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Across the Great Divide

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Debunking Paranormal TV Shows

Flip on your TV on any given day or time and there’s bound to be a paranormal reality show on.  They’re more common these days than the “evidence” they present.  The list of current shows include SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters International, Ghost Hunters Academy, and Destination Truth; ABC Family’s Scariest Places on Earth (seriously? ABC FAMILY?  *ahem…); Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures; A&E’s Paranormal State; Discovery Channel’s Most Haunted, A Haunting, and Ghost Lab just to name a few!  So, really, how authentic are they?  TV is TV.  If it doesn’t get ratings it goes in the bin.

Television has a long history of playing in the shadows.  Remember In Search of…?  This was a series that explored the strange, weird, and unexplainable.  It not only did episodes on parapsychology, but UFOlogy, fringe science, and cryptozoology- which studies things such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.  It was a well-done show that at times seemed to be an odd mix of PBS’ Nova and the National Enquirer.  The show was hosted by Leonard Nimoy, but I suppose Spock had to do something during the 70’s.  In the mid 90’s we had Unsolved Mysteries hosted by the incomparable Robert Stack and Sightings hosted by Tim White.  Sightings was by far one of the best shows in television history which dealt with the paranormal.  Like In Search of… they did stories on parapsychology, cryptozoology, and the like lasting several seasons, in large part due to the hosting talents of Tim White and the producers who designed the show to be more like a news magazine in the vein of 20/20.  They took great lengths to line up authenticated experts in the subjects they covered with appearances by the likes of Loyd Auerbach and Raymond Moody.

I’m a paranormal investigator.  I can not and DO NOT claim to be a parapsychologist or hold any kind of clinical degree in parapsychology.  Dr. Phil pretends to be a doctor.  I don’t.  I have years of experience and training but my actual degree is in mainstream psychology.  Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of TAPS may be seasoned investigators who have decades of field experience but they are not formally educated in the theories and statistical analysis of the data they collect.  They simply go in, turn on their toys, and interpret the data according to their previous experiences.  I DO give kudos to them for periodically sending data to relevant experts such as film and special effects experts, forensic institutions, and so on.

I use my knowledge of the field and the sciences of psychology and parapsychology and my experience as an investigator to look at all of these subjects objectively.  Just because I come in and say a place is or is not haunted does not set it in stone.  Let other groups come in and replicate my findings.  I may even hold off for a few weeks or months and try again myself.

With that said, just because the folks at TAPS say it is so, doesn’t mean it is.  They spend several hours on location, gather their evidence, analyze it, and leave.  They make no attempt to repeat their “experiments”.  There is no methodology to their data collection or statistical analysis.  There is no empirical replication of phenomenon.  No control groups.  If they can’t duplicate an event over and over again it isn’t debunked.

When Ghost Hunters first came around I loved it.  There were many episodes where nothing happened (which is by far the truth of how it really goes), rarely would they say to a client that their home or business was truly haunted. They would suggest further study is needed to backup the “paranormal activity” they encountered.  Now every place they visit is haunted and there is no stutter in their voice when they make the claim.  I find most of the show now to be unrealistic and playing to the TV audience only.  The thing that’s really chapping my ass lately with the folks over at TAPS is the “flashlight test”.  This is where you take a flashlight with push-button activation and unscrew it just enough to keep the electrical contacts alive but allowing for it to go on or off with the slightest touch.  The thinking behind this is if the light can go on and off by command or respond in a logical pattern then it is evidence of paranormal activity.  Ok, good theory on paper, but seriously lacking in empirical data or methodology.  I’ve personally fallen prey to this “evidence” while investigating and even posted a short video clip.  Fortunately I did state that it’s not proof, just an anomalous clip.  My issues with this test are simple.  First of all there are way too many x-factors that raise questions.  No control group and no clearly defined style or size of flashlight.  Mini maglites are the most often used but pulling from personal experience even the mini ones have weight imperfections due to their metal casing.  What about the flooring?  These investigations are in old buildings and homes.  Maybe it’s off camera and I don’t see it, but I never recall any member of TAPS pulling out a level and making sure the surface is perfectly flat and free from drafts or environmental factors.   Furthermore, when it first occurred on GH Jason Hawes was quoted as saying he’d been attempting this for nearly 20 years and it finally happened.  Public comment was in a frenzy over the event and now this “reality” show has a bona fide flashlight communication every week.  Seems to me that the producers are having fun in the cutting room.  Jay and Grant have said numerous times in the past that they have no control over how the producers cut the final edit of each episode, thus washing their hands of any deception.  Fine, I can respect that- except for the fact that Jason Hawes is now listed as one of the executive producers of GH.  You can’t tell me that position does carry some weight in the decision process.

