Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Paranormal TV...

As someone who has experienced haunting's first hand, I watch my share of 'paranormal' television. There are quite a few shows currently airing on a number of channels, but in comparison to the number of shows that are airing and have aired over the last few years, my list of regular paranormal based viewing is rather short. Two main reasons for that. First, who (other than people who have nothing better to do) has time to watch every show that's on? Not I. Second, not all of them are that intriguing and they are rife with annoying added effects.

As a kid, I used to love to watch the Leonard Nimoy narrated "In Search Of" (aired 1976-1982). Especially when it was about ghosts. Other shows that followed were "Unsolved Mysteries" with Robert Stack (1987-2002), and a show that aired on the Sci-fi Channel called "Sightings" (early 1990's). (Most of the older shows were comprised of a few stories each episode, but not all of them were about ghosts, etc.) Then in October of 2000, supernatural TV seemed to go through some changes. Within my personal memory banks (my brain), that's when the shows focusing on paranormal investigation truly began.

"Scariest Places On Earth" was the first hour-long paranormal investigation based show I can remember seeing. Hosted by Linda Blair of "Exorcist" fame, and narrated by Zelda Rubenstein (best known as the short and quirky medium in "Poltergeist"), a family of five or six people were blind folded and taken to a famously haunted location where they would engage in their own ghost hunt. "Scariest Places" had it's interesting moments, most of them with a serious humor factor. Honestly, some of the people were so scared it was comical...why they agreed to go if they were that terrified is beyond me.

Then there was MTV's foray into "reality" based ghost shows with "Fear". "Fear" had some definite 'what the hell was that?!' moments. Like "Scariest Places", a group of non-professional hunters were involved. The differences here were that none of those involved knew each other prior to the show; they were left at the famously haunted location on their own; they operated from a 'safe room' filled with necessary equipment (digital recorders, various cameras, etc.) and computers with their instructions for the night. It was kind of a one night 'Real World' moment with ghostly activity thrown in. (Andy Dick did a hilarious skit on his MTV show based on 'Fear'...he investigates a .99 Cent store.) Before the group of curious teenagers arrived, surveillance cameras were installed in the various areas they would be sent to, so there was other footage of supposed activity. Unfortunately, it was a short lived show. Some pretty compelling video was caught on "Fear", and I must say that a lot of what was heard (things going bump) was shared with the viewer. This particular point leads me into the main focus of this post.

As I mentioned before, I have a short list of paranormally based shows that I watch regularly. Most have a more open minded approach and don't automatically call every occurrence an act of 'spirits'. Having watched most of these shows past and present, I'm going to mention some of the good and the bad. I'll start with the 'bad'.

During it's early days on The Travel Channel, I started watching a British show called "Most Haunted". The UK is filled with purported haunts, and many were featured on the show. The historians on each episode gave some very interesting facts and folk lore on each location, and I do truly think that some regular members of the investigation team were trying to find some actual proof of preternatural goings on. Then again, maybe I'm giving the show more credit than it deserves. My main problem with the show from the get go was the host, Yvette Fielding. Ms. Fielding is (to date) the most irritating person on any show of this genre I have ever seen. Not only would she not shut up, talking over everything we viewers were trying to hear for ourselves, she would scream incessantly. In the second season or so, even her fellow team members were telling her to shut up...yes, it was that bad. Then there was psychic Derek Acorah. I fully believe in psychics, and maybe Mr. Acorah is a legitimate talent, dunno. He was just a bit over the top with his moments. I also have always taken those psychics who take money for their services to be a bit suspect. There have been a few psychics among my friends over the years, and they just saw it as an added ability and would never want to take money for anything they 'saw'. Charlatan mediums are some of the biggest con artists around, building their supposed visions/sights on the reactions of and nuggets of information provided by people around them. Before I go any further, the following video is an example of blatant fakery on "Most Haunted" as initiated by Ms. Fielding:

Yvette is very obviously moving the table herself. I had sensed that the 'wool was being pulled' on more than one occasion, and a plethora of information to support my suspicions was easily available online. Faked knocks, faked table tipping (as seen in the video above), obviously scripted "scenes" from an episode. The show quickly became exiled from my list. A shame, really. The sites they visited are ones I find quite interesting. I would jump at the chance to visit them myself. What could have been a legitimate paranormal investigation always seemed to be full of parlor tricks and bad acting. "Most haunted" is no longer on the air...color me disappointed...not.

