The corruption of Scooby Doo

Chris Mooney makes a point about the supernatural thriller genre.

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.

I think an excellent example of this trend is the Scooby Doo cartoon. Way back when I was a young'un, they always ended the same way: the Scooby Doo gang would always discover that the monster/spectre/alien was actually Old Man Cargill, dressed in a costume, trying to keep visitors away so they wouldn't discover his secret uranium mine, and they always led him away in handcuffs at the end, while he muttered, "If it weren't for those darned kids, I would have gotten away with it." I know, the cartoon was cheesily and cheaply animated, the plots were boring and predictable, and the characters were annoyingly trite, but at least they had a consistent message that the supernatural wasn't real.

That changed last time I saw it — the ghosts were "real". It was very strange: it was a badly done cartoon, waning in popularity, and instead of trying to reinvigorate it by, say, coming up with creative plots, or getting better artwork, or making the characters more interesting, they chose to throw away the one novel element of the show. The supernatural resort is often the act of lazy hacks.

I'm not going to be quite as down on the supernatural in fiction as Mooney is — I do like a good cheesy horror flick now and then — but I agree with him that the conversion narrative always seems to run in one direction only, and it's gotten a bit tired. How about a movie where a confirmed, praying, ghost-fearing, gullible person sees the evidence and is enlightened, and sees at last the sufficiency of natural mechanisms? I don't just mean discovering it's Old Man Cargill under the sheet, but gets their whole worldview shaken up and realizes that hey, looking for material causes works.

That would be a hard one to write, I suspect, and me and Chris Mooney don't represent a very big share of the market.

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Perhaps the closest thing I've seen to a "wrong-way" supernatural film would be perhaps the DaVinci code. Guy starts out not necessarily a believer, but we don't see anything to show he doesn't know about anything but the mainstream view of Jesus. By the end of the film he's been shown that Jesus was a regular guy with a wife and kid.

X-files went for many seasons with the premise of wanting to believe. Of course there was a ton of evidence for Mulder to lean towards the belief side and Scully to keep fighting it. It got boring towards the end, the whole bee thing was a pretty lame subplot so I quit watching. I have no idea if they ever found "the truth" that was supposedly out there.

Even House has gotten into the belief/disbelief thing with the season final. All along he's referred to an imaginary friend and been quite negative towards religion. But in the last episode, when he gave up on saving the Cuban woman, he looked up at the ceiling as if to say "I got nothing." The woman ended up surviving, it was a miracle, and now he has to re-evaluate his beliefs...

Well... In vampire movies, Blade comes to mind but I know there are others, there is sometimes an attempt to explain vampirism with some sort of biology sounding gobbledy-gook. There is sometimes a moment when the protagonist then understands this and tries to find a way (using science!) to combat the vampires. Not quite what you were asking but closest thing I could think of.

The woman ended up surviving, it was a miracle, and now he has to re-evaluate his beliefs...

As I recall, House ended up diagnosing a very rare congenital defect, something with her heart, and they performed open heart surgery to save her. It wasn't a miracle.

About a decade(?) ago, one episode of the new Outer Limits series featured Dwight Schultz as a skeptical investigator checking out a house supposedly haunted by some woman's son.

The real explanation turned out to be some bafflegab about "biomimetic microorganisms" or something, but at least it was a materialistic explanation, and the skeptic was the one to figure it out.

I seem to recall it stayed pretty sympathetic to both sides' positions, especially the grieving mother, but I don't know if it really delved too deeply into the psychology of belief. Bit too much to ask of a 1-hour show, I guess, but I recall that the new Outer Limits was pretty consistent in its failure to live up to its premises.

By minimalist (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

I saw some recent Scooby movies (hey,I have a six-year-old son) where they returned to the original formula, where it's all a rational explanation and plain old human greed at the end.

I've always been a huge dan of supernatural movies, no matter how crappy or cheesy, I lap it up. Zombies (especially zombies), ghosts, vampires, demons, the lot. Even 'religious' based stuff like The Omen or the Exorcist. However, I don't believe in the supernatural. I'm a naturalist.

I suppose the difference between people like me and the 'believer' is that we can make a healthy distinction between fantasy and reality. When I turn off the DVD, the world that existed in the 'story' is not the same as the one I live in. It's pure escapism, nothing more.

The one thing that does bug me though, is when a TV show that does not normally deal with the supernatural, like a cop/crime drama, has a plot line where there is a supernatural element to the show which is shown to be false, but right at the end they like to slip in the "or is it?" scene. Now that IS an insult to my intelligence.

Unfortunately. Chris saw the blurbs but didn't see the move. It was not a skeptic conversion movie. The "skeptic" was not actually a disbeliever. He had lost his young daughter and was having a crisis of belief. He was debunking stories of haunted hotels because he was actually looking for reassurance that there was life after death. It was exactly what you say you like occasionally, a cheesy horror movie. It was, after all, based on a Stephen King story.

I like books and movies in which the supernatural is real or there really are aliens on earth or whatever...when they're done with a little creativity. I like playing with the possibilities and what people's minds can come up with. But the thing that always annoys me (even in some semi-good supernatural fiction) is when the designated skeptic, faced with unequivocol evidence of the supernatural (ghost, vampire, deity, alien kidnapping victim, or whatever) says something like, "This can't's not scientific." Bullshit. Science is a description of how reality works. If reality includes ghosts, reanimated corpses, gods showing up in people's living rooms, etc, and if the evidence of such is clear and uncontrovertible, then the properly scientific thing to do is to accept the evidence and examine it further.

Another pet peeve: How come people who live with magic or supernatural events of one sort or another are always so incurious about it? A classic example is JK Rowling's world. You have people who can literally work magic, the parameters of which are unknown and apparently indefinite, and all they can think to do with it is make radios that don't require electricity? Why aren't they technically centuries ahead of the non-magical types? Perhaps all that inbreeding has done something bad to their brains...But even so, why aren't any of the people who come into the magical world from outside (ie have non-magical parents) even the least bit curious about how this new set of physical rules fits in with the overall description of the universe? Or biology? Isn't anyone interested in how the ability to work magic comes about biologically? Eh, I suppose the real world answer is "Rowling didn't want to deal with any of that", but shouldn't there be an in-story explanation too?

