One of the fun things about writing for Discovery News was that my editors were great and I could sometimes sneak in a touch of satire. I recently revisited an article I wrote on the Bloody Mary legend and was pleased to see that my disclaimer is still there.
Extra Ordinary, a gloriously amusing Irish romantic comedy about the supernatural, begins with the obligatory, winking tagline “Based on a true story.” The ghost hunting genre is both ripe for satire and difficult to satirize effectively because it’s so self-evidently silly. From Ghostbusters to the Wayans brothers’ A Haunted House (2013) to the Scary Movie franchise and Repossessed (1990), there’s no shortage of funny paranormal-themed fare.
Nevertheless Extra Ordinarymanages to mine fresh material with a clever script and endearing actors. Maeve Higgins stars as retired-ghost-hunter-turned-driving instructor Rose Dooley, who is contacted by a man named Martin Martin (Barry Ward). He hires her to teach him how to drive but soon confesses that the help he seeks is metaphysical. It seems that the spirit of Martin’s deceased wife Bonnie still haunts their family home—and not in a quaint way (such as mysteriously appearing “pennies from Heaven” or faint nostalgic whiffs of her favorite perfume), but in an annoying way, such as bitchy criticisms written on toast or a fogged bathroom mirror. Martin and his teenager daughter are at their wits’ end and need help.
Rose, however, will have none of it. She abruptly quit the ghost guiding business (“ghost hunting” wouldn’t really describe her vocation) years ago as a teen after the death of her father Vincent in a cursed road pothole—for which she understandably blames herself. Still, sensing Martin’s desperation she faces her fears and agrees to help. The grudgingly-unretired veteran is a tired trope (I can still hear Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven growl, “I ain’t like that no more”) but Higgins pulls it off.
Rounding out the lot of bizarro characters is Christian Winter (Will Forte), a musician-turned-occult devotee who had a single hit decades ago and has decided to stage a comeback—with the help of black magic requiring a virgin sacrifice. He and his grating wife Claudia live in an old castle—because of course they do—and soon the pair’s quest for a suitable sacrifice crosses paths with Rose and Martin’s quest to exorcise his home.
As a ghost folklore researcher I happen to run in some of these circles, and yes, many of the characterizations are spot-on. There’s the painfully earnest, self-proclaimed ghost/occult expert who confidently bloviates about types of ghosts, their “rules,” motivations and so on—while unwilling to admit that it’s all opinion and speculation. Vincent, seen in flashbacks via his cheesy videotaped series “Investigating the Extraordinary,” may have been modeled after 1970s and 1980s-era ghost experts such as Hans Holzer, John Zaffis, and Ed Warren, all of whom found far more success in self-promotion than collecting evidence of ghosts.
Framed in part as a cheesily “informative” series of VHS tapes on ghosts, Vincent drops nuggets of learned wisdom such as, “Do you ever have nightmares after eating cheese? You might have eaten a ghost. Even the weakest ghost can possess cheese easily, due to the living bacteria in the cheese.” The line is played for laughs, but it’s only a few shades from the truth. Many people believe, for example, that ghosts can be contained in rocks and trees—that a sort of residual haunting energy is recorded, stored, and then released, triggering ghost reports. Depending on which “ghost rules” you subscribe to, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that ghosts inhabit sliced cheese. Just as one person’s faith is another’s superstition, one person’s demonic shadow person is another’s blurry dark figure in the background of a photo.
The fact that Rose abandoned her psychic ghost communication career for a driving school instructor is par for the course. Ghost hunting is not a lucrative career—those who get rich tend to be de facto actors on “reality TV” shows such as Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures, not anyone doing real investigation or research. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for ghost hunters to have perfectly mundane day jobs as cashiers or accountants, and only go ghost hunting on weekends or special occasions.
Extra Ordinary also offers insight into the psychology of ghost experiences; just as psychic mediums and “sensitive” people do in real life, Rose sees signs (or “signs”) that ghosts are acknowledging her as she goes about her daily routine. Tree branches swaying in wind are waving at her as she passes, for example, and lids on rubbish bins open and close to greet her. Seen through her—that is, a “believer”—lens, for lack of a better term, it’s all quite ordinary. They see intent and meaning behind otherwise ordinary and random events. Martin also sees them, of course, but in his case they’re unmistakably paranormal and not ambiguous phenomena.
