In Search of Today’s Ghost Stories

Aug 22, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The latest generation of ghostly reality shows claim success at documenting paranormal events, but fans are more skeptical than ever.

Sci Fi’s “Ghost Hunters” and “Proof Positive,” the Travel Channel series “Most Haunted” and TLC’s upcoming investigation show “Dead Tenants” use modern-day forensic techniques to try to prove ghosts exist. The shows use enough high-tech gadgets to fill a RadioShack-including infrared and night-vision cameras, digital voice recorders and electromagnetic field detectors-to provide a scientific backbone while renewing a classic TV genre.

Skeptical fans, however, are up on technology, too. They are accustomed to Hollywood’s ability to create and manipulate images, and are themselves armed with the recording power of DVRs, image-enhancing software and the Internet-making possible frame-by-frame analysis of footage and communal message-board debunking.

The new online world of ghost-show discussion is in fact a far cry from squinting at Bigfoot and flying saucer photos while watching “In Search of …” and “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”

Of the shows, “Ghost Hunters” has created the biggest online groundswell of fans- and the most ferocious debates. Launched last year the show follows Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, two Rhode Island Roto-Rooter plumbers by day, leaders of paranormal investigation team The Atlantic Paranormal Society by night.

Fans say the show’s appeal lies in the casting of the squad of blue-collar investigators and the teasing threads of paranormal “evidence” collected each week. As on “The X-Files,” each episode of “Ghost Hunters” seems to creep closer to discovering if “the truth is out there.”

“Since television has been on there’s been ghost stories and people ‘in search of,'” said executive producer Craig Piligian (“American Chopper”), who created the show after reading a 2003 New York Times profile of TAPS. “But the interesting part was that [paranormal investigating] wasn’t Grant and Jason’s day job. They weren’t fanatically saying ghosts are out there. For the most part, they’re debunking it. They’re smart, they’re articulate, they’re scientific.”

Since the show’s 2004 debut amateur groups have sprung up across the country. Companies selling ghost-hunting gear-such as electromagnetic field detectors and infrared cameras-are booming due to the show, according to BusinessWeek (May 12, 2005). Mark Stern, Sci Fi’s senior VP of original programming, said the success of “Ghost Hunters” and other modern paranormal shows can be attributed to their reality style, in which viewers watch a team seeking answers rather than a narrator presenting information.

“It gives you a great opportunity to deal with paranormal subjects with a great credibility. It gives viewers a chance to feel like they’re watching it happen, and then they can judge whether to believe it or not, rather than being told what to believe,” he said.

Each “Ghost Hunters” episode takes the TAPS team to a purportedly haunted location, where the TAPS team takes a skeptical look at the claims of paranormal activity, throwing out bogus evidence but occasionally “catching” something-a whisper on a tape recorder (dubbed an “EVP,” for electronic voice phenomenon), a moving chair or an inexplicable shadow. The “evidence” is then posted on the TAPS Web site for fans to debate, though TAPS founders claim proof positive of the paranormal is unlikely and unobtainable.

“We will never find that evidence,” Mr. Wilson said. “You cannot show a piece of video in this day and age [of digital manipulation] that will convince everybody that ghosts exist.”

Added Mr. Hawes: “If you’re trying to prove the paranormal, you’re in for a hard time. If you’re trying to help people with their paranormal experiences, you can have success in every case. We’re not trying to battle with the skeptics.”

But some skeptics are looking to battle them. Not since Sci Fi’s own similarly metaphysical “Crossing Over With John Edward” has a show prompted such intense speculation about the integrity of its production process. A recent episode of “Penn and Teller’s Bulls**t” on Showtime took aim at modern-day ghostbusters, criticizing those without scientific training who investigate hauntings with gear never designed to spot ghosts. Though TAPS was not specifically mentioned, the episode was a clear shot at the Sci Fi show.

Professional skeptics say the new wave of ghost shows is just profiteering.

