Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
I’ve been keeping an eye out for how psychic people are portrayed in both TV and film lately, to more closely observe how they are seen by the writers. For the most part, it’s pretty appalling. Part of this stems from the necessities of storytelling. Someone goes to see a psychic and the information they receive is used to drive the plot forward. The psychic is merely a device. In those cases the psychic usually doesn’t do much and the portrayal is pretty neutral.
But when a psychic is at the center of things, they usually get it wrong. The most blatant example of this is the movie The X-Files: I want to Believe. In that movie, the psychic is Catholic priest and child molester. Wrong on both counts. Very psychic people simply cannot stand the structure of organized religion and particularly one as hidebound as Catholicism. Simply attending church would be a stretch. Perhaps they did this 100 years ago when there really wasn’t much of a choice, but not these days. You’re not going to find a highly psychic Catholic priest.
And a child molester too? Uh, no. The psychic ability is also an emotional sensitivity to others and it creates strong emotional barriers to doing others harm, and that especially includes children. I’ve seen psychic people harm others through neglect and bad choices, by being so caught up in their own fears that they lose their awareness of others, but never deliberately. Psychic people can’t easily tune out how others are feeling and especially not children. To portray a psychic in that light is to completely misunderstand what makes a psychic tick.
But what most irritated me was a general attitude that psychics were these really creep abnormal people, as though we were in the same league as the rest of the monsters on that show; lumped together with aliens, golems and vampires.
Of course, the most common thing is to portray psychic abilities as super powers. (Think The X-Men) This is, of course, the most unrealistic way to portray psychic abilities because it pushes it into the realm of make believe. It is clear from some of the skeptical arguments that I’ve heard, that this is what they’re thinking of when they consider psychic ability. It’s gotten into their heads that psychic ability is necessarily a super power and since super powers don’t exist, neither does psychic ability. It’s at the root of questions like: Why don’t psychics win the lottery?
In The Minority Report they get a little closer, but psychics are still portrayed as very weird people with, you guessed it, super powers. In one scene the psychic guides Tom Cruise through a mall by skillfully anticipating exactly the right moves he should make. The woman is pale and appears quite drained. Going to work for her means laying in a large circular bathtub with two guys. WTF?
There are movies where they pretty much got it right, such as The Butcher’s Wife and The Gift both portray women who are dealing with an ability that is not always 100%. Demi Moore, as the Butcher’s wife, does a much better job than average of showing how psychics actually act. The psychic characters in both of these movies are not invested with super powers.
Psychic abilities find their way into any number of horror films, probably half of them by Steven King. There’s Carrie, of course, Premonition and The Dead Zone, by King. Poltergeist and Scanners to name just a few more. We’ve all seen at least a few of these films and probably many more using psychics. It all helps the plot along.
One theme that seems to run through it is that with the exception of the psychic in Poltergeist and the Butcher’s Wife, they’re just deadly serious people. Never crack a smile. Ever. I guess we’re all to busy making people’s heads explode or setting our Prom on fire to have any fun.
One thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve never seen anyone portrayed as just a regular person with psychic abilities. in every case, it’s the focal point of their existence. No one can ever just have psychic ability that they sort of just live with. Frankly, if the movies were to be believed, we would only receive psychic impressions about grisly murders, psychos and demons. All accompanied by super scary noises and ominous music. We would be constantly walking around with tragic looks on our faces. Either we would be driven half mad by the “noise of a million minds” or our powers would grow exponentially until finally we could levitate the Golden Gate Bridge.
And of course powerful psychic people would go over to the Dark Side and use their evil powers for, uh, you know, evil . . .stuff. The reality? Psychics are very sensitive people and evil just doesn’t sit well with them. Power and glory are ego based and you have to suspend that stuff to use psychic ability. The writers don’t understand that tapping into the psychic side means seeing what a big waste of time and energy the pursuit of power and glory is. You can’t make personal power and glory your focus and be psychic. They both require entirely different frames of mind.
And of course there is the other portrayal of psychics, such as Professor Sybill Trelawney from the Harry Potter movies and books, who is portrayed except for rare occurrences, as a fraud. This is one of the kinder ones of that sort of portrayal since she occasionally displays ability. In other cases psychics are portrayed as outright frauds.
However, this is fairly rare, and I think I know the reason for this. TV and film require creativity, intuitiveness and an ability to suspend judgment about people. (You can’t write good dialog if you can’t get into someone else’s head.) These qualities are very close to the kind of mental emotional state required to be psychic. The creative people who dominate the industry don’t typically take a materialistic view of the world. They intuitively know that this doesn’t “feel right.”
Perhaps it’s too much to hope for, but it would be nice to see someone have their internal struggles with the ability as it actually exists and not have the fate of the world depend on it. Have them deal with the negativity in the way real psychic people do; have them struggle to accept its existence and show how it affects their relationships while the main story is something else. Have them fail and succeed and fail and succeed, just like real people. It would make a good story.