something's bugging them, and they communicate in the only ways they know how, which tend to be quite terrifying for people here on earth (popping out in decayed form, starting fires, walking around with knives in their chests, hiding in wallpaper, and so on). But really they're trying to help you help yourself. Like most live people on television, dead people are very nice.
This Spielbergian style is not a stupid choice, business-wise, given the huge market for books, workshops, and lectures that take psychics of various kinds very seriously, both as communicators with the dead and as guides to the development of superior intuition. For critics like Kaminer, the real horror show here is pop spiritualism's trafficking in a "blind antipathy to reason" and its promotion of "the supposedly deeper, more authentic knowledge of our emotions." The danger, she says, is that "many people [may] develop habits of faith, or unreason, that discourage them from thinking critically about empirical realities."
But even if The Others is part of a larger cultural trend that celebrates emotion and intuition over reasoned inquiry, it is not at all clear how alarmed we should be. For one thing, there is still something useful and satisfying in watching the hegemony of science get shaken up just a bit. For another, there are excellent reasons to tout intuition, and to remain open to and humbled by the possibility that the world is neither quite controllable nor quite logical. If anything is threatening about The Others and the pop spiritualism in which they dwell, it is not the potshots they take at reasoned inquiry, but the punches they pull. If anything is horrifying, it is the prettified, therapized version of horror they present, their stubborn denial of the dark, ugly, and evil. When malevolent apparitions turn out to be misunderstood souls, when demons can be scared off with a small dose of self-help, when getting haunted is like being touched by a therapist, the biggest questions, the really shocking and chilling ones in this life or the next, are written out of the story. That's scary. ¤