The sad reality of paranormal television

I hate what the kids call “drama.”  Well, scratch that.  I love being a casual observer of people involved in the drama, but I typically don’t like being involved in it directly.  Admittedly, I’ll occasionally go out of my way to stir the pot a little bit with a random TAPS Family team, an Obama “birther,” or Ghost Adventures Crew members.  But, other than that, my hands are clean.

Okay, fuck it.  I love drama.  Paranormal drama, anyway.  There.  I feel better now. 

Though not really drama so much as a series of brief textual exchanges and polite provocations, I stumbled across an interesting discussion between my friend Greg Newkirk, the editor of the Who Forted? magazine, a friend of mine named John Dockum, and a Muslim American woman named Deonna Sayed who refers to herself as a “cultural commentator.”  I came across the debate hours after it began, but found it intriguing for several reasons.

For one thing, I have had a discussion with Ms. Sayed before.  We disagreed some months back over whether Scotty Roberts, editor of the TAPS Paramagazine and a tarot card reader, could really be called a psychic.  I felt he could, since a tarot card reader aims to tell you your past and divine your future; exactly what psychics claim to do.  She felt, apparently, that I was linking tarot readers and psychics together unjustly.  Mr. Roberts, who later joined in our discussion, agreed with Deonna.  He said later that, as a tarot reader, what he does is “facilitate messages that are delivered.”  Which, to this day, is probably the best definition of a psychic I’ve heard.  Besides, what is the difference between a tarot reader who needs cards to “facilitate the messages,” and a psychic who might use a crystal ball?

But, I digress.

The discussion between Newkirk and Sayed on this particular day began over Ms. Sayed’s opinion that cast members of paranormal “reality” shows should not be held to blame for what she called the “production issues” (Read: fakery) of a television show, particularly those that are thought by many to masquerade fraud as evidence of the paranormal.  I disagree with that notion.  The cast of these shows may have been blinded by the allure of fame to start with, but they also signed the contracts, willingly participated in the hoaxes, and lecture to crowds and write books about how what audiences are seeing is real.  So, I have little sympathy for them when they are called to account for their actions.  Initial ignorance to the realities of television are no excuse.  Besides, if they were really concerned about their reputations, why continue re-upping their contracts?

From here, the debate took a peculiar, yet fascinating, turn, in my opinion.  It was here that Sayed wrote that “the shows really are not about ghosts at all. They are about cultural beliefs.”  And that, furthermore, they are of academic significance

Now, again, I originally seen these posts hours after they were written.  But I asked to join in on the argument.  Granted, I do feel it is partially true what Sayed said.  Ghost hunting reality shows do say things about the culture.  The belief systems themselves into the reality of ghosts, psychics, Bigfoot, etc. are also interesting from a social science point of view.  But the important question is:  So what?  Everything that members of society say, do, and consume say something about the culture.  The number of iPads being purchased say something about our culture.  The books on the New York Times best seller list say something about our culture.  Even the contents of my stool say something about our culture.  So what?  That doesn’t make ghost hunting reality shows more or less interesting.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that ghost programs aren’t really about ghosts.  As Greg Newkirk wrote from the @WhoForted account:  “I think you’re giving them too much credit.”

I joined in the discussion by tweeting a reply to the Twitters of @deonnasayed and @WhoForted.  I argued that I didn’t see much merit in the “cultural beliefs” or “academic research” appeal simply because I have rarely, if ever, seen any of the paranormal television stars talk about the cultural or academic significance of what they are doing, either on their television shows or at the talks they give around the country.  The paranormal conventions, and other related events, are significant for, if no other reason, propping up non-academics as experts.  And charging up to $250 per ticket to hear them pontificate, to boot.

I’ve attended a good share of ghost themed paranormal events.  I can say, without a doubt, that anthropology is not a topic commonly broached.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a word or phrase used correctly and be more scientific sounding than “EMF meter.”  The speakers and attendees talk, mainly, about one thing:  hunting and communicating with ghosts.  Moreover, mainstream science is oftentimes knocked for “not being openminded enough” to the possibility that the paranormal exists.  Forget that after well over a hundred years of serious study into ghosts there is a dire lack of proof of their existence.  To this day, and for the foreseeable future, there remains no tangible evidence that can be given to test their validity.  And yet, science is blamed for not wanting to be involved?