Amid this supernatural silliness there’s genuine chemistry between Rose and Martin; they’re both charming people rediscovering the magic of romance in middle age, and Rose is uniquely qualified to help Martin with his “ex-wife-orcism.” Extra Ordinary has fun with the tropes of the genre, absurdly mixing the magical with the mundane (such as when Claudia’s loud lunch munching distracts from Christian’s otherwise super-important ritual); this is a vein mined effectively by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which high school halls hide both vampires and their predators.
There’s sight gags aplenty, including an unfortunately exploding goat in a ritual called “the gloating.” Ghosts get a little repetitive after a while so there’s also investigations into a handful of miracles, including a weeping deer head trophy. One running joke is that Rose seems to have never heard of the films being parodies; somehow The Exorcist and Ghostbusters never made it to the local video rental stores. The genre has not been played out, and Extra Ordinary is a low-key comedy with winning performances all around.
You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Two teams of paranormal investigators. Both have high TV ratings and several (mostly inferior) spin-offs. But which one is the real deal?
On one team you have a beatnik stoner (“Shaggy” Rogers) and his friends Fred Jones, Daphne Blake, and Velma Dinkley, along with Scooby Doo, a Great Dane with a weakness for snacks. This is an animated television series with fictional detectives investigating monsters and ghosts in absurd situations.
On the other side you have two guys, Grant Wilson and Jason Hawes, who seem to think they see better in the dark and enjoy using gadgets that blink and beep to look for spirits. This is a “reality” television series with fictional detectives investigating monsters and ghosts in absurd situations.
My buddy Ian Harris has a new blog about chemtrails:
I was driving on the freeway in Los Angeles, and the car in front of me had a bumper sticker on it that said “Chemtrails Kill.” Now, I love to laugh at the chemtrail people anyway, but this one had me almost pulling over to catch a breath, because the vehicle was not actually a car but a giant, Suburban-type SUV. The irony of this one is just way too thick to ignore. You are driving around in an eighteen-passenger, four-gallon-to-the-mile, urban assault vehicle on a road with a million other cars, worried about condensation happening at thirty-five thousand feet! Watch out: water vapor at one part per zillion is falling all around us! And let’s not pretend that “Chemtrails” are anything but that—water vapor accurately known as contrails. Contrails have existed since the invention of the jet engine. We know definitively what causes them. There is less secret involved here than why your windshield has that “mysterious” water on it every morning. We know more about the formation of contrails than we do about where that one sock goes when we do the laundry. The science behind contrails is more understood than the science behind what makes those One Direction kids so damn adorable.
You can read the rest HERE.
You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.
Ian Harris is a Los Angeles based comic who has performed at the Center For Inquiry-Los Angeles and at CSI conferences. Blending comedy and skepticism is nothing new–it’s been done on The Simpsons, South Park, and in Penn & Teller acts and TV shows for years–but a standup comic doing explicitly skeptical material on a regular basis as part of his act is unusual. Amid his busy schedule of touring, conference calls with Daily Showproducers, training UFC fighters, and auditioning for a dwarf sidekick, Harris agreed to answer some questions in a March interview.
You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.
L.A. based comic Ian Harris has a show premiering August 12, full of critical thought and hilarity.
Here’s what Ian wrote: “Please folks note, that you have at least 2 whole months to watch this at your own leisure, from the comfort of you own house, iPad, laptop, xbox, phone, whatever. You don’t need to subscribe to a newsletter, or join a cult, or come to my house, or have your asshole uncle Bob over to watch, or buy drinks, or change your sexual orientation or anything. All you need to do is go to your TV or iTunes or AmazonInstant or GooglePlay and find this show (It is easy as it has my name in it) then hit “order” and 71 hilarious and hopefully thought-provoking minutes later you will have made both of us incredibly happy!”
My Discovery News piece about World Cup-predicting animals, in which I quote Ricky Jay, discuss polyglot pigeons, alectryomancy, and the possibility that Paul the Psychic Octopus was involved in organized crime… You can read it HERE.
My funny and brilliant comedian friend Ian Harris has a show coming up on Aug. 12 on PPV and VOD. I saw two shows of his, and if you like critical thinking and comedy in one package, you’ll enjoy it! For more info follow Ian on Twitter at Ian Harris (@comediocre).