I dunno. In real life, I may be a rationalist skeptic, but I like ghost stories to have "real" ghosts. I enjoy the sense of the uncanny, of a world out of joint.

A common thread in many atheist/theist discussions is that atheism is not an article of faith -- show me incontrovertible evidence that the supernatural exists, and I'll admit I'm wrong. The "conversion fantasies" that seem to upset some rationalists are simply a speculative fiction depiction of this scenario. I see it as confirmation that skepticism is not a kind of faith.

When atheists get bent out of shape by conversion-fantasy storylines in supernatural fiction, they remind me of the theists who are convinced that Harry Potter is promoting witchcraft. New cognitive studies are showing that children are capable of distinguishing fantasy from reality at younger and younger ages. Adults? Meh. Not so much.

I suspect that the reason things only go one way is that it is hard to write a tale involving a rational explanation that isn't a big letdown. There's an old, old, B-movie called 'The dead talk back' that got MST3K'ed where the dead talking is all a hoax to expose a murderer.

However, it can be done. Sleepy Hollow I thought was a great example of such a film. (SPOILER ALERT) Ichabod Crane insists there's a rational explanation for the horseman, but later finds that the horseman is indeed a ghost. Once he accepts this, though, he continues to seek a rational explanation for the horseman's appearance. I felt the film argued quite well that even the 'supernatural' would need to have rules grounded in the material world.

Meddling kids! Old Man Cargill would mutter "meddling kids", not "darned kids" when they took him away.

Can I recommend the novel "The Hippopotamus", by English comedian Stephen Fry? Without giving anything away, it deals interestingly with the theme of this post.

X-Files ceased to be interesting right about the time (about halfway through the second series, if I remember) when the skeptical explanation for a given episode's events ceased to be plausible (within the show's universe). Not so much because the skeptical explanations were better, but because the ambiguity gave the show its appeal and the relationship between Mulder and Scully some depth. After that it became too one-dimensional.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

Scooby Doo lost all its integrity when Scrappy Doo
was introduced IMHO.

Around the time that they made the live action/computer animated Scooby Doo movies, they came out with a new animated series that stuck to the original formula, and had better animation and writing (relatively speaking, of course. They were also rerunning the original series then which I hadn't seen since I was a kid and... wow, was it worse than I remembered.)

Anyway, they recently started a new, new series and from what I've caught of it they've abandoned both the original formula and the supernatural formula and now Scooby Doo is infected with nanobots or something that give him super powers and he and Shaggy fight a Bond-esque super villain.

Yes, really.

I think over the last couple of years a lot of things that were "supernatural" before have turned into more or less "natural" phenomenas.
Nowadays pretty much every zombie, werewolf or vampire you see on TV is just a result of odd mutations or diseases and not a bit supernatural...going all the way down to the explanation that "Darwin was only half right..." for the existence of gnomes and gargoyles as missing links in hominid evolution.
On the other hand, all miracle healings in medical dramas are the result of placebo effects or herpes infections so from my point of view it look like skepticism is on the rise in fiction.

I think over the last couple of years a lot of things that were "supernatural" before have turned into more or less "natural" phenomenas.

It's just a matter of time before the Vatican reveals that the Holy Ghost is really caused by Midi-chlorians.

It's just a matter of time before the Vatican reveals that the Holy Ghost is really caused by Midi-chlorians.

Please, no! I'd rather believe in the Holy Ghost, patriarchy, hell, and all than the Midi-chlorians.

Nowadays pretty much every zombie, werewolf or vampire you see on TV is just a result of odd mutations or diseases and not a bit supernatural

Good point. This seems especially true of zombie films -- Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead involved radiation from a meteor strike, and the excellent 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later use a disease as the cause of zombification. I can't think of any major zombie movie in the last 40 years that didn't provide a naturalistic explanation for its creatures.

Surely the problem with conversion to rationalism is that it takes hard work, of learning about science & philosophy. Boooooorrrrring. (For lots of folks.)

There was a leading author of books on chakras & auras & other new age woo, who had a real desire to learn about science, to back up the advice that she dished out. So she researched science sites on the web, & didn't like the way our lot referred to her lot as idiots, etc. But she stuck at it, & eventually converted. She must be one in a million.

By Richard Harris, FCD (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

Another thing to point out is that in good horror/supernatural fiction, the supernatural is really a metaphor for all those unknowns and uncontrollables in the real world. Good horror writers realize this, and only crappy writers describe their supernatural gobbledegook as literal reality (see: The Left Behind series).

One can write a story in which the supernatural turns out to be ordinary, but it no longer carries metaphorical weight and is probably no longer a horror/supernatural story at all.

The predominance of converted skeptics in fiction may simply be a plot convenience - the 'believers' will never enter 'the house that no one dare enter', while a skeptic will march on in and be subject to all the accompanying horrors.

Well, its not like Scooby Doo was some great big bastion of sceptisism, though it would be interesting to see the differences in belief between those kids who saw the "Monster is a man in a mask" and the kids who saw "monster is a real monster".

The only monster that really matters are zombies and Max Brook's "Zombie surival handbook" clearly states that their cause is a virus. (Which to me made them a whole lot scarier than a supernatural explaination.)

By Dutch Vigilante (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

As far as I'm aware, the entire history of skeptical television fiction amounts to four shows:

Scooby Doo (later corrupted, but the only one of these to have been really successful)

Banacek (Insurance investigator solves "impossible" crimes, which frequently seem to be supernatural, but never are)

The Magician (Same setup, but with an amateur investigator, staring well-known skeptic Bill Bixby)

Blacke's Magic (Pretty much identical setup to the above)

I recall that, of all things, the Incredible Hulk also had several episodes where apparent supernatural elements were debunked. It, also, starred Bill Bixby, but I wouldn't consider the series overall to be skepticism-centered.

