Just a little ESP

The book I’m primarily reading right now is Phenomena by Annie Jacobsen (who also wrote Area 51, which I found to be well-researched and quite interesting though too much space was devoted to a rather bizarre Roswell theory), and the game I’m primarily playing is the 2017 version of Prey developed by Arkane Studios. Naturally, paranormal phenomena and ESP are on my mind a lot at the moment.

I’ve always really enjoyed reading books and articles or watching shows and movies that involve the paranormal, whether fiction or nonfiction or that in-between spot of heavily produced, heavily spun “documentary” that follows real people and real events while offering very little truth–like your typical ghost investigator show. Like Mulder, I want to believe, but since my teen years I’ve become quite the skeptic, far more a Scully (although as seen recently on this site, some think I’m ignorantly bullheaded about my skepticism, so they might see me as more of a Doggett). Still, while I take it all with a grain of salt, I’ve never stopped casually exploring the subject. Not a hobby or a passion, just a casual interest. I like when I find sources that also seem to love the collection of subjects that fall into the general category of “paranormal” but approach it with skepticism, like Jacobsen or the ever-delightful folks behind The Spooktator (which I am quite far behind on at this point).

All that said, it’s kind of funny that my attention is currently focused on ESP. I’ve never been that interested in this particular topic. I’ve never looked that closely; the most intriguing claims of lab results never seem that remarkable to me, even if I were to accept them outright. But I don’t know enough about the subject to really have that strong of an opinion. I do know that I have no time or patience for mediums and the like that grew out of the spiritualism movement; so many have been proven charlatans, and even those who genuinely believe what they are doing can’t offer anything all that convincing to me.

Set all that aside, though. The big reason that I don’t really care about ESP one way or the other is that it’s one of those things that doesn’t seem to make much of a big impact on the world. Let’s say that people can exhibit extrasensory perception, and that this means that they can sometimes correctly identify what someone else is thinking. What does this mean? Not a whole lot. It doesn’t seem like a very consistent or reliable ability. The over-the-top telekinetic powers of movies or games are obviously not realistic. So what if you can sometimes correctly intuit the symbol on a card at a rate that is slightly higher than expected for someone purely guessing? It doesn’t reshape how anyone thinks about the world. And I imagine that we’d eventually be able to come up with a theory for how ESP operates, if it were seriously documented, and I’m not sure that theory would require a radical reconception of our understanding of the natural world.

In contrast, what if extraterrestrial life not only existed, but it had evolved into intelligent, technologically advanced cultures that surreptitiously visited and monitored Earth? That could require a radical new understanding of our place in the universe and of our own limitations as humans. Perhaps an anthropocentric view of the world just couldn’t be preserved any further. Perhaps, to understand how the aliens could travel such vast distances and maneuver and hide their craft in such unique ways, we would see dramatic shifts in physics. It seems like a big deal, in a way that correctly predicting card faces isn’t.

Similarly, if ghosts are real, or if near-death experiences actually show glimpses of an afterlife, or if reincarnation accounts were verified beyond any doubt, then that would be proof of life after death. That would be a remarkable thing! We might never understand anything about what consciousness is like after death. But we would have an assurance that there is more than what happens in this life, and that we continue on somehow. I think this would be an amazing reassurance to the vast majority of people. In my experience, even religious people have moments of doubt, so even for those with an established faith, this could give peace of mind. It could also upturn some religious beliefs–what are Christians supposed to do if reincarnation was an undeniable reality? For that matter, for those who tend to focus on the material, provable nature of reality, how do you react to that? That there is something larger and perhaps unobservable or immeasurable that we will all some day experience but that can’t be objectively analyzed? If you’ve spent your life as a hardened atheist, what does this news mean to you? At the least, it would seem like more people would have to seriously concede the limits of what the scientific method can reveal about our world, even as those who are fervently religious might face another challenge to their literalist adherence to a particular faith tradition.

Even the capture and display of a cryptid could be more interesting, if only because you’ve presented an animal that might not really fit in with a particular ecology, or that might seem impossible to exist in a particular habitat without detection for so long. I like animals. A new, strange animal would just be cool. And it would be something that you could reach out and touch, so to speak.

