"What I'm dealing with is so vast and great that it can't be called the truth. It's above the truth." - Sun Ra

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Guide to Cable's Paranormal / Ghost-Hunting TV Shows

"You're talking about a dimension no one can pinpoint or explain." 
- Former skeptic, A Haunting

If one wished, one could spend a lifetime (and beyond) watching ghost and paranormal shows on cable--there are so damn many. That's fine by me, a man who considers the art of telling ghost stories a sacred rite, and who knows it's important that they seem true. No ghost story is scary if the teller prefaces with "I just made this all up" -that would be lame. It's always "this totally happened to me, or a friend of mine's aunt and uncle heard it from an old shopkeeper at the edge of town..." or something. This idea that it needs to be possibly true, that it may have happened, years ago, is what myth is all about. After all, most kids suspect Santa Clause is not really real, but maybe he is... and maybe is enough for the magic to work. I'm into that 'maybe...' I live for it. I revile the (so-called) skeptics small-minded compulsion to debunk, to make sure it's etched in stone in front of City Hall that there are no ghosts, no Santa, no God. (These are not true skeptics - a true skeptic doesn't refuse to believe with a fervor bordering on dogma, they keep an open mind. If there's no ghosts or Santa, what do they care? Would they go to Disney World and make sure the kids know all the pirates and monsters are animatronic mannequins? Would they make sure everyone at the Louvre knows their precious Rodin sculpture is just a giant hunk of stone?

If a skeptic ever deigns to do the research, they may even come to believe that supernatural phenomena abound upon the Earth, that there's no difference between reality and consensual imagination. When some smug rationalist or science major calls it all a lot of bunk, maybe he's just showing his fear of the unknown and demonstrating a very unscientific refusal to entertain the experiences and perceptions of others when they conflict with his (or rather his thesis professor's) idea of how the world works. Until something supernatural has happened to him personally he doesn't believe it, just like illegal drugs are evil and dangerous unless he tries them, or he's anti-gay marriage unless he has a lesbian daughter, or anti-immigration unless he was raised by the maid.

If you watch these cable TV ghost shows enough you will come to hate such narrow-minded skeptics. Because time and again you see examples of how their dismissive intolerant attitude regularly endangers the welfare of their pets, wives and children. It also serves to counteract why we come to these shows in the first place, to feel a shred of the wonder and mystery of the unknown we felt as kids who didn't understand the world around them. On some level it might be good to ignore spiritual activity, but on another that elephant in the room might just sit on your face if that's what it has to do to get your attention. It's like beating your children for bothering you with their 'lies' about being bullied in school, or burning someone to teach them there's no such thing as fire. As a scared child, my dad would put a note on my closet and on my door forbidding monsters to enter. He didn't tell me there weren't any, didn't insult my certainty - in putting up the notes he acted as a shaman in a primitive society. If you believe in the one, then the other is just as valid. Placebos can work miracles.

On the other extreme is something I also dislike, known as inductive reasoning, which overtakes a lot of ghost hunters in their bid for scientific credibility. This is where an investigator in an allegedly shadow person-filled room sees reflections thrown around by passing cars outside, and so automatically debunks the sightings. End. Thus no orbs count as evidence, because some might be bugs. That's what I mean by inductive reasoning. If you need physical evidence for something to be real to you--if no sensory perception is valid--then by your same logic no crime ever committed by someone who has effectively covered their tracks has ever happened. Where is the evidence to suggest anyone can effectively conceal evidence? With that attitude it's a wonder science has made the leaps it has.

The following have been classified, not as best or worst--who cares?--but by believability, chill factor, pros, cons, and if applicable, 'leader prick factor. Note: "Believability" doesn't imply it's true; it means that it feels authentic enough to add to the chill factor. If it feels scary then I'm a believer, whether I think it's true or not. It's more fun to believe, at least for the length of the show. It's not like the ghosts are asking for money, or trying to bilk our rich aunt through a shady fortune-telling racket.

In the interest of science, I also liken each show to a drink or a drug, both analogous to the content and recommended while viewing.

Lastly, if you have a cat, it's recommended you fire up the laser pointer and get her chasing the red dot around the room while watching these ghost shows. This will situate the cat and yourself in a metatextual fractal chain with the events onscreen. The cat finds the very elusive, impossible strangeness of the glowing red dot both baffling and exciting, sometimes frustrating but always beguiling; if he could write a book or do a documentary perhaps he'd battle the issue of whether the red dot is real or just a manmade hoax. Are ghosts perhaps the red dot our higher power flashes to keep us running around, interested and engaged in an otherwise rather uninteresting environment? Think it over - if you have an answer, you're wrong. 

Part one: 

My Ghost Story: Caught on Camera
Spook Factor - 6
Believability - 6.5

"I wuz a skeptic fer a lawng tayme."

This is the only one of these shows where the actual witnesses of hauntings re-enact the actual situations wherein they captured their ghost evidence, including going back to the scene and then having the editor intercut their actual footage and photos with new footage of the actual witnesses taking the pictures (or, as most call them, "pitchers").