All those movies and tv shows where the skeptic converts quickly when faced with the evidence should be broadcasting a nice, corrupting message: In a world where the supernatural existed, skeptics would come to believe in it. In our world, they don't. Ergo...

: - )

By Michael Suttkus, II (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

I'm actually working on a skeptical fantasy book myself (which is going at the expected snail's pace for random-intellectual-tries-to-write-a-book). The world contains many typical magical elements, but with physical causes behind them. Of course, since magic doesn't actually work in our world, my solution was to go in and tweak the laws of physics for this world.

Being the scientist that I am, looking at the results of somewhat different physical laws turned out to be one of the most interesting parts of constructing this world. For instance, one of the first ideas I tried was the existence of magnetic monopoles. I later added in negative-mass matter in order to explain the ability of magic to seemingly violate conservation of energy. Putting these together allowed me a somewhat-plausible physical explanation for magic, which means within the context of the story it can be studied.

The major theme of the story is rational skepticism, particularly about religions. In it, a major world religion's history is thoroughly plumbed and it's revealed that it's completely wrong in many ways, and the one seed of truth in it leaves out the real interesting story that happened in the past.

Unfortunately, I haven't really been working on it much lately. Seeing that there might be some interest for a skeptically-themed story, however, I'll see if I can convince myself to get back to it.

the 'believers' will never enter 'the house that no one dare enter',

Why not? I'd definitely want to check out a house I believed was haunted, if I believed in haunted houses.

I personally like stories in which the supernatural is both real in the context of the story and an analogy for the uncontrollable/unknown (external and internal). Shirley Jackson's "The haunting of hill house" is a good example. Also of how to write horrow without it becoming over-the-top and therefore boring gore.

Woah! I forgot Probe! It was a *very* short lived mystery series (staring extreme non-skeptic and scientologist Parker Stevenson) that was based on an Isaac Asimov idea and strongly featured skeptical explanations for mysterious events.

By Michael Suttkus, II (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

Well, Hollywood is at least slowly loosing an audience... of 1 however. I deliberately did not see The Reaping because I already heard Swank's character had one of those conversions in the end, and after Signs, it got too boring. They could've made a really great movie (and maybe they did) but the ending is an other turn down.

Even House's (as in House M.D., duh) score board shows the score is 50:50 (House vs. God) while in every episode he, the skeptic, finds a cure. It makes the series boring -- that and it's the same routine over and over again. Even him as a character, how interesting he is, is a bitter, disgruntled, pessimistic atheist, angry with God.

In a way, the Skooby Doo shift, which was in the movie about voodoo, towards real supernatural instead of it being Old Man Cargill, is a long- and large-scale conversion, played out not in one film/book but over a cartoon's entire careers.

I'm glad to hear from some comments above that Skooby went back to the old formula. It really ws the ONLY de-conversation formula out there anywhere in popular cartoons, though there are quite a few examples of this in children's literature, etc.

The de-conversion theme would be nice to see. So this guy is talking to god, growing a beard, and building an ark. Then near the end of the film they put him on Lithium, most of his symptoms go away, and although one of his teenage children is now a crack-whore the family mostly adjusts after they've moved into public housing and finally have they have a decent case worker so things start to look a little stable for the first time in years. That would be a great movie.



Richard Harris: There was a leading author of books on chakras & auras & other new age woo ...

Her name is Karla McLaren, and here she is from the May 2004 Skeptical Inquirer:

She went from:

I'm an author and healer (or I was, actually) in the metaphysical culture. I wrote about energy and chakras, auras, healing, the different kinds of psychic skills . . . the whole shebang. I've traveled throughout the states doing book tours, seminars, and workshops. I've appeared at all the top New Age venues, such as the Omega Institute, Naropa University, and the Whole Life Expo (which I call the Hell Life Expo, but that's another story). My books have been translated into five languages, and I've even had a title in the One Spirit Book Club. Understanding the metaphysical/New Age community and culture has been a central focus of my life and my career.

I'm not just a member of the New Age community - I've also been a purveyor of the very things the skeptical community is so concerned about. I've been involved in metaphysics and the New Age for over thirty years, I've written four books and recorded five audio learning sets in the genre, and I was considered one of the leaders in the field.

... to:

One of the biggest falsehoods I've encountered is that skeptics can't tolerate mystery, while New Age people can. This is completely wrong, because it is actually the people in my culture who can't handle mystery - not even a tiny bit of it. Everything in my New Age culture comes complete with an answer, a reason, and a source. Every action, emotion, health symptom, dream, accident, birth, death, or idea here has a direct link to the influence of the stars, chi, past lives, ancestors, energy fields, interdimensional beings, enneagrams, devas, fairies, spirit guides, angels, aliens, karma, God, or the Goddess.

We love to say that we embrace mystery in the New Age culture, but that's a cultural conceit and it's utterly wrong. In actual fact, we have no tolerance whatsoever for mystery. Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet has a specific metaphysical or mystical cause. In my opinion, this incapacity to tolerate mystery is a direct result of my culture's disavowal of the intellect. One of the most frightening things about attaining the capacity to think skeptically and critically is that so many things don't have clear answers. Critical thinkers and skeptics don't create answers just to manage their anxiety.



Commnet 19: Actually, in the original NotLD, there's a brief news report about a failed probe to Venus that burns up on reentry (not a meteorite); however, it's played ambiguously -- it might be a rational explanation, or it may be the authorities clutching at straws. Dan O'Bannon's non-canon Return of the Living Dead spinoff series plainly states that the "Venus probe" explanation was a cover story for the govt-developed serum that created the zombies.