Then there’s the infamous Moss Beach Distillery episode.  The TAPS teams heads out to find evidence of the Blue Lady only to discover trick mirrors, recorded voices and other parlor tricks.  I agree that the owners and the chef who was to be the on-camera spokesman should have disclosed the special effects but I disagree that he is solely to blame.  Of COURSE Grant found speakers in the walls- it’s a restaurant folks!  They use the speakers as a PA and to play music in the dining room and other areas.  This location has been investigated several times by different teams and experts for decades since the 1930’s.  Loyd Auerbach himself has been investigating the distillery since the early 1990’s and many reports have been made since then that mention quite specifically the ‘effects’ in question.  The week before TAPS investigated, Auerbach was called by a producer of GH asking for witnesses’ names for the Presidio Officer’s Club in San Francisco as this was the show’s main focus this trip.  This producer, over the course of conversation, admitted that other points of interest were being considered including the Distillery.  Auerbach offered to provide case histories and witness accounts of the experiences there but was cut off; the producer indicated they “had what they needed”.  Auerbach asked if they were aware of the special effects and he point blank said THEY WERE.  TV at its finest- deceives its stars, deceives its audience.

Ghost Hunters International seems to approach things not so much on debunking things but instead concentrates on gathering evidence. The tech of the show is impressive.  Brain Harnois once disclosed that when SyFy approached them about the spin off they were promised anything they wanted.  They got it in spades with the full-spectrum cameras which have produced some very discussion-worthy results.  Their investigation style is much the same as their big papa TAPS, thus falling victim to the things I’ve already mentioned.  They do however seem to keep a level head when investigating some of the world’s most legendary places and I gained much respect for them when they walked away from the castles of Vlad Dracul and Frankenstein saying “Eh, great place. Not so much evidence.”  On a side note, I’ve got to wonder just how many damn languages Barry speaks.  Every country they visit he can hold an EVP session in the native tongue.

Paranormal State.  As objective as I try to be, I just can’t be on this one.  What can I possibly say other than this has got to be some of the worst ‘reality’ programming out there let alone a slap in the face of serious investigators and scholars of parapsychology.  However, I could be wrong.  This is at best Blair Witch without the hype and not nearly as entertaining to watch- if only just to cut the crew down at every turn.

I’ve only been able to sit still for three full episodes of the show, and who knows, it may have gotten better but I swear I saw fishing line moving an object in one case.  I’ve seen clips here and there, laughing out loud to YouTube, much to the utter confusion of fellow Panera Bread patrons.  Its crew is all about “feelings” and subjective experiences that can’t be seen on camera let alone quantified with scientific instruments.   The team is so wishy-washy that I wouldn’t count on them to battle a turtle let alone an Elemental.  Their ‘acting’ is monotone and boring.  A critic for the Boston Herald once wrote, “There hasn’t been a more suggestible crowd gathered since the last ‘Crossing Over’ taping with alleged psychic John Edward.” (Don’t even get me started on him)

The show has faced intense criticism both from the media and viewers who question whether the “activity” is real or faked.  The line nauseatingly staggers the line between documentary and dialogue so ridiculous it must be scripted entertainment.

Way over at the other end of the spectrum is Ghost Lab.  The level of scientific scrutiny is both respectful and refreshing.  This show has some of the most impressive technical equipment and knowledge of its application I have ever seen in paranormal reality television.  The team rolls on to location with a mobile analysis RV that would put any military recon mission to shame.  It’s akin to comparing Grant Wilson’s K-II meter to the Deflector Dish on the Enterprise.

What I find refreshing is that week after week you sit there excited to find absolutely zilch at the end of the episode most of the time.  A big criticism is that the show tries to be TAPS by going to all the places Jay and crew went before.  Again, that’s why I like it.  A fresh set of eyes with different equipment to duplicate, confirm, or debunk those who have come before.  A new perspective.

I wish these various paranormal teams would collaborate on a central show or other forum where all their evidence can be cross examined and cross referenced.  Perhaps then we might shed some light on the truth.  Honestly, if ALL groups (televised or not) would combine and share their data for the sake of science instead of their ego and fame it might serve the greater good.

Our television shows and the casts that populate them are like extended family.  Viewers have a strong kinship to people on a screen that they’ve never met, if ever.  We’re fans of one show or another because the people and places that we see each week are comfortable and engaging.  Whichever show you like, in the end it’s all entertainment.  That’s why it comes back season after season; if it stops being fun to watch it goes the way of Heroes.  If it inspires and motivates you to find the answers on your own, then great.  Don’t just take the word of the investigative team.  Look past the Hollywood hype and see the truth laying somewhere between the cracks.