Listen, I used to believe the same thing.  I even wrote an article or two about it.  Enterprising readers may still be able to find them somewhere online.  That’s okay.  I don’t hide from my past beliefs.  But I am vocal about the reasons by which I changed my mind.  And having been of that incorrect mindset in the past, it is clear to me now that what is being propagated by the ghost hunting reality shows is little other than bad science and the reinforcement of beliefs even in the absence of evidence.

Now, Ms. Sayed, to her credit, did clarify that she, “Never suggested TV cast members were leading academic talk re(garding) cultural beliefs.”  And that is true.  She did not.  But she did say that the shows are about cultural beliefs and not ghosts.  But, if that is the case, why are the casts and crews of these shows – those who write, produce, and star in them – so unaware that this is the case?  Never have I seen Jason Hawes, Grant Wilson, Ryan Buell, Zak Bagans, or any other paranormal television star wrap up a televised investigation by lecturing about the sociological implications of the belief systems contained therein.  Nor have I seen SyFy, A&E, the Travel Channel, or any other cable network that broadcasts the shows promote their educational aspects.  Why?

Indeed, there are true academics who have conducted ample surveys and field research into the belief systems of paranormal enthusiasts, and reported on their findings.  The result of one such study, led by F. Carson Mencken and Christopher Bader (Professor and Associate Professor of Sociology at Baylor University, respectively) was profiled in the recent book “Paranormal America:  Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture,” co-authored along with Joseph Baker, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at East Tennessee State University.  The book takes a look at the belief in many aspects of what is labeled under the umbrella of “paranormal,” how the beliefs have persisted, and even what they mean to the people who have them.  I recently purchased the book and have just begun reading it.  Already I would give it a strong recommendation.

So, yes, it is my conclusion that the ideas and methods broadcast on ghost hunting reality shows, and the belief systems of the people who watch and imitate them, do speak to our culture.  But I do not see any evidence that these programs make any effort to promote that type of research by actively being “about” anything other than mindless entertainment through pseudoscience and fantasy role playing.  The silence of the cast, crew, production companies, and networks, in this case, speak volumes to the reality of this notion.

Be seeing you.

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3 thoughts on “The sad reality of paranormal television

  1. I find these types of arguments as just another way for someone to still support something they want to support, but finding a way that they think is less arguable. And while the ideas surrounding culture, anthropology, belief and the paranormal are intriguing and interesting, they have no intersection with TV shows. Think about it, how many people believe in ghosts who have never even heard of Ghost Hunters or TAPS…right here in the US? More of that faulty causative correlation.

  2. "Culture" does not equal "I just came up with this idea that mixes the stuff we like from that book we read with that other thing we were doing last year and kinda got bored with." The latter are referred to as fads. If I said I was able to suck the dance energy from people wearing leg warmers that would not be a cultural phenomenon. Well, it would be if Jason and Grant could dance.

  3. I don't think I fully understand what is being said by Ms. Fayed. The show is about ghosts AND culture. Like Jason said, if it’s on TV, it’s part of our culture. Ghosts have a cultural definition. They do not have a scientific definition because we have not found a way to measure them. However, the paranormal investigators are attempting to define ghosts by what they find with instrument and physical feelings and effects. That sounds like a testable claim. We all know that hasn’t faired too well. So, with regards to them making claims to the public watching the show, they absolutely should be held accountable – everyone should be! But, of course, there is a ton of nonsense being promoted everywhere in the name of a good story. If they want to be left off the hook, they ought to state outright that the show is fictionalized and they can do what they like.I agree with Rachel. This smacks of candy-coating or rebranding (sort of like creationism –> creation science –> intelligent design) to try to sound credible or to weasel out of responsibility.

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