The Skeptic

It's never a good thing to be the skeptic in a horror story. The skeptic always turns out to be wrong about the presence of the Supernatural — otherwise it wouldn't be much of a horror story, would it? But it's usually more than that: the Unbeliever needs to suffer. He not only needs to be shown the Truth, he needs to the lesson to hurt — fatally, if possible. Then the survivors can shake their heads sadly over his sad, wasted life and murmur about tampering in God's domain (whichever god should happen to be in charge at the time).

Now, as my regular readers are probably aware, I myself am a skeptic. I am kin to the Sadducean Professor of Ophiology — recognize the reference? If you do, you'll also realize I'm also a huge fan of ghost stories. And, of course, I'm mildly interested in horror movies; could you guess? For me, it's not difficult to reconcile my abiding love for stories of ghosts & demons & vampires & flesh-eating zombies with my unwillingness to take any of it seriously. Sometimes ghosts & demons & vampires & flesh-eating zombies can be used to comment meaningfully on the human condition, with no belief in their actual existence required. Other times — most times, to be honest — it's just plain fun to be scared. But it's enough for me that these otherworldly creatures live in my imagination, and only there.

Of course, it can be a lot of fun to watch the skeptic get his comeuppance in horror fiction. Consider James Herbert's "Haunted", which was the basis for a solid if emasculated film version starring Aidan Quinn. "Haunted" gives us a reasonably sympathetic view of the skeptic as ghost hunter, interested mostly in debunking those who use belief in the supernatural to victimize the gullible. Herbert's skeptic is a memorable character (for which, thanks)... but Herbert couldn't resist making him damaged. That's a common idea: the skeptic has some terrible pain in his early history, which has closed him off from things like wonder and faith. And, of course, in "Haunted" the skeptic is shown the error of his belief system in the cruelest possible ways. And you know what? That's OK. I very much enjoy the novel (and to a lesser degree, the movie). I'm not in the least offended by it. And I especially like Herbert's sequel, "The Ghosts of Sleath", which far outdoes its predecessor in sheer malice, and does for the traditional ghost story what Night of the Living Dead did for all those 1940's "zombie" flicks with Mantan Moreland. It's grand, shuddery stuff — and it's only a novel.

Unfortunately, the desire to teach skeptics a lesson — preferably one that hurts — isn't confined to those horror novels and scary movies. It's an attitude I run into with distressing frequency — not usually directed at me personally, nor even at individuals like me; but most often, at all of us in aggregate (particularly in election years). Here's what I wish people would understand: skepticism is not closed-mindedness. Skepticism is not a failure of the imagination. It is pointedly not a refusal of wonder and beauty and mystery. At least, not always. Really, true skepticism is exactly the opposite of all those preconceptions. It's merely a decision to be discering about those sources of wonder and beauty and mystery.

Let me give you an example: some scientists theorize that there are a staggering number of hidden dimensions to our universe. They think this not because it's a neat idea — although it is! It really, really is! — they think this because some of the evidence suggests it. They may be wrong, and I think most of them involved in this sort of speculative research will admit that possibility. After all, they can't see these hidden dimensions (at least not yet). There's something like an act of faith involved in looking for them. But it's an act of faith that's supported by evidence. If those hidden dimensions exist, they would explain things about the nature of the universe that we don't really understand now. But if the idea turns out to be demonstrably not true, the theory will be discarded, and scientists will ponder the evidence to look for a better idea to replace it. And that theory will probably be equally breathtaking1
1. Disclaimer: I am not smart enough nor well-enough informed to have any opinion on the validity of all this; that's not my point. I'm not trying to illustrate what I believe, but rather the kind of mind-blowing conclusions that a rational view of the universe can lead to.

Yet we continually hear from People who Believe that a rational world-view is a product of a stunted imagination! That scientists only believe in that which they can see with their own eyes; that they refuse to consider things beyond their simple observations! Really? An eleven-dimensional universe? And not just an eleven-dimensional universe used as a device in a science fiction story, but as a potential basis for a explanation for the existence of everything?! How is this not a source of wonder, and beauty, and mystery? And it has the advantage of standing up to investigation (at least, I'm told, it's holding up so far... I'm in no position to comment). The idea will be studied, and modeled, and probed; new experiments will be considered, whole new ways of looking at the basic structure of reality will be built up and torn down... and in the meantime, we'll continue to hear the complaint that science & rationality are too limited to allow us to understand the mysteries of life.

