Saturday, June 21, 2008

Norman Girl And Others Haunted By Gifts

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.


Buck said...

This sounds like a horribly exploitative endeavor. Of course, A&E's track record by airing "Paranormal State" must be taken into consideration. They seem to be more interested in sensationalism and drama and less worried about ethics and the harm their shows and their "hosts" or "stars" might be doing to others.

You know, I can't imagine why shows that exploit kids like this or the one with the kids in the old west town are allowed to continue. We throw parents in jail for any minor infraction but as long as corporations and big money are involved they are allowed to get away with anything.

Of course, the obverse could also be true and these kids are all actors, Coffey is a fake, and the whole thing is a scam. Somehow that would almost seem more right than torturing gifted kids.

Chip Coffey said...

Hmmm...Svengali, tormentor of young children, pushy and effete. And a plethora of other caustic comments!

I suppose it's fair to assume that you won't be joining either the Chip Coffey or Psychic Kids fan clubs!

Perhaps I should read one of your books, then blog about what I think of you and your work.

In a Svengali-ish, tormenting, pushy and effete sort of way, of course.

-Chip Coffey-

Cullan Hudson said...

And ultimately, Buck, It is that exploitation factor that bothers me the most. From what scant data we can cull from a one-hour episode, we see children who might have emotional and psychological issues being put through the ringer because the manner in which they have chosen to gain attention is the claim of psychic gifts.

In point of fact, we cannot know for certain where Faith gained her knowledge of Freddie and his mother. It's obvious from watching her - even briefly - that she if gifted at manipulating the attentions of those around her and she is a bright, precocious child. She may very well have researched Freddie before hand. Perhaps she accidentally stumbled upon the information.

The same holds true for the Norman, OK girl. Are we to believe that she NEVER knew her mother had a sister. While it is possible, it's also highly likely that she stumbled upon this information at some point from a relative or an old family photo. And even the intriguing evidence of her precognitive drawing is shrouded in mystery. There may have been details known that were not revealed in the episode as it aired. Their destination seemed to be a rather small, one-horse town and if the producers mentioned they would be staying in a "historic inn" located in Town X, that's all the info one needs to google a likely destination, especially if it was a known haunted spot, which this place apparently was.

Cullan Hudson said...

Across the board, reviews for the show have been lackluster. While some agree with me that it is exploitative, others think it is "okay" if not terribly over-the-top. Read for yourself:

"It’s a bit difficult to discern what’s more frightening about this A&E series: the teens who talk to the spirits of deceased children, or the camera operators and director who’ve decided that the only way to give these kids credence is to zoom in on the pupils of their eyes. Either way, it doesn’t take a medium to recognize that “Psychic Kids” edits its subjects in a way that makes their conversations and interactions with the dead — or is that undead? — feel like badly conceived science fiction."

Stuart Levine, Variety

"It adds up to a show that's pretty darned good because the kids are terrifically innocent. Too bad the producers aren't as innocent and tend to have a heavy hand with the flickering lighting and spooky music."

Linda Stasi, New York Post

"However, the dramatic showdown at the end of the episode has Coffey leading the children to deal with the ghost that's terrifying them. That sequence seems forced for the cameras and doesn't feel natural."

Kathie Huddleston, review for

"But while Coffey and Miller seem genuinely committed to helping the kids and their families cope with what they're going through, the series seems to exploit the youngsters' alleged psychic abilities for the sake of entertainment.

Some of the conversations with the kids also appear rehearsed..."

Melissa Camacho, review for

Word Woman said...

Who was it said..."if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen?" The problem we all face in any creative/informational effort is to provide the highest quality product, to follow some code of ethics, and to have some standards. Whenever anyone - docu-star, writer, actress, raises out of the nameless, faceless, mob of humanity they bring attention to themselves...some good and some bad. What bothers me the most about this is that young people are placed in a position they are incapable of truly handling. There are reasons why there are lawas regarding teesting, counseling, etc. Socially, they may feel they are adult and be told that if the "body" fits the definiton of adulthood, they must be! Research has shown that they, simply because of their age (and the level of brain dvelopment still going on) become more addicted more readily, they are easier to sway (this is why cultists and suicide bombers seek young converts). When the "grownups" stop protecting the children and youth and start feeding on them sexually, morally, politically, or economically, how long can a society exist?

Buck said...

"Perhaps I should read one of your books, then blog about what I think of you and your work."

And there we have it. I don't know Mr. Coffey from Adam's house cat except his "work" distributed quite publicly and with an eye to self promotion, but someone who feels the need to launch an 8th grade style retaliatory attack certainly would not be someone whom, I as a former medical professional, would feel has the emotional stability to deal effectively with children who are in stressful situations.

His comments here more than prove he's in it for the fame, the money, and the power and is willing to take on anyone who disagrees with his personal methodology.

Certainly, people like Coffey do no service to real psychics who labor in anonymity, without compensation, and with overweening compassion. I'd always wondered about him from what I read. His desire to attack a private citizen stating his opinion of his television show proves to me that he is a charlatan of the first order.