B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Of S02E11 Reincarnation

Cold open on a woman with a somewhat Brady-esque quality. Leonard Nimoy tells us that some people remember events of a former lifetime. “It is a strange phenomenon called reincarnation.” What is the truth behind this mysterious phenomenon?

Maybe the owner of this eye knows the answer!
Maybe the owner of this eye knows the answer!

Now we’re looking at a woman in a white robe who we’re told is called Maria and lived in France in ye olde dayes. When she bends down to look at a plant we see that Maria is wearing a 1970s sundress under her robe. This doesn’t quite prove reincarnation, I think, but it’s still pretty special. Now torches carried by a bunch of extras because (I guess) Maria was burned at the stake, and some 1970s woman remembers it all.

A black and white photo of a bunch of guys, and now Nimoy is talking about how awesome Henry Ford was. You know, if you ignore all of his many, many awful qualities. Many.

Nimoy reminds us that Ford believed in reincarnation. What do you know? A really smart, successful guy who believes in reincarnation. Sure, he also believed in a global Jewish conspiracy, and the utility of physical violence as a management tool… but reincarnation! It’s not like we could find a smart, successful person who wasn’t evil but still believed in reincarnation, like Gandhi or someone… Oh, wait…

And we’re moving on, thank goodness. We’re looking at graveyards while Nimoy explains the concept of karma. I’m no expert, but it doesn’t sound wrong, so much as ‘vastly oversimplified to fit into a short sound bite’, but I guess we can’t help that.

Now we’re in a room full of people lying on the floor, but not a sleepover. Dr Helen Wombak, a psychiatrist (who, you’ll be surprised to learn, worked in San Francisco) is using hypnotic regression to get her patients back to their past lives.

The next sequence is actually pretty damned cool. She tries to guide her patients through their past lives by naming places “Far East”, “Central Asia”, etc. The camera intercuts between the patients lying close-eyed on the floor and stock footage of the chosen locations. It’s an evocative piece of filmmaking and the accompanying chime-based soundtrack really helps get the idea across.

One of Dr Wombak’s patients talks about being an ice-fisher in Scandinavia who died in an accident. I’m kind of impressed. A criticism of this sort of past-life stuff is that everyone says they used to be a royal, and no-one ever claims to have lived a commonplace existence in the past, but this woman’s story is pretty damn mundane.

The next patient talks about being involved in a healing ceremony at a Mesoamerican step-pyramid, and damn it if In Search Of… doesn’t have exactly the right file footage library to illustrate that.

Talking now to Dr Wombak, who Nimoy claims has regressed ‘more than two thousand persons in her search for scientifically valid data on the reincarnation experience’. Dr Wombak says that there’s past life recall contains both fantasy and checkable information. She’s very definitely a true believer, seeing reincarnation as just another area for psychological study. But she seems a strangely down-to-earth person, less bizarrely dressed than many people on this show. In fact, she reminds me a little of a math teacher I had in high school.

Dr Wombak’s technique is to plant a post-hypnotic suggestion during regression to make her patient able to fill in a detailed questionnaire when they wake up. I have no comment on what this says about reincarnation, but it reminds me why I steered the hell clear of psych classes at university.

Now we see her talking to a guy on a couch who looks like he’s just finished sucking a lemon. She’s asking him to repeat syllables he remembers from his past life. It’s genuinely creepy when he spits out a bunch of strange words. He says it’s to do with people complaining about their work which, to be fair, is almost certainly something they did as much in the past as now. We dissolve from this guy to relief carvings in some Egyptian temple. Back on the couch, the patient jots down some hieroglyphs. Nimoy says that Wombak says that a ‘Stanford expert’ identified eighty percent of the characters as authentic Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The patient says that the hieroglyphs have to do with a new trade route.

Nimoy says that the patient is a retired stockbroker and so couldn’t possibly know anything about Ancient Egypt. I really hate this sort of argument. It’s not like there isn’t a massive body of literature about Ancient Egypt that any interested person couldn’t access if they wanted. I’m not saying that’s what did happen in this particular case, but the idea that it couldn’t happen because American stockbrokers don’t typically avail themselves of the freely available information about hieroglyphs is just silly.

Now Nimoy is standing in a graveyard. I don’t get why. If reincarnation is real, then you’re around dead people all the time. Anyway, he says that this study of past lives is interesting but also practical. Trauma from past lives can spill over into this one and cause difficulties, so past life regression can help heal people.

I sometimes wonder how many of the things they make Nimoy say are things that he genuinely believes. He always brings his full gravity and authority to everything he says, but sometimes his heart just doesn’t seem to be in it. The look on his face as he gives the line about healing past-life trauma isn’t insincere, as such. But it does seem to say ‘hey, don’t shoot the messenger.’

