Is the paranormal as entertainment a threat?

I imagine that even the most skeptical among us has enjoyed paranormal-themed entertainment at one time or another, and might even continue to do so. Many consider the X-Files, Ouija boards, horror novels, fortune cookies, etc., just good clean fun. Some people, however, take these diversions quite seriously, and I’m sure many skeptics regard this as a Bad Thing.

Here’s an item that popped up on the CSICOP mailing list:
(I won’t tempt Chronos’ wrath by trying to vB it again!)

In summary: Viewers are more willing to accept the veracity of paranormal phenomena when television programs, even fictional shows, portray them as real.

From the skeptic’s point of view, should the paranormal ever be portrayed as real, even in the context of amusements or art?

Now, I don’t want to imply censorship, but in a perfect world I think a con artist like John Edward would be shouted off the airwaves, and any show about UFOs would include equal time for skeptics–because the viewers would demand it. In a skeptic’s utopia, do you think that the paranormal would still have legitimate enteratinment value, or do you wish that Tarot cards and shows like “Roswell” would vanish from the face of the Earth?

My opinion is that an educated person should be able to enjoy a work of fiction based on a concept that isn’t real, in the same way that a child can enjoy the Smurfs without thinking there really are little blue people who live in mushrooms. It would be a shame to stamp out Buffy: the Vampire Slayer or the work of H. P. Lovecraft, just because some people take them seriously. I think the goal should be to educate such people so that they can enjoy this entertainment thoughtfully, rather than trying to shelter them from paranormal themes.

The operative words are “educated” and “should.” I agree completely . . . but it is imperative we (as a society) provide everyone the tools to think critically and avoid blind acceptance of pleasantly-conveyed falsehood.

I’m with Andros.

I agree that there is the possibility that certain individuals (technically known as “goofballs”) might regard some paranormal/occult thing they see on TV as real. But think of all the whacky stuff that isn’t really paranormal or occulty or any of that, that people see on TV that they think is real. It only rains when it’s important to the plot. People get knocked through the air by handgun bullets. The plucky hero gets the sexy woman after defeating the massive criminal organization. “It’s okay, I seen it on the telly-vision.”

What I’m trying to say is that the occult is a drop in the bucket of fiction that smart people recognize as fiction and intellectual midgets worship as Truth. “Do not try this at home” actually originated as sincere advice, and has only recently been turned into a tongue-in-cheek expression. Show some football players lying in the freeway to prove their manliness in a movie, and surviving, and you’re liable to fill up emergency rooms all around the country with football player who have proven their … well, it’s not their manliness they’ve proven.

The up-side to the X-Files, is that it teaches skepticism (in addition to being a pretty good ride). Buffy uses slimy demons to put real feelings on display. Xena uses a mythical heroine and campy fights to give people what they want, a female character who is more than a love interest. And if the goofballs weren’t misunderstanding fantasy television they’d just be telling each other Gere and the gerbil anyway.

My grown daughter and I have had this discussion. I’m a CSICOP member; she’s an X-Files fan (and a skeptic.)

A dear nephew of mine is manic-depressive. During one discussion, my daughter suddenly got serious when she thought about how devastating it must be for my nephew who would give anything to be able to differentiate between reality and the fantasy of the X-files world.

When the X-Files first came to television, I was just beginning to be skeptical of alien-UFO claims. My skepticism was on very shaky grounds. In a way, I felt “betrayed” by all those who had previously gotten my homes up about the possibility of flying saucers or alien visitations. It didn’t help any that I was raised by a father who believed in orgonomy and that the founder of orgonomy claimed to have shot down several flying saucers with his Cloudbuster.

So when the pilot episode of the X-Files espoused the claim that aliens have been among us for decades, it felt like a slap in the face. I resented being told that aliens were real, even by a fictional character on a fictional show, and I flatly refused to watch any more of the series.

Now, however, after coming to a skeptical understanding of a heck of a lot of things (including things that have nothing to do with paranormal claims, I might add), I’m comfortable enough with my understanding of reality that I could enjoy a show like The X-Files or The Sixth Sense without feeling like I had to argue with the main characters.

Just don’t ask me to sit still for Fox’s Live from the Pyramids or Alien Autopsy, or the various pro-paranormal shows they have on the Learning Channel.

