Dead Places spoilers follow.
South African paranormal series Dead Places has now arrived on Netflix with its own take on ghosts and monsters. Across eight episodes, we learn that nothing is what it seems and things aren’t really dead.
Will Stone (Anthony Oseyemi), who authored a sensational book series around the macabre, becomes a paranormal detective probing strange happenings upon arriving home in Johannesburg.
Accompanied by go-lucky vlogger Kelly (Shamilla Miller), and straight-talking ex-cop Joe (Rea Rangaka), the trio make a Ghostbusters-esque team fighting for the souls of people who need help.
In doing so, Will’s own personal demons are stirred up too. His sister Rose drowned in a canal twenty years ago for which he blames himself, setting him on a path to figure what really happened. All along, the show set Rose's death up as a supernatural event, a mysterious machination no one could solve or explain.
That is, until the last episode, aptly titled 'The Truth', wherein viewers learn that Rose's demise was actually masterminded by Will’s trusted therapist, Dr Damons (David Butler). Checking back at the beginning, the first episode ominously wraps up with a presence looking through their laptop screen. They appear to be spying into Will’s apartment. With what we have seen in the finale, it turns out that the person secretly watching Will from the onset was Dr Damons, and for sinister reasons.
To understand his motivations and how the whole picture fits, we need to go over how Kelly singlehandedly connects her tragic past with Will’s haunted childhood. Will goes back to the canal where his sister died, this time with Kelly who picks up a rusted medical bracelet from the shallow waters and pockets it. At home, after the bracelet soaked overnight in alcohol and scrubbed, the name Stephen Cragg is revealed. Stephen Cragg is a police profiler who also happens to be an accomplice of Jeremy Shaw, Kelly’s abductor.
While in high school, Kelly was kidnapped by a man who pretends to be a new teacher, knocks her unconscious and puts her in his car. She manages to escape and subsequently experiences nightmares, which causes her to inflict cuts on her body.
Both Stephen Cragg and Jeremy Shaw orchestrated abductions together – Cragg working in the police while helping Shaw get away with the crimes. When Jeremy died, Stephen continued their criminal activity independently and was responsible for the abduction of Will’s sister those years ago.
How did we arrive at this? That’s because Stephen Cragg and Dr Damons are the same person. What the show doesn’t explicitly explain is that Stephen Cragg/Dr Damons wore a medical bracelet when he kidnapped Rose, and the tussle between them had made the bracelet come off and stay hidden. Dr Damons is a bit of a mad scientist, abducting people for a revolutionary experiment to "measure the effect of total emotional annihilation."
In other words, he tests the limit of pain and trauma that someone can bear. First, he isolates them in prison-like rooms and watches them closely through cameras. Then he physically batters them until they die and hides their bodies away in mass graves. Why are his victims young women? The show doesn’t elaborate on this, but it does seem like Dr Damon’s sadistic selection process is hinged on the notion that women can endure more pain and trauma than men.
To him, women are like lightning rods designed to absorb emotional and physical shocks. Kelly, Will’s sidekick, is a walking embodiment of absorbing pain, dealing with her emotional trauma by developing a coping mechanism of self-harm. At Dr Damons’ secret hideout which Will discovers with his gang, the face-off between them isn’t that satisfying given the brisk, limited exchange that ensues. "It’s time for people to discover my work," say Dr Damons, his tone defeatist but quietly triumphant.
Later on, Will finds the room his sister was held in and it brings his personal search for answers to an end. He also finds a moulded rubber face mask which Dr Damons had worn to conceal his true identity away from Will all this time.
Created by South African author and filmmaker Gareth Crocker, perhaps the greatest lesson from Dead Places is that monsters can be of supernatural origins and also man-made, and that deception can be a necessary tool in blurring these distinctions.
Dead Places is now available to watch on Netflix in certain regions.
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