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23 July 2013 @ 04:38 am
Oliver's Ghost  
Back in October 2011, a Hallmark Channel movie called Oliver's Ghost came out. I'm discussing it here not simply because the movie follows so many if the same old psi tropes we see over and over again in American media, but because, like "Matilda," which I have already blogged about here, here and here, this story is about psi and children, and is supposed to convey a "positive" message about psi.

Except wait, it's not that simple.

I'm going to deconstruct the "so-called positive" story formula. I'm going to quote from the full-length synopsis of the movie, once available on the Hallmark Channel website, now no longer. (If you want a copy, email me.)

From the Hallmark Channel's website when the movie was on television (my comments are in brackets):

"SYNOPSIS
Eleven year-old Oliver has a unique ability to see "full-bodied apparitions" – ghosts! [How is this a "unique" ability?] When his family moves from the bustling city to an older home in the suburbs, only Oliver is able to see the spirit of Clive Rutledge, the previous owner. Clive causes every manner of destruction to force Oliver and his family to leave. But in the end, it will be Oliver, with the help of a kind neighbor, who shows Clive how to finally release all his earthly regrets so he can leave the house in peace."

From the full synopsis:

"Karen and husband Doug have moved their kids, Oliver, eleven, and Jenny, fifteen, from the city in an effort to work less hours and be closer as a family. Jenny, a typical teenager, is already missing her friends, while Oliver is a different kind of kid— incredibly intelligent and awkward."

In general, in fiction, "typical" kids aren't psi, and psi kids aren't "typical." Oliver, like Matilda, is incredibly intelligent (and she's something of a prodigy, which is used as an "explanation" for her being psi). Here, there is no "explanation" given for Oliver's awarenesses, other than that he is incredibly intelligent and awkward -- he's not presented as having "special powers," per se (other than that his ability is "unique.")

On one hand, it's great they're not singling him out as having "special powers," but on the other hand, he does actually seem to be different from his parents and siblings and peers in terms of how he perceives the world (because he can see the ghost).

Also, it's important to note that in American fiction, pre-pubescent psi children are "safe," and can be protagonists in "so-called positive" psi narrative stories. Psi children can be either heartwarming or scary -- psi adults are often scary, rarely if ever heartwarming.

[Blah blah, ghosty stuff happens]

"Walking up the driveway, Oliver sees a flash of Clive in the attic window. But when he asks his parents about it, they tell him the attic door has been sealed off for years. Clive gets angrier as the family settles in, pounding an ominous tune on the piano in the attic. Oliver is the only one who hears it. Oliver starts school and isn't surprised when he is bullied on the first day."

So we're told that psi kids in fiction are different, awkward, and targeted by bullies. (In reality, sometimes psi youth are bullied, but sometimes we're really popular!) Though in real life some psi kids are harassed by bullies for one reason or another (like so many non-psi kids are), this isn't necessarily true, because we are psi. It doesn't have to be the case.

Even if the bullies aren't presented as harassing the psi child because he or she is psi, (after all, maybe in this case, the bullies are picking on him just because he's the new kid), it does often seem in media presentations that the audience is supposed to connect these dots. There's also a common trope that the "special kid" is an outcast among his or her peers, that having no friends is a pre-requisite for being a "real" psi kid.

(Note: "Matilda" subverts the bullying tropes -- the bully is the headmistress, who hates all children, not just Matilda. Matilda is liked and respected by her classmates, even though her age and intelligence would normally make her the target of bullying.)

What I wish we could see in media presentations of psi kids is more of a diversity of experience -- some kids who are bullied, and some kids who are not. Of the kids who are bullied, I would like to see more of an exploration of how this affects them -- not just bullying as a narrative device to show how much of an outcast the kid is (before "special things" happen to him or her), but a thoughtful exploration of how bullying impacts those children's self-esteem and self-image, especially when they know, or believe, that they are bullied because of these differences.

I don't want to see bullying presented as just this "obvious" consequence of being psi and different and awkward and "too" sensitive -- full stop, the end, on with the story that has little to do with the emotional development of the psi child, and everything to do with solving some problems of non-psi people in that child's life. Kids at school certainly aren't going to stop bullying the incredibly intelligent and awkward new kid just because he solves the ghost's problem. (#nothowbullieswork)

"Doug and Karen are already falling into old habits of working too much, and don't notice their son."

In American media, psi children are usually presented as very disconnected from their parents (if they even have parents!). See, for example, my review of "Matilda." Like Matilda, Oliver has self-absorbed, muggle parents.