Now we’re talking to that Marsha Brady looking woman from earlier. She’s taking about a history of seizures that couldn’t be healed by doctors or priests. You know what? I don’t blame the priests. Doctors should have tried harder, but. Marsha talks about being regressed by Dr Wombak to her former life as Maria, a healer in coastal France.

Maria was supposed to heal the child of a local constable. She failed, so she got attacked by a mob that wanted to burn her as a witch, but jumped off a cliff instead. The woman telling the story says that her seizures were nothing but echoes of this event, and that a seizure she was having during the regression ended abruptly.

Nimoy says that this could be coincidence. I guess. Or it could be ‘just what it appears to be’. Also possible, except what it appears to be to me doesn’t exactly match what Nimoy claims it appears to be.

Back to a roomful of 1970s types. God, the collars! The white Afros! Nimoy says that Dr Wombak’s files contain many examples of people having past lives as ‘working-class people or peasants’. Seventy percent of them, in fact. Now this is interesting. I mentioned before the issue with people claiming to be rulers or celebrities in past lives when realistically most people throughout history and prehistory were groundlings who toiled in obscurity then died…

I’m stopping now for a brief depression break.

And I’m back. Man, that sucks. Anyway, Nimoy claims that this is proof that reincarnation isn’t fantasy, or why wasn’t everyone royalty?

Dude, have you ever been to a Star Trek convention? Not everyone wants to dress as the captain, you know.

In another experiment, a bunch of white Californians were regressed to the 1850s and an unspecified ‘extraordinary number’ said that they were Asians. Nimoy wonders whether they were reincarnations of Chinese railroad labourers?

The mechanics of this just keep making less sense.

Now talking to a woman in Connecticut who had ‘strong feelings’ about 1857 India. She called ‘Professor’ Hans Holzer (remember him? From the Ghosts episode?) who, in addition to being a ghost hunter could also regress people through past lives, apparently. There’s a very nice montage of childhood images as he regresses her through her youth. There’s a tracking shot along a beach that is particularly pretty.

He takes her back before her birth and she sees ‘clouds and vapours’. She goes to England and there’s a montage of old-timey European rich people stuff. She apparently died before getting to the New World. There’s some stuff about running and hiding that I don’t quite follow.

In another life she was in India, and died during the Great Mutiny. This is illustrated by a bunch of footage of Hindu statues and a clip which I’m guessing comes from Gunga Din, or maybe Lives of a Bengal Lancer. Something of that ilk, anyway.

Awesome slow zoom into the Connecticut woman’s eye while Holzer says ‘further, further’ over and over. This is the good stuff, folks! She goes back to another incarnation involving water and windmills. Holland 1613. A fireplace, a woman sewing. They’re waiting. Clouds, electronic music. A ship. A large man pinned her against a wall so she drowned? I gather that they’re editing her story, but they’re not making it any more coherent. She saw the people aboard ship doing crappy reenactments, but couldn’t talk to them because she was dead.

She puts a lot more expression into her story than a lot of people do on this show. It makes her story strangely compelling, even if I don’t quite follow it. And the montage of images was strangely haunting. Honestly quite liked this sequence. And Holzer’s role is diminished since last time he was on, which is for the best. According to the credits, he wrote the episode (except for the narration) and was a producer. Interesting.

Now we’re talking to another psychiatrist, Dr William Leany, who looks like a cross between the dad from Family Ties and Rasputin. He is very intense and serious and what he says can be paraphrased as ‘soul, energy, dimension, time.’ As a family (Dr Leany’s?) walks along a beach, Nimoy explains that Leany believes that a higher power controls the cycle of death and rebirth. Nimoy says that the nature of this higher power is a one of the greatest mysteries of the day. But then, he always says that.

Well, I wasn’t a believer in reincarnation at the start of the episode and I’m still not at the end. But you know what? That was a great episode. It hit the right tone (mildly unsettling) and stuck with it. The montages were well done and the music actually complimented them. I had some problems with the arguments used, but then I always do, so why worry about that? This episode was In Search Of… doing what it does best.

But it might have been nice if their talk about ‘karma’ had been run by an actual Hindu or Buddhist. Just saying.

Best Quotes

Both from Nimoy:

“At the very least it’s a fascinating exercise, this probing of the unconscious mind for scraps of information about past lives.”

“The controversial concept of karma made sense to her, and seemed to explain so many things.”

Summing up

Montage: 10/10, Music: 9/10,  Nimoyness 8/10, Interviewees 8/10, Generall good-itude 9/10. Overall: 44/50. High Distinction.

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B.G. Hilton - Author