There's always debunkers against orbs such as the ones this show's so fond of, but whatever. You watch these shows long enough you come to believe that ghosts exist, so who cares if something or other might be a bug or dust particle? On the other hand, it's important to remember we're hardwired to find faces hidden in everything (anthropomorphic pareidolia), it's good for survival in the woods (we can spot bigfoot in the trees) but bad for restful sleep when alone in a house surrounded by gnarled, rustling, scraping branches. 

But this show is undone by paredolia. Some My Ghost Story witnesses see in the smoky blurs of smudged windows and light reflection: arms, hats, smiles, eyes, feet. If you look really closely at the thing in the window above, for example, it kind of looks like some crude monster face but does that mean it's anything but a trick of light? No, it doesn't, but isn't it adorable someone genuinely believes otherwise? The bottom pane even looks like a giant doberman dog's face staring out, and the man at the top is wearing an eyeball Asian rice hat - representing the third eye and commonly used in masonic ceremony... and he's buying a stair... way... to heav...ven.

can you spot the hangin' lady? 

Pros: There's 4-5 stories per hour episode, so if one is a little ridiculous, another is right on its heels. Since there's so much evidence there's little time wasted. And if the evidence is good then the holy shit moments come fast and furious.
Cons: There's an occasional lapse of good editing judgment and talking heads have a tendency to ramble on. Also, during the talking head portions, some darker lighting choices and face-blurring could be made in the service of positive dentistry. Some of the faces these people see in the orbs and window grime are funny, some downright ridiculous. And the producers on this show should read up on that old anthrophomorhic pareidolia because the ridiculous parts cheapen the rest.

Drug of Choice:  Pabst Blue Ribbon, Skoal

A Haunting
Discovery Channel
Spook Factor - 8
Believability - 7
Re-enacting the story as it's being told is good for laffs if the acting is really bad and chills when it isn't. If the story involves numerous witnesses who all show up for deposition taping, as in the Northern England pub haunting for the stellar episode, "The Wheatsheaf Horror," the overall effect-- and happy ending with everyone drinking for free at the communal table as the sun slowly comes up--is cathartic enough that you might feel drained and optimistic for the future, though I'm a sucker for stories that go all night and end still drinking as the sun comes up.

Throughout the various true stories, we learn important things about history, the psychic stain left in crystal deposits by traumatic murders, and how to get rid of ghosts should they ever appear. My opinion's always been: why not burn a lot of sage, every few days, just in case? The show makes good use of shadow figures; demons are appropriately scary; and a real nightmare effect comes regularly when parents are intolerant doubters. Skepticism gets hostile when challenged, so no one believes the pets--who are first to freak out and bark at corners--then the kids see something but no one believes them, the parents think the kid scratched himself to get attention... and then the dad thinks the wife is just crazy once she starts seeing shit, and then finally the dad sees something he can't explain and so the family finally reaches lazily for their laptops and contacts a paranormal group. Experts come in; the rationales behind EMF detectors and EVP recorders are explained...

Pros - Great deep, resonant voiceover work by Anthony Call, with just a bit of creepiness, not enough that it's tacky, just enough that it's fun. It's pretty great how much more attractive some of these jokers become when their stories are re-enacted by up-and-coming TV actors. Without that significant bump in hotness this would just be like My Ghost Story only without any actual evidence (they never show ghost crew footage or play the tapes).
Cons - Smaller cases can drag and drag, and when they decide to employ more scripted dialogue instead of just letting the heads do the talking, the badness of some the actors and writing really shines through.
Drug of Choice: caffeine + hangover

School Spirits
Spook Factor - 8
Believability - 8
Kind of a parallel to A Haunting in overall style. The college atmosphere ensures the proper pronunciation of 'pictures' and other tricky words. As one expert intones, freshmen year is already traumatic enough on its own, which both might explain some sightings and even cause them, as ghosts love to feed on the unstable energy of insecure, lost, confused young adults.

The above picture is interesting as the mask behind this screaming actress looks both like Tom Cruise's orgywear in Eyes Wide Shut, a poster for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and a grey alien. So... is there a correlation between demons, ghosts, aliens, Arnold, and Tom Cruise? Glad ya axed!

Pros: College is where ghost stories go to ferment... a  perfect storm of students looking to bond through intense retellings of myths and explorations of psyche, and high literacy lends credence to the witnesses, of which there are always several.
Cons: The whiplash editing is enough to create a panic attack all on its own.
Drug of Choice: Whatever you can score from that junior down the hall.

The Haunted
Animal Planet
Spook Factor - 8.5
Believability - 9
The tragic thing about these stories is the length of time it takes for the tortured, terrified animals (emphasized as it's on Animal Planet)--horses in the barn; cats and dogs in the house--to be taken seriously when they react to entities we can't see with our jaded eyes. Who wants to see these pet owners shrugging off their animal's suffering, watching their pets losing weight, stopping eating, losing their fur, getting into fights, barking and pleading and whining? Whole weeks go by while these dimwit humans watch their animals slowly die of stress and fear while doing nothing whatsoever to help them. Then again, they're not all like that. In one there's a ghost cat! Sometimes the animals get to ride out most of it on the sidelines, lucky stiffs.