If you haven't seen it, check out the 1959 sci-fi B-movie Invisible Invaders. Invisible moon-men inhabit the bodies of the recently dead to take over the earth (no, really). It's actually not a bad movie, despite the similarity to Plan 9, and the visual depiction of the animated corpses is clearly a precursor to Romero's films.

The original Star Trek started losing it when the series got overly-focused on the supernatural (e.g. space vampires) and Spock's powers.'s a pet peeve...the way folks with mind-reading powers are portrayed. Can you imagine how radically your life would be affected if the folks around you were aware of every intention that burgeons in your neurons? Nobody could have an ego! But the implications for society are never really just get some chick who scrunches her eyelids, pinpoints the murderer, and goes insane because the experience is so intense.

#27: "Why not? I'd definitely want to check out a house I believed was haunted, if I believed in haunted houses."

I would say that that willingness to investigate things is what defines you as not one of the 'believers'. For the record, though, I'm totally with you on this one...

I was also going to mention 'The Haunting' (original movie and book) as a great example of a horror story, and one that uses an alternative plot device to 'the skeptic who enters the house to disprove the existence of ghosts' - the motivation is the scientific research of ghosts. The DVD of the original movie version contains an audio commentary of recollections of the cast and crew, especially humorous for the occasional trash-talking of the 1999 version of the film.

A similar film/novel is 'Hell House' (aka 'The Legend of Hell House') by Richard Matheson, in which the scientist actually has a naturalistic theory for the existence of ghosts. Anyone who knows any physics will wince at the explanation, but if you get past it, the tale is quite good: the scientist's theory fails spectacularly, but it turns out there's a naturalistic explanation for that , too...

I don't mind the supernatural in movies in general... what really does bug me is dumb stuff where a machine comes to life after being struck by lightning.

We KNOW what lightning is, and it ain't magic, morons! Make your phenomenon a strange glowing green ball with vapors coming out of it, and don't explain what it is, and I can go along for the ride.

(Spoiler Alert!)

I enjoy reading mystery and legal novels, and I picked up one by an author new to me, Peter James: Dead Simple. It was a decent read till the end (page 450), where a missing person is located in the nick of time by a DOWSER!!! I threw the damned book off my deck in frustration. I guess I should have read the blurb about the author, where it mentions his "deep interest in medicine, science and the paranormal".

As far as I'm concerned, Mr. James committed fraud.

By T. Bruce McNeely (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

Well, in SF there's the classic The Queen Of Air And Darkness by Poul Anderson. That included psionics, but those were easily supressed by high-tech investigators. As far as the incuriosity of characters, i'll just point out that most modern folk take their technology very much for granted.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

I would say that that willingness to investigate things is what defines you as not one of the 'believers'. For the record, though, I'm totally with you on this one...

Yeah, it took me a little while to get the idea of those "haunted houses" they put up for Halloween. I kept poking into the corners, and turning up nonplussed "ghouls" crouching therein.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

Anybody remember K-PAX? I was surprised to find that it contained the second positive portrayal of scientists as scientists I'd ever seen in the movies. (I saw Snakes on a Plane first, though it came out later.) I very much liked how the astronomers, when confronted with surprising evidence (prot's knowledge of distant astronomy which they were in the process of discovering themselves), didn't suddenly proclaim prot to be their alien messiah, and didn't sweep it under the rug or rationalize it away--they followed up, and tried to gather more evidence to try and better understand something they couldn't explain. That is skepticism. Kind of made me want to be an astronomer, a little bit.

I think the old Scooby Doo episodes go a long way to explaining why the skeptic conversion plot is so common. In order to write a compelling believer->skeptic conversion, you need a character who can be established as a believer, but who isn't so credulous that they will continue to probe and ask questions in the face of a plausible supernatural explanation and a phenomenon for which there is a superficially plausible supernatural explaination that only falls appart when examined closely. Unburdened by any expectation of character development or plausible explainations for why the characters mistook Old Man Cargill in a costume for a ghost, Scooby Doo can get away this each episode, but if you need a compelling plot and realistic characters, you have a lot more flexibility going the other way.

"Half Light" sort of fell into this category. It was a movie that came out last year, but I don't think it actually had a theatrical release in the U.S. I saw it on TV. It starred Demi Moore as a writer whose son had died, and she went off to a remote part of Scotland to try to get over a nasty case of sorrow-based writer's block.




While living there, she met a "ghost" who was actually an actor who'd been hired to make her think she was going insane. Unfortunately, they ruined it by making the actual ghost (who the actor had been pretending to be) come back at the very end to get revenge on all the evil-doers.


Also, K-PAX gets points for not putting any of the scientists in lab coats; the main astronomer character usually appears flannel-shirted and bearded.

The thing to remember about the scriptwriters for most TV and movie writers is their utter lack of any scientific understanding. I understand that the Star Trek writers would use the word "techno-babble" in the script, later to be filled in with some random scientific or scientific-sounding word.

In that context, we can understand that viruses, alternate evolutionary pathways, radiation, electric shock, and "meteor rocks" are as supernatural to the scriptwriters as ghosts and spirits. A "virus" causing a person to become a vampire is as incomprehensible to them (and to anyone who understands real viruses) as the traditional supernatural cause. They have merely given it a name.

By JKrehbiel (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

I agree with Peter (#14) about the Scrappy Doo thing, but I could never get into talking cartoon animals (just make them humans!) so take that for what it's worth. As for House, that show has just had a season of shark jumping, a Jump the Shark Jamboree if you will. There are only so many times that you can see them snarking at each other while using treatments that are lethal to the patient until the last few minutes when the big secret is revealed. The writers seem to have realized it a bit so they made the medical stuff more preposterous. Feh.

I wrote a whole story where the skeptic gets to say "I told you so" at the end. Unfortunately, the naysayers who said I would never get that published are getting away with saying the same thing.

#39: "I very much liked how the astronomers, when confronted with surprising evidence... didn't suddenly proclaim prot to be their alien messiah, and didn't sweep it under the rug or rationalize it away--they followed up..."

