Saturday, 6 August 2016

A Look Back at Chip Coffey's Psychic Kids: Children of The Paranormal.

I recently came across a seemingly harmless article on Week I Weird, which I thought may make some amusing reading: "Gone Too Soon: The Five Best Paranormal Reality Shows That Should Never Have Been Cancelled "  Unfortunately, the article left me rather pissed off when I saw the image  which heads it.

Why? In the top left of the image is a representation of Chip Coffey's "Psychic Kids". The person clutching their face in terror, a common image in paranormal TV shows, isn't an adult. It's a child. Also, that isn't simulated fear we're seeing there, that's a child placed in an extremely tense, scary situation in a state of absolute terror.

The show ran for three seasons between 2008 and 2010 and its basic format  was as follows: Coffey and his team met with children who claimed to have psychic abilities with the aim of "training them" or enabling them to "cope" with their experiences in some way. Usually, this involved taking them to some haunted location to "face their fear". Many of these children were clearly vulnerable and Coffey pushing his bullshit beliefs on them could potentially have done an untold amount of damage in their lives.

Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate why I find Psychic Kids so utterly repugnant is to talk through an episode as I did in the past with the recently cancelled Ralph Sarcchie vehicle "The Demon Files". For the sake of fairness, I'm actually going to look at three episodes, Demon in the Mirror, The Ghost of Georgie and the main episode I'll focus on, season one's The Demon House. 

Needless to say, before the episode, we are met with the usual disclaimer distancing A&E from a show that they are airing, and in this case, also produced. This disclaimer is the television executive's answer to a "protective white light" it sounds good but it remains to be seen if would actually protect them from anything. In this case, legal action presumably being the concern rather than evil spirits or some such hogwash. The show begins properly, with various soundbites of some of the "psychic kids" describing how scared they are of the paranormal entities and phenomena they believe they experience. It's clear from the get go, front and centre that this show is specifically designed to exploit the fear and anxiety of the children involved to invoke catharsis from the audience. Of course, the audience is sat at home and can turn the TV off if they so chose, the "psychic kids" aren't so lucky.

After the credits, we meet the two girls who are our psychic kids for the episode, Hayley and Alexia and their mothers. Alexia is the main focus of the episode, as it is her old home in which she allegedly saw demons which the team will investigate later. The most striking thing about the segment isn't the girls themselves, who repeat the same paranormal stories we frequently hear, it is the mother's fear and distrust of mental health professionals and the whole scope of health professionals in general. 

"I can't take her to a psychiatrist... who is going to help her? An ear, nose and throat specialist?" 

Hayley's mother scoffs, as if those are the only two types of medical professionals that exist, and seemingly doesn't even consider that care workers and teachers could possibly help her child. Of course her mother never even tried a medical intervention, nor did Alexia's.

 This distrust and dismissal of the mental health industry and the general paranoia at how the outside world will deal with the kids "powers" is a common theme throughout the show, it's touched upon in every episode I've watched thus far. At one point Hayley's Mum states that if she takes Hayley to a doctor, the social services will "take her away". Hayley, displaying more common sense than anyone I saw during the three episodes states "No they won't mom." Her mother emphatically puts down this attempt at rationality.

The look of distress on Hayley's face when her mother says this is genuinely upsetting.

The other parents featured on the show express similar ideas and the general mistrust of the medical and social establishment. Likely this is encouraged to create the narrative that the heroic Coffey is the only one who can help these children, but it's an irresponsible and worrying idea promoted with perverse glee in the show. The most disgraceful thing about this permeating attitude of fear and paranoia is that the show features a trained, and well-qualified psychologist. Dr Lisa Miller (left in final image below) is Coffey's partner in crime on the show and is also a trained clinical psychologist from Columbia university. Later in the show when the mothers meet Miller they repeat their fears that their daughters will be taken away or heavily medicated if they seek professional help to her. And Miller, a qualified mental health professional, a PhD associated with a well-respected university, the director of clinical psychology no less, sits and fucking nods in agreement! One of the mothers actually suggests that her child would be given electric shock therapy, a treatment that is no longer employed anywhere in the treatment of mental health.... AND MILLER NODS!

At no stage does this doctor, this woman of science, correct the mothers about their misrepresentation of the profession in which she makes a living. I've screen capped the sequence above, is the look on Miller's face in the final image reflective of the dilemma she's faced with? She either allows the show's narrative to continue or she defends here profession from blatant and public misrepresentation. She has the opportunity here to publicly dismiss some of the stigmas that blight both mental health professionals and those that suffer from mental health issues. She chooses to allow the show's narrative of Coffey being the only person who can help these girls to continue. Now, you may be thinking that Miller could well have offered these parents legitimate help off screen, that's a possibility, but it doesn't help the audience, some of whom may share these misconceptions. Some may even have children dealing with these issues, or worse, and Miller's silence endorses the idea that they should avoid medical and social care.

Let me be clear here. Dr Lisa Miller Ph,d. You are, in my humble opinion, an absolute disgrace to your profession. Your silence during this scene is complicity. I sincerely hope your superiors at Columbia become aware of your inaction and what you helped promote on this show. You're shameful.

Miller also clearly indulges the fantasy of psychic abilities the girls have developed. At no point does she suggest any kind of testing of the girl's abilities. In the "Ghost of Freddie" episode she actually partipates in the calling forth of evil spirits!

