The following article is written by Alireza Doostdar, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and the anthropology of religion at the University of Chicago.
On a warm Ramadan day near the end of August 2011, a twelve-year-old Tehrani boy was alone at home playing with his younger brother when he decided to hang himself. The adventurous Mohammad-Mahdi found a headscarf and attached it to a pull-up bar, formed the scarf into a noose around his neck, and let go. By the time his limp body arrived at the hospital, Mohammad-Mahdi had suffered a total loss of brain function. His parents, bewildered and overcome with grief, decided they would donate his organs to patients in need of transplants. His father then told reporters that he would sue national television for his son’s death.
Mohammad-Mahdi had been a fan of Five Kilometers to Heaven (panj kilumetr ta behesht), a popular Ramadan TV serial that had been broadcast since the beginning of the month and was now near its finale (watch the nightmare sequence that opens the first episode). The show told the story of Amir-Hoseyn (Mehdi Soluki), a comatose young man whose body lies forgotten in a field while his soul pleads with the living to rescue him and solve the crime that led to his attempted murder. Amir-Hoseyn appears in his lover’s dreams to demand that she save him, and enlists the help of a second ghost named Pari (Parinaz Izadyar) whose body has been languishing for years in a vegetative state. Over time, the two ghosts succeed in defeating the culprits. Amir-Hoseyn returns to life, unites with his love interest, and convinces Pari’s parents to accept her death and donate her organs. Inspired by the exploits of these crime-fighting ghosts, the young Mohammad-Mahdi told his six-year-old brother that he wanted to go invisible so that he could spy on his parents and discover what they said about him behind his back. All he needed to do was to make his soul leave his body.
Five Kilometers to Heaven was the eighth television series of the “spiritual” genre (ma‘na-gara – literally: meaning- or spirit-oriented) to be produced by Iranian state television since 2004. Spiritual shows were broadcast after sunset during Ramadan, a month in which millions of Iranian Muslims, like their coreligionists around the world, gather around television screens after breaking their day-long fast. The genre was constructed around the concept of ma‘na, a term indicating both “meaning” and “spirit,” signifying the shows’ aspiration to enrich viewers’ spiritual lives and remind them of realities transcending the material and the mundane (this was partly meant to distinguish the shows from Ramadan TV comedies). In practice, the TV series not only promoted pious ideas and behaviors, but did so by depicting immaterial entities like disincarnated souls, angels and demons, heaven and hell, and extraordinary powers like extrasensory vision and mystical healing. The stories combined elements of family drama, supernatural thriller, and horror, sometimes incorporating additional forms like police procedurals and medical fiction.
Ramadan TV series aimed to both entertain and edify, but they were also remarkable for using cinematic techniques and computer-generated effects to make visible the invisible. These were self-consciously experimental attempts that invited discussion and critique on television fora, newspapers, magazines, and online, not to mention around the dinner table. While the scope for experimentation was vast, Iranian state television authorities instituted a policy early on whereby each serial was required to hire a religious consultant (moshaver-e mazhabi) to ensure that the spiritual representations conformed to whatever Islamic theology had to say about the matter. That is, while producers tried to negotiate a delicate balance between entertainment and moral instruction, they also claimed to aspire to expert-approved metaphysical verisimilitude. As such, these TV series invited debates about the true nature of invisible entities like ghosts or Satan, as well as the ways in which these beings operated in the world of matter.
The rise of the Ramadan spiritual show coincided with a much wider efflorescence of metaphysical and occult interests in Iranian society. Economic development in the years after the 1980-88 war with Iraq encouraged entrepreneurship and consumption among a middle class emerging from over a decade of austerity, sacrifice, and devastation. A rising crop of spiritual leaders and motivational speakers promoted strategies for self-improvement that retooled religious concepts (Islamic and otherwise) to address the new realities of economic growth, individualism, and competition. Books of New Age spirituality, self-help, and the occult (many translated from English or French) flooded the market. Concurrently, authors concerned about the growth of materialism and the decline of pious virtues drew young Iranians’ attention to previously obscure (and, for the most part, recently deceased) mystics who had led lives of asceticism and devotion and received spectacular divine rewards like the powers of teleportation and clairvoyance.
Whether drawing on New Age spirituality, Islamic mysticism, or the occult, these post-war spiritual ideas and practices heightened public interest in otherworldly beings and extraordinary powers. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose to the presidency in 2005, he injected an additional dose of messianic enthusiasm into an already saturated spiritual public sphere. The occult, the spiritual, and the metaphysical therefore became matters of deep personal import for many Iranians, while also acquiring powerful, if very complicated, political significance.
Two of the earliest and most controversial spiritual TV series fused horror with family drama and featured Satan as central characters. The first was Channel Two’s 2005 She was an Angel (u yek fereshteh bud), a story about a man named Behzad (Hasan Jowharchi) who welcomes a beautiful but apparently amnesiac young woman (Bahareh Afshari) into his household after a late-night car accident. Behzad’s family name the woman Fereshteh (angel) due to her apparent innocence and pleasant demeanor, but they learn over time that she has strange powers like the ability to guess numbers chosen in secret or to walk through solid objects. Fereshteh’s sinister nature is gradually revealed as she seduces Behzad, breaks up his marriage, causes his mother to suffer a fatal heart attack, and attempts to get his son killed on a highway. We also learn that Fereshteh can shapeshift, with a different manifestation as a male lawyer (Morteza Zarrabi) manipulating Behzad at work. In the end, Behzad sees the error of his ways and returns to the path of righteousness with the help of a local cleric (Reza Tavakkoli). He repents and utters an apotropaic prayer that causes Fereshteh to combust in a ball of fire.