So that’s why I’ve never been overly interested in ESP, psychic precognition or retrocognition, telepathy, psychokinetics, or anything else like that. Even if some of these things could be established as undeniably real, they would seem mere oddities to me, rather than signifiers of something world-shattering. That said, psionic powers in video games are another thing entirely. PreyBioshockMass Effect, and Deus Ex have all delighted me with the powers on display. And while the Force comes with its own mythology and fantasy science source, the central unseen power of the Star Wars universe has resulted in entertaining and intriguing abilities in movies, shows, games, books, comics, and more. These over-the-top powers, and their sci-fi explanations, certainly would leave more of an impression.


Anyway, I’m sure I’ll post reviews of Phenomena and Prey on this site when I’m done with them. For what it’s worth, I’m enjoying them both rather a lot so far! And as a final thought, if you have any suggestions on books or documentaries that explore ESP with a skeptical bent (or that at least show something more restrained than breathless credulity), consider sending them my way. I wouldn’t mind taking a more serious look at the history of parapsychological study of this field.


My wife and I binged Ghosted over last week. We both liked it, though it was flawed. A lot of what we liked about the show came down to the charismatic and very funny people in the show, especially the core cast:

  • Adam Scott (who is of course excellent on Parks and Recreation and The Good Place) plays Max, a paranormal true-believer and disgraced physicist who everyone assumes is crazy;
  • Craig Robinson (who is such a scene-stealer in The Office) plays Leroy, a stubbornly skeptical former LAPD police officer turned mall security turned paranormal investigations special agent;
  • Amber Stevens West plays Annie, an over-eager weapons expert, perpetual second-in-command, and type-A personality;
  • Adeel Akhtar plays Barry, a nerdy, socially awkward scientist who alternates between self-awareness and a complete misreading of any social situation; and
  • Ally Walker plays Ava, the director of the unit.

The writing, unfortunately, is never worthy of the actors. The laughs are too broad, too safe, and too sparse. And the show can never really decide what it wants to be, leaning between sci-fi parody and office dramedy. It’s a real waste, because the promise of the show is that it will gloriously lampoon the paranormal drama subgenre of shows like The X-Files or Fringe (confession: despite repeated recommendations from friends, I’ve never watched Fringe). The show even directly references The X-Files at one point, when Leroy compares Max to Mulder, and Max, the super-nerd, says he’s unfamiliar with the show. (In point of fact, Max is a good match for Mulder, but Leroy’s cop background and too-stubborn-skepticism read more like Doggett than Scully.) Yet there is very little evidence that the show’s creators have that much love or interest in the genre of shows they’re spoofing, or even in the paranormal more generally.

You can buy into the wackiest X-Files episode because everything is taken so seriously on-screen. And even when that series mixed things up and developed its own mythology, it was clear the writers had done their homework. They knew the paranormal topics they were riffing on; they knew the conspiracy theories. There was an intimate knowing, even in the show’s self-parodying episodes. The X-Files laughed with those lovably nutty ’90s conspiracy theorists, not at them.

But Ghosted never takes any idea very seriously at all. Ideas are thrown at a wall, and most of them slide away to nothingness. Random monsters are tossed up, and an arbitrary answer is arrived at by episode’s end, if at all. Sure, it’s a type of parody, but I would’ve loved to see Ghosted really dig in and laugh at the weirdness, bringing that paranoiac subculture back into the light, pimples and all. Maybe the show’s creators have decided that conspiracy theories just can’t be loved anymore–and given the 9/11 truthers and the birthers and the Sandy Hook false flag assholes, I get it. The heart of the conspiracy isn’t a toothless grey alien whose truth or fiction ultimately does not matter; now the theorists are malicious, challenging reality itself, spitting in the face of empathy or common decency. But then why do this show at all? (In contrast, The X-Files reboot chose to engage directly with contemporary conspiracy culture…to admittedly mixed results.)