Pros: Generally only really intense cases are reported, and unlike A Haunted, it always blends in actual paranormal team video and EVP evidence where applicable, and with enough talking heads it can reach a real land speed creepiness.
Cons: The narration is all directly from the participants, with the story advanced by intertitles, so the momentum can drag. There is no recreation as such, at least not with human actors - it's just B-roll of the house (or 'a' house) and the surrounding area, trees and stop signs mostly, via long pans and/or shots of pets, close-ups of tchochkes, etc. FCP effects all vaguely connected to the talking heads.
That's not to say it's not well-edited.

Drug of Choice: Ketamine

Paranormal Witness
Spook Factor - 10
Believability -9.5
An excellent hybrid of recreations and first-person accounts, this show tries to outscare its competition--A Haunting, The Haunted--by eliminating any possibility of resolution. If ghost investigation teams are called we may see their evidence but they're generally depicted as being quite useless, which makes it all the scarier.

If priests are called in, they blame the house's inhabitants for the trouble by citing things like plastic pirate skulls inside the fish tank (demonic!) and then go and call child services after doing absolutely nothing to help. While this may not be comforting or offer much resolution, it's definitely scarier to think of the church as hostile and useless, almost more of a threat than the demons. The re-enacting is better quality than most, and all the cowering and crying and screaming is well-done, and scary as hell, if annoying (Why don't they just get out of the house, even if it's just to sleep in their damned car? Or look in the library if there's no internet yet and call Ed and Lorraine Warren?)

Pros-- The show picks only the most extreme cases and shoehorns smaller cases at the end of the hour if there's room rather than rely on filler. Photographic evidence is included where possible, like the image of an investigator tied by the neck to an attic rafter in the new season's premiere episode (left). Unlike all the other shows on this list, PW also covers UFO and Bigfoot encounters, and when there's multiple witnesses it makes for a really startling, convincing heap of evidence.

Cons -- Very little self-reliance or courage is shown. As with The Haunted, so often those who suffer are animals and children, harassed and terrorized by spirits only to have closed-minded, bullying dads come home and ignore the happenings, and dismiss their family's fears as the prattling of imbeciles who want to rob him of much needed sleep.

Drug of Choice: Mandrake root

Ghostly Encounters
Spook Factor - 3
Believability - 4
This show vaguely tries to hide its Canadian origins, but there's plenty other things here to rankle one's Yankee staidness, like a trite opening theme that's equal parts faux Elfman/Burton whimsy and Masterpiece Theater PBS pomp; a host (Lawrence Chow) so blandly professional in style and tone he could be introducing anything from a vacuum infomercial to a 'welcome to jury duty' video. And his head is either too wide, or his footage has unnaturally stretched.

Pros: I think the show is here in the State on Bio because there just aren't enough Celebrity Ghost Stories to go around. Yet, it's also, in its way, better than Celebrity Ghost Stories, maybe because these everyday Canadians are less familiar to us, therefore more believable.
Cons: Then again, like Celebrity Ghost Stories, these are all re-enactments of single-witness testimony--no corroboration and no evidence. Those Canadians may be too trusting, or maybe they're right to be. Even Chow's backdrop is all wrong, like he stepped out to the porch during a wedding reception to get this over with before going back in to his real job as a hotelier.
Drug of Choice: skunked Molsons

Celebrity Ghost Stories
Spook Factor - 5
Believability - 4
As with Ghostly Encounters, this involves a talking head telling the story directly to camera intercut with re-enactments by no-name actors. Knowing these people are professional actors and/or celebs themselves, who will do or say nearly anything to get on camera, makes these tales sometimes resonate less than they might with just anonymous Canadians or total strangers as subjects. Occasionally a story is so hopelessly 'familiar' that astute viewers may get the impression there's a pile of campfire ghost tale scripts on set in case visiting celebs don't have one of their own. Sometimes these tales just seem trite and self-serving: Rowdy Roddy Piper fills us in with his whole life story before the reveal that his dead wrestling buddy was protecting his family. Hey, I'm happy for him and like his work in They Live and Hell Comes to Frogtown, but c'mon, man - don't get treacly. Others recount their darkest pre-frame moment, when they were saved from a grungy overdose by a shimmering dead grandmother. Nice, but again, boring as hell and self-serving way to just to tell your life story onscreen.

Pros: There's something surreal about seeing no-name actors re-enacting the memories of famous actors who speak directly into the camera. It's meta! And when it's good, it's very riveting, for in the end, don't hauntings exist for the re-telling? That's what myth is!

Especially interesting are cases of when celebrities are haunted by ghosts of dead celebrities, thus completing the chain (since no-name actors will then impersonate both parts for the recreation!): we see Debbie Gibson haunted by Liberace; Beverly De Angelo by Mama Cass; Kaya Jones by Dorothy Dandridge; Ellen Barkin by Sonja Henie, to name a few. Maybe it's because they all live in the same old Hollywood mansions and travel to a lot of weird overseas hotels, but after watching this show I think it's also something to do with mystery of celebrity itself. Maybe the sudden surge of spiritual power an artist feels when they go from struggling anonymity to staggering success--sometimes overnight-- generates a bright spotlight in the dark that attracts has-been spirits looking for one more minute of fame? A famous persona must be hard to let go after you're dead, and maybe if you don't let go... you can't transcend and you get stuck wafting through the sidpa bardo, looking for that spotlight in the darkness?

