As long as we cannot, yet, scientifically answer some of humanity’s biggest questions about life, death, and human nature, the door remains open for a variety of sub-topics and alternative explanations, some of which rather pertain to a Gothic realm than to the modern world. When we cannot answer what consciousness is through means of science, beliefs such as those referring to an afterlife continue to not only exist but flourish and find new hosts every day, to push them further into the future.
And then there are those who believe that they already possess the answers to all of these big questions, even when reasonable evidence is not available. They claim to experience fragments of or be in touch with unseen worlds that cannot – at least for now – be contacted or verified through the scientific method.
Some truly believe in the validity of their experiences – the supernatural explanation is the best that they can find, while others directly manipulate a gullible audience into assigning attributes such as “extraordinary” to them and their life’s purpose.
Sensational claims such as psychic mediumship have been debunked to a satisfactory level over and over again throughout the years, but those of a more personal nature, such as near-death experiences or before-death apparitions still trigger the attention of many scientific researchers and we still have no definite answers.
The thing is that valid or not, still in assessment or clarified, all of these subjects remained active for humans throughout the ages. They are still relevant today, which is why countless books, movies, and documentaries on these topics are being published every year. Public interest is always high since we are constantly in search of meaning, purpose, and emotional comfort.
My goal for this article is to [re]visit some of these supernatural claims and topics and see how they look like in today’s social and cultural environment. My lens is the new Netflix Original docuseries, “Surviving Death” (2021).
|Note: This analysis is not meant as a personal attack on the individuals whose content or craft makes the subject of the series. By no means do I intend to trigger through my content any type of aggressive (re)actions toward them, their collaborators, or supporters. We are all entitled to our own beliefs, however foolish they may be considered by others, and we are also entitled to practice them, the only limit being, in my opinion, causing any type of harm to another being or to our common environment. I believe all of our activities could, in theory, be deconstructed and less than perfect characteristics may be revealed in the process, so nitpicking is not my aim. Some of these people and organizations may have good intentions, but may also deliver messages and provide services that can do more harm than good to individuals or social environments. This is what I want to reveal.|
• SPOILERS AHEAD •
About “Surviving Death” (2021)
“Surviving Death” is a Netflix Original docuseries that explores a variety of paranormal phenomena through personal accounts and research. The first season includes six episodes and covers subjects such as near-death experiences, psychic mediumship, and reincarnation. “Surviving Death” is based on Leslie Kean’s eponymous book. She also appears on the show.
The Anatomy of the Analysis
The episodes are focused on a main, individual topic. For each of the core topics, I will first offer my personal opinion on the phenomenon itself, and then I will review the way in which the show addressed that specific subject.
I will comment on the general topics of the show, not on each case or element that may support a more in-depth analysis.
I will conclude each segment by exploring the higher significance of the topic in the present social context. I will explain why I think the subject is still a relevant one in today’s social climate.
Episode 1: Near-Death Experiences
About the phenomenon
I believe that Near-Death Experiences [NDEs] have biochemical and neuropsychological causes. Most of the elements that compose this powerful personal experience can be explained without a reference to the supernatural.
For example, the out-of-body experiences [OBEs] can be linked to hallucinations, effects of anesthetics, and common environmental factors that trigger similar visions for different people going through an NDE. The “tunnel” many claim to have gone through to reach the other side can be the result of lack of oxygen in the brain and its effects on the visual cortex [as explained in the works of psychologist Susan Blackmore].
But the matter is not yet fully settled by science. NDEs are complex and each of their components needs to be addressed and explained fully before rejecting alternative causes.
They start strong – the show’s first subject presenting their NDE is an orthopedic spine surgeon. Technically, she is supposed to be seen as a reliable witness, but what I get from it is authority bias – hoping that the medical title will make viewers more accepting and less critical of her claims. The allegedly scientific opinions that follow – a psychiatrist and an M.D. that is part of the Division on Perceptual Studies [University of Virginia], etc., do not offer scientific evidence for the supernatural claims related to NDEs. They are only proof that the phenomenon is being studied through a variety of methods and that there is a history of such interest and connected activities of research.
Then we see more people who share their stories. Once again, just because there are many people who claim the same thing, it does not mean that the claim itself is real. Skeptics are already familiar with the idea that one anecdote is not evidence and several anecdotes are no better than one.
But NDEs are not as rare as one might think, and the producers even show us that support groups are being formed to help individuals cope with their unusual, life-changing moments. Huge endorsement for one of these groups. You can pause the video, search for the organizers, and enroll. It shows where loyalties and commercial interests lie with this program.
Some of those who have had NDEs explain how life-changing the moment was for them, but then again, many situations are changing our views on life, and modify our priorities. Traumatic events often produce powerful cognitive and emotional shifts.
It is not that I do not believe these people – although some of the individuals featured in the episode seem to consider themselves particularly superior to those who have not experienced anything that could be labeled supernatural – but I believe that we should entertain a healthy dose of skepticism and not draw any conclusions based on emotions alone.