I'm reminded of a phrase a UFO researcher, Jacques Vallee, coined years ago before he jumped the shark in his beliefs. He referred to the 'transitivity of strangeness', a method by which New Age hucksters can con people. Step 1: Make an outlandish statement: "I am in contact with aliens." Step 2: When asked to prove it, offer a demonstration: "The aliens have given me the power to bend spoons with my mind." Step 3: Do the demo. An uneducated victim will make the leap themselves that spoon bending = UFO contact, even though there's obviously no real connection.

#41: ""Half Light" sort of fell into this category."

A similar problem happened with the remake of Vincent Price's House on Haunted Hill . In the original, the 'haunting' was simply an elaborate murder plot, whilst in the remake, the murder plot was kept, but at the end of the film the writers had to splice in a big CGI spook to keep the audience enthralled.

"The only monster that really matters are zombies and Max Brook's "Zombie surival handbook" clearly states that their cause is a virus."
This is also true in his World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War. I'm not sure viruses and radiation really count as "skeptical" explanations, except maybe in more naturalistic films like 28 Days Later. There's still no plausible naturalistic mechanism for how the zombies function, especially with regards to things like severed limbs having a mind of their own. It's no more "skeptical" than Chopra's garbling of quantum mechanics.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

One of the many things I admire about Joss Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" is that at some key points they take some pains to point out that "their world" is mythology and not "the world of humans." And once when Buffy was asked by a vampire who had just renounced God whether there was any word on God's existence, Buffy replied, "Nothing solid." This from a girl who uses a crucifix to repel the evil undead. Even within the context of a supernatural story, it's possible to demonstrate the kind of skepticism that says, "Now we're playing make-believe, for fun and edification. This is not the real world."

By Greg Peterson (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

Thanks so much for making this point, PZ. I've never liked Scooby Doo at all, but I wound up seeing the live action movie when it came out, and I noticed exactly the same thing. The supernatural element always used to be a deliberate fake, and now the series sets it up as real. It used to be boring and lame, now it's downright painful.

I've never liked the X-Files, for similar reasons.

One recent movie that has all the appearance of the mystical but ends in the natural is "Birth" (Nicole Kidman)

It deals very directly with "hot reading", preying on weakness, and people's inability to ask the right questions.

While I enjoyed it, I should note that it got absolutely hammered by critics.

Regarding zombies...there is a rational explanation for zombies (tetrodotoxin + Datura)...and quite frankly, The Serpent and the Rainbow is my all-time favourite horror movie.

Scooby Do was actually inspired by an old radio program, I Love a Mystery. To quote the FAQ at

Morse [who wrote all the scripts] also adhered to a consistent "shudder-pulp" formula in ILAM, which dictated that, no matter how outrageous or eerie or weird the circumstances that Jack, Doc and Reggiefound themselves in, in the end everything had to have a natural (if not plausible) ending. So a family curse causing terror to a young woman has a human, not a supernatural cause. An obese magician uses stage magic, and not black magic, to turn a young woman into a tigress in the darkness of a box car. And a the sight of so-called human vampires flying across the open spaces of their ancient temple has a secret solution more familiar to trapeze artists than those with artistry in the occult.

Ginger Yellow: World War Z zombies don't have their severed limbs flopping around; anything severed from the brain stops working. The zombies run on some kind of perpetual motion power source (they never get tired, but they never need to eat and they don't digest the food that they do), which is certainly not plausible, but one can forgive a well-defined leap of fantasy which still gives you a materialistic world, just one working under slightly different rules.

One of the many things I admire about Joss Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" is that at some key points they take some pains to point out that "their world" is mythology and not "the world of humans."

Yeah, that's an excellent point. Joss is an atheist and a lot of his views come out in his other wonderful series, Firefly. The only thing I didn't like in that is his hero, Mal Reynolds, is an "angry atheist" - someone who hates god rather than someone who simply doesn't see evidence for god.

Also, while the medical plots have just gotten silly, I think House has done a terrific job of debunking the supernatural and religious elements that come up in the storyline. And when House looks up to "heaven," there's never a spooky clap of thunder or an unexplained response, like the lights going out or something cheesy like that.

Maybe eventually we'll get a series with a happy, well-adjusted atheist as the hero? I guess that's asking too much.

Speaking of giant dogs, what about the Hound of the Baskervilles? That's got to be the original "spooky mystery debunked by rationality" storyline. There are several other Sherlock Holmes stories along the same lines. (Although oddly enough, I think Arthur Conan Doyle got into Spiritualism at some point).

It's been my experience that Scooby-Doo swings from pure skepticism (The ghosts and monsters are always play-acting crooks) to pure supernaturalism (The ghosts and monsters are always ghosts and monsters). I usually find the skeptic stories to be a lot more entertaining.

As far as the use of less-than-accurate technobabble goes, it's important to remember that your standard TV writer wants to make an entertaining story first and foremost. Yes, it would be awesome if they could get the science right, but unless you've got one of those rare writers with a hard-science background, it's probably not going to happen. It doesn't mean the writers are evil -- they've just been trained in different things.

And I'm another skeptic and atheist who also loves a good supernatural horror story. And I'll second the previous mention of the '60s version of "The Haunting" -- scary as hell, even with almost no special effects.

Another entry in movies where the supernatural turns out to be natural is the 13th Warrior, which starred Antonio Banderas. Medieval Viking-types and an exiled Arab (Banderas) discover their supernatural enemy is just normal humans with a good psy-ops campaign -- kinda like Scooby Doo, but Old Man Cargill in this case is still quite capable of killing people. I don't think it did well at the box office, but I've always liked it. Shows up on cable from time to time.

I find it deeply ironic that Conan Doyle wrote about an arch rationalist but was himself a theophosist who believed in fairies, while H.P. Lovecraft was an atheist who wrote about demigods and spooky goings-on.

