Across the Great Divide

April, 2011

Ghost Hunting and Entertainment

I can no longer stomach ghost hunter shows. I’ve panned them in the past, and they’ve continued to get as stale as bread with a hole in the bag- slowly drying out to become as brittle and useless as the ‘evidence’ they purport to bring to the academic dinner table.

It’s the same boring thing week after week, and show after show- a hapless team goes to a location, sets up some toys, flips off the lights (never mind the fact that they don’t cut the power- a possible factor, but just the lights), flips on the clichéd monochrome night vision, and tries to scare a viewing audience into believing in ghosts through theatrics and really bad acting. Gone is the science, to be replaced with a Hollywood sensationalism that malnourishes the brain that is in search of something of more substance.

The incident that did it for me, personally, was the Ghost Hunters 2008 Halloween special. I sat there, anxious for hours, awaiting some evidence to cross my seasoned senses. What did I get? Grant Wilson’s hood gets tugged! It seemed so awesome at first, but turned out to be debunked by several different people as trickery and wires. I felt cheated out of 6 hours of my time. Never again, I vowed. This “reality show” gets more scripted and fake as time goes on.

There’s no rule that academia and entertainment need to be mutually exclusive; in fact they could learn a lot from each other. But the simple fact is that true paranormal researchers get a bit irritated by the celebrity status of these so-called “experts.” It’s not that they have PhDs after their names in the credits, but the sad truth that because they’re on “reality TV”, the viewing public is falsely led to believe they are experts by the networks.

It’s never been easy for those who choose to study psychic phenomena. Mainstream science views them with a deep disbelief in much the same way alchemy was looked at before it became known as chemistry. Those few parapsychologists with PhDs fortunate enough to have a home at an academic body continue to search for irrefutable proof that paranormal phenomena really does exist.

And they’ve been doing it for a long time. In the late 1800s, Harvard psychologist William James risked his reputation by studying things like “crisis apparitions,” a clairvoyant event in which final farewells and messages are claimed to be received in dreams from the departed before it is consciously known they are dead. In the early1900s, Joseph Banks Rhine helped to pioneer the study of ESP by founding a prestigious parapsychology department at Duke University.

Parapsychologists advise that these ghost hunting shows are doing a gross injustice to those pioneers by intensifying the troubles that have historically plagued the field because the scholars without a show at their disposal are replaced by the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and the promise of a client’s chance to cash in their 15-minutes of fame.

Many parapsychologists rely on a substantial part of their income and research funds coming from speaking engagements and lectures. But the well is running dry.

Loyd Auerbach, a noted author and field investigator with over 25 years of in-field research, is one of those parapsychologists to feel the squeeze from Hollywood. In 2006 he was paid for 14 events in autumn alone. That number dropped to five for all of 2007. The year after that? Two. In 2009, one.

Once a prominent and sought-after man in his field, he’s been traded for these celebrities because TV stars bring more ticket sales then the stereotypical scholar with a turtleneck and suit coat. “I was making a good part of my living lecturing and doing events. Now the TV stars are getting all the lectures,” he said. “It’s been difficult to pay my mortgage.”

Over the years of my own pursuit of the unknown I get frequently asked, “Why this fascination with having all the lights off?” Simply because it adds to the creepy factor and draws the viewer in like any other b-grade horror flick. Dr. Andrew Nichols, an expert who did research for the U.S. Army (and who received the only grant ever awarded to study alleged hauntings), believes that these shows also push questionable science on the public. Nichols provides a list of what he calls bad science in these shows: Investigations always take place at night. Why ghosts would only come out then is illogical? How can anyone be a good observer in the dark? Instead, as Nichols puts it, “they just run around like little girls.”

“We get painted with the same brush,” said John Palmer, PhD of the Rhine Institute, one of the only parapsychology institutes in the country. If there’s one thing that skeptics, mainstream scientists, and the general public can all agree on, it’s that this image of the bumbling reality-TV amateur is the first thing they all think of when the subject of ghost hunting comes up in conversation.

GhostDivas, a popular podcast, interviewed former TAPS member Donna Lacroix back in 2009. During the course of the segment she made some very interesting revelations. Ghost Hunters, first and foremost, is completely entertainment and everyone is a backstabber. Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson are ‘the kings’ in front of, and behind, the camera. Long-time fans of the show will remember Brian Harnois. Jay and Grant, she asserts, had their whipping-boy in Brian, and she feels Brian was exploited to the point of mental abuse. Donna gives insight into just how “brutal” and “mentally abusive” they were towards Brian. She even addresses the rumors that the network employs a staging crew. Anyone remember the Moss Beach Distillery fiasco?

You can listen to the full interview yourself here.

Diehard fans of these shows must understand that true parapsychological research is not, and can not, be done through a weekly reality show where ratings and advertiser revenue are the real decision-makers of the show’s survival. It is done through tedious, often boring, study and analysis over a period of time determined by each individual case. To rush through countless hours of data for a final report a day or two later is just bad science.

All of this can be summed up with a classic scene from 1984’s megahit Ghostbusters when Dean Yeager comes to kick the hapless trio off Columbia University’s campus.

Dean Yeager: The University will no longer continue any funding of any kind for your group’s activities.
Peter Venkman: But the kids love us!
Dean Yeager: Dr. Venkman, we believe that the purpose of science is to serve mankind. You, however, seem to regard science as some kind of dodge, or hustle. Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy and your conclusions are highly questionable. You, Dr. Venkman, are a poor scientist.
Peter: I see.
Dean Yeager: And you have no place in this department or in this university.

I think that’s the only time Hollywood and the scientific community will ever see eye to eye on this issue.

Hmm, maybe there’s some common truth in this Real vs. Reel conundrum after all.