The most recent spook filled addition to The Travel channel's line-up is "Ghost Adventures". I have attempted to sit through a few of the episodes, but it is just so formulaic (yes, paranormal TV has gotten to the 'formulaic' stage in many regards) and the host, Zak Bagans, is so annoying. For me to want to watch something I need to be entertained. That doesn't mean that every claim has to be verified and linked solidly to the supernatural. Sometimes reports of spirit orbs turn out to be flecks of dust drifting through the air; energy fields both natural and man made can cause anomalous readings; and so on and so forth. Some history is always welcome, either of the site or the reported paranormal events. One of the chief elements essential to my continuing to spend time in front of the tube is a decent host or hosts. Some likable investigatory team members are important, too. Since I have been watching a healthy amount of ghost stories, I am acquainted with the bulk of the better known haunts. I have upon occasion even watched a show and have ended up knowing more about a location than the investigators. Every episode of "Ghost Adventures" that I have attempted has been based around a location I've already seen a lot about. For the sake of this blog post, I decided to punch up an episode on NetFlix so I could view an installment in it's entirety. Impressed I wasn't. I'm going to take a brief side trip here: When I was in college we had a drinking game we would play during re-runs of 'The Bob Newhart Show' was called Bob. Every time someone said 'Bob' on the show you were supposed to drink. They said 'Bob' a lot, so you know what the draw was for us college rebels (hehe). For the number of times Bagans says 'dude', we all would have been hammered to the point of black-out. Gelled spiky hair (or maybe it's ectoplasm...), tight black t-shirt and jeans...Bagans looks like a cross between a Henry Rollins wanna-be and an aged boy band member. Yes, I realize that the show probably has a healthy viewership of young females, but this guy is trying way too hard. I am not saying that he doesn't know what he's doing as an investigator. I am sure he is well learned in the field. Personally, I find him a tad annoying and nothing he covers is anything I haven't already seen. I need more solids with my fluff, if you catch my drift. Actually, the catalyst for this post was an even more recent show on Travel that is also hosted by Bagans. "Paranormal Challenge" is a competition show, and signals the complete Hollywood-ification of the genre. Two up and coming paranormal investigation teams are put in a haunted location, given the necessary equipment, and are challenged to find evidence proving that there is indeed paranormal activity there. The two teams go up before three 'professional' ghost hunter judges and Bagans to present their findings. The first time I saw an ad for the show I was bummed. The lines between one of my main points of interests (hauntings) and 'reality' (I use the term loosely) competitions has been!

Since its start, I would have to say that one of the most widely known of the shows is "Ghost Hunters" on the SyFy Channel. Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson the head honchos of the 'Hunters' team seem like nice guys. I think they are quite knowledgeable and I dig the fact that they look for scientific explanations before giving way to paranormal causes. In my opinion it is the logical approach. I do put it on as background noise while I'm doing other stuff, but it ceased to be something I could really sit and get into awhile back. Why? It's boring. Steve and Dave the two chief team members that we spend quite a bit of time with are just as dull as dish water. Watching paint dry would be preferable. I didn't mention this in the last critiques, but something that really seemed to become popular in the early days of "Ghost Hunters" was the use of background music and noises, and the infernal fake green "night scope" effect. First, the background is so frustrating and, yes, infuriating for the investigators on the show to say something to the effect of, "Oh my God! Did you hear that?!", when my only response is "NO I DIDN'T! All I can here is the 'spooky' background music and canned effects that your editors added in during post!" Then there's the EVP, or Electronic Voice Phenomenon, where an investigator asks questions hoping for spirits to leave verbal responses on their digital recorders. During the phase of the investigation where they go through the data collected looking for evidence, they will supposedly find something. They play it back on the show for the viewers to hear, and many times it just sounds like gibberish. Then a team member will say "Wow, did you hear that? It said 'GET OUT!' " No, it didn't, but now that you suggested that it said that, that's all anyone will hear when you play it back. Sheesh. Now for the green night vision is extremely obvious during these times that the area they are in is clearly lit. I think they believe that viewers will forget the fact that they have an additional camera crew following them around on the investigations. Those guys usually use camera lighting. Also, if you pay attention, you will notice the team spotting and looking at things that they couldn't have possibly seen since they are supposedly in pitch darkness. It is very common for them to actually be in a room with some form of light. The industry standard appears to be the use of the green lens for spooky effect. I am not saying that they never use night vision, but not with the regularity that you are led to believe.

