A downside of “seeing yourself” on television is that you have to see what happens when TV gets it wrong.
We usually talk about this in regard to specific personal attributes like race, gender, or religion. But it’s also a source of conversation for professions.
Journalists have frequently used the power of the press to lament the way our profession is portrayed—especially when it comes to female reporters.
But it can be frustrating when the very idea of your profession is rooted in the unknown.
From comedies like CBS’ Ghosts and ABC’s Not Dead Yet to dramas like Freeform’s The Watchful Eye, Starz’s Shining Vale, and CBS’s Ghost Whisperer, scripted TV loves shows about women who talk to ghosts. In the unscripted space, it’s become a joke that Travel Channel’s programming has gone from investigating regional food specialties to investigating the paranormal.
It’s also all programming that Cleveland, Ohio-based author and paranormal investigator Mary Ann Winkowski largely tries to ignore. If she does watch them, she said, “the only thing I want to do is take my water bottle and throw it through my own TV.”
Winkowski, who was the consultant on the long-running Jennifer Love Hewitt drama Ghost Whisperer, went to her first funeral at age four. Now going on 75, she said she has seen and heard every story—both from the living and not-so-much. (One of the most brassy and entertaining subjects I’ve ever interviewed, she also doesn’t care if you believe her, and warned me that “there are going to be so many people that are going to be angry at you, because they believe that [what’s depicted on TV or movies] is all true.” Since I cannot see ghosts, and have certainly not made a profession out of being able—or at least claiming to be able—to do so, I have little choice but to take her at her word on this).
She disputed arguments that ghosts are confined to specific parameters or that you can walk through them, but does say that ghosts feed off of living humans’ energy and therefore wouldn’t hang out in an empty house (The 1979 movie The Amityville Horror and its famous scene of flies attacking from an attic has caused her years of grief).
Nor does she think that dying makes one angry or extra prone to malice.
“Ghosts that do not go into light [and] that are earthbound—which are the ones that I see—have identically the same personalities they had when they were alive,” she said in a tone that suggested this is not the first time someone has asked her this question. “If they were a nice, sweet old lady when they were alive, they’re going to be a nice, sweet old lady ghost. If they were a pervert when they were alive, they’re going to be a pervert when they’re dead and oh-my-God, how easy is it now because they’re invisible.”
As to the scripts’ premise that women are more likely to have this gift?
Winkowski said that this isn’t a hard rule. But generally speaking, she said, “women do seem to be a little bit more tuned into it than men.”
Or, at least, they’re more willing to talk about it.
“From my personal experience of meeting people who believe they have abilities—of all genders —women tend to be very open about it and men are very shy about admitting that they have those types of things happen to them,” said Katrina Weidman, a paranormal investigator and, with Jack Osbourne, the host of the Travel Channel reality series Portals to Hell.
Weidman added that “in my conversations with them, it was very much centered around the parameters we put around gender in general.”
“The women I’ve met who believe that they have these abilities, it wasn’t necessarily something that they were told not to explore, although maybe not necessarily encouraged,” she said, noting the acceptance of the term “women’s intuition” or scientific studies that show why women are more likely to believe in magic or the supernatural.
Women have also, historically, been called out for these abilities and have been punished accordingly.
They’ve also been discredited or trivialized. Weidman cites the 1848 story of Maggie and Katie Fox, who claimed to have connected with spirits but who later admitted to fabricating it all. She compares this with illusionist Harry Houdini, who campaigned so hard against spiritualism that he lobbied Congress to outlaw fortune telling in D.C. Weidman said these stories give the message that women lie and can’t be trusted and men are so smart that they figure it out.
With men, she said, “it was pretty much drilled out of them that men don’t do that… it’s too girly; it’s too emotional.”
This can be used to the advantage of those seeking eyeballs and advertising dollars.
Television has always been considered more of a “women’s” medium because it happens inside the home, so it makes sense that series would want to have relatable female leads. And Weidman said that ratings breakdowns for her shows, which have also included the long-running A&E series Paranormal State, suggest a stronger female audience.
Several of these scripted shows—Ghosts, Not Dead Yet and Shining Vale—are also about women who are writers. Neither Weidman nor Winkowski have seen a pattern where people with this, or any other artistic mindset, are more susceptible to having the ability to commune with spirits. Maybe it just makes for a better story.
Winkowski said that, during the filming of Ghost Whisper, she’d regularly get calls from star Hewitt to warn her of storylines or events that differed from her own experiences with ghosts. She’d call creator John Gray to object and said he would tell her “this is not a ghost documentary every Friday night. This is entertainment. Only Ohio knows that most of this is not true. The rest of the world thinks this is true.”
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and daughter.
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