Trailer for She was an Angel (u yek fereshteh bud, 2005)
Two years later, in Ramadan 2007, Channel One aired Coma (eghma’), a medical thriller about the trials of a virtuoso neurosurgeon named Taha Pazhuhan (played by Amin Tarokh, whose claim to fame includes playing another virtuoso physician, the great medieval philosopher and polymath Ibn Sina in 1985). Pazhuhan falls prey to Satan’s manipulations in the guise of a pious friend and former patient named Elyas (Hamed Komeyli). A far more ambitious and well-crafted serial than its predecessor, Coma solidified the television spiritual genre and invited a wide variety of responses, both positive and critical.
Satan takes on several human forms in Coma and his primary modus operandi is to whisper and deceive. As Dr. Pazhuhan’s seducer, the secret to Satan’s success is that he appears as a man the doctor once knew and loved. Elyas, a handsome, pious, soft-spoken young man with a pleasant sense of humor, visits the surgeon in his hour of greatest need as he mourns his wife’s untimely death and wrestles with doubt in divine justice. Elyas helps Dr. Pazhuhan cope with his loss and work through his doubts, but he also penetrates into the deepest recess of his heart, a space once reserved for his wife and spiritual companion. With his lover gone, it is now the Accursed One that tends to the trees in the doctor’s garden, listens to his secrets, joins him in prayer, and offers affectionate counsel.
Trailer for Coma (eghma’, 2007)
Satan has a plan for the good surgeon. He wants to lead him deep into faithlessness, spiritual decay, and moral decrepitude, but also places the master surgeon at the center of a game of life-and-death wherein the bad are saved (including this drug-addicted rich girl whose comatose body Satan possesses) and the good are extinguished. While initially falling for his deceptions, Dr. Pazhuhan gradually comes to his senses and confronts Elyas when he realizes that he has been a pawn in a satanic plot. Confident of his victory, he assures Satan that he will never again fall prey to his evil suggestions, but Satan retorts that he will never leave him alone till the day he dies.
Coma inspired a range of reactions. State television’s then-president, Ezzatollah Zarghami, told reporters that the story had won praise from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who encouraged the production of more spiritual TV shows. The show’s producers and sponsors insisted that they had done everything possible to ensure that Coma accorded with authentic Islamic reports as well as medical knowledge. Channel One’s director, Alireza Barazesh, went further and argued that serials like Coma helped “bring hadiths into people’s homes,” adding that such programming could reach a much larger audience than preachers speaking at their pulpits.
Other commentators were less forgiving. Critics pointed out that Coma had created a kind of “pop Satan” that appealed to audiences with his good looks and supernatural powers, at the expense of any authentic spiritual lessons. Several writers took issue with the idea that Satan could materialize in human form or criticized the show for exaggerating Satan’s power, an error they blamed on Iranians’ overreliance on Christian images of the Accursed One in Hollywood. Others lamented the unintentional consequences of Coma’s problematic representations. One scholar working for state television as a religious content expert called these effects “mental residues” that the viewer cannot control but that producers should anticipate. For example, an incarnate Satan could sow distrust among viewers who may suspect even the most pious people around them of nefarious intent. Two communications scholars even cited audience research showing that Elyas/Satan had been the most favored character in Coma and the one with whom most people identified due to his extraordinary power and good looks.
State television stopped producing spiritual TV series after Ramadan 2011. Perhaps some of the criticisms leveled at Coma, all of which had parallels with reactions to the other spiritual series, finally proved effective. Or perhaps it had something to do with Mohammad-Mahdi’s tragic death. In his complaint against state television, the boy’s father charged that the show should have broadcast a warning to parents to prevent their children from watching. Almost six years later, a court convicted Channel Three director Ali Asghar Mohammadi, producer Davud Hashemi, and writer and director Alireza Afkhami (who had also written the script for Coma and directed She Was an Angel) on indirect causation of semi-voluntary manslaughter for negligence and failure to abide by rules pertaining to the production and broadcast of television programs. The court ordered the men to pay a fine to the victim’s family, declaring that they should have designated a viewing restriction for children under the age of sixteen and announced this restriction to viewers through screen captions.
2011 also saw significant political shifts that may have impacted the fortunes of television spiritual programming. That year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fell from grace among some of his most powerful supporters. Conservatives condemned the president’s circle for “deviant” spiritual tendencies. Several of Ahmadinejad’s aides were arrested and he was effectively turned into a lame-duck president for the remainder of his term. Around the same time, a range of state and non-state institutions took it upon themselves to curtail New Age spirituality and occultism, whether through censorship, prosecution, or propaganda. While it is difficult to draw a direct line between television spiritual shows and either the president’s circle or new forms of spirituality and occultism, some critics made exactly this connection. Others thought that a more diffuse preoccupation with the occult had both enabled problematic television depictions of the spiritual, and emboldened Ahmadinejad-style deviance.
Iranian state television continues to make shows that blend entertainment with moral-spiritual edification, but the experiment with spiritual TV series has been put on indefinite hiatus. Even so, the ghosts these shows unleashed into the public sphere still haunt the complex worlds of Iranian entertainment, religion, and politics.
For more on occultism and spirituality in Iran, see Alireza Doostdar, The Iranian Metaphysicals (Princeton University Press, 2018).
On Iranian religious cinema, see Nacim Pak-Shiraz, Shi‘i Islam in Iranian Cinema (I.B. Tauris, 2011) and The Qur’anic Epic in Iranian Cinema (Journal of Religion & Film, 2016), as well as Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, volume 3 (Duke University Press, 2012).
On Iranian horror, see Pedram Partovi, Girls’ Dormitory: Women’s Islam and Iranian Horror (Visual Anthropology Review, 2009).
For Iranian spiritual experiments with Hollywood horror and fantasy, see my forthcoming Hollywood Cosmopolitanisms and the Occult Resonance of Cinema.