Throughout history the paranormal has always been an effective plot device. From Hamlet’s father begging to be avenged to the specters on the edge of Turn of the Screw to the creepy urban legend of the ghost of Silas Scratch in Diary of a Wimpy kid, storytelling becomes easier when you throw in a bit of the creepy and paranormal. It’s partially the draw of all things ghostly upon the public and partly the idea of rubbing out the clear lines of reality to allow the impossible to happen. When you tear down the wall, even for a brief moment, and let something unexplained to enter your narrative, you have the freedom to do things that do not need to be explained. In theory…and when done well.
Sometimes an ongoing story, like a television show that has nothing to do with the paranormal on a week to week basis, dives into old ideas of ghosts to take advantage of that. At times these shows pull it off, but other times it creates an odd hole in its continuity.
This originally started as a casual joke between Spooky Southcoast host Time Weisberg and I years ago. We would get to talking about paranormal television shows, and eventually we’d turn our attention to those moments in “normal” television shows that had these odd, misplaced ghost stories. Each week it seemed one of the cartoons my children were watching introduced a Bigfoot, or an alien, or a ghost. We eventually took to the air with it one night when the Sox ran late and the guest had cancelled.
After Tripping on Legend’s recent episodes involving a few horror movies, I decided to dust off the old list, which meant searching hard for the erased page out there on the Internet.
Two Cathedrals from The West Wing
The greatest episode of television ever, but before the final curtain drops, the President has a telling conversation with his recently dead secretary and life-long friend. This is only an honorable mention because it is unclear whether she is dead or a product of anger, stress and guilt. She does, however, interact with her environment, something a hallucination can’t do.
Happy Halloween from Growing Pains
This makes the list because it involves one of the classic ghost urban legend and does it well. It also has Jamie Luner. Mike learns another classic dating lesson; no true romance ever started by picking up a beautiful hitchhiker who seems to not know how to get home. It doesn’t make the actual list because it’s a Halloween episode which is designed to allow that one-off ghost story.
How the Ghosts Stole Christmas from The X-Files
This is only an honorable mention because the show itself tackled the subject of ghosts several times so it becomes disqualified. Mulder and Scully spend Christmas in a haunted house with Ed Asner and Lilli Tomlin who try to convince them to kill each other or themselves.
Ghost Story from Laverne and Shirley
A spirit from the 20’s possesses a clown from the 50’s and all hell breaks loose. This actually one of two L&S shows to involve a ghost, the second of which we talked about during our Lady in White episode, but this one was a bit creepier.
This was a real departure for the show, which was based in a slapstick but solid world, and the ghost is presented as a straight spectre and taken seriously. Well, at least as serious as anything was taken on the show.
Some Kind of Miracle from Grey’s Anatomy
I am not a fan of this show overall, but I have seen enough of it to know that when they mess with traditional storytelling, they usually get it right and give the viewers a memorable moment.
In this episode, Denny, the recently dead fiancé of one of the characters comes back to walk the halls of the hospital and encourage Grey to return to the living. The idea is that he’s trapped, a classic paranormal idea used throughout time. The final moments of his scenes are the most uplifting paranormal flashes I have ever seen captured on any kind of film. They bring the idea of Denny back a little later in the show, but it plays more like he’s a figment of her imagination, and possibly her sex drive.
The Phantom Brigade from GI Joe
This was one of my first exposures to the paranormal. If you really think back on episodes, and even story arcs, of the old GI Joe cartoon, it feels like they had a copy of The Power of Myth with them in the writing room. They had no problem bring in mythical characters and plotlines. They even tackled such fringe topics as mind control, ancient aliens, and cryptozoology. Let’s face it, even Serpentor was just a modern-day Frankenstein.
This episode was even different from those. The idea these souls are trapped on this planet blew my mind while forming my ideas of what a ghost was and why ghosts stayed with the living. The scene towards the end where each one talks about the object which binds them is actually heartbreaking. Tim and I tossed The Phantom Brigade out during the writing of Haunted Objects, and it even made it into the introduction of the book.
Afterlife from St. Elsewhere
People have forgotten about the brilliance that was St. Elsewhere. It’s remembered more for how it ended or the stars that came from it than for the impact it had on prime time dramas, especially hospital shows. Like Grey’s Anatomy, it was always willing to introduce an odd narrative form to tell a different kind of story. It not only often stepped outside of the box, it threw the box away.
In this episode, Howie Mandel’s character, Dr. Wayne Fiscus, is shot while on duty. He travels to the afterlife and experiences heaven, hell, and the places in between, including coming back to the hospital as a ghost. The writers make an attempt to weave humor and sadness into his journey, mainly because those are roles Fiscus brought to the show in the first place, but some of the scenes are downright spooky.
1. The Beast in the Black from the Greatest American Hero
Some of the scariest moments on television ever.
High school teacher and part-time hero Ralph is allowed to enter a spooky abandoned house to strip it for antiques his students can sell to raise money for a class gift. There in lies one of the first things I learned about ghosts that has stayed with me until today. It is always a bad idea to disturb trinkets and chandeliers when the house is haunted and the mirror is a vortex to another dimension.
The idea that a ghost could physically attack you and even trap you in another dimension stayed with me, and predated Poltergeist by over a year. I still see those eyes sometimes at night. The show itself is based on the idea of aliens, which makes a ghost story not too far off the mark, but the show was grounded in that reality and not in the paranormal world. The idea that Ralph could not just use his alien technology but rather needed help from a psychic sets this episode apart.