"Oliver climbs the stairs to the attic, furnished like a study with a piano, bookshelves and a desk. Looking around, Oliver suddenly comes face to face with Clive and realizes he is seeing a ghost. Oliver screams and tumbles down the steps, waking his family. When they see the hole in the drywall, Karen and Doug go to investigate, but the attic is again empty, dusty and untouched. They don't believe Oliver's ghost story."

Parents rarely believe their psi kids in American fiction, unless it's to freak out. Would it be too much to show a family where the parents do believe their kids, and don't freak out? (Like the scene with Miss Honey, but without the problems I raised there?) Because a scene like this here just continues to normalize "your parents will not believe you," and frame what's taking place as "disbelief in ghosts," not what is also taking place -- "disbelief in your child's awarenesses/experiences/ability (here, to see ghosts), and frankly, in even starker terms, disbelief in your child." Which means you're calling your kid a liar, communicating to him or her that either he or she is acting immorally (lying to you), or his or her reality is false.

That's really a very damaging thing to be told by your parents or other authority figures -- at any age, but especially as a child.

"Things get weirder in the house as Clive watches the family disturb his home. Still, only Oliver can see him. Oliver confronts him and tells him to stop bothering his family. Clive tells him the house is his, and he wants the McCaffrey's [sic] to move out, offended they have moved in and caused so much trouble for him. Oliver confesses he feels invisible in the family, which peaks Clive's interest, feeling like they might have something in common."

Apparently in this "typical American family," being psi leaves you feeling so invisible, it's like being dead! /facepalm/

"Oliver's parents think he is making up "Clive" to get attention because he is having trouble adjusting to the move."

Aha, see? That's what I just said above. Oliver comes out to his parents, tells them the truth (which is really hard to do in a psi-phobic, psi-denying culture), and talks about something really scary, and they respond with "you're just making this up and trying to get attention."

This is presented as a "normal" response.

Just watch, the story won't ever really get into the negative impact of this dismissal on Oliver's self-esteem or self-development. That won't tarnish the "happily ever after."

Do his parents actually have any reason to think Oliver is a liar? Has he ever lied before? (No?) Has he ever broken stuff in the house before and lied about it as an attempt to get attention? (No?)

The message is that even without any reason to see their children as liars, "reasonable" American parents will accuse their children of lying and destroying stuff if those kids come out about seeing ghosts (or being PK, etc.). Disbelief isn't only entirely reasonable, it also causes no damage (worth mentioning) to the kids whose experiences you disbelieve and disparage.

After all, why would it cause a child any emotional harm to be blamed for things he or she didn't do, and then called a liar when telling the truth about what happened? /end sarcasm/

Sadly, I don't expect this story to get into just how problematic this makes Oliver's relationship with his parents, nor into the amount of apologizing his parents will need to to do make it right with him after this.

The parents have to act like this in the "typical American narrative" -- this is what the "one story" demands. (After all, what would be the conflict if the parents believed the child? OMG, what could a story like that even look like?) The only people who can be positive are outside the family: Miss Honey in "Matilda," the neighbor in this story, etc.

"They leave and Clive appears, telling Oliver he is trying to prove he exists to Doug and Karen, but unfortunately only Oliver can see him. Oliver feels more and more alone as his parents barely notice him, too busy with work. Only Clive notices how Oliver feels, and how distanced the McCaffreys have grown. Slowly, Clive starts to drop his angry demeanor around Oliver and befriend him, sharing his attic space with him. This is comforting for Oliver, whose parents continue to ignore him, and who continues to get bullied at school."

Message: It really sucks to be a psi kid. Your only real friends are dead people. Being psi in school and at home is kinda like being dead, anyway. No one believes you, notices you, sees you, or cares about you.

[Oliver gets clues about Clive's past]

"Oliver returns home to find all of Clive's things scattered about the house and his parents waiting for him. Again, they blame him."

Yup, we've covered this already.

"Suddenly, to prove his existence, Clive booms throughout the house, causing a whirlwind of destruction. Karen, Doug and Jenny scream, finally able to see Clive."

Because ghosts are SCARY, everyone!

"Clive scolds Oliver's family members for ignoring Oliver, and for breaking their promise to grow closer as a family. He demands they vacate his house at once before disappearing again. Karen, Doug, and even Jenny apologize to Oliver for being too wrapped up in their own lives to care about each other, and promise to try again to be closer."

