The Supernatural on Television: A Skeptical Reassessment

Article excerpt

THE SUPERNATURAL TOOK OVER U.S. television this year in the wake of the success of ABC's Lost. Programs about psychic detectives, alien invaders, monster hunters, and mysterious creatures proliferated on American airwaves, and a wary public braced for a science fiction renaissance rivaling only crime-based television in the number of prime time hours devoted to it.

This invasion of the paranormal prompted immediate cries from television critics that the shows' monsters were television's way to explore the aftermath of the War on Terror. Skeptics countered that the success of otherworldly shows indicated that broadcasting had slipped back into a quagmire of irrationalism, posing a danger to America and civilization as we know it.

Purdue University communications professor Glenn Sparks sent out a press release warning that this fall's television shows "could encourage people who can least afford it to start spending money on psychics." Sparks also warned that teenagers were susceptible to the shows' influence, and he said "networks should consider posting disclaimers about the reality of the shows." (1)

Many skeptics who issue such dire warnings and oppose televised supernatural fiction often engage in uncritical and fallacious thinking that undercuts their rationalist message. Attacking these television shows, or even the idea of supernatural fiction in general, risks insulting the audience skeptics wish to reach, and it suggests an elitist, condescending attitude that continues to give skeptics a bad name.

British television critic Ian Bell was particularly scathing in his review of NBC's Medium, a drama about a psychic consultant, based in part on alleged real-life psychic Allison DuBois. He called the show "hogwash": "In my world," Bell wrote, "there is a real and growing problem caused by the bizarre things ordinary Americans are, apparently, prepared to believe." He did concede, though, that "it's only TV." (2) Skeptical Inquirer's Joe Nickell also blasted the show because it "shamelessly touted" DuBois as though she were actually able to psychically solve crimes. (3)

Let us begin by dispensing with the caveats. First, both CBS's Medium and its Ghost Whiaperer are supposedly based on tree stories. Skeptics are right to attack these false claims. Second, many of these shows are not very good, based solely on their merits as drama, not as science. Others are excellent, like Lost and the WB s Supernatural--probably the purest and best-made horror series on network television. But too many skeptical critics question the very right of fictional programs to include supernatural elements, as though their existence is an affront to science and reason.

Here's the Problem

First, such complaints reinforce an image of skeptics as self-appointed elitist priests guarding the temple of reason, who have a condescending attitude toward average Americans--and to fellow skeptics who enjoy supernatural fiction. It suggests that skeptics believe viewers of these programs are too ignorant, stupid, or enthralled by the flashing pictures to differentiate between news and drama. It is one thing to point out that such things are not "real"; another to suggest that viewers who enjoy "irrational" entertainment, are less worthy than the austere rationalists who disdain it. …