By Ashley Burns
“My name is Melinda Gordon. I just got married, just moved into a small town, just opened up an antique shop. I might be just like you, except from the time that I was a little girl I knew that I could talk to the dead… earthbound spirits, my grandmother called them. In order for me to tell you my story, I have to tell you theirs.” -Melinda Gordon before every episode of the show Ghost Whisperer.
For 107 episodes, young newlywed and self-proclaimed clairvoyant Melinda Gordon, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, announced her otherworldly abilities to audiences in a conversational way. Broken up with scenes of the dead appearing out of nowhere and watching from afar, Gordon’s statement that her life has always been one that is intertwined with the spirits of the dead is spoken casually alongside mentions of the everyday. Owning a small business, small-town experience, and marriage are all things that everyone can relate to, or at least easily imagine. Regardless, there it hangs unabashedly in the air before the opening scene: the unnatural, unimaginable existence of the afterlife. This is what Ghost Whisperer is about.
Each episode, not including season openings and finales, follows roughly the same outline. A ghost is lost, confused, or angry, and somehow finds its way to Melinda Gordan. Piecing together vague clues about its life and death presented through disconcerting visions, Melinda is able to figure out why the ghost remains. Often, the concept of unfinished business is the root of the deceased’s problem, and always this business is connected to the living. After Melinda has convinced the loved ones left behind by the ghost that she is truly communicating with the dead, she delivers the ghost’s message and ushers the spirit into “the light.” Tears are shared, wounds begin to heal, and Melinda returns home to the day-to-day normalcy of a loving partner and a never-quite-renovated home.
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This is a story that we can understand; it is not, after all, a new element to the conversation of the afterlife. This, however, didn’t stop Ghost Whisperer from becoming incredibly popular, reaching its most successful season in 2009, with over 10 million viewers tuning into each episode of the fifth season. So, what about a story that has been told so many times before captivated so many people? Perhaps it is the same reason that the ghosts were so captivated by Melinda in the show: she makes the viewers feel important.
The idea of an afterlife often warrants two overarching beliefs: death either leads to an end or to. a continuation of existence, the latter often implying a “Heaven” as a reward for leading a kind and faithful life. While the show doesn’t invoke religious faith explicitly, Ghost Whisperer nevertheless suggests that not only is there an afterlife, but everyone is entitled to it. Furthermore, it is so warm, so inviting, and so perfect, that no soul would ever think of passing it by. Oh wait, they do. Why? For us of course.
Imagine being so important, so unequivocally intertwined with someone’s existence that this connection holds you back from eternal happiness. Or, imagine loving someone so much that it makes you second guess moving on to that eternal happiness. In this sense, Ghost Whisperer is more about how the existence of ghosts changes the meaning of existence for the living, rather than about whether there is an afterlife in the first place.
Consequently, many viewers’ conceptions about the importance of connectivity to loved ones even despite the barrier of death were strengthened even outside of simply watching the show for entertainment. Executive Producer of the show, James Van Praagh, who also happens to refer to himself as a clairvoyant and medium, saw an increase in attendance of his lectures after the airing of the first season. In referring to the popularity of the show and the increase in curiosity concerning the afterlife, Praagh said, “I think especially in a time of war people question beliefs, and I don’t think people are going to religions as much for answers. They are going within and being responsible for their own lives and their own quest for understanding.” (“Renewed”). In other words, interest in communication with ghosts is more often than not ignited by self-interest than a question of whether or not ghosts actually exist.
This attitude appears throughout the show in the sense that not only are the living characters always eventually convinced that their dead friends and family members have stayed behind because of them, but also the fact that it doesn’t take that much convincing at all. Keeping in mind that there is already a lot of unpacking and convincing packed into a 40-minute episode (loved ones are almost always somewhat skeptical of Melinda at first), it also doesn’t seem like a stretch for viewers to buy into what Melinda is selling. The characters seem primed to believe that someone they lost needed to come back to them. It comes as a relief, perhaps, to hear that they were not so easy to leave behind. Again, the show is not about the dead but how the dead increase the importance of the living. Even Melinda asserts in the pilot episode that she is not in the business of dying, but of living, and that “Death is just a part of it.”
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So, what happens when all is resolved, when Melinda Gordan has played therapist to the living and the dead and it is time to say the last, last goodbye? “The light” of course—that promised afterlife teased at the beginning of each episode. A fitting way to end, the light epitomizes what the show stands for. It comes to no surprise to viewers that the show’s “light” is not constructed of pearly gates and streets of gold but filled to the brim with other lost loved ones of the newly deceased, welcoming the now-satisfied ghost and reassuring the living. What else could everlasting peace and happiness be without the people important to us? As is seen by the pretty glistening tear down Melinda’s cheek and her smile as she turns away, Ghost Whisperer refuses to follow the narrative of terrifying specters, long-lasting purgatories, or atheist solitude. In this show, ghosts are about love and community, and how we make such an impression on the lives of others that it ripples into the afterlife. That, and, of course, long, dramatic nightgowns.
“Renewed ‘Ghost Whisperer’ Has Many Themes.” TODAY.com, The Associated Press, 3 Apr. 2006, www.today.com/popculture/renewed-ghost-whisperer-has-many-themes-wbna12138079.