The most memorable TV sci-fi and paranormal genre characters are those who have touched the hidden side of life and been convincingly affected by it. Whether that “hidden side” is aliens, the spirit world, or some great secret quest, the best characters need: a motive for seeking out the “weird”, difficulties in coping with the weird, and palpable battle scarring (physical, emotional or mental) from having touched it. These roles, when they’re done right, are usually awarded to male characters, possibly just because most interesting roles get assigned to men, but also possibly because men can be both “weird” and sexy (think Fox Mulder, Daniel Jackson), but sexiness in women is more narrowly defined than that.
This is where Alison Mundy of Afterlife shines. She’s a medium, but not the kind who invites the spirits in to please an audience or solve a crime or get a fee, then turns them away and forgets about it. She is harassed relentlessly by spirits until she gets them what they want. Usually, they want to communicate with a living loved one who doesn’t want to hear from them, and this puts Alison in the awkward and potentially illegal spot of having to harass a living person on behalf of a spirit.
She hits the trifecta for memorable paranormal/sci-fi characters:
- Her “motive for seeking out the weird” is actually a lack of choice. She’s been institutionalized and drugged, and it didn’t make the spirits leave her alone. She’s tried meditation and other remedies for controlling her contact with them, but still they wake her up all hours of the night and interfere with her daily life anytime they like. But for the skeptical characters on the show who believe Alison is deluded, she also has a dysfunctional childhood background that could easily explain a fascination with mysticism.
- Her “difficulties in coping with the weird” are a tangible personal toll. She can’t sleep when the spirits don’t want her to. She can rarely interact with people without their dead loved ones showing up to distract her. Sometimes the spirits are malignant, and Alison must still find a way to deal with them. More than once, she tries to escape her gift, but the spirits always find her.
- Her “palpable scarring” is physical and emotional. Her body bears many scars from a terrible train accident in which she died and was resuscitated. The emotional scars manifest, frankly, in her personality.
In ordinary situations, Alison hunches her shoulders and doesn’t make eye contact. She dresses like a teenager who pulled random items out of the closet and threw them on, often as an unnecessarily complicated ensemble. Her hair is always down in her face. She wears harsh makeup. A superficial reading of the appearance she cultivates would be a lack of self-confidence.
But this reading is contradicted when Alison is in her element – when someone’s institutionalizing a boy she knows to be haunted rather than psychotic, or when spirits are trying to convey something the living don’t want to hear. In those situations, Alison is so sure of herself and her task that she is capable of getting in people’s faces and yelling at them. She knows this makes people think she’s mentally ill. It gets her ejected from homes and hospitals. But her sympathy lies with those who can’t speak for themselves, and she speaks for them.
Combining these two images of Alison, it’s clear she is not lacking in confidence. She just wants people to stay away and leave her alone. Human interaction, for her, has led to nothing but trouble. Attracting living people means attracting spirits, too.
The second (and final) series contains an arc in which Alison starts being haunted by her mother’s spirit, and falls apart. This too is reflected in her demeanor and appearance. She develops a sullen facade that suits a teenager more than an adult; she starts wearing even harsher makeup and a lot of beaded necklaces; and her behavior is more erratic and less functional than before. Once she hits bottom and finally discloses the root of the problem (I’m being vague to keep the spoilage to a minimum), she finds something like peace. Her demeanor and appearance change accordingly: she smiles more, makes eye contact, softens her makeup, sometimes pulls her hair back and starts dressing more casually (jeans, shirts and jackets, mostly). If I’m making it sound corny, it’s not: her transformations in appearance and body language are consistent with the way real people consciously and unconsciously change their demeanors with their moods.
Alison is fascinating at every point in her growth because she’s always great in some ways, not so great in others, always struggling and always surviving.