Christian Art and Culture

Afterlife Explored in I Survived ... Beyond and Back

Afterlife Explored in <i>I Survived ... Beyond and Back</i>

Since the days of John 11, we’ve all read or heard of amazing stories of people who’ve been pronounced dead and then miraculously come back to life.

In modern times, though electronic monitors proved they did indeed flatline, at some point their hearts began beating again. And apparently, as many survivors say in retrospect, “it wasn’t their time.”

Some of these unbelievable experiences have been chronicled in popular books, such as Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven or the more recent New York Times best seller Heaven Is for Real, which has already been optioned for film.

Other testimonies are being shared on the small screen by A&E Television Networks’ BIO Channel in its compelling series, I Survived ... Beyond and Back. And this Sunday night, October 23, 2011, Tyrone, Noelle and Mick are sharing their incredible stories in the second season’s premiere episode.

“I was in hell,” admits Tyrone, a self-described “ladies’ man” who sold drugs and lead a life of pleasure that was heading nowhere before he died and came back to life.

In his profile, viewers learn that Tyrone was dead for four minutes and in critical condition in the hospital. Saying that the stench was worse than any decay or old food in the fridge, he recounts seeing lines of souls crying out in dark tunnels and a demon’s faced carved in the cavernous rock while standing in hell. Over the course of the hour-long documentary show, this soft-spoken man continues sharing how a terrifying car accident in July of 2001 and the subsequent loss of his limb helped turn his life around and caused him to “become a better man.”

Seven years later, in Stockton, California, Mick says he saw one of the greatest names ever recorded in the Old Testament after dying from a succession of three heart attacks.

“I knew it had to be Moses,” he says of the man he thought to be speaking either Hebrew or Aramaic in his recollection. With olive skin and dark brown eyes, Moses was holding stone rock tablets which lead Mick to his natural conclusion. But soon he realized they weren’t alone.

“And then I feel this warmth on my back left shoulder. ... I think it was the Almighty himself on my shoulder.”

Called “gruff” by his daughter, the football coach says his death experience and then waking up in the hospital to so many friends and family who had gathered to say their last goodbyes was overwhelming. Today, he describes himself as more sentimental and “in tune” with certain things. But he’s still not afraid to die.

Rounding out this episode of I Survived ... Beyond and Back is twenty-something Noelle who contributes the third survivor story.

Back in the summer of 2005, the Monroe County, New Jersey-ite was in between her sophomore and junior years in college. She loved the beach, going out with her friends and horseback riding. But all she ultimately really cared about, she confesses in her interview, “was how many parties I went to, how skinny I was and that was it.”

An athlete and accomplished equestrian, Noelle was fearless. But at one horse show, she had every reason to be afraid when her horse abruptly shied away from a jump. “He began bucking, rearing, acting up and lost his balance.” The horse fell, and Noelle was thrown with her head getting the brunt of the fall and her brain detaching from her skull.

“The first thing I remember was going through this beautiful sky, through white fluffy clouds to a brightly lit place,” she describes after being transported to the hospital. After lapsing into a coma, Noelle got severe pneumonia and suffocated. She was dead for over three minutes.

“I see a figure,” she remembers of what she believes she experienced after dying. “As I got closer, I realized it was my deceased uncle. . . . I asked him if this was heaven and he said, 'Yes.' I said, ‘It’s far too soon. I’m only 20 years old. Can you ask if I can go back?’”

Noelle then shares that her uncle told her she would be allowed to do so, but that her recovery would be difficult and that she may be sorry she’d asked to leave heaven.

After emergency doctors suctioned fluid from her lungs to revive her, Noelle gradually reawakened and embarked on a long journey of physical, occupational and speech therapy to help her get her life back and be able to finish her business degree.

“I know that there’s life after this life after earth,” she says, now a 2010 college graduate and advocate for people with traumatic brain injury. “I know that it’s joyous, and it’s incredible and I really trust it.”

Proving whether these experiences shared by Noelle, Mick and Tyrone are true or false isn’t the purpose behind I Survived ... Beyond and Back. And neither does the series take a position on heaven or hell or any religious belief or philosophical point of view for that matter. It simply lets the storytellers tell their stories and allows viewers to come to their own conclusions about the afterlife.