Cons: Some of these seem like little more than tall tales made up on the spot: the worst is Marilyn Manson's alleged high school memory of reading the Necronomicon aloud in an excavated cellar discovered in a field in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night after stealing the book from his friend's brother's pig intestine-bedecked Satanic altar. First of all, it seems pretty unlikely that, after seeing a big bloody altar up in a barn loft, Manson and his buddy would want to up the ante on their own elsewhere; but the main craw-sticker to the story--as an alleged super freak like Manson should know--is that the Necronomicon isn't a real book! There might be 'fake' editions created by diehard Lovecraft fans, but it was a ficcione invented by Lovecraft for his Chthulu mythos, which was then borrowed by other writers (like August Derleth).

Still, even if these all ain't true, or scary, it's fascinating --with ghost celebs like Deanna Durbin and Errol Flynn and girls who died in parties at Rita Hayworth's mansion, etc.--encountering one another, and the way the tellers really embellish and relish every syllable provides insight into the celebrity gift of enhancing even the smallest gesture with dramatic flourish.

META BONUS ROUND! -My favorite for total metatextual ouroboros Moebius looop-de-loopiness: Melissa George, the actress who played real-life haunting victim Kathy Lutz (the wife) in the recent remake of Amytiville Horror, talks about being haunted on the Amityville set! The Celebrity Ghost Stories crew recreate the behind-the-scenes footage of George being haunted during the shoot (the remake was filmed at a real, similar-looking house, not the same one, but I guess it didn't matter to the ghost). Think about it a minute: here we have a professional young actress recounting a real haunting on the set of a remake of a 70s film about a real-life haunting --that's like two stops of real paranormal and three stops of meta-reflective recreation-- and the footage shot by the show to illustrate her story is even color-styled to look really washed-out and old, even though the remake came out just a few years ago! The only way it could be any more meta would be if the actress who plays Lutz in the re-enactment had a ghostly encounter on the Celebrity Ghost Story set and it just went deeper into infinity from there.

Drug of Choice: cocaine and Xanax - at a party attended by the ghost of Samuel Fuller.

Haunted History
History Channel
Spook Factor - 3
Believability - 3
There's a "though at times unnerving, these spirits are part of the rich history of this Colorado landmark" kind of tour guide banality to this one You can't conjure true spooky believability when it might make your tourist bureau richer to paint them as benign actors in suspiciously unsoiled period clothes. When people are interviewed it's generally while they are at the historic sites and their filmed at a crooked, low angle, for extra-scarifying!

Pros: Informative, some talking heads don't seem like they've told the story three thousand times already during their tour-giving career. I'm a big fan of the super hammy-scary John Glover narration, though he over-stresses nearly every other word. 
Cons: The tacky period piece bits always seem like you're watching a live historic re-enactment with your mom and some other tourist snapping pictures over your shoulder. 
Drug of Choice: old-fashioned opium resin


Ghost Adventures
Travel Channel
Spook Factor - 10
Believability - 8
Some of these show dudes feel like they have a big mission to save people, rescuing troubled, haunted families. The Ghost Adventures boys on the other hand are in it to scare themselves shitless, to go deeper and darker and evoke some old school ballyhoo and in the process fulfill their Travel Channel obligations (showing the countryside, local history) and work towards their overall mission of legitimizing their field and letting those haunted at home watching know they're not alone. Some research teams go to the small homes and families in need, the GA crew tackle big empty prisons, demonic locales like Bob Mackey's Music World and skeevy landmarks like the Shanghai Tunnels in Portland. These are dudes who are going into dark, scary places and as Aaron says in the Return to Bobby Mackey's episode, "starting to like it." As the seasons continue these boys look more and more like ghosts themselves --they're nocturnal, like boozy vampires or blackjack dealers. I keep imagining them investigating my apartment, and me trying to kick them out but they're transparent, and can't hear me. Are they dead or am I?

These three are like the guys who you meet on the first day of summer camp and first you're a little skeeved out by their tattoos, but then suddenly someone says "Dude! What the hell was THAT?" in the dead of night when none of you can sleep, and not only do you suddenly dig them, you're scared shitless together - bonded by fear. Plus you have to dig the eagle eye view of their boilerplate boy's group pecking order - Zak - the arrogant narcissistic leader who presumes every girl he interviews wants to sleep with him, regardless of her age or living/dead status; Nick - the beta male, second-in-command; Aaron - the whipping boy, tagging up the rear, the comic relief, though slowly losing weight as the seasons accrue (demonic attacks will do that). You can imagine being inside the places with these guys, and they get a lot of good evidence (some of it has to be real). It helps that they travel with--as Zak says in the intro,--"with no big camera crews following us around" and their shoot-from-the-hip kinetic style is refreshing. 

Pros: The evidence is reviewed on the spot, the EVPs are played as they're caught, a bunch of times, like a tape loop rap, so that by the time the sun comes up the credits are coming up too, rather than the patient slogs through evidence and final presentation that render tedious some of the other investigator shows.
Cons:  It's a bit off-putting when Zak does the expository dialogue with innocent bystanders, boasting to them about how he eats tattoo-hating ghost nuns for breakfast, or whatever. And the flash cuts to goofy hardcore horror images are dumb and ineffective.