You know what else I hear a lot? That we skeptics, those of us with rational world-views, refuse to acknowledge anything larger than ourselves. By this, they usually they mean a god — and usually one Deity in particular, though I don't want to name names (He's touchy about the whole "name" thing, anyway). I don't think it's generally true. Actually, I think most of us skeptics recognize that practically everything is bigger than we are — eleven-dimensional space-time being a case in point — and we look at the world accordingly. In fact, I think it's the realization that so much of the world around us is so much more complicated and awe-inspiring than we realize that makes us less willing to accept without questioning.

I can certainly be closed-minded on some subjects. Most of us are at some time or other. But even when it comes to something like ghosts, I am perfectly willing to be convinced. I am inclined to disbelieve, especially since nobody's been able to agree what a "ghost" might be... are they wandering souls of dead folk? Are they psychic impressions left behind by traumatic events? Are they illusions caused by swamp gas/indigestion/insanity/the Devil? Are they physical entities, made of matter, capable of touching people or moving objects? Or are they insubstantial wisps that can move through walls and doors? Or are they all of the above? People have wondered since the dawn of mankind, but the questions have never been answered. Contrast this with the progress of home technology in the last thirty years. One area of speculation leads to incredible, nearly magical results... which quickly become so banal we forget now marvellous they are. The other leads to millennia of dead ends. We hear miraculous Voices from the Other Side every day: cellphone calls. Why must I believe in ghosts to be thrilled by the world around me? Of course, this doesn't mean I wouldn't be thrilled to find evidence for the existence of ghosts. But the key word is "evidence".

And that brings me to The Skeptic. That's the official title of the film: The Skeptic. Not "The Ghosts of Becket House", or "Whispers in the Night": The Skeptic2
2. Though apparently the international English title of the movie is The Haunting of Bryan Becket... presumably the change is targeted at parts of the world like Scandinavia, where skepticism has less of a negative public connotation.
. This movie wants you to understand from the outset that its real focus is its protagonist, and that protagonist's single salient character trait is... that he's a Skeptic.

The thing is, that's not really Bryan Becket (Tim Daly)'s salient character trait. He's not a skeptic: he's a dick. He's also a lawyer; connect the two facts at your own peril. We first see Becket when he gets a phone call informing him that his aunt has just died under mysterious circumstances. Becket is unmoved. To him, the death of his aunt merely means he gets his hands on her house — a mansion full of valuable antiques. Becket's wife observes his reaction, and is appalled by his soullessness. But you see, he's a skeptic... and skeptics are cold, and materialistic, and they refuse to acknowledge anything larger than themselves...

Becket is even late for his aunt's funeral. He was busy, you see, picking up the keys to his new house from the police. Funerals mean nothing to him anyway, as he takes pains to remind anyone within earshot. He trades a few pointed remarks with the priest conducting the funeral ceremony, who rebukes him mildly — at least his aunt showed up to the funeral on time. He rides out to the house with his partner, Sully (Tom Arnold, in one of the most engaging performances he's ever given), who accuses him directly of refusing to acknowledge anything larger than himself...

Becket has his first brush with the uncanny when Sully, who's experiencing a bad reaction to his medicine, has a sudden attack. During the fit, Sully looks up at Becket with suspicious clarity, and tells him there's something upstairs... in the closet... behind the crucifix... It goes without saying that Sully's never been in the house before, and that there is a closet upstairs with a crucifix on the door. Then again, people in the throes of a seizure are liable to babble practically anything. So what if there really is such a closet upstairs? Sully's a practicing Catholic himself: he might have been referring to something in his own home.

(Psssst! He's not.)

Back in the mundane world, Becket uses the impending sale of his aunt's enormous house as an excuse to separate from his wife Robin and his young son. Their marriage has been strained over Becket's near-total lack of emotion, his distance, his... well, his refusal to acknowledge anything larger than himself. Even though his wife had suggested the separation, she's deeply hurt when he decides to take her up on it. She'd only been trying to goad him into making some changes. But Becket's also a little insincere: his real motivation (at least as he explains it to Sully) is to give Robin some time to worry about losing him (and, it's implied, his income); then she'll realize what a good thing she's got in her monitor-lizard of a husband.

The first problem that emerges for Becket is this: it turns out the enormous old house isn't his after all. The aunt had made a last-minute will giving the property to the Delano Institute, run by the ominously-named Dr. Koven. A little research proves there's nothing sinister about it: it's a sleep research facility. Becket goes to find out why on earth his aunt would have left her property to a sleep center, but while he's there he finds out that Dr. Koven has another research project going... and that's the Institute the house is going to.

Needless to say, the second Koven project investigates psychic phenomena.

Becket is disgusted. Clearly this Koven character took advantage of an old woman's deteriorating mental condition to convince her of some sort of spiritualist malarkey! But Dr. Marrow Koven insists all his work is done scientifically, under rigidly-controlled conditions. And as a matter of fact, it had been Becket's aunt who came to them. She claimed her house was haunted.

