Red Lights
Reviewed by Jan 13th, 2013

I’m always apprehensive about these movies with a hardcore skeptic as a main character, because you just know that their story arc will involve some radical change in the end. I have mixed feelings about certain things, because on the one hand, it’s fiction and anything goes. On the other hand, in the real world, I feel like such things encourage believers in woo to think skepticism is a bad thing. And indeed, this does sort of have the message that skepticism always means “debunking.” It doesn’t. It means using your critical thinking skills to evaluate whether or not a claim is true, rather than just taking someone’s word or believing what you want to be true. It means being open to natural explanations rather than assuming supernatural, in the case of things like ghosts and possession. But I’m digressing as usual.

We learn that Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), who spends her time debunking faith healers and other supernatural claims, has a son who has something wrong with him and is in a coma. He’s apparently been that way since he was a very young boy. This is an important plot point because it’s the reason that Margaret doesn’t want to investigate Simon (Robert de Niro). And the scene in which she explains this starts off well. You know that she’s emotional about something that has to do with Simon. She tells how he claimed to see a dead boy behind her, telling him to let him go, referring to the son, though he wasn’t actually dead. And this is where I got angry at the language used in the scene. Simon is known for his psychic powers and spoon bending skills, so of course he is a master of manipulation and theatrics. He appears to be based on faith healers and similar such as Peter Popoff. And he does the same thing to Margaret that he’s done to countless others before: he uses all sorts of tricks and manipulation to make it look like he has these powers. Margaret is aware of all this, but then, at the end of this scene, she talks about a moment of weakness where she thought it might be true. Except she doesn’t say it like that. She says, “He made me doubt.” No. She had a healthy sense of doubt before. He manipulated her emotionally to make her believe, not doubt. He made her stop doubting. This upset me because I didn’t have any problems with the things she was saying up until that point. But then, I’m getting off track again. I’m not really talking about the movie.

I digress as usual, again: Sometimes people have asked me if I find scary movies scary, if I’m scared of anything, etc., because I don’t believe in devils or the bogeyman. It’s true that I wouldn’t have any trouble spending a night in a “haunted” house or walking through a graveyard at night. This has come up a lot with people when discussing The Exorcist. I’ve talked to religious folks who find it terrifying, because what if that happened to them or someone they knew? My dad went to see it when it originally came out in theaters, and told me about people thinking it was too scary and walking out of the theater. I found the movie disturbing, not because I’m afraid of demons, but because I thought the “scary” thing about the movie was that it involved terrible things happening to a child. The audience then sympathizes with the mother, who feels helpless and unable to protect her, and so on. Also: suspension of disbelief. That’s how fiction works.

Anyway, what scares me is Charles Bonnet syndrome. There is a fucking great TED talk with Oliver Sacks about this. I can’t look at Oliver Sacks without seeing Robin Williams, which is unfortunate, but that’s neither here nor there. My own vision degeneration is due to corticosteroids, not old age, but I do worry about these things happening if it gets worse. The idea is that, lacking the usual visual stimulation, the mind makes up shit and perfectly sane people get crazy hallucinations of patterns and distorted faces. There is a photoshop of what this might look like here. Listening to Oliver Sacks talk about it, all I could think of was Gary Busey. I am terrified that one day, I will lose my sight and start hallucinating floating, distorted Gary Busey heads. Imagine just sitting on the couch and seeing that appear in front of you. I’d shit my pants, even knowing it was a hallucination. Of course, people who belief in ghosts might actually think Gary Busey has been beheaded and is now haunting them, and/or that it was some kind of demonic occurrence. This digression is relevant because people see what they are looking for, or make it fit their understanding of things. A dude levitates, and a skeptic looks for wires, while a nonskeptic thinks to himself, “Holy shit! Dude is magical!” And that’s the problem: same event, opposite interpretation.

I don’t mention that just because I wanted to make a bad photoshop of Gary Busey; but also to mention the fact that we can’t trust our senses all the time. That’s the problem with ghost-believers: if someone wants to believe in ghosts, they will throw away their critical thinking skills and use just about anything as evidence to support their claim that ghosts exist. The same people might take LSD and see the walls breathing, but they’ll chalk that up to drugs and they’ll readily admit you can’t always trust your senses. Apparently, not all sensory and cognitive errors are created equal. This is especially true with faith healers and people who want to talk to dead people. They throw all common sense out the window so it doesn’t get in the way of believing what they want to believe. You’ll notice that “mediums” usually say very comforting things to people. They say exactly what people want to hear, or they wouldn’t stay in business long. “Oh, I’m seeing an older gentlemen. It’s your father. He’s burning in hell and says you’re a stupid whore.” They never say that. And if they did, more people would be skeptical of them. And that ties into the point made by Sigourney Weaver’s character when talking about being on a show with Simon Silver. She wanted so badly to hear some communication from her comatose son that, even though she was a professional skeptic, even she fell victim to woo for a moment. The exact same mechanisms are involved in religious experiences and near death experiences. An atheist and a paranormal-believer made experience the exact same feeling or event, but they may arrive at radically different conclusion. One sees a bright light and thinks their brain was messed up from blood loss or overdose or something; the other sees a bright light and decides this is somehow proof of an afterlife. People often see what they want to see, or interpret it to fit what they want to believe. And that’s why the newspapers print horoscopes, there are psychic hotlines, and people actually charge money to cleanse your house of ghosts.

Another point that I’ve sort of made already that applies to movie is extreme emotional states. Tom (Cillian Murphy), who works closely with Margaret, starts having weird experiences. Midway through the film, something bad happens and he’s upset about it. This causes him to lose his cool a bit. He becomes angry, obsessed, and a bit paranoid. This makes him more and more upset about that weird stuff that is happening (sort of related to the way mediums prey upon the emotionally vulnerable by telling them comforting things about dead loved ones).

Simon Silver then says he’ll agree to be tested by the university “scientific paranormal research” staff (hilariously, they get more funding than Margaret ever did). This becomes a big media event. Tom is certain it’s because he’s cheating somehow, and using it all for publicity. Because of the subject matter, I have trouble fighting off the digressions here. One thing I did appreciate was when Simon is talking about how the ancient Greeks thought man was inherently rational. Simon disagreed with this idea. So do I. And maybe I’m not digressing, maybe the movie does make some good points about the nature of belief and most people’s tendency to believe, especially when it comes to believing what they want to believe. I appreciated this, because I mainly use the internet to get into arguments with strangers about unsupportable beliefs.

Anyway, of course things escalate and there is a big showdown. Then there is a big reveal. First, I laughed, then I got pissed off. Then I laughed a bit more. I’m not really sure how to take that. I was expecting a more straightforward ending telling us that Simon was for real, or the paranormal research guy to say it’s inconclusive. It’s an interesting movie focusing on skepticism and woo. I’m not really sure how satisfying the ending is, but at least it wasn’t totally predictable, and it makes pretty good use of the running time before that part.

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