I Really DO 'Want to Believe'
Paul H. Smith
1993. It had been three short years since I had moved out of the Defense Intelligence Agency's psychic spy program, now known as Star Gate, and into the 'real' Army to take part in Desert Storm. Sharing clouds of Iraqi dust with my new-made friends in the 101st Airborne was poor substitute for the mind-expanding happenings in Project Star Gate, of which I had been a member for seven eventful years. But now even the powdery Iraqi dust was behind me. I was stuck in a desk job at a DIA office on the far side of the District of Columbia, and I longed to be back with the remote viewing unit, though I still stayed in touch through phone calls and occasional visits, when I could think up a duty-related reason to get up to Fort Meade.
But then, just a few months before I welcomed my new son William into the world, I got wind of a television show debut that just might bring me some solace. It was to be called the "X-Files," and the show looked smart, exciting...and new, though from the promos it obviously would put a fantastical spin on many of the "paranormal" topics it treated.
A few months later, with both the show and son William now in their infancy, my wife Daryl and I settled into a standing X-Files date with the Woodwards, a younger couple from our Mormon congregation who had a son the same age as ours. Weekly we settled in on the couch of their basement apartment to watch Mulder and Scully trying to unravel the supernatural and the super-weird. My wife and I have been fans ever since. We haven't liked every episode, but many have been interesting, even enthralling, and we missed very few of them over the years. Remote viewing was mentioned only once or twice, to my disappointment, though the show's plot lines often featured more traditional sorts of ESP.
The first "X-files" movie, released in 1999, we found just a couple of degrees short of riveting. So a few weeks ago when we began to notice TV ads for the saga's latest installment, "X-Files: I Want to Believe," we were eager to see it. In fact, we did something unheard of for us -- we went on opening day! Braving the blazing sun of a record Texas heatwave, we drove up to the multiplex on Friday, buying tickets for the earliest afternoon show. We were worried that we might be a little late to be able to sit together in a packed house.
That turned out not to be the problem. As we walked into the theater, we discovered perhaps six other folks besides ourselves. By the time the previews were over, there were maybe 20 all told. The instant the lights came up at the end of the film Daryl and I began making our assessments: the movie was definitely well done. The plot was interesting, even compelling; the acting overall was good. And the movie succeeded in keeping us interested. I recommend you go see it, as it wrestles with big issues: faith, penitence, cruelty, and the ways love can go both wrong and right. Overall, it is pretty graphic and, especially if you like the serial killer genre, this has some new twists.
And that, in a nutshell, is what was wrong with the film, why it turned out to be a bit of a letdown for us: It was too much a murder mystery. In the end, despite our caring for the Mulder and Scully characters, the movie itself just didn't quite live up to the expectations of X-'Philes' like ourselves. The paranormal aspects of the film were far less compelling than they needed to be to support the franchise. The one aspect that might have strengthened it, the psychic priest, in the end seemed to be largely discredited. With this stronger tinge of skepticism than was usual for the X-Files, and without the element of possibility - that something paranormal might really be going on - the film ends up not much beyond a clever detective story with an added theme of a struggle for faith and an old man's need to make amends. Admittedly, that is not nothing. But it is not what moves one to go see an X-Files movie.
The film led me to reflect once again on how Hollywood -- even the part of it that is sympathetic to what it deems 'the Paranormal' (I'm here most interested in ESP and related phenomena) -- usually treats these sorts of themes. First, it seems (with a few exceptions) there always has to be a sense of horror or fear associated with the paranormal when portrayed in film. This may not always be overt, but when it isn't it still seems to linger in the background as a subtext. Second, (again with a few exceptions) ESP always has to be presented as unusual, or weird, or at least un-normal. Finally, seldom are things like ESP or 'being psychic' presented in the way they actually work in the real world. To be fair, Hollywood film makers often have to dramatize to make stories more interesting to viewers. And anyone who has watched more than one or two remote viewing sessions knows how boring they can look to observers. Still, directors often miss opportunities to present ESP and similar paranormal topics in fair or realistic ways, even when it won't compromise the excitement level of their film. It is almost as if there is a play book they feel obliged to follow, a formula for how to treat the mystical.
One wonders what role popular stereotypes of psychics and ESP play in defining how movie-makers depict these topics. On the other hand, one wonders what role movie-makers themselves play in defining those very stereotypes. It looks to be a chicken-or-the-egg thing, where popular opinion drives movie making drives public opinion. But in the end what loses out is a broader, more natural acceptance of ESP phenomena. We are faced with an interesting, if somewhat depressing irony: Millions of people believe in, are fascinated by, and love to watch movies about the paranormal. Yet, thanks to the cultivation of warped stereotypes, the image they have in their minds is often so much different than the reality that either they don't recognize it when they encounter the real thing, or they reject it because it doesn't match their preconceived notions. They turn to fables instead -- to the myth rather than the reality, which contributes to keeping serious acceptance of psi phenomena suppressed.
Though it often does better in that regard than other shows, I noted in this and other installments of the X-Files corpus some of the same tendencies I'm complaining about here -- an inclination to sensationalize the paranormal, and to portray it in a way that both thrills and repels. But quickly the tone changes to skepticism, as if the script, to avoid embarrassment that the writers might be caught taking the paranormal seriously, must now supply the antidote in the form of skeptical reasons to reject it. Some might argue that creates dramatic tension. But if so, it went too far in "I Want to Believe."
Should you see the movie? Sure, I encourage it (as long as you aren't put off by serial killers and the like). But if you go, think about how it could have been better -- and let that then be a springboard for you to consider how you think about ESP and psi...and whether you are contributing to or fighting against the stereotypes that get in the way of real understanding.