That's too much for Becket, who storms off with every intention of challenging the will. But from that point on, his second problem emerges: Becket begins to experience strange things in the house. Whispering voices seem to call to him from behind the closet-with-the-crucifix. Unseen hands slam the door behind him and leave him alone in the dark. He gets glimpses of a pale woman, seated in a half-turned chair or at the foot of the stairs.

Yet, when Becket — slightly subdued — brings this startling information back to Dr. Koven, Koven insists on treating him with skepticism and scientific detachment. And our protagonist is deeply offended. Because, of course, he's a skeptic. He refuses to acknowledge anything larger than himself... and when something out of the ordinary happens to him, than by lack-of-God, it's got to be true!

And yes, I know that there are people whose skeptical outlook has hardened into willful ignorance. I know there are people who would take tremendous offense if you were to apply to their eccentricities the same hard-headed analysis they apply to everybody else's. But let me remind you, the title of this movie is The Skeptic. Bryan Becket's attitude is the point of the movie. "My God," says a character to Becket at one point, "you are one die-hard rationalist." And it is not meant as a compliment.

Now, here's the thing you might not be expecting: I like The Skeptic. I like it for reasons that have nothing to do with what I think is the stated agenda of the movie. For instance, once you get past the fact that Becket's dialog for the first half of the movie is clearly intended to do nothing more than make him look like a selfish ass... once you get past the fact that his broken family is only in the story to reinforce the idea that he is a selfish ass3
3. Oh! And also to feed him a ridiculously on-the-nose clue about his own back-story. Seriously: if his wife neglected to tell him about that at any point in their past, then I think their relationship is beyond help.
... then you may find yourself growing to like Tim Daly's Becket, even if he is a selfish ass.

I also like that the movie starts to veer off slightly from the path I expected it to take. Dr. Koven, for example, disappears from the story entirely. The details of the actual haunting (if there is a haunting) unfold very slowly and deliberately; and while there are only a few shock sequences, the ones we're given are certainly effective. In fact, there's a single line, spoken by Becket at a moment of extreme stress, that will probably trouble my sleep for the rest of my life.

Most of all, I like the technical details that bring the spooky parts of the movie to life. The soundtrack is gently melancholy, without being obtrusive... except in those brief moments when it's meant to become obtrusive, and then — in combination with some very skillful editing — it packs a pretty good wallop. It certainly doesn't hurt that the house they chose for the main location looks as if it ought to be haunted, whether ghosts exist or not; but beyond that, the movie's lighting, its camera-work, its pacing (up until the very last moment)... really pretty much everything (except its occasionally painful dialog) suggests that the film-makers are deeply attuned to the mechanics of ghost-story telling.

So far I've only described about half the movie. I haven't gone into detail about the haunting and its outcome. And I don't intend to... except to say this: it will soon turn out that our hero is a skeptic because — say it with me, everybody! — he's damaged. There's something in his past that he refuses to come to terms with, and once he begins to examine his own hidden emotions he starts to become more acceptable to the film's point of view.

But here's something I certainly didn't expect: by the end of the film, we've been provided with both a rational and a supernatural explanation for everything we've seen.

Mind you, that's not to say there's a good explanation for either. If the supernatural explanation is true, and if we're to accept what we see at the movie's end on its surface, then the ghost is pretty damned inept... or at least bewilderingly inconsistent with both human and ghostly nature (as far as I'm familiar with either). On the other hand, if the rational explanation is true — and if you examine the plot of The Skeptic carefully (more carefully than the film-makers did, apparently), the skeptical explanation is the one that works by far the best — then there are things we've been shown along the way that don't make a lot of sense. But that's not my main point: the fact is, The Skeptic does end on a very ambiguous note, with either interpretation making sense in context. That's more than I could have hoped for, after putting up with the dreadfully one-sided first half of the film.

In my opinion, The Skeptic would have been stronger if the Becket of the first half of the film hadn't been such an obvious strawman... and if Becket's wife and son had either been given more of an active role in the movie, or written out completely. Most of the rest of the movie could then have been left intact, and the resolution (or lack of one) would have been much more broadly satisfying. As it is, The Skeptic is an adequate ghost story whose parts don't quite add up to a coherent whole. Perhaps it's damaged because it suffered from an early crisis in its development stage... a crisis which its writer and director were unable or unwilling to confront directly. Oh, well... at least, by stepping back from the certainty it expressed in the opening, The Skeptic seems to have acknowledgeded that it is part of a tradition larger than itself. And that's progress.

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