Leader's Prick Factor - Zak's a douche not a prick, but since he's just with two other dudes and living in scary dark basements on a nightly basis it counts more as needed whistle-in-the-dark bravado than skeeviness (for now - I worry about him ten years down the road). Every group of dudes has an alpha wiseguy acting all douchey, who picks on the tech guy and thinks every girl they meet automatically wants him... it's just the way packs of dudes are. Also there's the whole sadomasochistic edge to his obsession with the lock-down: "This is how the Ghost Adventure's crew gets locked down!"
Drug of Choice: Whiskey!

Ghost Hunters 
Spook Factor - 2
Believability - 10
These guys are so chill. This is the most relaxing ghost doc. in the world. They're the Xanax of ghost hunting. Unfortunately, while thoroughly professional, they never catch shit as far as evidence. It doesn't help that unlike Ghost Adventures these guys do have a big camera crew following them around. They're being filmed but not what they see. So we see them team looking for ghosts, but seldom if ever to we get a look at the ghosts themselves. The director doesn't seem worried about evidence --the show's money shot is to catch their faces looking scared or surprised in the green light of night vision.

Pros: Investigator Kris Williams looks great in night vision.  You can watch a whole day marathon and not get too bored, or excited, for that matter. It's the NPR of ghost docs.
Cons: The documentary crew for the reality show are never any help in getting evidence, so the result is we basically follow the crew around and then we sit with them while they examine all their footage. Like watching someone sift sandzzz.

Leader Prick Factor - N/A, Jason Hawes is pretty cool  - a kind of mega chill Louis CK of ghost hunters
Drug of Choice: Diet Sarsaparilla and Laudanum.

Ghost Hunters International
Spook Factor - 4
Believability - 9
Well, here's the little sister of the main GH show. These guys take it on themselves to decide if a place is haunted or not. The gist is they have a lot of personal experiences (being touched, etc.), and occasionally they get an EVP but they almost never get any photographic evidence. Part of this is their yen for debunking, but debunk too much and you become like Obama thinking he can appease Republicans. No skeptic is going to watch the show anyway, and if they do your debunking isn't going to reduce their sneering level. And by going to an ancient Italian church and announcing their holy 'crying pillar' is just suffering water leakage, who are you doing a favor to? You're robbing the magic of God, squashing myths to make the world a duller place.

Pros - Their insistence on speaking English to all ghosts, irregardless of the country they're in, is hilariously on point for the idiot American tourist archetype. Occasionally there's a real freak to interview, such as the girl at left, who appears in the fourth or fifth episode of the first season (avail on Netflix Streaming). She livens it up a piece.
Cons - Like their stateside brother GHI never gets more than a few trifling EVPs.... and their insistence on debunking and inductive reasoning gets annoying and defeats the purpose. Just because the orbs could be dust doesn't mean they are - it's like saying all dust particles are spirit orbs. It gets pretty maddening that they have all these cameras and never get any evidence; they just see shadow people and run away. 

Leader Prick Factor - Robb Demarest is the official leader early on and his Manson-esque eyes, meth head hair, weak chin, and perennial cowboy stubble evince a strong, skeevy leader.  Still, he left when Syfy told him if his team didn't start getting some more evidence, some special ghost ringers would have to be flown in (rumor has it), so don't doubt he's got character. Better is multilingual Barry Fitzpatrick (from Ireland), but but both can get very sanctimonious about their hallowed chair of decision-making on what is and isn't haunted. Dude, you guys show up for a few hours and get a few EVPs and think you've done all that needs to be done, and that you are the bellwether expert court opinion? I'd get a second one. You can look into the darkness, but don't rob us of our myths!
Drug of Choice: Librium

Ghost Lab
Discovery Channel
Spook Factor - 0.003
Believability - 10
Come with good old boy Texas brothers Barry and Brad Klinge in their giant trailer ghost lab to various spots around the country, there to set up an elaborate 'net' of EVP recorders and cameras, all for a night or two before moving on. The Kinge crew are their own roadies, so there's a lot of packing up and unpacking involved in each episode. While the show is consistent, the amount of evidence never seems to warrant their cohesive approach. There's not much point to do all that wiring unless you're going to stay for weeks. Seems to me.

Pros: Overall its convincing; there's a girl, Katie Burr (above) to provide some relief from the facial and leg hair (the boys always wear shorts),. She seems like a real girl, too--someone they know, not assigned by the network.
Cons: When you look at the relative evidence garnered on these shows, it seems more and more like the more crap you bring and set up the less you actually get. And these dudes have a lot of crap.

Leader's Prick Factor - None. These brothers seem like genuinely cool dudes. I like that Brad gets all psyched when they get evidence and starts to swagger around.
Drug of Choice: A half-gone, but still cold, keg of Busch.