She also thinks that placing the children in a stressful, potentially oppressive environment is a fine idea, and never issues any words of caution at all. This is all relayed in a conversation that is bizarrely filmed from in a bush and behind a tree, possibly in an attempt at creating an impression that this was filmed without Coffey and Miller's knowledge, which is clearly nonsense as they are obviously micced. So Miller thinks this experience would be helpful to the girls, is that her professional opinion? Is she prepared to stake her reputation on it? I doubt it. Probably why she insisted on being filmed from the shrubbery.

On to Coffey. One thing I notice is Chip seems to have a thinly veiled disdain for his charges in the show. His relationship with them is cold, he shows little warmth or affection towards them. As a side note, I find this is often the case with self-proclaimed psychics. Chip claims he is going to teach the girls methods to protect themselves but actually teaches them.... well nothing. All he seems to do is accept the paranormal claims they throw out and agree with them, never elaborating on what is offered and responding as monosyllabically as possible, often mumbling "Ahmm" as an answer. Never mind communicating with the dead, from what I see over the three episodes I watched, Coffey can barely communicate with the living!

The image above comes from a scene when Coffey takes Alexa to a dock near her home to "test her power" by detecting  spirit she has supposedly seen there. Everything she throws out Coffey simply confirms, it's quite laughable:

Alexa: It's gone cold....

Coffey: Freezing...

Alexa: I feel him in my stomach...

Coffey: I feel  it in my gut...

This is supposed to confirm Alexa's abilities, but that's only valid if we assume Coffey also has these abilities. There's no attempt at verification and the whole scene simply appears as a grown man indulging a child's fantasy.

Of course, Coffey's role is greater than that. When the children are placed in stressful and frightening situations Coffey amps up the anxiety by warning of things such as "negative entities". The general approach of the show is also driven towards the aim of ensuring the children involved are as scared as possible. As with most ghost-hunting TV shows all investigations are conducted in the dark with night vision cameras. This is despite most of the children clearly describing having experiences in broad daylight. The reason for this is clear, the participants in the show must be afraid, or the audience won't be afraid. This is the basic premise of catharsis, if these children aren't afraid, why would we, the audience feel the thrill of fear?

The third act of the three episodes I watched all revolved around one of the children involved "facing their fear". We're told this is necessary for the kids, but we're never actually told why it's necessary.  So it's the  third act when the kids are exposed to high pressure, tense and particularly scary environments. It's these sections that expose Psychic kids as pure exploitation. In "Demon House"  Alexa is being taken back to her old home where she believes she has encountered evil spirits to confront them again. This confrontation must, of course, be conducted at midnight and in the pitch black. She seems visibly shaken returning to the house, but repeats she has to do it for "reasons". I think that Alexa, despite her fear, enjoys the attention of being the focus of this narrative, Hayley less so.

At the house comes the only example I found of Chip disagreeing with one of his charges when Alexa suggests that a noise is just the wind. "No it wasn't!" he snaps in an admonishing tone. Coffey won't tolerate any attempt at rational thinking.

Alexa corrects her error by immediately "sensing" a laughing figure. Coffey reacts by shouting "whoa" at apparently nothing and the girls flee the house in terror. Chip remains in the house, looking around with the blank expression more befitting a ventriloquist's dummy than a man who has just terrified two teenage girls, while Hayley consoles a seemingly genuinely upset Alexa.

When Coffey finally comes out to console the girls, he does so by suggesting to these already scared and vulnerable children that what they encountered was a demon.

The kids agree this is a demon, and Chip drafts in two self-appointed experts, Linda Isbell who claims to have been a demonologist for 26 years and Beth Roberts who doesn't tell us how long she's been an expert in things that don't exist... sorry... a demonologist. Their role is to "cleanse" Alexa's old home. The episode goes out with a whimper rather than a bang, with the girls returning to the house with Chip and the crew. Alexa declares the demon cannot hurt her anymore and we're done.

Bizarrely, all three episodes end in this exact way. In the episode "Demon in the Mirror" Coffey acts out a role play in which one of the Psychic Kids is physically dragged in front of the titular mirror to banish a "demon lady". It's a weirdly uncomfortable scene and one that gives a very clear picture of Coffey. As he stands in front of the girls, arms crossed giving orders in militaristic tones, it's very clear he is enjoying the control he has over the situation immensely. He strikes me as a rather pathetic little man, probably the ideal choice for a show like this, who else would be so desperate for affirmation that they would have to seek it by exploiting potentially vulnerable children?

I hope I've demonstrated how exploitative this show actually was. It certainly wasn't just harmless paranormal fluff like other psychic and ghost hunting TV shows. As parents and Aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters we work tirelessly to protect our children from being placed in unnecessary stressful and frightening situations. Making a child who believes in demons go into a "haunted house" at midnight, one which holds horrible memories for them, be they false or otherwise, or physically forcing them to stare into a mirror in which they believe they have seen a "demon" is unspeakably cruel.

I'll leave you with this. The three children (below) featured in "Ghost of Freddie" episode are twelve, eleven and eight years old. At the end of the episode, Coffey sits in a room with them calling forth "evil spirits" with Dr Miller. These aren't adults. Not even teenagers. I don't ever want to see children subjected to such ideas and conditions for my amusement. Psychic Kids should not come back. it should have been commissioned, it's a blight on the careers of everyone involved. If you think that show was in any way acceptable, that it was justified in placing minors in a position in which they are so scared, then you need to have a serious think about the about the amount of suffering you think is acceptable for entertainment's sake.

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