I didn’t know there were religions made out of the Final Fantasy series.

I consider myself to be rooted in reality. That said I’ve enjoyed Science Fiction and Fantasy television, books, movies, and even role playing games for many years now. I don’t believe in dragons, I don’t believe in unicorns, my friends and I can’t cast spells, and I’m reasonably sure that Star Trek is full of crap.

What is more harmful then fantasy or science fiction is stupid writing. It seems to me that the vast majority of science fiction is just plain crap. Don’t get me wrong now. There are many fine examples of science fiction on televison, movies, and in books. But most of it seems like crap to me. And crap is way more harmful then fantasy.


Fiction is one thing. Buffy, Lovecraft, etc., all fine with me because it’s presented as fiction.

But I have real problems with people likening the serious documentaries that are sometimes shown on public television with the irresponsible crap that constitutes most of the programming on TLC and the Discovery Channel. The “Learning” Channel is responsible for exactly zero learning, and the Discovery Channel is no better IMHO (they’re owned by the same company anyway, right?). And under the guise of educational programming, they are enabling and encouraging the mentality that affords the same credibility to “The Moon Landing Hoax” show as to actual hard documentaries. Shows narrated by Leonard Nimoy are NOT on the same level as Nova, and it’s irresponsible to present them as such.

Of course Nova is not a college textbook either, but it manages to actually contain information along with its entertainment. PBS got the reputation for being educational because of programs like Nova, but somehow that aura of respectability got extended to a genre that didn’t ever deserve it. These shows are not documentaries, they’re sensationalist nonsense designed for one thing: to keep you in front of the TV long enough to see some commercials for Toyotas and soap and bleah de bleah…

Is it harmful? I’d say that long-term exposure to TLC could be detrimental to the average channel-surfer’s critical thinking faculties because it lowers expectations of what it means to think critically. Maybe the typical fan of Aruthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World doesn’t want to think too hard, that’s why s/he’s watching it in the first place, but if he thinks he’s thinking hard (“Hey, I’m watching The Learning Channel! I must be learning!”), how will he know when he’s learning something vs. when he’s being entertained when it actually matters?

Rather than making all these shows run a disclaimer at the beginning (“The following is 75% bullshit…”) I propose that all people who are interested in fighting ignorance start publicly making fun of TLC and The Discovery Channel. It will get to the point where people who fancy themselves “intellectuals” will be embarrassed to watch either of them.

People who can’t distinguish between “real” and “fantasy”, between “science fiction” and “science”, aren’t going to be helped by taking X-Files or Roswell off the air.

Read the Weekly World News lately? I know actual people who believe all that stuff. “They couldn’t print it if it weren’t true.”

[one vote here nominating Roswell for the Eternal Television Archives Eraser and Collective Human Race Brain Wipe Scanner, not because it’s paranormal, but because it’s just so icky. Think Dawson’s Creek with half the teens as aliens. :rolleyes: Actual dialogue from last week: “You slept with Kyle!” Ah, Gene, where are you when we need you?]

Asmodean wrote:

There are Cloudbusters in Final Fantasy?! :eek:

Good lord, Wilhelm Reich’s influence is greater than I thought.

I like fantasy. One of the great strengths of Man is our creativity (and oposable thumbs). Its a gift. We dream, imagine, create, pretend and enjoy fantasy.

Removing it will not remove ignorance. It will remove part of our collective soul though.

Shows like “The X-Files” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” are not the problem. It is obvious that these are works of fiction, designed solely to entertain, not to educate. Nobody is expected to take these shows seriously, and very few people do.
The problem is people like John Edward. He is taking something that is fiction and trying to pass it off as fact. People who may be able to watch The X-Files objectively are lining up to the buy the crap he is selling. I think people like him should be stopped in some way. Even if it’s just the network putting a disclaimer at the beginning of the show, like they do for the “Psychic Hotlines”. This is for entertainment purposes only.

It’s important not to roll one’s eyes too hard, as I imagine a sprain in those muscles would hurt like heck.

Still, sure, they might as well slap it on along with the “this show contains some violence, adult situations, and commercial breaks every five minutes” bit.

