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Author Topic: Misrepresenting believers: Houdini and Doyle
Javert
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So I'm currently writing a play about Houdini. It particularly covers the end of his career when he spent his time debunking spiritualists and medium and formed a friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

It was a very strange friendship, given the fact that Houdini was a spiritualism skeptic and Doyle considered spiritualism his religion. And that is where I hope to find the heat of my play.

That being said, I do not want to misrepresent Doyle or believers. Nothing is more infuriating than watching a movie and seeing the skeptical character doing things decidedly non-skeptical because the plot demands it.

While I am clearly on the side of Houdini, I don't want to be unfair to Doyle.

So, to all the supernatural believers out there, is there anything in particular that bothers you with how believers are presented in fiction? I want to avoid that as much as I can and the plot allows.

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BlackBlade
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As you can imagine it bugs me when media portrays the believer as a frantic, judgmental, stupid, antagonist. One of the most interesting (IMHO)depictions of a spiritualist was in the movie Poltergeist, followed closely by Ghost.

They were spiritualists because hey, they were doing things, and they were having the intended effect. One of the most powerful motivators for believing in the supernatural is some sort of occurrence that defies our ability to explain with our normal set of explanations. Those stories where the teller always prefaces it with, "I don't believe in all the spiritual mumbo jumbo, but...." and you know you are about to hear something good, because if it wasn't they would have figured out some way of explaining it and therefore resolved it.

Houdini in large part started savaging spiritualists because he himself went to one and immediately realized they were taking advantage of people's longing to see their lost loved ones, and converting it into a sort of desperation that left them unguarded against their fraudulent mediums.

For Doyle, as you probably know, he was dealing with so much death, and desperately wanted to believe that death was not a cold clean permanent break from those people. Houdini was dealing with his mother's death, and while part of him must have accepted the possibility of communication with the dead, he was only interested in attempts that could survive his scrutiny. I find it very interesting he gave his wife a code phrase, should he ever be successfully conjured after his death. It's equally interesting that Doyle's explanation for all of Houdini's spiritualism debunking was that he himself was a powerful medium, capable of completely suppressing the abilities of others.

I guess in short, the best characters who believe in the supernatural either believe because they've had some pretty incredible experiences, or are desperate to believe because the alternative hurts too much.

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Javert
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quote:
Originally posted by BlackBlade:
or are desperate to believe because the alternative hurts too much.

And that wouldn't come across as condescending, suggesting that the believer believes because of his emotions? Because that is sort of what I've been leaning towards.
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BlackBlade
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quote:
Originally posted by Javert:
quote:
Originally posted by BlackBlade:
or are desperate to believe because the alternative hurts too much.

And that wouldn't come across as condescending, suggesting that the believer believes because of his emotions? Because that is sort of what I've been leaning towards.
Depends on why the belief hurts too much. It's the classical problem where you can't prove a negative. Doyle lived in a time where there was a mountain of discussion in the affirmative that the dead can come back in some way. There just wasn't nearly as much contrary evidence. A world where we hadn't been to every country, or civilization, who could tell what secrets they possessed? Yet every single civilization has some sort of doctrine on death and the soul, so perhaps there really was a unifying principle, some lost knowledge out there. Remember the central tenet of Christianity is that Jesus defeated death. So we have the general belief in the afterlife in his Christian upbringing, coupled with the spiritualism that claimed to adopt principles from the places we haven't been to yet, and you have very fertile soil for belief in spiritualism.

That is opposed by Houdini, who doesn't necessarily disregard spirit completely, but he is definitely of the opinion that 99.9% of the spiritualists are frauds, and he brings a sort of clarity to the whole situation. If nothing else, the questions stops being "Which spiritualist is the most able" to "Is there a real spiritualist anywhere?" But his proposition is still a painful one, he keeps shutting down and getting arrested every single person who may provide a way for Doyle to reconnect with his family. A sort of modern day Saul of Tarsus, who never becomes Paul. Those people don't bring any hope, and so it's hard to believe in the things they believe in.

Sorry, I'm being so long-winded, I too find that story fascinating. In short, not just emotions, perhaps. Maybe Doyle actually had experiences that defied explanation (though the audience is given the explanation which we understand but Doyle can't for whatever reason). The experience doesn't prove the existence of an afterlife for anybody else, but they make it virtually impossible for him to just ignore.

I don't know if you've read Xenocide, but (spoilers)


The way Card entraps Han Qing-Jao and Han Fei-Tzu into a web of belief was such an interesting exercise. Han Fei of course is able to free himself in the face of scientific belief, but Han Qing sees the same evidence as proof of her own beliefs. Much like Doyle sees Houdini's extraordinary powers of perception as a spiritual gift.

