I’ve always hoped that I might one day see something so alien in composition as to be utterly dazzling — Bigfoot, a chupacabra, a ghost, or a UFO would be cool. Sadly, I’ve yet to come across anything of this ilk.
And so, in an effort to satiate this appetite, I used to stream a variety of paranormal talk radio shows off the Net. What became clear was that people were reporting and discussing subjective realities as opposed to objective ones. This is fine, and on a spiritual and mystical level, which is where I place paranormal phenomena, makes perfect sense to me, but the preponderance of the calls had the scent of desperation, even mental illness to them. In these cases it wasn’t’ “seeing is believing” but “believing is seeing,” and listening to them day after day began to feel like living in an insane asylum.
And so, of course, I turned to the television, almost instantly becoming fixated on the plethora of ghost hunting shows that populate the landscape. By now the template for this genre is well known. A bunch of “investigators” searching for hard proof of the paranormal, are sent into some haunted residence and then filmed in night-vision cameras freaking out.
The camera leaps about in disorienting fits, as if tossed about by some poltergeist, and the edits are flashing by at such a dizzying velocity that it seems like compete pandemonium has broken out. Embellishing this already heavily manipulated scenario is creep show music and evil sound effects that amplify even the faintest shuffle to an imposing thunder. In short, it’s the visual manifestation of panic.
“Most Haunted,” which debuted in 2002, was the first one of this type that I started to watch. It was set primarily in the UK and it had the appealing ambiance of a travelogue. In the comforts of daylight, we learned about the dark histories of the mysterious and decaying estates we were visiting. The rotting opulence of many of these places was in and of itself fascinating, but when it was layered with tales of murder — often through primitive instruments of war — and the forlorn ghosts that have wandered the corridors for centuries, well, it was compelling stuff that quite brilliantly set you up for the next step.
And so, when darkness fell, the hyper-excitable investigative team entered into the haunted house and spent the night there, documenting whatever took place. Which was nothing. Nothing ever took place. Ever. No matter, this documentation of nothing was done in such a panicked and violent frenzy, that you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the midst of a collapsing building.
Another show that I recently came across on the paranormal circuit was “Ghost Hunters Academy.” On this program, which is kind of like “The Apprentice” only with the possibility of apparitions, two “experienced” paranormal investigators school five young newcomers in the arts of paranormal investigation, with the cream of the crop being invited to appear on one of the parent franchises, “Ghost Hunters” or “Ghost Hunters International.”
Whether intentional or not, this show is utterly hysterical. Vibrating with sexual tension, it’s little more than 30 seconds in the closet with the threat of demons. Shot in night-vision, which at this point is probably more likely to conjure images of sex tapes than ghosts or serial killers, pairs of inexperienced, vulnerable, and curious young adults are sent into dark rooms and told to use their senses.
In one passage, two college-aged guys sat in some pitch-black dungeon of a room. One of them, hunky, dim, and eager to please, swore he felt something brush his arm. Nothing brushed his arm, but all the same he got excited and scared, which got the other guy, bespectacled and fey, excited and scared, too. Squeezing just a little bit closer to the hunk, the little guy shouted out in a quivering voice, ” Spirit, if you’re present, touch Sean again!”
While this was taking place, the two paranormal investigative instructors watched on a surveillance camera. Voyeuristic and kinky, it felt like the set-up to a coming-of-age gay porn flick. “Spirit, if you’re present, slowly run your fingers through Sean’s hair!”
Evidence of the paranormal?
Evidence of the sexually frustrated?
I think that my favorite show within the genre is A & E’s “Paranormal State,” which features a team of college-aged ghost hunters traveling about America investigating various claims of phenomena. This show also capitalizes on the implicit sexual tension that shared fear generates, but it doesn’t make it the primary undercurrent of the investigation. “Paranormal State” is therapeutic in tone.
The vulnerability and need of the people, both those who claim the haunting and those who search for the haunting, is conspicuous, and you can see how desperately they yearn for some unseen force to assume responsibility for the confusing and often unhappy circumstance they find themselves in.
Chip Coffey, an effeminate man in his 50s, is one of the mediums who frequently appears on the show. Whenever he verbalizes something he’s sensed, he looks around for approval, and when he gets it, encouraged, he pushes forward with yet more theatrical details. You can see in him a need to be liked, to be valued, as if he were an outsider all of his life who finally found a welcoming niche in the paranormal.
I saw one episode in which Chip, while apparently experiencing the presence of a particularly malignant spirit, freaked out. Spinning in circles and waving his arms about like a boy being taunted at recess, Chip, in the pitch-black darkness, started shouting, “I WILL NOT BE BULLIED!!” at an invisible presence.
It was impossible not to notice that he was yelling at something that wasn’t actually there, and it became clear that Chip was likely shrieking at a ghost from his own unhappy past, and not somebody else’s.
Although “Paranormal State” sets off trying to release spirits who spend eternity stalking the same unhappy routes that they did in life from the condemnation of a mortal realm, the truth is that they’re really addressing the pain of the people that see the ghosts, for it’s the living who are tortured, and not the dead.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.