The creators never did seem to figure that out. We start with Max and Leroy being abducted by the shadowy Bureau Underground, a secretive federal agency devoted to the investigation of the paranormal. They’re immediately thrown into a bizarre plot involving multidimensional theory and alien abductions, and by episode’s end we have two mysteries: what happened to Max’s long-missing but now-rediscovered wife, and why did the agent we last see abducted by aliens specifically ask the Bureau to recruit Max and Leroy? The pilot is shaky, and not terribly funny, but it has a good sense of direction and intrigue.

Almost immediately after that, the show pivots to mostly monster-of-the-week episodes. Unfortunately, rather than leaning into that format, the episodes minimize the monsters and give story resolution little focus in favor of trying to convince us that Max and Leroy are actually good guys with good chemistry, something hard to do when they’re often emotionally removed or catty for comic effect. Still, that try-hard effort paid off, and I started to love them both, plus the fairly small regular supporting cast.

And then, boom, right around mid-season, the show radically shifted in tone and style. Where we’d mostly had monster mysteries filmed with fairly static single-camera scenes, we shifted to a goofy office comedy about a group of screwups, suddenly with a lot more dynamic, reactive shots zooming in or panning over knowingly to observe particular character reactions. Tonally and visually it shifted from “funny X-Files” to “weird Parks and Rec.” And the show received a soft reboot: now, the shadowy organization is actually just an embarrassment rather than a secret, the top boss is demoted and gradually loses her cool (if not her sanity), the new boss is a petty and boring bureaucrat, and the gang (which has expanded to include other minor office-admin-type characters not really present before the reboot) spends more time worrying about whether they’ll keep their jobs during a paranormal drought rather than actually hunting monsters. The central mystery shifts to who bugged the Bureau’s office and why, with Max’s wife and the missing agent shelved as virtually nonexistent concerns. And Leroy and Max, who had been portrayed as newbie agents given the worst gigs early on, are suddenly the central agents, without any explanation for this shift.

So suddenly we have a lot safer narrative and style (especially in light of the success of shows like Parks and Recreation and The Office). And most of what I was interested in had been stripped away. Instead of low-level subordinates barely able to see any of the cool secret operations and paranormal activities afoot, Max and Leroy are suddenly the star–and only–agents. Their kidnapping in the first episode now makes very little sense, especially if the Bureau is not an ultra-classified organization. There’s even a bizarre reorientation of romantic pairings, which frankly would have been fine if it didn’t play out so cruelly and trivialize so much of the character development from early on. And the mysteries motivating the show dissolve for a bureaucratic narrative. But there’s some really soft commentary on the Trump administration, I guess?

And then, like a slingshot, the season ended with the sixteenth episode in a hard reset. Suddenly, the status quo of the first half is restored. Ava’s back in charge. Max and Leroy, who had just been fired, are back on the force. The Bureau is back to its normal sprawling operation, with Max and Leroy the least and worst agents in the organization. And the show refocuses hard on the original mysteries, advancing the plot somewhat!

What the hell happened? My wife believed that the multiverse elements of earlier episodes were involved, that the middle episodes actually represented another timeline or reality. But there’s no setup for it, no explanation of the shift, no clue to the audience other than the jarring change in tone and style. And the show hadn’t really been very clever up to that point, didn’t really demand serious thinking–I simply doubted the show was smart enough to do that, and trying to pull off a reveal like that at the end (without ever being explicit) would be bizarre.

The truth turned out to be quite mundane. You see, Ghosted has been canceled. The mid-season shift, as it turns out, maps directly with Fox’s order of additional episodes and mandated change of showrunner from Kevin Etten to Paul Lieberstein. Even the bizarre springback finale is easily explained by the fact that it was to be a part of the original lineup of episodes until Fox postponed it to air following the extended seasonGhosted probably wouldn’t have been a great show anyway, but Fox mismanaged it to hell.

I’d love to see this show get continued on a streaming service, picking up from the mid-season story and ignoring the rest, or alternatively seeing reincarnation in some spiritual successor that more carefully pairs paranormal mysteries with comedy. But I haven’t been this disappointed to see a mediocre genre show get canceled after the first season since Terra Nova.