By Greg Peterson (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

What about the work of Nigel Kneale? "Quatermass and the Pit" and "The Stone Tape" both involve supernatural threats that turn out to have natural explanations.

While living there, she met a "ghost" who was actually an actor who'd been hired to make her think she was going insane.

Ah, the old Gaslight trick. One of the most stolen plot devices in film.

Any psychologists out there know whether it is even possible to "drive someone crazy"? Could you actually use trickery to confuse an otherwise mentally healthy person to the point of a psychotic break? I'm skeptical.

How about this for irony - G.K. CHesterton's Father Brown stories are about a Catholic priest/crime solver, and there's no supernatural. All the cases have a natural explanation.

OK, some are holier that Fr. Brown himself, but I guess you can't have everything.


Theron: You're discounting the supernatural way that the village managed to survive in a little section of clearcut forest with no evidence of any crops. There's a Hall, and a few hovels, but no sign of agriculture: nothing for the residents to eat. It must have been some sort of magic. that kept them from starving.

#56: "Although oddly enough, I think Arthur Conan Doyle got into Spiritualism at some point"

ACD was a big spiritualist, but he was also good friends with one of the greatest rationalists of all time, Harry Houdini. There's a great anecdote in one of the old pulp magazines, by Houdini himself, about how he uncovered one sham spiritualist because the actor who was playing the 'ghost' in the room turned out, by pure coincidence, to be the long-thought-dead husband of one of the ladies in the room! Turns out he had faked his death and had no idea his former wife was present at the fake seance - she immediately leapt up and grabbed him, 'revealing' his materialness...

Obscurity alert - if you ever get the chance to see "The Incredible Robert Baldick: Never Come Night" then do so. This was an unsuccessful pilot made by the BBC in 1972 featuring Robert Hardy as a Victorian Aristocrat/Scientist with a private train - one of those "might have beens". John Rhys-Davies was his trusty servant Caleb. Ah, if only...


A good point. It seems however 13th Warrior was a victim of heavy editing - I assume the neighborhood Kroger was one of the things lost on the editing floor.

PZ: Good point about Scooby Doo. I think that it's ultimately up to us rationalists to create/support media sympathetic to our worldview, rather than expect others to do it for us.

Dianne (#8): I suppose the real world answer is "Rowling didn't want to deal with any of that."

Fiction, particularly the more fantastic sort, depends on willing suspension of disbelief. There's no inherent motive for authors like JKR to provide a framework for the physics of their fictional worlds.

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.

An exception to this was the Ridley Scott film "Matchstick Men". In this film, Nicholas Cage's character is a con man with an obsessive-compulsive disorder who ends up being conned himself on a grand scale. He does, indeed, end up not believing in 'X' when we were led to believe 'X' is true. Despite the considerable charm shown by Cage, he 's not that sympathetic a character. Much is made of the fact that his typical 'mark' is unpleasant and driven by greed, as if this makes him somehow more sympathetic. In the end, the 'hero' achieves his vindication by adopting a conventional (and honest) life. The film ends not with Cage's character out-conning those who conned him (which would've been more of a crowd-pleaser) but by rejecting the life of illusion and his mastery thereof.

I admire the movie because it tries to do something different, but in the ending really is something of a whimper, rather than a bang. Even if I rolled it around in my mind and pronounced it somehow satisfying, I think one would have to admit this kind of resolution is rare. I also suspect that, in this case, it would help if one is a Scientologist....SH

Unfortunately, this conversion stuff in films isn't new. It's part of a larger theme: think with your heart, not your head! I'm sure it's rife in so-called chick films, but I can't comment on that since I avoid them (and most Hollywood films) unless I'm roped into watching them.

Remember Dead Poet's Society? Creativity is easy - just lose control! It's not the result of learning, hard work, or anything like that. Now don't get me wrong, I'm a big believer in improvisation - but ironically it takes a lot of linear thought in preparation, or you end up with disorganized slush (like the film itself).

Or remember Inherit the Wind, where the Clarence Darrow character picks up the Bible at the end; or Compulsion (about Leopold and Loeb) where the Clarence Darrow character played this time by Orson Wells devolves into "are you so sure there's no God after all" thinking. Blech. There are any number of films in which the skeptic/atheist as shown as a nerdy, frustrated, timid (and always male) sad sack, secretly longing for the "uplifting" religious pablum embraced with joy by the one-dimensional suburban conformists who are so much fun, so much fun! (Just like the couch potatoes who sit and watch DVDs on a nice day! Ever notice that people in films or on television rarely watch films/television?)

So Hollywood has just come full circle with the "widen your horizons and open to the supernatural" theme. Well, I saw this coming with Ghost and Always and the other crap films that I, being female, am expected to like.

I know, the cartoon was cheesily and cheaply animated, the plots were boring and predictable, and the characters were annoyingly trite, but at least they had a consistent message that the supernatural wasn't real.

The further message is that vulgar Marxism explains an awful lot.

I wrote about Skepticism vs. Empiricism in my lj. Here's the example I gave of Empiricism:

In The Stupidest Angel: A heartwarming tale of Xmas terror a scientist has just finished explaining to someone that zombies do not exist. Meanwhile, the zombies are outside attempting to claw through the walls. The protagonist responds to the scientist:
Brains! he cried.
Brains! Brains! Brains! replied the zombies, and the sounds of scratching grew louder.
Well, said the scientist, We're always open to new data.

By Larry Lennhoff (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

Star Trek TNG had an episode that comes as close to PZ's criteria as we're likely to see in popular entertainment.

Hank Fox, thanks very much to the info about Karla McLaren; just read the Skeptical Inquirer piece she wrote. Impactful and worth reading. Thanks!

The BBC series 'Jonathan Creek' and the recent movie 'The Illusionist' both present seemingly supernatural stories which turn out to have deviously clever rational explanations.