Recently I spoke with Fred Grinstein, Director of Nonfiction & Alternative Programming at A&E Television Networks, about the series and asked him to share more about the genesis of the show, how these survivors are discovered and make it on air and why stories from beyond and back can be powerful and worthy of discussion.

How did you come up with the concept for I Survived ... Beyond and Back or is it just a natural spinoff of BIO Channel’s original series, I Survived?

I think it was. I mean I Survived, the original sort of franchise, is obviously very important to BIO. It’s been on for a while, and we produce with the same production company. We always think about how to continue spinning off the successes we have. We just recently did an I Survived ... 9/11 special. So you know it’s something we definitely see as a franchise, and in some ways this one—I wouldn’t say it took on a life of its own—but I think it’s definitely a unique spinoff. We kind of came across these stories of people who have a survival story that happens to involve a little bit of an afterlife experience. And I think sort of the dots connected, and it kind of came about as a good idea to try it out as a pilot. And we liked the pilot a lot and then we commissioned six hours that we aired last year. And then what we’re looking at here is sort of the continuation of that.

How do you go about finding the people you interview for the show?

Luckily when you have a show that’s been on the air first as far as the six episodes, there’s a lot of viewer outreach that came through the BIO Web site, so quite a bit came through that and it’s sort of the same answer to any show with a lot of viewers on TV. You hire associate producers and researchers, and their job is to get the word out and let people know what we’re doing and get them to share their stories with us.

Is there a lot of background investigation work involved in talking with emergency personnel workers or doctors or family members in order to validate an interviewee’s death experience?

I mean I think there’s a bit of kind of verifiability that comes with just the fact that we really seek out to get multiple witnesses. And at some point we’re, I hate to say that we’re taking people at their word, but I think there’s sort of an “it happened.” One of the things that’s different from how we’re treating the subject and how you might see it on Science Channel or Discovery Channel is that we’re not myth-busting. And I think you saw that in the episode you watched. There’s no expert that comes in and tells you what the world of science thinks of this. I think we’ve tried to strike a balance. Admittedly, like any kind of process like this, you’re going to get people that might have a story that feels a little thin. I think of some of the stories that have been tougher are when we only have the survivor themselves telling us. We do do as much due diligence to chase down hospital records and accounts for people that may not end up in the show.

This isn’t the kind of show that seeks out to prove that this is how your brain works. I think that’s one of the things that’s great about it. We’re sort of embracing that here’s totally ordinary people, and I think we go out of our way to set them up at the beginning of each story that here’s relatable individuals who suffered something extraordinary. And the context of the accident sometimes is as simple as a car accident or a heart attack—like something that could happen to anybody. But we let them tell us what they experienced. In a couple of the stories, there’s that amazing interplay between what the emergency technicians and what their family members are going through as their loved ones are literally on the death bed. And then here’s the amazing recollections of the person who’s experiencing that. We definitely embrace that, and we sort of let the stories speak for themselves.

When doing the interviews, is there any coaxing that has to take place to help interviewees tell their stories?

I’m on the network side, so I’m the executive that sort of watches the cuts, so I’m not sitting next to anybody having an interview. I think if you watch a show like The Real Housewives you get a sense that the interviews are being coaxed. And I would let the network and the producers of those shows speak for their tactics, but I think for us we’re not dealing with people who have sought out to be on reality TV. We’re not dealing with people who this is their 15 minutes. I think these are people that feel like they want to share their story. And I think that’s something we really sort of celebrate in both these franchises and for me particularly with this show. These are ordinary people where literally the interviews kind of speak for themselves. I think as I even watch the cuts, there’s really very little of watching multiple takes of the same thing. They’re really very straight interviews.

So it sounds like your vision for the show is very purposeful from the very beginning . . . that you’re going for a more documentary style rather than sensational.

One hundred percent. I think clearly in the episode you saw there’s some pretty big topics that are brought up between Tyrone and his interpretation of his experience that he went to a version of hell. And to make sure we're respecting all our viewers, we do have the disclaimer that these are interpretations of people’s experiences and we’re letting them speak for themselves. But there’s an episode later on in the series where there’s a woman who amazingly on Christmas Eve suffers a medical sort of failure and goes to the hospital and she flatlined. And she claims to encounter Jesus in the afterlife. And you know I think that’s a very powerful moment. In the hands of a different producer, they might kind of really play up the visuals. But I think aesthetically we really tried to let people’s imaginations run. Rather than feed them imagery and, like you say, be sensational, there’s more like an abstract, impressionistic direction that we’ve gone for in the imagery. And I think in some ways that’s out of respect that these are very powerful images and figures for people.