/Spoilers


If a believer refuses to accept new evidence because it's painful, then the things they refuse to give up (edit:may) be extremely important for some reason. I remember once being made aware that a man I greatly admire had some dark secrets. I was very close with the man's son, who did not know the things I did. After his father passed on I asked him once, as I didn't want to be burdened by the knowledge I had, "If there was something secret about your father that painted him in an unpleasant light, would you want to know it, or would you prefer to remain in ignorance." He indicated he would prefer to remain in ignorance.

I found that so surprising, and yet the man was already dead, he didn't feel like he would benefit from knowing what I knew. He much preferred to keep his dad as a great role model, that inspired him to rise above his own mediocrity. To give him the truth would be to possibly damage irreparably that tool. Would it be better that he know the truth, and find a new source of inspiration? I don't know, it drives me nuts I can't answer that.

[ November 03, 2011, 06:47 PM: Message edited by: BlackBlade ]

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Shawshank
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I only recently found out that these two men were friends/rivals. It's a fascinating little story.

BB: Didn't you mean Quing-Jao rather than Wang-Mu?

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BlackBlade
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Yes. I'll fix it. It pains me to spell their names the way I see them spelled in the book or online. [Razz]
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T:man
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Ew, do they spell Quing-Jao?
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BlackBlade
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Romanized, it should be, Han Qing-Zhao, and Han Fei-Zu.
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kmbboots
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quote:
Originally posted by BlackBlade:

I guess in short, the best characters who believe in the supernatural either believe because they've had some pretty incredible experiences, or are desperate to believe because the alternative hurts too much.

This is puzzling to me from a religious person. I believe in what some would call supernatural for neither of those reason.
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BlackBlade
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quote:
Originally posted by kmbboots:
quote:
Originally posted by BlackBlade:

I guess in short, the best characters who believe in the supernatural either believe because they've had some pretty incredible experiences, or are desperate to believe because the alternative hurts too much.

This is puzzling to me from a religious person. I believe in what some would call supernatural for neither of those reason.
OK, Ms. Puzzled Boots. Why do you believe in the supernatural? In the interest of full disclosure I believe in supernatural forces as well.
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kmbboots
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I believe for many reasons but I have never had what many would describe as a supernatural or miraculous experience* nor any particular emotional experience that would cause me to cling to belief for fear of loss. I believe mostly because it makes sense for me.

Have you had unexplained supernatural experiences or are you clinging to belief for emotional reasons?

*Any more so than the ordinary experience of life are miraculous.

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Mucus
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Maybe you're just both not part of "the best characters" who believe in the supernatural [Wink]
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Scott R
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quote:
But his proposition is still a painful one, he keeps shutting down and getting arrested every single person who may provide a way for Doyle to reconnect with his family. A sort of modern day Saul of Tarsus, who never becomes Paul.
Golly. This is a brilliant idea for a story.
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BlackBlade
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Kate: Perhaps. I once I had a conversation with KOM where it all boiled down to, I could not prove the experience I had was really God showing his love for me, and not an evil deity trying to trick me. So concluded that if both outcomes are equally likely, then I'll go with the one that makes me happy.
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Javert
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quote:
Originally posted by Scott R:
quote:
But his proposition is still a painful one, he keeps shutting down and getting arrested every single person who may provide a way for Doyle to reconnect with his family. A sort of modern day Saul of Tarsus, who never becomes Paul.
Golly. This is a brilliant idea for a story.
It's a play...but yes. Yes it is. [Big Grin]
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Javert
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quote:
Originally posted by kmbboots:
This is puzzling to me from a religious person. I believe in what some would call supernatural for neither of those reason.

Perhaps. But the reasons you believe might not be as thematically interesting.
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Scott R
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:absconds with the details:
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BlackBlade
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Stop that man!
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kmbboots
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quote:
Originally posted by BlackBlade:
Kate: Perhaps. I once I had a conversation with KOM where it all boiled down to, I could not prove the experience I had was really God showing his love for me, and not an evil deity trying to trick me. So concluded that if both outcomes are equally likely, then I'll go with the one that makes me happy.

Right. That was why I was puzzled at your explanation of the reasons people believe in the supernatural. it doesn't seem to fit with what you have said about your own beliefs.
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Xavier
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quote:
I could not prove the experience I had was really God showing his love for me, and not an evil deity trying to trick me.
While not knowing anything about your experience, I feel confident in assuring you that these are not the only two explanations. Have you perhaps mentioned your experience to a psychologist?

Edit: Though I know you aren't interested in the secular explanation. I just couldn't resist when it was presented as a dichotomy where both explanations involved a deity.

