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Surviving Death is an investigation into the existence of life after death, and like Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters, The Dead Files and the rest of the paranormal TV pack, its evidence is of a pseudo-scientific, anecdotal, and/or outright fanciful sort. Over the course of its six episodes, Ricki Stern’s non-fiction inquiry (premiering Jan. 6 on Netflix) looks into the possibility that we may carry on—in one form or another—after our physical bodies expire. And if you believe that verifiable proof of ghosts, the spirit world, and reincarnation is found in a random episode of a Netflix docuseries, then do I have some prime Florida swampland to discuss with you.
Based on Leslie Kean’s 2017 book of the same name—and frequently featuring Kean herself as a guide to some of the unconvincing mediums highlighted throughout—Surviving Death begins by tackling the issue of Near-Death Experiences (NDE) via the story of orthopedic surgeon Mary Neal, who on a 1999 kayaking trip in Chile wound up pinned underwater without oxygen for 30 minutes. During this ordeal, she felt her spirit peel away from her body and travel up to a brilliantly colorful, flowery “heaven” where time and space shifted, and strange beings both embraced her and informed her that her son would die in the near future. Somehow, Neal survived this accident. And since her son did eventually pass away (albeit two years later than she’d been told he would), and many other people convey comparable near-death experiences—defined by “warm hug” light and visits from departed loved ones—we’re led to believe that the afterlife is real.
That individuals testify to having analogous NDEs is similar to the fact that elderly hospice patients often state that they see, and speak to, their deceased relatives. Alas, Surviving Death ignores any non-supernatural explanation for these phenomena—say, that cultural programming inspires like-minded deathbed visions, or that aged men and women whose minds are deteriorating, and who’ve lost everyone they cherish, might naturally retreat into comforting family-reunion fantasies. To the series, anyone who doesn’t accept these spiritual concepts and experiences is a “skeptic” driven by “hubris and arrogance.” It assumes a perspective in which the veracity of its claims is the norm, and those who view them with suspicion are close-minded cynics.
“There are things that science can’t test. But it doesn’t mean they don’t happen,” asserts medium-loving Mike Anthony, who at one point joins a séance via FaceTime (who knew that worked?). Yet just because science can’t explain something doesn’t mean that the answer is automatically supernatural—a notion that goes unaddressed by Surviving Death. A couple of people do express uncertainty about the reliability of mediums and supposed signs from the afterlife (i.e. that a butterfly or hummingbird is their dad). And in doing so, they provide a bit of counterbalancing argumentation. Even then, though, their sentiments are largely disingenuous, since they turn out to be true believers whose doubt was voiced so it could eventually be dispelled.
Everyone spotlighted by Surviving Death agrees that grief is at the root of people’s desire to believe in the afterlife, and to make contact with the great beyond. Faced with the loss of treasured children, siblings, parents or spouses, many seek solace in the idea that the deceased aren’t really gone, and can in fact communicate from some otherworldly realm. Clinging to the existence of the afterlife, ghosts, or reincarnation is a comforting balm for a wounded soul. Yet despite that obvious emotional/psychological explanation, the show indulges in incessant specters-could-be-real nonsense in which the living commune with the dead, all of whom, conveniently enough, follow the exact same procedure in touching base: make a few oblique comments to prove their identity, and then let their relatives know that they love them and that they’re totally OK in the hereafter. In every instance, it’s affirmation-by-numbers.
Where are the bitter, angry ghosts who want to vent to those they left behind? More pressing still, where are the spirits who, rather than telling their relatives pat sentiments about love and forgiveness, are eager to report back about what life after death is really like? Despite focusing on NDEs, mediums, and reincarnation, Surviving Death boasts an extremely limited view of the afterlife—one in which all ghosts communicate in the same indirect-clue fashion, and have the same unrevealing things to say. There’s much talk about consciousness and spirits’ “energy” without ever properly defining those concepts. And there’s also one woman’s extended tall tale about foreseeing her death at the moment of her child’s birth (which almost took place; she was briefly in a medically-induced coma) without any confrontation of what it would mean for the future to be discernible—namely, that our paths are irreversibly set in stone, and thus that we have no free will, and that a higher power with a divine plan governs everything and everyone.
It will stun no one to learn that Surviving Death teases the sight of a physical medium manifesting ectoplasm, only to reveal that such ghostly substances are averse to light (meaning no cameras allowed!). Or that in late passages about children who claim to be reincarnated souls, the show doesn’t cast a single sideways glance at the adults and kids making these assertions. Director Stern embellishes her action with spooky old photographs and expressionistic interludes—smeary faces behind glass, radiant sequences of blooming light and color—that visualize her interviewees’ accounts about the other side. Such cheesy aesthetics are in tune with the tone of this material, which is all-believing, all-the-time, but they do little to persuade one of this affair’s numerous outlandish contentions.
In the end, Surviving Death assumes a traditional Netflix-docuseries form as a way of lending legitimacy to ideas that, per its own episodes, are scientifically unproven but supposedly true because a ghost-hunting concierge (who hears “Aaron Burr” in the sound of running water in a haunted hotel sink) and a couple of “psychical research” professors say they are—or, rather, could be, maybe, if you view things from a very particular angle. The world is inarguably full of wonders and mysteries that defy easy explanation. Stern’s docuseries, however, doesn’t resolve our questions about the afterlife—it merely suggests that, in the absence of logical proof, certainty about the great beyond becomes a matter of faith.