One thing I kept thinking while watching the season premiere was who’s to say what really happened to these people. Were they just dreams or hallucinations or did they actually go to heaven or to hell?

And I think again, that’s an area that we are very cautious about. The show is not about myth-busting or proving whether they’re true or not. And I think for the most part these people walk away from these experiences as them being life-changing. So in some ways I think the truth is sort of left for the viewer to draw their own opinions. It’s the difference between the great mysteries of spirituality and science and its limitations. And I think in most categories, people’s firsthand accounts seem to matter to us—like from police work to many in journalism, we trust people when they tell us things. I think we’ve taken that license with this [show]. We’re going to let these people’s stories have their day in public, and I think truthfully it’s a rare thing. I work on other shows for BIO and also A&E, and I think one of the things that excites me about this show is that . . . I think this is one of the few cases that we’re genuinely telling stories that nobody else is really telling. I think this show is really special in that we’re embracing a topic that’s very challenging to cover, and I think that we’ve found a great way to tell those stories through these “returners,” as the producers sometimes call them when we’re e-mailing each other, or these survivors.

It was interesting to see how Tyrone and Noelle had life changes from all about self to being more focused on helping others or doing something purposeful and meaningful with their lives. That’s inspiring.

In the episodes that I’ve seen [of this season], there are some tried and true stories of what I would venture to call "a rebirth" of their spirit, that here’s a few cases of folks who were going down the wrong path in life. And I think in the case of someone like Tyrone, you’re seeing that for them it turned into an experience of standing, and in his words, "at the gates of hell" which is a powerful image for someone to speak in everyday speech. I sometimes have to step away from watching—like these are incredible things that these people are saying. And yet, and you probably see this in survival shows in general, when people are put upon the brink of death it’s a changing moment. But I think here you’re dealing with not only these people who went beyond the brink but that they’re experiencing a sort of rebirth of their purpose and spirit in amazing ways.

What kind of feedback in general have you received from viewers of I Survived ... Beyond and Back since it’s been on the air?

In general it’s obviously been positive. We’ve decided to revisit the series. It rated very well just on a basic numbers game of television. It’s started off very well in its first six episodes which was what inspired us for the purpose of keeping it going. But I think we walk in a very safe kind of sort of path on this. We’re not taking a position on it. I don’t think should we be taking positions; I think it would be sort of unfair to certain viewers. This is all such powerful content. I think we’re here to have people decide for themselves. So to that point, I think it’s been overwhelmingly positive and [people are] interested in seeing more. Hence, more episodes.

On the flip side, there are some people who just don’t want to think about what happens after we die. They just don’t want to “go there” so to speak. What would you say to someone like that who might assume this show is a downer?

I guess for starters I would argue that those people are probably in the minority. I think almost every major faith or religion has a fundamental element that is what do we have to say about this huge mystery of life. For most people it is in their minds. But I know what you’re saying, that there’s some people that maybe have that gut reaction that it sounds like a downer. If you watch I Survived, I mean that’s a pretty scary show. There’s death-defying moments. [I Survived ... Beyond and Back] has a very different tone. You’re dealing with someone like Noelle who’s talking about her brain was hanging out of her skull. These are some horrifying things, but minutes later she’s saying how beautiful it was. So I think I guess the short answer to your question is that I think people would be surprised how uplifting a show about dying can be, if that makes any sense.

How would you say that working on this show has affected you personally? Has it caused you to think or rethink some ideas or beliefs you have about what happens after we die?

