Hollywood's Offensive and Deeply Unoriginal "Skeptic Conversion" Narrative

i-c82b2f01e64bd9272d1b0dd5a41e26b2-1408_posterbig.jpg Pardon me while I breathe some fire for a minute. You see, I was looking for a good movie to go see over the weekend and instead ran across this obnoxious one: 1408. The plot:

"Renowned horror novelist Mike Enslin believes only in what he can see with his own two eyes. But after a string of best-sellers discrediting paranormal events in the most infamous haunted houses and graveyards around the world, he has no real proof of life--afterlife. But Enslin's phantom-free run of long and lonely nights is about to change forever when he checks into suite 1408 of the notorious Dolphin Hotel for his latest project, "Ten Nights in Haunted Hotel Rooms." Defying the warnings of the hotel manager, the author is the first person in years to stay in the reputedly haunted room. Another best-seller may be imminent, but first he must go from skeptic to true believer--and ultimately survive the night."

Hmm...doesn't that sound familiar.

Indeed, nearly five years ago I wrote a column entitled "Conversion Fantasies" in which I made the following point: In movies and TV series about the paranormal, the sterotypical "skeptic" figure always seems to convert into a believer by the end. And why does this occur? Well, because in fiction, the author can control the laws of nature, and in these fictional narratives (which show an abundant lack of creativity), the supernatural always turns out to be real.

In reality, by contrast, skeptics prevail constantly on the merits and are hardly undergoing such flip-flops on a regular basis--which makes the "conversion narrative," featured in X-Files, Taken, Signs, Dark Skies, and so many other places, a cheap thrill indeed. As Slate reviewer David Edelstein wrote many years back of Signs:

It isn't hard to make a movie that proves the controlling existence of God, because the writer/director of a movie is its god. He or she has determined the outcome, fashioned the people, and arranged the mise en scène. He or she has said, "Let there be light." Details can be planted early that will pay off later; a deus ex machina can be lowered on cue...If there is a God, He doesn't work in such facile, B-movie ways.

As I further wrote in my own column, the skeptic conversion narrative is deeply offensive and even perhaps bigoted towards a group of people who deserve far better treatment:

Perhaps the most egregious example of a skeptic conversion via fiction...came in an episode several years ago of the flopped NBC television series Dark Skies. The show introduced a fictional version of Carl Sagan, and then made this archetypal doubter of UFO cover-up claims privy to high-level government UFO secrets. The fictional Sagan then goes on to use the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program (SETI) as a way to find out which planets the aliens are coming from, all the while remaining complicit in a government conspiracy to suppress the truth. The episode came out just half a year after Sagan's death, which is some indication of just how thoughtless and insulting the trend of converting skeptics through fiction can get.

And now, 1408 is gonna do it again. John Cusack, who has been in much better stuff (including the 2003 thriller Identity), should be ashamed. If you want to be ticked off, watch the 1408 trailer below, but please don't give this movie any of your money:


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Fiction where the skeptic is correct, especially in genre fiction like horror and weird fiction, is boring, trite, and virtually unsellable.

No one wants to read a engrossing story about ghosts, monsters, or what not then on the last page be pummeled over the head with a Sixth Sense twist executed rather poorly while at the same time ending a book with the equivalent of ". . . and it was only a dream."

Arguing that fiction doesn't portray specific groups of people accurately is lazy. Of course authors don't portray specific groups of people accurately. Hell, in weird fiction you expect the skeptic to be wrong because you, as the reader want the monster to be real. If it isn't then the reading such a story is futile.

I would rather you concentrate on "reality" shows on Discovery, TLC or the History channel that is marketed as real and accurate and treat skeptics, if they are even asked to be interviewed, poorly. Intellectual dishonesty in documentaries is something to "breathe fire" about and I suspect you could find dozens of examples from cable TV. Trying to make a point with a piece of fiction weakens your point. Not to mention you're using a genre that has a mainstay of exploring things that don't exist.

Oh and 1408 was first published in audio book format in 200.

This is why I never liked the X-files, though demographically I should have. Skeptic Scully was always wrong, while agent "Woo-woo" Mulder always turned out to be right about aliens or hobgoblins or black goo or whatever.

By andythebrit (not verified) on 25 Jun 2007 #permalink

Like andythebrit, I hated X-Files because it encouraged credulousness, despite having gone through my late teens and early twenties while it wildly popular amongst teens and twentysomethings. To make matters worse, it seemed I was surrounded by people who were certain I should love it dearly, because it was 'science fiction' .

Fiction where the skeptic is correct, especially in genre fiction like horror and weird fiction, is boring, trite, and virtually unsellable.

The early Scooby Doo cartoons were written with exactly that premise, and were quite popular.