Now I am going to get into the realm of what I watch regularly. The Animal Planet Channel has a show called "The Haunted". This isn't so much an investigation show, but they do have segments where a team is called in. This show centers around people who have experienced some serious haunting activity, and have contacted outside help in the form of paranormal Investigators. It's pretty interesting. I have lived in two haunted locations over the years, and although my experiences weren't malevolent I know what it's like to have an other worldly room mate. The accounts on "The Haunted" involve pets (they kind of need to if they are going to be on Animal Planet), and over all have been interesting tales. Narrated in places, it is chiefly built on interviews with the actual people involved and re-enactments where necessary. I recommend it.

Another show that involves individuals recounting their personal experiences through personal interview and re-enactments is the Biography Channel's "Celebrity Ghost Stories". Each episode usually has three or four story tellers from various levels of fame sharing a ghostly experience from their past. Some of them are fascinating and seem genuine, and others have the feel of being embellished a bit. After all, a number of those featured on this one are actors, writers...embellishing is kind of their job. But then again, who am I to say that they aren't telling the absolute truth? I know what I have been through and I am sure that there are some who would not believe me. To each his own. Anyway, the thing I find funny about this show is how many of the stories 'fit' the sharer. For example, Joan Collins' experience took place at a villa in Europe somewhere, and it involved the irate ghost of a countess (or a similar gal of the 'upper crust'). Sounded like the plot of a Halloween episode of 'Dynasty'. Marilyn Manson's involved some dark woods, a book of witchcraft, a concrete room below an abandoned housing foundation, and what he thought to be demonic activity. See what I mean? The experiences fit their personas. I don't catch all of the episodes when they first air, but tend to catch up with them upon re-air...they re-show this one frequently. I'll give this one a recommend, too.

The last show I am going to comment on is at the top of my list. "Paranormal State" airs on A&E, and is the main show I schedule time for. Ryan Buell and crew are all students at Penn State, and met through their common experiences/interests in the paranormal. The investigations Buell and Co. embark on are by request. Individuals who are having paranormal problems contact them, and they pick the most severe cases. They assist those who are in the greatest need of help. Dark hauntings and sometimes even the demonic are encountered, as well as a fair share of the harmless but annoying. There is a definite religious presence with the team (priests have been enlisted on many occasions), but for those who aren't necessarily of the religious bent there is a wiccan on the team, and the religious side of things isn't rammed down anyone's throat (so to speak). They show an all encompassing spiritual sensibility that I appreciate.

Buell might be seen as overly intense by some, but I just find him to be serious about what he's doing. He is on his own personal quest to learn more about the paranormal because of his own experiences, but at the heart of each episode...when all is said and done...I think he just wants to help people. Buell is a young man with a very comforting yet authorotative air to him. His team seems equally capable. There are three main psychics they use on most of their excursions: Chip Coffey (my favorite...a fellow Atlanta native), Michelle Belanger, and the well known Lorraine Warren. Do the Penn State gang try to find scientific explanations first? Absolutely. They employ all of the same tools of the trade as everyone else. However, they don't use some of the "tricks" of the trade that other shows use. There isn't the usual over produced background nonsense drowning out the things I most want to hear...what they hear. If any EVPs are collected, I am allowed to hear it clearly, and don't have someone telling me what I'm supposed to hear. Here's a biggie for me...when you see things in night vision, it's actually night vision. A lot of the investigations are shown as they are conducted, in a semi-lit environment. If you see the dark green of a night vision camera on the screen, then you know that the people being filmed are in complete darkness. I appreciate the honesty.

"Paranormal State" is the only paranormal show I have seen that is of the quality I want to see in a half-hour format. You don't see the added unnecessary footage of tech cabling cameras, etc. No fluff. Other shows on the air ("Ghost Hunters", "Ghost Adventures") could learn from them. If you are looking for a chill or two, "State" definitely delivers. I definitely give this one two thumbs up.

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