Following on the heels of "Paranormal State", A&E's latest venture into the increasingly competitive field of paranormal reality TV, "Psychic Kids: Paranormal Children", leaves one uneasy and occasionally looking for the number to Social Services. The show, which follows (although directs might be a better verb) various children reputed to possess psychic abilities, has begun airing only recently and already it has raised a few eyebrows.
In a recent episode, twelve year-old Jillian from Norman, OK believes she sees ghosts. She says these spirits ask her to relay messages to the living. Jillian's mother, Tamara, does not quite know what to make of all this. She struggles with fears of mental illness as equally as the fear that Jillian may just be telling the truth.
Tamara was frightened to learn that Jillian saw a woman once in her bedroom whom she described as having wings. The entity spoke to the young girl, saying she was her aunt. As far as Jillian knew, her mother did not have a sister, but when she asked about this, her mother nervously revealed that she once had a twin who had died long before Jillian was born.
Jillian also regularly sees and communicates with "Jacob," a boy who keeps her up at night because he wants to play. Unfortunately, Jillian also witnesses a more frightening apparition named "Emily". She says that this spirit once showed her a tombstone with "Jillian" written upon it.
This burgeoning world of paranormal and psychic experiences, which Tamara cannot even begin to understand, has created a rift in their family. As a result, Jillian and Tamara fight more and more these days. But is it really the psychic chasm separating them or simply those all-too-familiar growing pains of adolescence?
The program also looks at eleven year-old Ahli and eight year-old Faith, both girls claiming psychic abilities as well. Ahli believes she can perceive and read the auras of others and that this allows her to divine such occluded information as emotional states and physical well being.
Faith, on the other hand, believes that she can communicate with spirits, most notably "Freddie Stuart." This young boy spirit, who died in 1886, visits her frequently and has become something of a compatriot to this frustrated and misunderstood child. Freddie, unfortunately, comes with his angry mother as well.
Under the auspice of psychic patron, Chip Coffey, the girls are brought together to share their experiences at an as-yet undisclosed location. Jillian's dreams the night before the rendezvous produce an a priori sketch of her destination, which shows a rather old-fashioned two-story wooden structure with a covered porch. To everyone's surprise, when the destination is finally revealed, we see an old inn that looks much like a spaghetti western general store. It is a dead match for the sketch Jillian drew the day before.
While the mothers consort and comfort, dealing with warring emotions, the girls move like marionettes to Coffey's instructions. We see in candid conversations that what the girls fear more than spirits is the disbelief they so often receive, and worse, their perceived insanity.
With leading questions, Coffey urges them to probe with their gifted little minds the dark recesses of the building around them. As if being commanded to "produce" the girls seem to shuffle uncomfortably, save for Faith. She almost instantly senses the presence of a woman to whom she cannot put a name immediately. However, Svengali pushes on undaunted, challenging her for a name. When she somewhat hesitantly replies, he asks her rather patronizingly if she is using her imagination or her psychic ability. Rebuked, Faith quickly shifts gears. She claims the woman is Catharine, Freddie's mother and an entity she fears greatly.
Ah ha! Now we have the ratings clincher! Or so Coffey must think as he asks the young girl if Catharine has followed her. Faith replies fearfully that she has indeed come along. If this was in any way a test, I fail to see its purpose beyond the torment of three young girls.
Later, Coffee produces documentation proving Faith's story. An old County census records a Freddie Stuart being born less than an hour from her home and dying young in 1886. His mother was named Catharine. For a moment we see the elation and vindication on the faces of Faith and her mother. Sadly, it was not to last.
That night, a sleepless Faith has a breakdown, refusing to stay any longer and deal with any and all entities present in the old inn. Coffey races to the rescue (of the ratings) with what we hope will be comforting words. Instead, he slams her with this gem: ""Can I tell you the truth? You're haunted."
After traumatizing the young girl and letting it simmer over night, the team reassembles the next day to discuss dealing with these visitors. The girls get few words of comfort from the show's resident psychologist, Dr. Lisa Miller, who manages all of 17 1/2 seconds per episode. This might have to do with Coffey being ready for his closeup, Mr. DeMille, or it may have more to do with the fact that she is willing to ask harder questions. Early on in this episode, she posited that Faith's spirit might actually be an imaginary playmate so common among young children.
In fact, despite having a clinical psychologist aboard, we learn very little about the home lives of the afflicted families. However, all seemed to be single moms raising just one female child. But we don't learn what their interests are? Had they been interested in the paranormal or occult prior to the discovery of their child's "gift"? How has their family situation affected these children psychologically? Could they be manifesting certain behaviors as a way to garner the attention of their mothers? In two of the children's cases, each befriends a boy spirit while a matriachal entity harrasses them. Could this speak more to the homelife of the living than to family dynamics from beyond the grave? With the noticeable lack of fathers involved in these happenings it begs the question as to whom exactly the boy ghosts represent.
One of the few moments where the team even bothers to set up a test for the girls comes solely for Ahli whose ability to read auras is analyzed. The girl and psychic researcher Tiffany Johnson both draw the aura of their selected subject (a producer named David) with various colored pencils without corroboration. When they finish, they at last compare the results. Each drew the same color pattern, which to Ahli seemed to indicate elation. Come to find out, David was indeed joyous from hearing the news that his pet had come through surgery alive and well. However, I have to wonder if Ahli did not actually pick up on subtle cues in body language, vocal inflections, etc.. in determining any sense of happiness from David. As well, there seems to be a select range of pre-determined aura colors, each with their own "meaning" and well known in the annals of aura lore.
Ultimately, I am left dissatisfied and somewhat concerned by this episode, and by extension, the entire series. It reminds me of a paranormal version of Bravo's "Showbiz Moms and Dads", replete with dubious parents (we never once hear about any having their child psychologically evaluated) and a pushy, somewhat effete coach in the guise of Chip Coffey.
Do I doubt that any or all of these children have psychic abilities? No. I think evidence such as the precognitive drawing and the Faith's uncanny knowledge of a boy who died over a hundred years ago are compelling and demand further examination. However, I do not think A&E's crack team is up to the challenge and I certainly don't think pushing these girls out into the limelight is anyway to help them work through whatever it is with which they may be dealing.