Paranormal State
Spook Factor - 7
Believability - 5
I've read a thing deriding the show as a hoax (see here) and saying the team's leader, Ryan Buell, is a hopelessly vain control freak, and I can certainly see that. But on the other hand, these documentaries are all about sleight of hand wrought by reality show producers, a sleight of hand not necessarily belonging the team being documented. Every layer adds deception - so if the family's concerns are legit, and the team documenting the family is legit, the team documenting the team documenting the family may not be. You might capture some weird shit in your investigation and you might not -- maybe the ghosts are sleeping or staying with a friend the night you show up. The cameras still need to get a show, a money shot, a bump in the night to keep us glued through all the commercials for catheters and auto loans; so they always make it seem like some big bump is about to be discovered. Then, after the commercial, no bump, it was just the wind.

In an interview Buell said "As with any reality show, the realness of what happens on screen seems to always come into question." Buell said that he often tells the producers that different things they ask for can't be done." You can guess the rest... if you're psychic... or understand video editing.

Pros: I like the idea of Ryan having a whole rolodex of experts, healers, shamen, therapists, and even exorcist Father Bob Bailey he can call as needed. When it's serious demon attack time, that's when all  reservations about the Catholic church are abandoned like an atheist in the foxhole.
Cons: The half-hour length makes things feel rushed, especially with the heavy exorcism and Native American spirit haunting cases. Make it an hour, y'all, and just do two cases if one is a bust.
Drug of Choice: Adderall

Leader's Prick Factor - High. Ryan gets a few points shaved off for the excuse that he's young and TV can make you vain. Is he any worse than Zak from Ghost Adventures? Well, yes. But he is quick to acknowledge his own errors, though his self-serious pomp must annoy the hell out of his team. 

cCritic's log - final entry: Upon closer investigation I think Ryan's desire to help others is genuine. Indeed, it's hard to do what he does without a strong moral compass, and you can't blame him if he falls in line with A&E's attempt to model the show around him in a cult of personality.

Destination Truth
Spook Factor - 6
Believability - 7
I have some doubts about whether this show belongs in this list. They only occasionally look for ghosts and then only in colorful, mostly outdoor locales (usually they're hunting exotic monsters). Still there's enough ghost stuff it's worth including. Team leader Josh Gates looks and acts like if he wasn't hunting ghosts and monsters he'd be inventing Cliff Bars or going wherever his Mastercard takes him, but his crew includes some cute girls who clearly know what the hell they're doing. As usual with these shows the truth proves continuously slippery and lack of evidence is covered up by the editors to imply something wild is always around the next commercial break. And there's some great episodes, like when they go to Mexico's awesome creepy doll island (see top image).

Pros: They seem to always almost get some real good evidence; travelogue factor is extreme -- going to places no one ever goes, looking for the monsters only they would know. Crew memner Erin Ryder is cute and looks good in night vision. There's occasionally the hot girl investigators from other Syfy shows, like Fact or Faked's Jael de Pardo.

Cons: Although they do make some attempts to not be disrespectful, the implication is if they don't find evidence the local witnesses are nuts. In places like Iceland, where the team goes to investigate elves, their attitude is downright snotty. If you had magical creatures in your backyard would you want a bunch of obnoxious TV dudes with video cameras traipsing around deciding whether you're crazy or it's real enough to warrant your property be besieged by reporters and monster hunters for seasons to come? What a choice. Those elves need to be invisible because of ugly American attitudes like this.
Drug of Choice: ayahuasca, drunk in the Amazon basin with an experienced shaman, who you then throw up on and don't even apologize.

Leader's Prick Factor -  Josh Gates is blandly handsome, if you ask his producers --they fetishize his leadership and shorts and shortsleeves. That said, he is rather ballsy: scuba diving into dark underwater caverns in the dead of night, etc., and he keeps a levelheaded sense of humor.

The Haunted Collector
Spook Factor - 4.2
Believability -3
"Now that the item has been removed, I can get back to tranquility," notes one lucky client. This guy who removes it, John Staffis may be be legit but how come on no other show are objects haunted? I can do a good impression of his Boston accent in the opening credits when he announces "Spirts may sometimes attach themselves to ahhb-jects" And how come every episode covers two cases and both are always solved when one symbolic object is found and removed?

For the new season, John's brought a long a dull debunker. I'm so bored of debunkers. Will this addition convince skeptics? Wouldn't they have to watch it first? They're not watching, John. Sorry. Second, for the debunker: do you really think 'average' people can't tell the difference between a gust of wind and a ghost? Most people intrinsically know the difference, and it's not your job to just presume no one is as smart as you are; that's not what a ghost hunter is. It's not even what a skeptic is. What it is is being a wiseass just asking to get clocked in the kisser by a blunt ahh-bject.

Frankly, whenever there's too much attention to debunking I smell a con. Thou dost protest too much. The second problem is that-- even with debunking in effect,--Staffis magically finds, without fail, some cool tchotchke stashed in a conspicuous easter egg hunt-style spot, the second night of the investigation. It magically appears right when he's about to give up. And then he gets to take it home to his museum of haunted objects, and problem solved. Hmmm. I'm not saying it's a plant, probably put there by the producer after Zaffis has fallen asleep, it's just that it's strange that no other TV paranormal team finds haunted objects, or removes them -- having a kind of mystical Pawn Stars x Ghost Hunters hybrid is a little too... I don't know... convenient? Sometimes there's tons of paranormal activity right off the bat, or the owners of the house have some relevant object they just unearthed during renovations but if not, well... don't worry, Zaffis will find something, sure as you're born.

