'Others' builds on strength, not fear

By Kevin V. Johnson, USA TODAY

A dead woman rises from a bathtub. A flower vase spontaneously bursts into flame. The apparition of a car-crash victim appears silently next to his wife's bed.

In the hands of Wes Craven or Stephen King, this is the vocabulary of horror. But NBC's The Others is giving such events a new-age spin, and viewers are responding.

The difference: Scary stuff on The Others often is the result of tormented spirits trying to tell the living that they need relief from their pain.

It's Oprah for ghosts.

Each week, messages from the other side are detected and deciphered by six paranormally gifted people who are trying to come to terms with the meaning and extent of their own powers at the same time they're dealing with the spirit world.

"They're a psychic support group," says co-creator Mike Ferris, trying "to cope with the problem of being gifted."

The approach is working. February's premiere generated NBC's best Saturday ratings for a new show in two years. Since then, The Others has regularly enticed more viewers than the show that precedes it.

The show's success isn't surprising to some. The Oscar-nominated sleeper The Sixth Sense and last summer's Stir of Echoes also treated ghosts as anguished beings who turn to humans for help.

Still, says the show's other creator, John Brancato, "we didn't anticipate that there would also be this sudden spate of movies dealing with paranormal activities. It definitely seems that people go in waves of interest in this kind of material. "

Brancato thinks the interest can be traced to baby boomers "confronting the issue of what happens when we die. "

The comforting answer given by The Others is nobody dies, really. Instead, everyone is on a spiritual journey. A person crosses over to the land of the living only "to learn a lesson that will help you move ahead on the other side," Ferris says.

"I like that aspect of it," says actor Bill Cobbs, who plays a wise, elderly medium. "Certainly one of the greatest fears we have is fear of the unknown. Maybe this show will make people less afraid."

The Others also will delve into topics such as telekinesis, demonology and astral projection, Brancato says.

But such subjects will be dealt with in accordance with a few other rules designed to keep the otherworldly terrain of The Others distinct, the creators say.

The first rule: Every event "should theoretically be something that happened to someone you know or that happened to somebody that somebody you know knows," Brancato says. "It's in the realm of apocryphal but believable ."

To find out what's believable, the duo asked associates for ghost stories, including Steven Spielberg, whose DreamWorks produces the show.

The director's story "had to do with glimpsing a figure in a mirror in a hotel when he was doing location scouting" for a film, Brancato says. " I didn't really find anybody who didn't have a ghost story."

Another rule: The ghosts aren't malicious, and they don't "monkey around with reality," Brancato says. They make their presence known because they have unfinished business.

But the scary thing about The Others might be the third rule, by which the show's characters have to figure out the rules for themselves.

Says Ferris: "Their guide is their own perception, their own sense of what is a spiritual value. That's the authority. Things may not operate scientifically, but they can still try to figure out what's the right thing to do."