No one living knows exactly what death is. No one knows for sure where we go or if we do go anywhere--and if we do, what happens when we get there. Even Raymond Moody, who introduced the concept of the near-death experience in "Life After Life" (1975), later claimed that he hadn't meant his book to be a description of the death experience, but of the near-death experience.

In "Just Like Heaven," Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon) is near death and doesn't know it (which is similar but not parallel to the phenomenon I studied for my book "People Who Don't Know They're Dead"). While her physical body lay comatose in a neighborhood hospital, her spirit (astral) body haunts the flat where she used to live, which is now sublet to David (Mark Ruffalo). Elizabeth is having a near-death experience--well, of sorts.

"Just Like Heaven" may not aim to be more than a light-hearted romantic comedy (a genre I have great respect for, by the way). Still, its creators would have been better off to have trusted their impulse to set these events in the paranormal realm by proceeding to find out how things actually work there. There is physics to these metaphysics, and lots of recent research. Much of what they choose to do instead defies that research and undermines the story they are telling.

For starters, the way these characters meet-both screaming, beer spraying, each one hearing the other scream, each one seeing the other clearly-is contrary to everything I've read about such things. True, people see ghosts, but usually as ectoplasmic wisps or wraithlike figures floating through a blind spot out the corner of an eye. They don't ordinarily manifest with the three-dimensional density represented here by the well-lit Witherspoon.

And how does David even hear her scream? Yes, ghost lore is full of moans and groans heard in the night. But Elizabeth is not a ghost. She's the etheric body, the spiritual essence, of a woman being kept alive on a respirator whose larynx and voice box remain blocks away. So, how do these two engage in the lengthy conversations in what becomes a very talky movie?

In no near-death encounter I'm familiar with do those still in the body see or hear the one who is having the out-of-body experience. To hear her, to be aware of her at all, David would have to be psychic. There is no evidence of that. And, there is no indication that these conversations are in any way telepathic. In fact, a good deal of the comedy results from David talking out loud to the unseen Elizabeth in public.

In one inexplicable scene in a bar, David is seen to be furiously wrestling with himself to bring a whiskey glass to his lips as the invisible Elizabeth pushes him out the door.

"Why am I the only one who can see you?"

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  • The physics of how this might take place is a mystery to me. It also violates a convention set by the writers themselves. Elizabeth's out-of-body hand has already been shown to pass through her telephone, not to mention in and out of David's jaw. So, how does she manage to push him out the door?

    When David finally asks the question I'd been asking myself--"Why am I the only one who can see you?"--the answer comes not from physics or from metaphysics, but from the conventions of romantic comedy. These are star-crossed lovers whose fates are intertwined in serpentine synchronicities to be revealed later on and upon which several important plot points twirl.

    Elizabeth is a workaholic doctor who has been putting off her "real life." David has been living like the "walking dead" since his wife died in an accident two years ago. Elizabeth tells him when they finally bed down that "I think you are my unfinished business." David wakes up the following morning with a metaphor of his own: "I was the one who was dead. Now I know what I must do." And he does it.

    That this movie has anything to do with death or near-death or earthbound spirits or spirit intervention or possession or release, is less than incidental. There is no evidence that the screenwriters' interest in the paranormal extends any farther than the much better movie, "Ghost."

    The movie broadly lampoons exorcisms, house cleanings, and spirit removal sessions. The only character portrayed as having the slightest inkling of what is going on is Darrell (Jon Heder from "Napoleon Dynamite"), who works in a metaphysical bookstore called The Abandoned Planet. What's been abandoned here is anything truly paranormal.

    In the movie's favor, at least its version of the spirit world is not peopled with malevolent throat slitters. What Hollywood recently did to the groundbreaking work of paranormal investigator Mark Macy ("Conversations Beyond the Light" and "Miracles in the Storm") with a movie called "White Noise," was a high crime committed against the unsuspecting movie-going public.

    The fact is, what is actually going on in paranormal investigations is a thousand times more dramatic, more human, more comedic, not to mention entertaining, than anything stirred into this pot.

    For instance, the confusion experienced by Elizabeth's character is common in cases of "waking up dead." The physical dead who "wake up" on the less dense astral plane and look around to see things pretty much as they've always appeared to be, may have no end of human drama-much of it funny when viewed from the outside-in their attempts to be seen and heard and responded to.

    Reports of those who die accidentally or while drunk or under the influence of drugs or anesthesia or in the grips of powerful emotions such as anger, indicate that these spirits may attach to living human beings and proceed to try to satisfy their addictions through them, as "hitchhikers."

    Psychiatrist Carl Wickland, author of "30 Years Among the Dead," was convinced that the majority of his patients were not suffering from psychosis at all, but were literally attached by earthbound spirits who were attempting to live through them.

    Which brings me back to Raymond Moody, who has written that the reason we are attracted to the paranormal in the first place is because it is entertaining. At least, it should be.

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