[ November 04, 2011, 03:36 PM: Message edited by: Xavier ]

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BlackBlade
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kmbboots: As some people noted I was talking about the best characters. I wouldn't find it very interesting if the believer say actually spoke with God, and that's why he/she believes. At that point it's hard to make their belief in God interesting, you might look for things that make that make them doubt God, but I doubt you could really tell much of a story about belief at that point.

But my conversation with KOM is still in a similar vein, as what I outlined. I in part choose to believe the one possibility over the other because it makes me happier. My best friend chose to not learn a truth because he felt happier that way.

----------

Xavier: I didn't say they were the only two explanations, I said I couldn't prove one above the other in any objective way. I have not mentioned it to a psychologist, having never visited one before.

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kmbboots
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Okay. I had read the OP as wanting to know how not to misrepresent believers. I think that your two examples of reasons are certainly less usual reasons that people believe and thus a misrepresentation of believers in general. They are certainly easiercharacters but I tend to think that the real reasons people believe are more interesting once you dig through them.
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BlackBlade
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Kate: That's fine you think that. I don't think those two reasons are unusual.
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The Rabbit
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In response to the OP I would recommend you avoid the common stereotype that religious people are hypocrites. Unless you have some good historical evidence that Doyle was a hypocrite, it would be offensive to portray him as such because he was a believer.

I'd also avoid the stereotype that religious people are naive simpletons or that religiosity is akin to mental illness.

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Javert
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quote:
Originally posted by The Rabbit:
In response to the OP I would recommend you avoid the common stereotype that religious people are hypocrites. Unless you have some good historical evidence that Doyle was a hypocrite, it would be offensive to portray him as such because he was a believer.

I'd also avoid the stereotype that religious people are naive simpletons or that religiosity is akin to mental illness.

Good to know.

All my research shows that Doyle himself was not a hypocrite. There's some tiny bit of evidence that his second wife who claimed to be a medium might have been knowingly misleading people, but Doyle himself appears clean. And he may have been a bit more credulous than most, but definitely not a simpleton or mentally ill.

And as Houdini could, on occasion, be an arrogant jerk, I think the interplay of these two men with all their foibles will help to show them as real people, neither idolized or demonized.

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MrSquicky
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quote:
Originally posted by Xavier:
quote:
I could not prove the experience I had was really God showing his love for me, and not an evil deity trying to trick me.
While not knowing anything about your experience, I feel confident in assuring you that these are not the only two explanations. Have you perhaps mentioned your experience to a psychologist?

Edit: Though I know you aren't interested in the secular explanation. I just couldn't resist when it was presented as a dichotomy where both explanations involved a deity.

This stuck me as pretty inappropriate. I don't know that I'd whistle it (and it's not like BB hasn't already seen it), but it is definitely something that I don't think should have been posted.
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kmbboots
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quote:
Originally posted by BlackBlade:
Kate: That's fine you think that. I don't think those two reasons are unusual.

That is very different from my experience as well. I would think that most people believe as they do because they are brought up to believe - I am almost certain this is true for Catholics. I find it hard to believe that most or even many have had unexplainable supernatural events - though there are always the "Jesus on toast" kind of thing, they happen rarely enough to make news. More, as they get older may hold more firmly to beliefs because of loss or emotional reasons but I would still think that is fewer than those who just grew up that way.

Interesting.

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TomDavidson
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quote:
This stuck me as pretty inappropriate.
Why?
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Xavier
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quote:
This stuck me as pretty inappropriate. I don't know that I'd whistle it (and it's not like BB hasn't already seen it), but it is definitely something that I don't think should have been posted.
I won't argue that you are wrong that I shouldn't have been posted it (I retract at least 50% of my posts either as I'm writing them or shortly after, so I am inclined to agree with you more often than not), but from your reaction I'm guessing my post was a lot more offensive than I meant it.

It seems to me that whatever the experience was, that there is a rational explanation for it. This isn't because I distrust BB's judgement, its because I believe that there is a non-supernatural explanation for everything.

I haven't read (or don't remember) the previous conversation with KOM, but it seems like BB was comfortable discussing this at least once here in the past.

Now not knowing anything about the experience, but having heard those shared by others, quite often the rational explanation is best pulled from the realm of psychology. Other times neurology. Sometimes simple coincidence (such as a couple such "experiences" that aided my own belief in God for a few years).

My edit reflects me recognizing the reality that someone typically doesn't enjoy having the basis for their entire belief system questioned. However, it really did seem to me that "God gave me the experience, or an evil deity did" were the only two possibilities that BB had ever seriously entertained.

I guess I was wrong about that, or didn't read the relevant posts deeply enough.

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