The show also tried to address the main possible arguments that skeptics might invoke to refute the supernatural explanation and have listed several alternative explanations themselves. It’s an attempt at a balanced take on the topic, but… I did not see any skeptics being interviewed. Therefore, confirmation bias is ever-present in the show. We usually look for information that validates our pre-existing views. Those who believe in an after-life will likely interpret these personal accounts in the sense of validating their view that a soul exists and survives one’s physical death.
I liked the fact that the episode opens the door toward a broader discussion on consciousness though. If that big problem would be solved and we would understand what consciousness is and isn’t, then we may also obtain more answers about what happens during NDEs and also about what being a human truly entails.
Episodes 2 and 3: Mediums
About the phenomenon
I do not believe psychic mediums can connect with the dead. In any way, shape, or form. It all stems from the fact that I do not believe there is any evidence regarding the existence of a soul. No sign of an afterlife either. I believe mediums then fall into two main categories: intentional frauds and those who truly believe they have a gift they can use to benefit others. Nuances supported.
For full disclosure, when it comes to the bigger picture, I am agnostic. I do not dismiss possibilities based on lack of evidence. But I definitely don’t accept them either.
These two episodes represent the part of the documentary that was the most difficult for me to watch without being triggered significantly. They present three types of psychic mediumship – mental mediumship, trance mediumship, and physical mediumship.
Where do I even start? I know. With the worst of the worst: physical mediumship. I had no idea this ridiculous form of deception is still a thing today. A so-called medium claiming to have his/her body used by a spirit that talks through them and the even more ridiculous part – claiming to eliminate ectoplasm, as a manifestation of the spirit world. Cheap display of ventriloquism-worthy talent and a variety of visual illusions and manipulations. But this isn’t the truly despicable part. The ridiculousness of it all would’ve been just a funny page in history if severe emotional exploitation wouldn’t also be a trait of physical mediumship.
To intentionally deceive, through a collection of cheap tricks, those whose desperation of having lost a loved one made them want to try this type of experience, and attempt to make them believe that they are truly, directly communicating with the deceased, is what sociopathic behaviors are made of.
Now, I know that this is a commentary for a TV show. People featured may have not only consented to having their personal stories used for the purposes of the program, but they might as well be part of the medium’s or the show’s team. A show in the true meaning, as in theatrical performance. But I don’t really care about that, I care about the ultimate message that they are sending to viewers, and also that some of these things still happen in more private settings as well.
Basically, there are two directions of the emotional manipulation that I care about: The first is the manipulation of the person being read. If they’re not in on it, they are at risk of suffering the most as a result of the intentional deception. They’re being tricked and their emotions are disconsidered and manipulated by the medium and his/her team. The second thing is the emotional manipulation of the viewers, who are invested in the story of the person on screen. There’s no excuse and no defense for this practice.
Let’s talk more about the physical medium’s performance. I won’t name her here. She was shown doing two types of mediumship, allegedly – physical – via a group séance -, and trance. Let’s talk about the group séance first. It must be the cheapest trick in the book. She’s supposed to channel three spirits -, an old man, an older woman, and a young boy – while seating in a tiny black closet that has a long black curtain – wait, I’m not done -, all while being strapped into a chair. Her hands would be tied up with Velcro straps, and her ankles with zip ties. This is supposed to be some sort of proof that she is not the one producing the physical phenomenon herself. The Velcro straps would make a loud noise, she said – and yet, they had the people in the room sing loudly, but never mind that!
The room was sealed as well, with duct tape. This is to ensure no one would go in and produce the physical effects – Ahem… yet, right there in the room were several individuals making up what they called the “medium circle”, a.k.a. the medium’s team… or minions, or whatever it is that you want to call them. So, her team is there, but she cannot move, so she cannot be the one doing all the stuff. Correct. Not her, but still, about four others there ready to go.
Even more, the participants were scanned with a metal detector. A safety measure for the psychic, they said, because metal can heat to dangerous levels during the séance and blah, blah, blah, something. Well, it can be that, or it can be because a pretend-ritual would make the whole charade seem legit to those present. “If she’s taking these measures”, one might think, “then it must be the real thing”. Only that it’s not. Same thing for her “need” to be by herself to recover after the reading.
The voices were laughable. She’d be a decent, yet not great, ventriloquist if she were to choose a respectable career path. It was this same woman that demonstrated a trance mediumship segment: she visited a family and she was to once again summon those three spirits to convey messages from deceased loved ones. I guess she can only do three voices… why spoil it if it works?
We were also shown a trance healing medium who, once again, did voices – this one was supposed to be the voice of an old doctor who would come through and heal the person in session with the medium.
One common thing for all these spirits: They all seem to love calling participants “dear”. Because, you see, it is all about emotional manipulation. And since all these people brought their history of trauma right into the medium’s office or conference room, providing emotional comfort is a safe bet to trigger a positive response in and from them.
