Recently, I’ve been watching the Netflix documentary series Surviving Death, covering various pieces of evidence for the existence of an afterlife, across various themes. It was…an interesting watch, which tries to stay even-handed; but its thematic approach meant a huge degree of difference between how each topic was presented and how plausible each one seemed to be.
Personally, I’ve always been intrigued by anything paranormal—blame those classic 1980s Usborne books—and I wouldn’t say I’m a sceptic. More, I’m one of those people who almost wishes they could believe in the paranormal were it not that the evidence for it is almost universally thin and quick to shatter at the slightest glance. The biggest issue I have with Surviving Death is that its attempt to be even-handed comes across uniformly in favour of the paranormal, because of the complete lack of any sort of critique at all. If anything, this does the more plausible phenomena a disservice, as they are lumped in with others that do have straightforward alternative explanations.
The largest topic covered across the whole series was “Mediums”, with two episodes; and it also came across as the area given the most credulous treatment. This is largely because it included no critical comment at all, of any sort. On the other hand, though, it would be difficult to include any critical comment on mediumship without it quickly becoming clear that there are no aspects of mediumship, none at all, that cannot be reproduced by different magicianship skills. Indeed, Harry Houdini’s work in discrediting various mediums in the first half of the twentieth century was explained as being unreliable, because as a showman, Houdini would have exaggerated his own skills and therefore he couldn’t be trusted. I suppose it’s better than Conan Doyle’s explanation of why Houdini’s work should be trusted, but it’s not much better.*
There were occasional threads dangling, which I would like to have pulled on. A major part of the “Mediums” episodes were given over to a physical medium—one who can manifest “ectoplasm” and other artefacts. Her physical seances only took place in pitch-black rooms with no cameras inside, so the manifestations had to be taken on trust. A sitting with a mental medium was filmed; but the session did not seem to go at all in the direction the medium had wanted. The message the sitter had been hoping for certainly didn’t come through, but the filmmakers seemed uninterested in exploring what might have happened, or why it had failed. In short, the episodes on mediums were extremely unconvincing, but seemed happy to turn a blind eye at the least convincing moments.
Across the whole series, though, not everything was quite so clear-cut or shallow. The final episode, on reincarnation, was in parts both touching and uncomfortable to watch, as the programme covered a man who, as a child, had apparently had memories of a former life. Those described in the film were traceable to a real, identifiable person, and there seemed no way that the boy could have known the things he had talked about, or why he would have said them. The man he had grown up to be, though, clearly wished he could forget all the things he had said as a child; and on meeting the family of the man he might have been the reincarnation of, he seemed deeply sorry for not fulfilling all their dreams.
Overall, Surviving Death was a bit of a mixed bag. There were a lot of interesting ideas, and a lot of interesting people, some of them very damaged people. It triggered the scientist in me, though. I wanted to go poking, go investigating, answer some of the questions. I wanted to test out the haunted Polaroid camera that featured in one episode, to find out whether it would be haunted if you used it in a different house.** The programmes were so busy trying to be open-minded, though, to present everything without judgement or criticism, that any sort of questioning or investigation was completely off the menu. It’s a shame. Now, I want to go back and pull at all the threads.
* Conan Doyle apparently convinced himself that although Houdini claimed to be a stage magician, he actually had secret paranormal powers, which is how he could reproduce the tricks that mediums carried out.
** And, indeed, find out whether it was that specific camera that was haunted, and exactly what was unusual about that camera’s type of film pack.