So the ghost has to tell them they're being self-absorbed jerks in order for them to get the picture? (lolz?) And from what it says here, that apology is just scratching the surface of what they owe him an apology for. How about "you should be ashamed of yourselves for calling your child a liar and blaming him for things he didn't do?"

(Also, of course, in real life, ghosts aren't going to come to the rescue of psi kids and tell off their "muggle parents.")

"Oliver goes to talk to Clive, who is upset. He reveals he is hiding a secret about Elizabeth. He can't forgive himself, and that is why he is stuck as a ghost for eternity. Oliver and his family go to the newspaper office to search through old clips to find out what happened so long ago. Searching through the papers, the McCaffrey's [sic] find out that Elizabeth was born on Halloween and eloped the day after her 18th birthday. She ran away and Clive never saw her again."

So, they help him help the ghost. OK. But... it still doesn't appear they have apologized for calling Oliver a liar and accusing him of trashing the house and... and all that. Once they help him solve the ghost plot, their relationship with their psi son will magically be OK, too.

[They find the daughter, who is old now, and Oliver convinces her to come over the house. The ghost of her father tries to apologize, but she can't see or hear him.]

"Then, a wind blows through the room and a letter flutters to the ground. Oliver hands it to Betty, who begins to read. It is a letter Clive has spent many years trying to write. He finally has found the words to apologize to his daughter, asking for forgiveness and expressing his regret at not being a part of her life. She is touched. As she leaves, Clive is finally set free, and with a warm smile at Oliver, he disappears into the night, leaving the McCaffreys to settle into their new home, a stronger bond between them."

So, they have solved the ghost plot, and helped repair the bond between Elizabeth and her ghost father. As I predicted above, knowing this narrative, having solved the ghost's problem magically solves the problem between Oliver and his family. They don't actually have to do any hard self-reflective work about the differences between them and Oliver, about trusting him, about not calling him a liar and accusing him of breaking things he didn't break. They don't have to seriously reflect on why they jumped to those conclusions and the impact their behavior had on Oliver (which, I take it, we also don't see). They don't have to reflect on the challenges of raising a child who has very different perceptions of the world. Oliver's problems (at home and in school) are magically solved when he solves someone ELSE'S problems.

Which is what we just saw in "Matilda."

At this point, it also "doesn't matter" whether Oliver continues to see ghosts -- his purpose in seeing the ghost was to solve other people's problems, and the problems are now solved. There is no discussion of what it means to be someone who sees spirits (as a child and an adult) -- this was merely a literary device. Everything has been returned to "normal" in the end. (But what about all the other ghosts in the world? Won't he encounter other ghosts? Doesn't he want to know more about himself and his ability to sense these things? Doesn't he want to find others like him?)

The film also has a complete lack of adults like Oliver. I have yet to ever see a movie, or read a book or story, where a child discovers they have some sort of psi awarenesses and (with help from others or not) actively seeks out, and finds, an adult role model who is like them. Never seen it. Psi children never seem to want to find adults like them, to help give meaning and direction to their lives, to answer their questions, and to guide them. (Um.) They only want to solve other (non-psi) people's problems, which magically solves all their own.

In sum, in this story, just like what we saw in "Matilda" and in "The Rockinghorse Winner," psi children's abilities ultimately belong to the narratives of OTHER PEOPLE. They are psi so that someone else's problems can be solved, or that someone else can learn a lesson. We have now seen this with THREE DIFFERENT TYPES OF PSI (precognition, psychokinesis, and seeing ghosts). When psi kids help solve others' problems, and don't die in the process of doing so, their own problems are also resolved, without any non-psi characters having to do more than minimal work to repair the relationship. (Matilda's parents just abandoned her, and other than apologies and vows to be better, the only work these parents apparently do is to spend some time in the library working on... Clive's problem.)

The message is that as psi people, our senses exist as narrative devices, that these things happen to us because other people have problems that need solving, and we have these senses in order to solve their problems. We might have problems of our own, but these will all resolve in a happy ending if we solve the problems of other people. (Corollary: If our own problems don't resolve, we're supposed to solve more and more of other people's problems, until they do?)

And to me, the fact that these parents never have to deeply reflect on their behavior "normalizes" their behavior and lack of self-reflection. They don't have to self-reflect, they have privilege! (But it's the Hallmark Channel, so we're all supposed to feel good now. Thanks to Oliver, those parents "learned a good lesson.")
 
 
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