I figure if an alien species landed on the White House lawn, to get directions to intelligent life, we would ask them why they had been spooking people for fifty years. The aliens would look at us and say, that they just got here.

In any case, it would be the skeptics of the world who will discover the aliens or that the paranormal is real, and will know what to do if we discover them. The UFO and psychic nuts will probably all run off a cliff somewhere in a panic.

But, the movie looks scary. Obviously if you are going to allow fantasy, and allow it to be in this time period, then it is inevitable that some characters might be skeptical. It is an old, old literary trick, to not believe, to set up the plot reversal at the end. I suspect however, that they will portray him as a skeptic who is just too damaged and hurt to "believe". That is what bothers me. Anyone, skeptic or believer, would freak in a room like 1408. (Just like anyone in law enforcement who got to work with a television version of a psychic detective, would be a believer too.)

You're starting with the wrong premise. Movies like 1408 are not set in the real world, they're set in an alternate world where things like ghosts do exist. Thus the acceptance of the existence of ghosts makes sense. After years of misidentification and other false alarms the investigator finally encounters a ghost.

Also note that a skeptic is not someone who doesn't believe, a skeptic is one who doubts. A skeptic asks for evidence of a phenomenon that can then be tested and either verified or falsified. An atheist is not a skeptic, an agnostic is.

An atheist is not a skeptic, an agnostic is.

As has been extensively explained before, that is not how most atheists understand the word.
As Dawkins and others have said time and time again, atheists have asked for evidence, and most will accept if it is provided, it simply has not been provided at this time.

From what I remember of Scooby-Doo every plot was exactly the same... the monster always turned out to be some local property owner who wanted to scare people away from the (insert location here) and would have got away with it too, if it hadn't been for you meddling kids.

Two more fictional characters who are also rationalists (kinda):

Dr Who (At least the classic era, ie Jon Pertwee/Tom Baker). The Doctor could always outwit the Daleks or other intergalactic bad guys armed with a time machine, a sonic screwdriver and a very long scarf. And without violence, either.

Sherlock Holmes, the rationalists' rationalist. In Holmes' world, every supernatural mystery always had a rational explanation -- of course it was a big dog and a tin of luminous paint, not a supernatural hellhound.

Anyone have any more suggestions?

By andythebrit (not verified) on 25 Jun 2007 #permalink

And Paul is the winner. You don't look to a ghost story for good science. And you especially don't look to a ghost story based on a Stephen King story to get good science. Remember, the first requirement of any reader or viewer of fiction is a willing suspension of disbelief. If you are interested in seeing 1408 (which, by the way, sums to 13 if you add the digits), you already know that it's about the supernatural. It's a GHOST STORY. And, by the way, the protagonist was not a skeptic, despite what the blurbs say. He was a lost, despairing man searching for reassurance that there is an afterlife. Different character type.

Paul is right: don't complain about fiction for dog's sake, complain about the absurd "reality" TV crap that passes for scientific examination of bad fiction posing as truth.

There's the CSI stable and all the other TV shows about various forensic specialities. At least they pay lip service to the scientific method even if the portrayal of science is a bit elastic. They also show it is possible to do drama about science which is stylish, cool and popular.

And any Brits here may aso remember a short-lived BBC series called Doomwatch which trod this path in the '70s. The special effects could be hilarious - heroes being 'attacked' by stuffed rats - but it was committed to the science, albeit from a skeptical perspective. But then that's what we're all about, right?

By Ian H Spedding FCD (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

There's nothing wrong with the supernatural genre per se; the problem is, as Chris points out, the constant use of the converted-skeptic trope. It's entirely possible to have a story in which the rules of the universe are consistent, but different, without introducing, for instance, Evil Carl Sagan. (Harry Potter does it, for crying out loud.) I remember World War Z as also dealing with the supernatural (though the zombie plague is caused by a virus, it apparently turns zombies into perpetual-motion machines) in a reasonably interesting way without relying on the converted skeptic. Can't wait for the movie.

I will defend Darin Morgan's X-File episodes, though, especially Jose Chung's "From Outer Space" and Humbug.

the sterotypical "skeptic" figure always seems to convert into a believer by the end. And why does this occur?

That's what bugged me about the kid's movie a few years ago "Polar Express". A boy is skeptical that Santa could exist and a magic train shows up to take him to the North Pole. The biggest irony to me is that the audience cheers as he regains faith in something the entire adult audience knows is false.

What lessons are we teaching our kids?

By Nathan Parker (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

You don't mention it in this post, but I have to disagree strongly with your contention in your column that Contact, either Carl Sagan's book or Robert Zemeckis' movie, is an example of a good way of dealing with a skeptical character's perspective.