And then there were the “usual” mediums who did what they call mental mediumship and what we skeptics call cold reading. In plain words, guessing and guiding the reading based on the sitter’s reactions. There is also hot reading – when a medium has prior knowledge about a person’s history and simply attributes those bits of information to their ability. Minions can come in handy here once more, to search information to feed to the medium.
They’ve addressed all of this in the show as well. Because, you see, they were being “honest”. Also, because there was no trace of an actual skeptic nowhere in sight. Oh, and they also show some mediums fail. Once again, because they’re “honest”. Yeah… No, they create contrast and try to boost the viewer’s confidence in them and the mediums. “Look, if they’d be wrong, they’d admit it”.
And then again, the endorsements. This time for a retreat for mediums. You get a glimpse of the price as well.
These two episodes represented a really low point and completely discredited the intentions of the producers in my eyes.
I wish I had more thumbs to gesture thumbs-down.
This being said, the whole psychic mediumship phenomenon is still relevant today. Why? Because, believe it or not, it may trigger some positive effects for some audiences. I wrote more about it here.
Episode 4: Signs from the Dead
About the phenomenon
You guessed it: confirmation bias, among other things. We look for elements that validate our beliefs and expectations. And we assign meaning and see patterns where there are none. This is how I explain the phenomenon related to people who believe they have received signs in different formats and forms, from their deceased loved ones. I have to admit though, there is emotional beauty, tenderness, and intimacy to this phenomenon. I can see why many find emotional comfort in it.
This was a nice enough episode. I especially liked the story of the two sisters waiting for a cardinal bird as a sign from their mother.
Other than that, I think that these are all personal stories, and even if the people involved consent to having their story used in such a show, there should be a self-imposed limit to sharing intimate elements like these.
Also, the emotional manipulation of the viewers issue remains. It is present in pretty much all entertainment programs and I have no idea what the best approach would be to limit its effects.
I mentioned the social value of the phenomenon a few paragraphs back. I think it is the kind of element that helps with the grief process. It’s the living who find comfort in it. It’s the living who still need to feel that connection with a person they’ve lost and who find it hard to let go. Taken to extremes, it can block a person’s ability to move forward in life, but otherwise, it may be a nice way to process emotional pain. It’s like one would concentrate the pain in that thing that they consider a sign. It becomes problematic though when the person places all of their healing potential in their expectation to receive a certain type of message from someone who passed. It is in this phase that I believe mediums may help if the person does not seek any other type of professional advice or assistance.
Episode 5: Seeing Dead People
About the phenomenon
Illusions, defects, manipulation. These explanations go for the photos that allegedly portray the dead or their energy from beyond the grave. Voice recordings? Pareidolia. We see meaning in vague stimuli. Shapes in the clouds, a face on the Moon, and words in white noise, especially if we’re being told what we should be searching for. Before-death apparitions are a totally different category in the seeing-the-dead field and I believe it to be worth studying and understanding. I trust that people have these visions. And I also acknowledge the frequency of the phenomenon and its historical endurance.
This was by far my favorite episode, the highlight being the before-death apparitions segment. These experiences, whatever their cause, are more relatable and have more meaning and weight in the human experience of both life and death.
Chris Kerr’s approach was the most humane I’ve seen in this show, and one of the most appropriate research- and understanding-focused attitudes I’ve seen, in general. I actually made a note to search for his papers or books. I am curious about the findings in this field.
What I like about these experiences though is that they invite us to slow down and consider the important aspects of life. And the curious thing is that oftentimes, the bits that make a life extraordinary, are those of an intangible nature.
Episode 6: Reincarnation.
About the phenomenon
Said it before and I have to repeat it here as well, not believing in the existence of a soul cancels belief in any other phenomenon that would require one. Reincarnation included. However, I find the belief incredibly fascinating, and the implications – were this to be true – really amazing.
The episode features child psychiatrist Jim B. Tucker and his work regarding what he considers to be past-life memories of children. The kind of memories that can be verified, he says. I must say that I liked the research methodology – the part where he would have a child choose a photo, based on his past-life memories, from a set of two or more. It’s an interesting field. Once again, I would like to read more about it. This time as well, I liked Tucker’s empathetic approach.
Nice things aside, I would also like to know more about the parents’ background. This could possibly be child exploitation and abuse if a parent or both force this kind of experience onto the child, in an attempt to become known or simply feel special.
Some of the stories presented in this episode, I’ve seen them before, or at least I think I have. So, nothing truly notable for me here.
“Surviving Death” is nothing new when it comes to television. It is definitely meaningless in the broader context of relevant scientific discussions. It mimics scientific, unbiased interest in the topics presented, yet the delivery is skewed toward one, commercially-profitable niche. The middle episodes are abusive content. They emotionally exploit both viewers and participants.
It gets away with an “entertainment” label and with the fact that it misleads the audience into thinking their intentions are relief- and solution-focused. It belongs on Gaia, not Netflix.