I mean you know that there will be the skeptics. We’ve done on other shows that kind of venture into the paranormal, and you know there’s an inherent sort of divide that many people have between being a skeptic and a believer. And it’s a very easy place to be a skeptic. But at some point—and this is sort of something that we’ve sought out in the casting, and when I say "casting," at some point we have to choose which people we’re going to focus on for our shows. And I think it’s very important that the folks we’re talking to don’t seem like out there, sort of marginalized personalities. They’re regular people. And I think at some point when you hear enough regular people talk about an experience they’re having, you start to see connections. You start to see common themes, and you start to see the things that are just not explainable. So I think on a personal level I think I have a very sort of open point of view that there’s a lot of questions in life that the more you try to answer everything the tougher it is on you. There’s a lot of things you’re never going to get an answer to. But I think this show for me, and for other people who are advocates for the show around here, it encourages you to continue leaving the mysteries open. You don’t really know until you experience for yourself, and I think in this show we’re giving people a window into something that there’s only one way they’ll ever really get to know it.

Has there been one story so far in the history of I Survived ... Beyond and Back that has really touched you personally or is one you’ll never forget?

For very personal, selfish reasons because I’m a scuba diver. In the first six episodes, there’s one of a guy who he made the classic mistake when you’re a scuba diver—you never take the regulator out of your mouth. And he sort of suffered the accident that every time I’ve gone scuba diving they always tell you don’t do this and don’t do that. So it’s sort of interesting to watch it play out in the story. So maybe on a superficial level just because it hits a place that is probably is one of my ultimate fears of having an accident happen.

There’s one that’s coming up this season that I think viewers will like a lot. She’s a true cowgirl, she’s a middle-aged woman [named] Kathy. So she worked in Kansas and was part of a company that they work at sale barns and livestock sales, and she and her coworkers were bringing in a whole herd of cattle. And she was riding her favorite horse, a horse called Rancher. And once she got into this sort of arena there was a bull that was being sold for auction that day that was just in a bad mood. I mean I don’t know enough about bull psychology, but it was in a bad place. And somehow it just sort of had a problem with the horse that she was on, and it just made this really awful grunt and then just charged straight at her. And it toppled the horse, and basically I think the horse itself fell on top of her and it sort of mangled her body. But she’s an amazing character. She looks like she walked out of a western. Her storytelling . . . she could read the phone book to you. And you know the flavor of the story and the location . . . the witnesses were all other cowboy characters from the livestock auction and were just amazing, salt-of-the-earth personalities. And she goes to a very heavenly place while they’re working frantically to save her. She experiences some pretty amazing visuals and life moments, but again there’s just something really powerful about the way she tells her story. I think it might be the third episode . . . the second or the third.

It’s interesting how powerful storytelling is and that’s something I think our readers can connect with, especially in thinking of how story was used so effectively in the Bible to provoke thinking.

I think you hit it on the head when you were asking are these people being coaxed. In the landscape of this kind of TV, we get used to the idea that Kim Kardashian’s probably been working on those lines. And I think . . . we’re dealing with much more real people than are seeking some type of celebrity. We’re always trying to get good storytellers. That’s one thing that sometimes makes it tough in the story selection. Some people just aren’t good talkers. Producers are often saying how this is a very emotional experience for people and how they have to create a very nurturing space in the interview setting. They really just make it a conversation, and I think it sounds like that’s something that has affected you as you’ve watched.

Would you say that that’s an over-arching vision for all of the BIO Channel then . . . promoting the power of story and people speaking for themselves?

I think historically and I think moving forward with BIO Channel . . . it’s a very important channel to the A&E TV Network, so I think in the next year you’re going to see some really exciting things, some new shows we’re exploring. But I think you’ve hit it on the head. I think some of the real strongest shows or series we have really rely on the whole first-person storytelling—from Celebrity Ghost Stories all the way to I Survived to My Ghost Story. I think there’s something about these sort of incredible tales to tell. I think maybe ten years ago these are stories you would’ve have heard on TV or in movies, but they would have been archival with a voiceover telling you this person’s story. But now that very same story is told from the lips of the person who experienced it. It may be a lot more work, you may have to work harder to get that person to sit down and talk to you, but it really connects with viewers. That first-person testimonial element is a big deal to us.

I really think that here’s a show that if you’ve ever wondered what happens when you die, tune in. And maybe you’re not going to get an answer, but it’ll get you thinking.


The second season of I Survived ... Beyond and Back premieres this Sunday night, October 23, 2011 on BIO Channel at 10 PM ET/9PM CT/11PM PT. For more information about I Survived ... Beyond and Back or BIO Channel, please visit the official Web site here.