This is an odd topic to look at – weirdness. What do I mean, and how do I come the the conclusion that it is ‘increasing’? This was a question I started wondering about when I noticed the proliferation of paranormal shows. And while I am prone to mock them – especially Ghost Adventures – it made me wonder what was making these all work. Unlike the true crime ‘murder porn’ driving Investigation Discovery, the slate of paranormal TV has to be fresh and unique. They can’t mine documented cases for content. So what’s going on?
First, let me be completely clear. I am highly skeptical of the entire paranormal show concept. In most of them, it seems like there is never anything concrete, never anything conclusive. All too often, it is a reaction to something never seen, despite ostensibly being on camera, followed by being told what happened, not shown. Audio is presented with helpful captions or the team all ‘hearing’ the same thing, which plants the suggestion in the viewer’s mind. Clever editing and post-event interviews combine with obviously (and openly) staged bumpers to enhance the ‘spooky’ elements. Add in the gizmos that all have technobabble names and easily could be triggered off-camera and you just have a recipe for deceiving the audience.
Second, I need to be clear about what I consider ‘paranormal TV’. I am specifically referring to shows who’s format is completely paranormal or supernatural. Unlike Wikipedia, I wouldn’t include Mysteries at the Museum (background on various items…not supernatural), River Monsters (fishing…and he usually finds the fish too), or Curse of Oak Island (not mainstream archaeology, but it is based on tangible items). I also mostly discount Bigfoot shows, since they are clowning around in a forest to find a creature always reported as ‘shy’. If that’s your thing, check out Survivorman Bigfoot. Conspiracy, aliens, pure psychic shows, etc. also don’t count as paranormal for this work. They are, in order, speculation, speculation, and fraud.
But for ghost shows, and this is important, they still make them, and at least one, Ghost Hunters, has been running since 2004. Why? How? And how is there enough content available to make as many of these shows as we have available?
Gullibility, Increase, Or Just Too Much Time To Fill?
It is tempting to default to the idea that there is too much time to fill, and something has to go there. I am sure there is something to that, of course, but I know enough about the way programming works to not fall fully into that camp. Simply put, if there was no audience, then the shows wouldn’t sell ads, and would be pulled for ones that did sell. So. that can’t be the sole reason.
The other thing I am thinking about is maybe best described as gullibility. We all tend to believe things we want to, and many of us want to believe in an afterlife. So, the ghost show plays off of that – there is something more, and we can continue after death. I don’t like that either, since the theme seems to be that ghosts, by and large, are either victims of obscene abuse and violence, or whiny, or just hateful. Not all, of course, but in the stuff I have seen, it’s pretty common. That doesn’t seem to be the kind of afterlife that would be attractive. Of course, there is a lot of ‘helping them pass on’ talk, but in the absence of anything conclusive, that is just talk. Declaring this expansion of content to just be due to gullibility also has, for me, more than a hint of arrogance, classism, and generally being an asshole. I am sure there is some level of gullibility at play…but I can’t in good faith say that it’s the driving factor.
Leaving an increase in useful examples of the paranormal. In this context, I just mean there is more happening, an acceleration, if you look at the political theory of the same name; allowing more content to be created without duplication. While we don’t have the dedicated network in the paranormal like we do for murder porn, it’s getting close. If we have more happening, then it make sense that we have more shows.
Increasing Paranormal Activity or Better Hoaxes?
One of the more…questionable…aspects of the slate of reality paranormal television is the technology aspect. From the Mel Meter used to measure “electromagnetic fields (EMF) and temperature changes”, to ‘ghost boxes’ (devices that sweep across radio frequencies at high speeds), to other gadgets that light up or make noise when they encounter electromagnetic interference – always attributed to spirits. And these devices are always presented as the gold standard in ghost detection, without demonstrating any evidence to that claim. Of course, all these devices have at least one, often multiple, antennas, which opens the skeptical (and logical) question of ‘can they be controlled off-camera’.
In the early days, mediums and other paranormal promoters would have people hidden in other rooms, under tables, etc. to manipulate things, make noises, and generally sell the experience. These days, on camera, you can easily have a producer off in the production van triggering things by remote control. Since the entire experience is constructed to be as isolating and suggestive as possible, making these devices go off helps sell the idea. Further, the members of the team, and any semi-random fans they include, are tremendously predisposed to believe there is something happening. Making devices trigger easily pushes people so conditioned to see what the producers want. Technology, especially custom technology like this, is a truly weak point in the genre, and something that maybe needs to be overcome.
I started watching some of these through the gateway drug that is Ozzy Osbourne. In the series ‘The Osbournes Want To Believe’, son Jack, a paranormal investigator, tries to sell his parents on the idea that ghosts, UFOs, cryptids, and so forth exist. He has a lot of interesting footage, and the totally disconnected responses from his parents makes for some fun watching. This series led to a one-off special ‘The Osbournes’ Night of Terror’. If you haven’t seen this, it is worth a watch.
In brief, the plot is that Jack and Kelly head off to investigate the supposedly haunted Heritage Square in Los Angeles. Kelly expects that Jack will be messing with her (siblings, right?), and is mostly blowing the whole thing off. Ozzy & Sharon remain at home, watching on monitors. This was shot during COVID, so these precautions make sense. Ozzy is also 72, so walking around at night in strange houses is likely a bad idea at any time. Anyway, Kelly more or less loses her shit at what she encounters, and winds up fully on board with the idea that there is something out there. Which is nice and all, but the parts that kind of sold me were the scenes of the producers freaking out. That was new, since the producers and crew on paranormal shows never freak out. Ever. The talent does, often very theatrically, but never the crew. Until this one, where they had a crew that did. That alone made me pay attention. The random things opening also helped, since they happened in the background, surprised the crew, and were not easily explained. Yes, there was also the usual nonsense, but those few gems helped sell it.
Other shows, like Holzer Files, have had some interesting audio, better than average (but still not conclusive) video, and they take an approach that focuses on historical research more than some others. They also focus on their own results, where they could simply recreate the work they are using as inspiration. That adds a layer of believably, especially when they directly contradict their source.
What this all leads me to wonder is if there is something there, something more than we might otherwise consider. The paranormal has always had some popularity, but the audience needed to support the amount of content being created today seems to support the idea that there is something there. Further, the change in what these shows, or some of them, are showing is interesting. More and more often there is some physical event on camera that is harder to dismiss – although there is still no video of anything conclusive. There is better audio, played without comment from the cast, allowing one to hear what is there before they plant suggestions. The crew and producers are reacting, adding believability.
2020 has been a weird year. Finding out that paranormal shows are actually on to something wouldn’t be too far out of bounds. Not in a year with random monoliths appearing around the world, a global pandemic that shut the world down, and so on.
I remain a paranormal skeptic. I also have to admit that either they are far better at faking it than they used to be, or maybe…just maybe…there is something out there.