Jonathan Creek is a bit like a crime-solving James Randi. Highly recommended. Unfortunately, the US import crops the shows to fit in all the commercials.

By Christianjburn… (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

"The only thing I didn't like in that is his hero, Mal Reynolds, is an "angry atheist" - someone who hates god rather than someone who simply doesn't see evidence for god.

On the other hand, there's River:

"Bible's broken: contradictions, false logistics. Doesn't make sense... Noah's ark is a problem. We'll have to call it 'early quantum state phenomenon'. Only way to fit five thousand species of mammal on the same boat."
By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

As a frequent and indulgent viewer of horror flicks of every stripe, there is a genre of "plague" flicks where things that were considered supernatural in a previous age are explained by natural causes. The movies "28 Days Later..." and "28 Weeks Later..." are both good instances of this; the "zombies" are made that way by a virus, not by a supernatural agency. Hmmmm... "Cabin Fever" and the "Resident Evil" films would be others in that genre. I could probably come up with a long list if I thought about it.

While I don't recall and religious types seeing the light of natural agency in these flicks, I think they themselves represent a degree of turning away from the supernatural as a believable cause for outré events. That's not to say they're necessarily accurate in their portrayal of how diseases work, though.

Dangit, cyan #73, don't leave us hanging like that--fix your link! TNG had some incredibly awful eps, including at least one ("Justice" from the first season) where a local god steps in, but turns out to be a mush-hearted liberal instead of the cranky Old Testament fellow we all know. I want to know which ep actually shows them displaying skepticism instead of New Agey jibba-jabba.

Funny how religious belief of humans is at best vaguely handwaved away; religious beliefs of nonhumans are, of course, fair game. Is religion popular? Which religion, and why? Inconvenient questions are sort of hand-waved away. Heck, even B5 ran into this problem.

I personally prefer to focus on the axis from Sleepy Hollow (the defense of rationality in a supernatural world) to Contact (the defense of faith/woo in a realistic world), rather than the axis from one type of conversion story to the other.

The former end of the spectrum is just so much more satisfying in every possible way.

I think that's why I didn't mind the midi-chlorians so much at firs.

Scott Hattfield: Well we're getting WAY off topic* here, but I'm not sure that Nicolas Cage in Matchstick Men changes all THAT much. In the beginning his ethic is that the marks DESERVE to be fleeced, simply because of their greed and stupidity. In the end, he's not angered by the fact that he was conned, he simply believes that he must have deserved it, as did his "daughter" in her turn.

*but when you START with Scooby Doo...

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" falls into the genre, but the brunt of the "stories" weren't about the supernatural. The stories were about characters, and the "hell" that is "high school."

The supernatural elements were metaphors.

We already know what happens when a group of people take metaphors, maybe like those collected into a book, and take them literally...

Good example! Exactly,when I was a kid, it was always the kids plus Scoobie in the "Mystery Machine" who found out by detective the true cause of the mystery at hand: bad guys in disguise. That is, no ghosts, no monsters. Sadly, the latest Scooby-Doo movies are a horrible, horrible corruption of the original cartoon.

The original Scooby-Doo cartoons are a good example to try to instill a skeptic mindset to children. I know it influenced me...

BTW, there is a real Mystery Machine van, and it can be seen in the Bay Area (NorCal)!

Hmmm, Jay, you sound like someone who has read about and understands the premise and style of BtVS pretty well, but who hasn't actually watched many (if any) episodes. Forgive me if I'm wrong about that.

Regardless, "Buffy" in an interesting case. Conventional Vampire mythology is explicitly theistic, as it is inextricably entwined with the trappings of Christianity. "Buffy" is no exception, and yet while gods and demons exist (and appear with appalling regularity) there is nothing supernatural about any of it: the demons, gods and magicks are a tangible part of the natural world in which the stories are set. Furthermore, the writers fastidiously avoid mentioning any specific, known God (or Son o' God) at all, and certainly not in a way that suggests He, She, or They are amongst the very real gods and goddesses of the Buffyverse.

The oft-mentioned, never-seen "Powers That Be" are the closest we ever get to anything resempling a known pantheon or the God of Abraham. The Buffyverse is not theologically deterministic, but as the PTB do influence events to some degree, neither is it deistic in the commonly understood sense.


Scooby doo -- I liked when I was a kid, 'cos I thought Daphne was hot (but had a stupid name - apologies to all daphne's out there)

Buffy -- I thought the shows were generally silly but well written -- I especially liked the fact that buffy was generally just a cute high school kid who also happens to be a vampire slayer -- and of course - buffy was *way* cute (sorry - not allowed)!

Generally never thought about it from a theist/non-theist perspective.... maybe because I think about everything from a non-theist perspective I need to make a conscious effort to "think theist"...

Just to clear something up for those who dropped X-files as getting, "out of synch with its own premises", or what ever. If you didn't see the movie and the last parts of the series, you **missed** how it tied together. It was grand conspiracy. Everything, and I mean **everything** came down to a closed group of cult of government types, who had real contact with real aliens. But not friendly aliens. These where ones that gave humanity two choices, we will wipe you out, or some of you can survive, by basically letting helping the aliens adjust their black goop so it could more rapidly infest and convert the rest of the human race into more aliens. Mulder and Scully kept running across *both* those people who where tests to see how to more effectively adjust the mutagenic "disease" and find faster ways to spread it, as well as those people being experimented with to determine what alien genes could be safely inserted into the human genome, so as to make humanity 100% immune to the mutagen. The conspiracy was working both sides, trying to prevent the end of the world secretly, while also trying to save their own asses, by cooperating with the aliens, in case they failed to develop the immunization they needed to save everyone.

Of course, the last thing they would want is two people bumbling about, exposing all their experiments, prying into things to try to figure out what was going on and possibly threatening the survival of those few humans that where "protected" via their compliance, or destroying the research needed to immunize the human race against the virus the aliens used to convert worlds full of people to their own kind.