I want to stress on thing having said this: I don't think Zaffis or his team are guilty of ahbject-planting. I think it's the field producer, on orders from on high. There's way too much time and money invested to go home empty-handed. Found so far: garrotes, mysterious portraits, Native American fetish objects, pocket watches given as gifts to spurned lovers in 1819, and etc. There's always a relevant antiques expert in town to show the object to who can instantly explain the roots of its presence and use, almost as if he sold it to them the day before. Hmmmm.

Pros: You just might learn a little about history. Hot girl investigators like Jocelyn Brown provide relief from the endless ahbjectifying and dudes telling us about how EMF detectors work. Beth Ezzo comes later and is cute in night vision; we have to take her word that Zaffis is respected in the paranormal field. Apparently he worked on the 'Haunting in Connecticut' and Amityville horror cases. Like I said, I don't think he would deliberately fake evidence, but would the producers? Yes.

Cons: Staffis' proclamation that ghosts haunt during the day as well as at night seems a bit like an old man who doesn't want to (or can't) stay awake for the normal three AM haunting hour. When he asks the client at the end "What would you like to do with this item?" it's suddenly way too Pawn Stars-ish for comfort. He has the inflection of someone trying to talk the seller down on price.

Drug of Choice: Imodium
Leader Prick Factor:  John's too old and historically relevant to be called a prick, but his cranky old man status comes through at times, making it seem like he's just assigning leg work to the young men rather than do things himself, because his joints hurt. That's fine, but don't act like you're coordinating D-day.

Fact or Faked
Spook Factor - 2
Believability - N/A
For some reason these guys think if they use their substantial Syfy funds to recreate videos they find on youtube then they get to be the ones to decide whether they're fact or faked. Just because something can be recreated doesn't mean it's not true! And anyway, who put you in charge?

Hate to break it to you, FOF troupe, but all you guys are here because you're photogenic and young and dumb enough to believe puny science can save you! It can't, and your opinion on whether something is fact or faked is just that, an opinion... and a rather worthless one, based on your inductive reasoning methods (i.e. if you can somehow duplicate the video, the video is a hoax)

Pros: Investigator Jael de Pardo is a sharp, American Apparel-style babe and seems relatively open-minded.
Cons: The show's smarmy concept is insulting to those who post the videos in good faith. I'm all for hoaxers being exposed but just because you can duplicate the video doesn't mean it's faked, it just means you have lots of money and nothing to do with your time other than follow others' footsteps. Besides, we need hoaxers - they keep us guessing, keep our lives infused with myth and wonder, and at the same time help us take everything we see and hear with a grain of salt. If we didn't believe some of it was faked, we'd be too terrified to go on. 
Drug of Choice: None, cuz that would interfere with the purity of their investi (yawn) gation.

Haunted Highway
Spook Factor - 6
Believability - 4
Two sets of kids--each equipped with a slightly-ethnic hottie and a pasty rich kid nerd--go after creatures and remote hauntings. One team is Jack Osborne and clear-skinned investigator Dana Workman. The other is that hot girl from Fact or Faked, Jael de Pardo, and some ectomorphic dude in glasses named Devin.

So far the advantage of this show is speedy editing that creates a sense of constant momentum. Craziest is just how good the video and audio is while being so off-the-cuff. True to her previous show, Pardo has a habit of misinterpreting evidence. An expert biologist tells her the hair they recovered was more human or humanoid than animal so she conjectures it was a dude in a suit scaring them. But that makes no sense! Why wouldn't a hairy ape-man hybrid be more human than ape? If it was fake, wouldn't the hair be acrylic?

Pros: The girls are gorgeous, much too gorgeous to be out on the road or racing through the no-man's lands in the dead of night with just a frail slacker boy for protection and no hairdresser--they must have some great shampoo in their backpacks because the morning after sleeping in their car or a tent, they look perfect. Jack's not as obnoxious as you might think. He's older now. His relatively deep voice and trace of a posh British accent and poker-faced go-getter spirit drives the show. 

Cons: They seem to think by shooting it all themselves (no big camera crews following them around) they're trailblazing, but the Ghost Adventures crew have been doing that for years! Another thing: it's a bit fishy that they go out one night and bam, get some tantalizing but inconclusive evidence--then feel they can decide if anything strange is going on. I can only imagine what it would be like to investigate and come up with nothing and still deliver a show. I've seen HOT TO HANDLE, where Clark Gable is a roving journalist who fakes the pictures he wants, if he can't get them any other way. Just sayin'. He tries to get them the real way, but he still needs to get them. But what about all that debunking you were doing on the show, Jael? 

None are clean.

Drug of Choice: Ritalin

The Dead Files
Travel Channel
Spook Factor - 9
Believability - 10
Amy Allan is the psychic (she sometimes shows up in A Haunting). She goes through the haunted house and her wispy hipster husband videotapes her impressions. Her eyes bug out, her voice quivers with unearthly horror, some unseen guy films the filming through a better camera. Later she gets a sketch artist to draw the main perp spirit she's seen on her "walk." Meanwhile, ex-NYPD homicide detective Steve De Schiavi figures it out from his end via the usual interviews and library visits. Then, at the end, the two get together to reveal their findings to each other and to the client. With gravitas galore, a thousand yard stare, and an unflappable poise (his eyes may bug out at times, but his shoulders never betray), De Schiavi lets you know he's seen some fucked shit in his tenure on the force, and that he respects Amy, and is seriously weirded out.