To the contrary, the whole didactic point of Zemeckis' film version of Contact is to show how blind, heartless and denuded Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is for failing to accept religious faith and belief in God. An hour after Arroway is denied a spot on a space flight because she's an atheist (discrimination that no one in the movie, besides her, has any problem with), the climax of the movie is the Congressional hearing scene, wherein Zemeckis turns the tables on Arroway and makes her the "victim" of a jerk (played by James Woods) haughtily swinging science, reason and Occam's Razor at her. (It's presented as her comeuppance for telling the hero, earlier on, that Occam's Razor presented problems for his theism.)

In the hearing, Arroway is offered the opportunity to say that she'd like people to take her story "on faith," but she refuses and therefore loses. In the end, an atheist gets what's coming to her; the whole point of the film is to do a direct hatchet job on religious skepticism.

Sagan's novel is not quite as bad--but still, read the very last page of that book and tell me that Sagan wasn't guilty of the very sin you complain of here.

I used to love horror movies as a kid and they inspired in me fear of the dark, mirrors, closets, strange noises, shadows, etc, but after becoming more skeptical I found they no longer held any appeal. Even simple scares like somebody jumping out at you build on a sense of anticipation which in turn requires you to accept the premise of the movie. Suspension of disbelief only goes so far; if old houses and deep shadows no longer fill you with dread you can't build the anxiety necessary to find an emaciated goth teenager crawling on the ceiling anything less than hilarious.

I'm sure most horror fans and, unfortunately, most people generally are willing to entertain the existence of the supernatural. Without that I suspect they'd find most supernatural horror as tedious and cliché-ridden as I do. There's other genres of horror that contain supernatural elements that this doesn't apply to, of course; slasher flicks are more about imaginative "kills" than frightening you. And most modern horror movies seem to be more interested in making you wonder WTF is wrong with the writer/director than anything else. But I'd argue that acceptance of the supernatural is, generally, part of the appeal of horror for most people.

I object to the literalism of contemporary movies about the supernatural, not so much because they promote superstition but because the presentation of ghosts or angels as mere facts destroys the artistic effect. A good part of the pleasure of classic fantastic fiction is the way in which the reality/unreality of the mystery is never, ever resolved. Am I mad or has Sophie returned from the grave? We can never know because if we find out, the game is over.

Come to think of it, the same convention that creates the effect the critic Todorov called the Fantastic is pretty much the same mechanism that produces religion itself, which would be destroyed if God became a literal and therefore natural fact, albeit a surprising one. Some of the anxiety of traditional believers about contemporary cults such as the Scientology and the L.D.S. amounts to the complaint that they turn theology into science fiction and thus violate genre rules that ought to be held sacred.

Hi, Chris. I'm an admirer of your work. I posted this over at PZ's and will leave this here as well:

The problem with a skeptical/debunking sort of outcome in a drama is one of sympathy. People have to care about the characters in order to become emotionally invested in a drama, and contemporary audiences are unlikely to care about people that they perceive as foolish or tragic, Shakespeare be damned. There is a marked preference for characters who may be human, may be fallible, but predictably have some degree of growth, some triumph over their circumstances and their weaknesses.

Now, if you have a protagonist who believes 'X', and belief in 'X' is the substance of the drama, then the failure of 'X' to be sustained could only make the protagonist a foolish or tragic figure.
If, on the other hand, the antagonist is the one promoting 'X', then the protagonist can be heroic at the expense of the antagonist (and hence, toward the debunking of 'X'). But once you switch the promotion/debunking of 'X' from protagonist to antagonist the moral question of conversion, of what to believe, no longer becomes the central point of the drama. The audience just knows, somehow, that the protagonist will end up being right, despite the evidence, and the drama lies not in whether they will be vindicated, but in how vindication will be achieved.

More at: Monkey Trials

Well, at least the movie isn't set in Room 1313...

It was, sort of: 1 + 4 + 0 + 8 = 13

The early Scooby Doo cartoons were written with exactly that premise, and were quite popular.

But didn't they have a talking dog in them?

By Brother Dave T… (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

A little off-topic, but I always thought Stephen King really undermined himself in books like The Shining by bringing in the supernatural when human failings, madness, whatever, could just as well have explained it. I remember liking The Shining (the book, I'm talking) despite some of the supernatural scenes--because they could have been just a form of madness or whatever--but becoming completely disgusted when the freakin' topiary came alive! Wow, that just ruined, ruined, ruined it for me. He does this over and over, and people love it apparently, but it's a big turn-off for me. At his best he's a wonderful writer, but he is not at his best quite often enough, and part of that, for me, is turning to the supernatural when human actions are every bit as creepy, if not creepier.

[i]But didn't they have a talking dog in them?[/i]

Debatable. The show was set in the 70s.

By Max Deltree (not verified) on 28 Jun 2007 #permalink