The only dumb thing about the premise was, "Why didn't the aliens, when their plans failed, just pull an Independence Day, style invasion and kill everyone instead?" I mean, its an odd moral code to have where you are willing to wipe out a species by converting its tissue into more aliens, but just blowing everyone up is not acceptable.. Then again, it wouldn't be any crazier than some of the contradictory ideologies humans manage to come up with. lol

What's more annoying that the fact that the skeptic always converts, is the way he acts before hand. Instead of actually following evidence and reason, he's just someone who dogmatically believes in science, and refuses to believe in ghosts even when they're all over the place.

Also, the way the believers act like they've been vindicated when the ghosts turn up. They were still wrong to believe in them before there was evidence, they just took a lucky guess.

One interesting inversion of the converted skeptic, not mentioned yet: Batman and the Golden Age Starman (Ted Knight) from DC Comics are on the record as firmly not believing in the supernatural (and as being atheists). This is a sensible position in the real world, but contextually it's a bit strange -- these guys worked alongside master mystic Dr. Fate, guardian angel Zauriel, reincarnated Egyptian (or Thanagarian) hero Hawkman, and spirit of vengeance The Spectre. They've fought Norse gods and demon lord Etrigan, and Ted Knight's old enough to remember Morpheus's imprisonment on earth. It's a bizarrely stubborn sort of disbelief: most skeptics or atheists, placed in the DCU, would start believing in gods and supernatural forces pretty quickly, since they're all over the place. But I guess "representing every way of thought" takes precedence, even when that way of thought is transplanted into a world in which it makes no particular sense.

The only thing I didn't like in that is his hero, Mal Reynolds, is an "angry atheist" - someone who hates god rather than someone who simply doesn't see evidence for god.

Gotta disagree with this. The tragedy that Malcolm lived through made him realize that his religion was just a bunch of comforting lies. He's angry at the world, not at the god he no longer believes in.

A lot of that anger is just plain desperation, too - Mal lost almost everything he cared about in the war: his cause, his faith, most of his friends, even his homeworld. Who wouldn't be angry.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

Yup, I agree with Caledonian. The "angry atheist" tag - though not exactly incorrect - doesn't go very far in describing who Mal is, or why.

One more skepticism wins movie that PZ is old enough to remember is the early sixties Don Knotts movie "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken." It was a kids' movie that followed the ILAM/ first-season-Scooby-Doo formula almost exactly. As light weight as it was, I remember it precisely because the triumph of rationalism ending was so unusual.

"It's been my experience that Scooby-Doo swings from pure skepticism (The ghosts and monsters are always play-acting crooks) to pure supernaturalism (The ghosts and monsters are always ghosts and monsters)"
It seems that way. It swung to the latter with Zombie Island, and the more recent animated movies appear to have swung back to the former. There also seems to be period in the middle where what they were investigating proved to be the usual "man in suit" routine, but there were some unrelated supernatural elements. (A good example is the movie about aliens, where the "aliens" are just people in costumes, but two supporting characters turn out to be actual aliens)

Right there with Caledonian, Mal was driven to atheism, through his anger, but it makes him no less an atheist. He's not mad at God, he's mad that he ever believed at all.

Ah, but the religious are in constant need of conversion, of revival and renewal, reminder of their helplessness and servitude. Once you've gone rational, who can go back?

The cause of the change of Scooby Doo from skeptics to the "real" supernatural was the movie "Ghostbusters". Once actual ghosts became fashionable (and profitable), Scooby Doo switched sides.

I think, too, the choice to rely on supernatural events in the live-action Scooby movie and the choice to cast Sarah Michelle Gellar as Daphne are not unrelated. It's not likely that the topmost item on the producers' priority list was to preserve the rationalist integrity of the original Scooby series.

The supernatural has been very popular in television lately. I've lost count of the number of shows that revolve around ghost-whisperers, witches, angels, and so on. I speculate that this trend reflects the viewing public's current taste in escapist entertainment rather than a widespread rejection of rationalism, but at the same time I fear that many of PZ's blog entries offer compelling evidence that I'm out of my mind.

By Kseniya, OM (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

I think The Village, though it wasn't popular, meets the criteria pretty well for the supernatural turning out to be just the natural.

(Bob(62)) "How about this for irony - G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories are about a Catholic priest/crime solver, and there's no supernatural. All the cases have a natural explanation.

OK, some are holier that Fr. Brown himself, but I guess you can't have everything."

Attacking reason is bad theology. But get thee hence to Gutenberg and read The Man Who Was Thursday. This is an explanation of why god allows suffering and evil. Normal stuff but the story is full of colour, magic, fell deeds, unbearable terror, fear, fire, foes ! Awake ! And often very funny.
Have you read The Club of Queer Trades ?

By Rolan le Gargéac (not verified) on 28 Jun 2007 #permalink

Michael Suttkus, II: As a kid I also remember a debunk-the-supernatural segment with 3-2-1 Contact's "The Bloodhound Gang", which amongst other things solved a ghost case. (I've always wondered if the trick used by the perp in this story would actually work. Any insect guys know?)

cyan: Your link didn't work. Did you mean that awful "Sub Rosa"? Or "Devil's Due", which was slightly better. Or "Imaginary Friend"? But there is also, somewhat related, the decent but not great, "Where Silence Has Lease".

(Bob(62)) "How about this for irony - G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories are about a Catholic priest/crime solver, and there's no supernatural. All the cases have a natural explanation.

OK, some are holier that Fr. Brown himself, but I guess you can't have everything."

Attacking reason is bad theology. But get thee hence to Gutenberg and read The Man Who Was Thursday. This is an explanation of why god allows suffering and evil. Normal stuff but the story is full of colour, magic, fell deeds, unbearable terror, fear, fire, foes ! Awake ! And often very funny.
Have you read The Club of Queer Trades ?

By Rolan le Gargéac (not verified) on 28 Jun 2007 #permalink