Since there's no paranormal evidence gathering aside from Amy's psychic impressions and De Schavi's researc, we have to take their word it's not fake. Frankly, I don't think it is. Some mediums are legit, and Allan's got the cred. My own psychic sense says she's truly psychic.

Pros - De Schiavi and Allan are a good team, not for any personal connection per se, but because they both have seen a lot of horrifying, evil things: he in the NYPD, she in the spirit realms. Naturally their respective defense mechanisms both includes a certain level of reserve; all the emotion and feeling is in their eyes, which dilate and narrow and widen as the creepy info comes out. You can tell he has paternal-style concern for Allan, which helps rudder the show's heavy sense of eerie displacement.
Cons - There's no real point to the show, except to demonstrate the eerie rapport and prowess of these two disparate people, united by their life of unblinking stares into scenes of pure horror.
Drug of Choice: jimson weed

Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal
Spook Factor - 6.9
Believability -5
First of all, Chip Coffey rules! But those other people who take his place as host at times, I don't know --some are great, but the main 'other' guy seems way too much like a flimflam man about to sell you a sham-wow. Second of all, Chip's partner, child therapist Edy is strangely sexy. But something never quite gels in that all the cases end the same: the kids never guess anything wrong and if parents start out rabid skeptics they invariably come around at the end.

But even if it doesn't seem too credible at times, it's a reality show about socially ostracized kids coming together and learning to face their fears, mentored by a ballsy gay man who has clearly 'outed' his way to a fuller expression of human potential than most of us will ever reach. So bravo, Chip.

Pros: Chip is great and if nothing else you can use his "I'm here, I'm queer, I'll kick your ghost ass or help you into the light based on how you treat me" mantra as your own. If that message actually helps kids come out to their parents and friends, be they queer, psychic or just weird enough to feel ostracized, it's awesome.
Cons: After the retreat, these kids go back home to their shit towns and deal with the same old shit. Why isn't there a Coffey school for gifted mutants? Shouldn't a shadowy CIA guy be recruiting them or something? Imagine how awesome that show would be.
Drug of Choice: sleep apnea

The End.... for now.


Anonymous said...

"or a conservative pol ... is anti-immigration unless he was raised by the maid (Bush Jr.)"
I truly wish people could be honest instead saying untrue things just to bolster their misguided beliefs. I am a libertarian and personally know many conservatives including conservative politicians and none of them, zero, are anti-immigration. They are against illegal immigration. Big difference. Like saying someone who is against rape is anti-sex.

Unknown said...

really nice Awesome

Babba said...

Brilliant reviews! Bravo!


Anonymous said...

I would agree with most of the reviews, however, I would hardly give Ghost Adventurers a 10 in believability.

I found this show to be a gimmick from the start, the X cameras and then I saw an episode where Zack was acting 'possessed' my interest and believability dropped after that show. I watched another season after that but the arrogance oozing off this guy eventually lead me to stop watching.

Anonymous said...

This is the most accurate list I've found in the past two years! Well done and thank you!

Anonymous said...

Virtually perfect! My only disagreement is A Haunting. I give it a 10/10 and better acting then Paranormal Witness IMO. At any rate this list is pretty awesome!

Anonymous said...

I have to agree. 7 out of 10.

Unknown said...

The photo under Haunted History was a grab off the internet. It was never on the History Channel, or in any way related to the show. The woman in the costume is Cathy Horste, my fiance's late mother, and former Historian of Van Buren Township (Michigan). Just wanted to clear that up. ;)

Anonymous said...

I am addicted to The Dead Files because those are the real "things", we will face on the other side!!!!

TracyKing said...

I really enjoyed and agreed with this article up to a point. Boy you have a real hate on for one show don't you? Have you even watched it? If you are going to pick apart a show, please get the participants right. The Haunted Collector is with John Zaffis. I do believe you only called him that once in the article. He is the nephew of Ed and Lorraine Warren from the Amityville haunting. He did not bring in a debunker, he replaced Beth (who was there the first season only) with 2 new investigators. The only "debunking" they did was to see if floors were crooked, walls slanted, lights reflecting etc. and as shocking as you might find it, there were times he did not find an item, or remove a found item. To then to say he went out and bought the items to find is actually libelous.
No I do not have anything to gain by saying all this, but are you brave enough to let it through moderation?

Erich Kuersten said...

Thanks for posting, Tracy, I admire your loyalty. I will rephrase as I don't actually think Zaffis was in on it, just that it's a bit weird that usually the second night of investigation some interesting odd curio turns up. (I've heard nervous producers on the periphery sometimes throw these things in to keep the show moving - in this case, no object, no show). But you're right - I was perhaps unduly harsh - it's so easy to get catty on the web without even realizing it, and I genuinely dislike that trait in others. So I appreciate your comment.

Farquar said...

I like Dead Files. Realistic. The rest are just ridiculous. A bunch of folks screaming in night vision? Hardly frightening, however, Dead Files is realistic.