The single best reality disclaimer/warning label thingie I’ve ever seen was in an occult-themed roleplaying game by the name of Nephilim. One page was blank, with “This game is not real” centered on them. Flip the page, and on the reverse, blank again, with centered words: “You are.”

I’m not sure putting a warning on deliberate lies (or fantasy) completely solves the problem. As somebody who worked on a high profile government project I can say that we spent a large part of our PR time refuting crackpot statements that had somehow migrated from “fiction” or “humor” to being accepted as a “cover up”. We were asked: “So why isn’t anyone willing to talk about this, if it’s just made up?” Answer: “There’s nothing to talk about, it’s a lie.” What could we say? If we tried to explain technically why what they were suggesting was improbable, they claimed we were hiding behind our arguments. Once the argument got started, there was no way for us to win. Since the purpose of the project wasn’t to win arguments, but to do science, we just started avoiding those sorts of questions.

Another example is the “Harry Potter” controversy, where people are unwilling to call an quote about Potter causing satanism a joke, even though the source appears in “The Onion”, which only publishes humor.

You have a point, but since we can’t legally force John the Fraud off the air, what can we do about him (and other similar shows)?

The problem is deciding what is absolutely, definitely, not true paranormal. As a great skeptic, who was once a believer, I recognize that 99.9% of things presented as paranormal are delusions or tricks. However I know of three or four things which I have never been able to explain. (And I’ve never met anyone who can.)

Now, while it’s true TV writers will use anything that makes a good story, it doesn’t stand to reason that everything they believe is false, just because I think it is. Most people believe in far more psychic phenomena than I do, and while I think they are wrong, it doesn’t give me the right to ban publication of it. The area is so gray that it would be easy to abridge freedom of speech.

I don’t have a problem with the entertainment value. Such stuff makes for great escapism. The movie Fargo was great and it was presented as a true story. I found out a year later it was not

Okay, get ready for a REALLY unpopular and impractical solution. Provide every TV show with a five minute rebuttal session. It would work similarly to ballot rebuttals: anybody (with some sort of credentials, I suppose) who felt a factual/political/artistic rebuttal needed to be made to a show could say anything they wanted that wasn’t slanderous.

By default, the “John the Fraud” shows would conclude with a sympathetic, well-educated couple pointing out what foolishness it was, and recommending other things to watch. Either that or pictures of baboons playing in a novelty shop. Of course, sponsors would have advertising time.

The writings of H.P. Lovecraft are fiction? Then who has been taking away my sacrificial virgins if not Cthulhu?

I think that people who truly believe in paranormal fiction can be as equally entertaining as the fiction that fuels their misguided beliefs. When a Midwestern farm wife claims aliens have probed her anus as a true life fact, all I can say is That’s Entertainment!

But it isn’t just paranormal entertainment that leads the unskeptical mind to false beliefs. I would not be a bit surprised if there are many women who believe in the romantic ideals of Jane Austin (and other lesser romance writers) then find, to their utter disappointment, that worldly love is not at all like fictional relationships.

All the regulations, plans, and schemes by Men and Governments will never prevent an individual from believing a pleasant or pleasing fiction to be true if that person is inclined to believe. The fact is that a vast number of people don’t think critically or skeptically. I don’t think any thing should be done either. If they are easy prey to the siren songs of fiction, or live in a fantasy world of paranormal beliefs or romantic ideals, then so be it. I don’t believe that a critical or skeptical mind can be taught or embedded in an individual against his inclinations. It is like the old saying “The meaning of life is meaningless unless you discover the meaning yourself.” Skepticism must be unearthed by one’s self. There are plenty of excavation tools laying about for people to discover. The best tool of all, IMHO, is in 99.9% of American homes, and is found on the television. It is the little button labeled OFF.

In Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” he touched on this theme, and I believe even mentioned “X-Files” directly. If memory serves, he said something like “wouldn’t the show be better if at the end of each episode they showed the UFO was a natural phenomonon or a fraud?”

No Carl, that wouldn’t make the show better. That would make the show “Scooby Do”.

I’m a big fan of Sagan’s works, and “Demon Haunted World” is one of my favorites, but that point really irked me. I get a lot of enjoyment from fiction that portrays supernatural events, events I know do not and cannot happen.