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Patrick Wilson plays Dr. Michael Holt in "A Gifted Man." Courtesy of Craig Blankenhorn 2011 CBC Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved

The new normal

Paranormal phenomena and psychic abilities are dominating prime-time TV. What do they tell us about the human need for mystery beyond the ordinary?

By Therese DesCamp

Carrie Wells of Unforgettable remembers everything she’s ever experienced. On The Listener, Toby Logan hears other people’s thoughts. A dead ex-wife becomes the spirit guide to A Gifted Man, while The Mentalist’s Patrick Jane psyches out criminals as well as his colleagues.

Most channels, most nights, you can find a show that presumes that there are special people who experience a whole lot more reality than the rest of us. Whether they see the dead, predict behaviour, remember everything or read minds, these gifted main characters have been populating the airwaves with increasing frequency over the past 10 years. On television, paranormal is the new normal.

A decade ago, TV shows featured characters talking to God or guided by divine messengers: think Joan of Arcadia and Touched by an Angel. But there are no higher-order beings in this new group of shows. Toby

Logan may be trying to prevent murders and Patrick Jane may be trying to solve them, but they’re no angels. Yet even though religion has no part in these shows, the human need for mystery and spirit is clearly the guiding force behind them.

When Dr. Michael Holt of A Gifted Man struggles to assert logic in the face of his dead ex-wife’s inexplicable appearances, she begs him, “Let me be the one thing in life you don’t understand.” As Vancouver Sun columnist Alex Strachan put it, a show like this fills prime time’s emotional and spiritual void.

These shows fill another void, too. They validate experiences most of us don’t admit to in public: incidents of paranormal (outside the range of normal experience) and psychic (perceived by a capacity beyond the senses). Like my friend the doctor who used to dream about her patients and diagnose their illnesses — a week before they showed up in her office. Or the guy who knew, six hours ahead of time, that his older brother was arriving for an unannounced and unscheduled visit from the other side of the continent. Or the friend who converses — like her mother and her grandmother before her — with family members who’ve recently “passed over.” Or another friend who dreamt of planes crashing into tall buildings on the eve of 9/11.

Some of the paranormal abilities that these new programs explore are merely the extreme of ordinary human abilities, akin to my sister-in-law’s talent for playing any song by ear despite never having taken piano lessons.

 In Unforgettable, Carrie can remember every single thing she’s ever seen, except her sister’s murder. This condition is called hyperthymesia, and a handful of people worldwide are gifted with it. The Mentalist’s Patrick has a rare capacity to read people and predict their behaviour very, very well — an extreme form of emotional intelligence.

Other paranormal abilities, usually called “psychic” abilities, don’t seem to be an extension of any ordinary human sense but a whole other level of knowing. For most of us, psychic experiences are either non-existent or, at best, infrequent and beyond our control — the opposite of Michael’s regular sightings of his dead ex-wife, or Toby’s tuning in to others’ thoughts at will on The Listener.

So watching A Gifted Man or Unforgettable or The Listener or even The Mentalist can validate our hunch that there is more to this world than meets the eye. It can also reinforce the idea that the world is a scary and complex place. One viewer told me, “I need to believe that there’s more power available to us than we think. And I need to see someone use that power for good.” Special powers seem necessary because regular human capacities can’t solve the mess the world is in. This is actually a profoundly theological stance: the issues of the world cannot be fixed by unaided human power.

What’s also profoundly theological about these shows is that extraordinary powers aren’t free. Both on television and in reality, humans with add-ons pay a price. There’s a reason why hyperthymesia is a medical condition: people suffer from it. In the same way, seeing dead people can make you doubt your sanity and hearing other people’s horrific thoughts can be horrifying.

There’s a Christian parallel here: Jesus and the price he paid for his mystical knowing springs to mind. But that point won’t be raised on any of these programs. They steer clear of religion, preferring to let TV shamans, counsellors or neuroscientists address more-than-human conditions. No faith stance informs Toby’s discernment; no mentor teaches Patrick how to deal with his complex ethical world. On television, paranormal abilities become just one more tool in the human “we can do it ourselves” arsenal. The Mentalist illustrates this perfectly, since the main character isn’t really psychic, just someone who tricks people into believing he is. There is no gift, and there is no mystery. All we have are human skills of perception and manipulation.

While the new paranormal shows don’t talk about God or church, it’s worth noting that church doesn’t talk about the paranormal. As recently as the 20th century, the mainline western church taught — and believed — in a cosmology that went far beyond mundane reality, with room for angels, devils and extraordinary abilities like faith healing and direct contact with God. The historic church attempted, often fearfully, to distinguish between psychic and spiritual — psychic gifts being a natural human capacity, spiritual gifts being the dedication of those capacities to God. The modern mainline church doesn’t seem to be fearful, just skeptical and fuzzy headed: content to dismiss without investigation or to believe without considering origins or implications.

Fearful or skeptical, we’ve driven that which is beyond normal out of religious conversation. Because of this, we have missed a very important point, a point also missed by these new TV shows: to survive paranormal gifts with your body, mind and soul intact, it helps to consecrate them to the Divine.

The church’s present lack of engagement with non-standard reality means that the church has nothing to say about the paranormal. But television is making it clear: there is a longing in this flat, mechanistic, materialist world to make contact with something beyond reality. If the church chooses not to address this longing, you’d better believe that TV will — and we may not like what we see.


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