“I’ve been investigating hauntings for more than 30 years. I’ve been in more haunted places than Casper, and there’s no scientific evidence ghosts exists,” said Joe Nickell, a paranormal investigator, an author of 16 books about paranormal claims and a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. “These shows are selling a mystery. It’s astonishing to me that this stuff is taking over the airwaves. When they don’t have obvious explanation, they say, ‘Maybe it’s a ghost.’ It’s arguing from ignorance. You can’t draw a conclusion from ‘I don’t know.'”

The TAPS team claims to be as skeptical of psychics as skeptics are leery of them.

The Nonbelievers

Unlike most paranormal investigation outfits, for example, TAPS has never charged home and business owners for their investigative services, saying it’s unethical to take money to investigate a phenomenon that has not been proven to exist.

“We could put up an ad on our Web site saying we want X amount of money for an investigation and we’d get it,” Mr. Hawes said. “We won’t even accept gas money.”

Likewise, the team criticized the upcoming scripted CBS series “Ghost Whisperer,” which is based on the experience of medium Mary Ann Winkowski. Ms. Winkowski charged clients hundreds of dollars to help loved ones trapped in an earthbound limbo make it to “the other side,” according to news reports.

“Psychics say it’s a God-given gift,” Mr. Hawes said, disgusted. “God gave you this gift and you’re charging people $500?”

For the upcoming “Dead Tenants” on TLC, executive producer Thom Beers said he plans to challenge “Ghost Hunters” for the title of the most-skeptical ghost show.

“We have one nonbeliever on each show to go on camera and tell the world that ghosts don’t exist,” Mr. Beers said. “Then we watch over the next hour as our psychics, researchers and technicians all pool their findings to create a very compelling case for the haunting. I hope we will be the first to actually catch a real ghost on screen-I believe that it will happen, and on my show.”

The biggest online controversy over paranormal show footage occurred after “Ghost Hunters'” second-season premiere July 27. In the show, the team visited Myrtles Plantation in New Orleans. TAPS ruled the location haunted due to among other findings a lamp caught on video moving across a table in the plantation’s former “slave shack.” Though Mr. Hawes expressed doubt about the footage, after a failed attempt to re-enact the movement, the viewer is left with the impression the lamp was likely moved by spirit activity.

The next day, online fans went into a frenzy. Upon close inspection, fans concluded, the lamp was being pulled by its own cord. Even worse: a night-vision shot appears to show the cord extending from behind the table to Mr. Wilson’s hand. And the so-called slave shack, Internet researchers said, was built recently and never housed slaves.

“I don’t know what it is,” Mr. Piligian said of the lamp footage. “We called Grant and Jason. They didn’t even want [the footage] to air. I don’t believe they were involved in it. We wouldn’t have put it on the air if we felt they were messing with us.”

As for the slave shack, Mr. Piligian said, “That’s what we were told it was [by the plantation staff].”

Some fans declared the ghostbusters busted. Others insisted TAPS would never stage anything. “I don’t think Grant had anything to do with the lamp moving, at least knowingly,” one poster said. “TAPS have worked hard to build up their credibility. I doubt that Grant and Jason really wan
t to destroy that credibility by doing something stupid.”

Another poster mused: “None of us know what pressures have been placed on them to make things happen to get the ratings up.”

Though Sci Fi benefits from being held to a quasi-fictional standard, Mr. Stern said the network wants and expects “Ghost Hunters” to be taken seriously.

“It’s definitely important to us that this show is not manufacturing anything, and our assurance comes from those doing that show, because it’s even more important to them-Jason and Grant’s reputations are riding on this more than anybody’s,” he said. “I believe the show is real and I’m the biggest skeptic out there.”

Mr. Nickell said he refuses to view footage posted by a television show. “We’re supposed to disprove these people’s claims, and it dignifies their work,” he said. “What people should say is: ‘Why should anybody take you seriously?’ Not go to science and ask them to investigate amateur videos.”

As for Mr. Piligian, he said he doesn’t believe in the paranormal but does believe in the integrity of his team.

“We have to play it straight,” Mr. Piligian said. “It’s what the show is all about. We tell it like it is-ghost or no ghost.”