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Friday, October 28, 2005


Monday is Halloween. This doesn’t mean as much to me as it did when I was a child. Back then, there were only three TV networks, plus a handful of local VHF and UHF outlets. But you could count on scary movies all through October. Now he have 500 cable channels and what have you got? Jeepers Creepers on SciFi. Even AMC's Monsterfest is reduced to a week this year.

I won’t be watching Jeepers Creepers, but I will tune in afterwards (9pm in Chicago) for the "Ghost Hunters Halloween Special." "Ghost Hunters" is one of my guilty pleasures. I've been meaning to write about it for weeks now, and suddenly the show is on hiatus until January. Damn you, unpredictable cable TV schedules! Since the show is on SciFi, it will probably continue to turn up somewhere on their schedule. And season one is available on DVD. (Season two just concluded, with a bang-up season finale.)

"Ghost Hunters" is an example of what has been recently dubbed a "docu-soap." It is essentially reality TV, in that we follow the adventures of real people which are documented by TV cameras. But it is not a game show, like "Survivor" or "The Amazing Race." (I just typed that as "Survivor of the Amazing Race," which I think would be a more interesting program.) The "soap" part has to do with the fact that there is a continuing story line, although unlike a show like "The Real World" (the original docu-soap), each episode is self-sustaining. It’s like "Road Rules" with ghosts.

Well, not always ghosts. The show follows a group of paranormal investigators called The Atlantic Paranormal Society, or TAPS. Get it? They are based in Rhode Island, of all place, and used to be known as Rhode Island Paranormal, or RIP. The show is not this jokey, but this gives you an idea of the level of the material.

What makes TAPS different is that they go into an investigation assuming that a location is not haunted, and attempt to debunk whatever experiences the homeowners – or whoever – have experienced. They come loaded for bear, with a slew of video cameras, microphones, EMF (electromagnetic frequency) detectors, and more. Plus, of course, the cameras which are following them for SciFi. Although they depend on their own experiences, the only evidence they hold as legitimate is what they can capture on tape (or DVD, as the case may be). Any evidence they cannot explain, they hold as possible proof of a haunt.

TAPS' founders, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson (no relation to Joe), are especially suited for this debunking by their day jobs as Roto-Rooter men. This is what sucked me into the show to begin with, and is, I'm sure, what sold SciFi on the concept. Jay and Grant are ordinary, blue-collar kinda guys who just happen to chase ghosts in their spare time. And have been doing so for more than ten years, long before SciFi came along. Jay is a big bear of a guy, with a shaved head and a no-nonsense attitude. Grant is the sidekick, a bit more of an intellectual, but still a very practical problem solver. Their background as plumbers helps them recognize when mysterious noises are due to expanding pipes or drafts in the walls. In a recent episode, investigators linked a room which was unnaturally cold to a blocked heating duct. Let’s see your "Poltergeist" gang do that!

Part of the fun of "Ghost Hunters" is watching the interaction between the members of the TAPS crew. Bumbling tech director Brian Harnois, who ran out of a haunted prison because of a close encounter, left the crew after his personal life started affecting his work. (He was constantly on the phone with his unseen girlfriend.) His conflicts with Andy Andrews, whose unfortunate name only adds to the problems of his ferret-like visage and the voice of a young Woody Allen, led to Andy leaving the tech department and becoming an investigator. Brian's departure cleared the way for the ascendance of Steve Gonsalves, a heavily tattooed monobrowed techie who feels he don't get no respect. Dustin, the new guy, is scrawny and gawky with spiky, over-producted hair. He considers himself the sex symbol. Heather considers herself a "sensitive," and uses her dowsing rods to detect energy fields. Fortunately, Donna, the even-keeled case manager, is able to keep all these personalities in line. To give the show credit, it doesn't play up any of these characters as caricatures (despite my one-line descriptions), and after a few episodes, you view them as old, if somewhat erratic, friends.

Which is not to say that Jay, Grant and the gang don't occasionally uncover some truly spooky phenomenon. Most of this is in the realm of EVP, or electronic voice phenomena. Investigators carry tape recorders with them, and ask questions in "empty" rooms: "Why are you here?" "Are you the woman in the painting?" Sometimes voices turn up on the tape which were not audible to human ears. (Obviously, for this sort of evidence to be effective, the audience has to believe that everything TAPS is doing is above board, and that they are not screwing with the evidence. I'm down wit dat.) Generally, it takes some effort to decipher what these "voices" may be "saying," and that is dependent on the natural instinct to make sense out of chaos. But sometimes these voices are quite clear, and quite chilling.

At other times, evidence is caught on video. Generally, this consists of an object moving inexplicably, often over some period of time, during which such movement might not be visible (or at least obvious) to the naked eye. Sometimes the video evidence helps debunk a case, as with two cases involving children. In one, a little girl was being woken up in the middle of the night by a spirit which would poke her. Video revealed the "spirit" to be her older brother, who slept in the room with her and walked in his sleep, returning to bed before she was fully awake. Another boy was being taunted by a ghost who shook his bed and pulled off his covers. Video showed the boy was a restless sleeper, possibly due to playing video games before going to bed. When his mother viewed the video of him tossing in bed, she asked, "Is this over several hours?" "No, it's several minutes."

And sometimes evidence is captured by a thermal-imaging digital camera, which records heat fluctuations. You've seen these sorts of images before. Think Predator. The thermal cam stuff can be really creepy. This is what was captured on the season finale, and which is displayed on the "Ghost Hunters" page at SciFi under "Exclusive Case File Video." For more evidence from the show, check out the TAPS site. There are other samples of evidence under "Evidence," on the navigation bar at the left. Oooh, scary stuff.

I’m a sucker for this show because my philosophy is similar to the official TAPS line: I believe in everything and nothing. Even if you believe in nothing, it's a fun ride.


The structure of the show is pretty predictable: the guys do two investigations; the first is a bust, the second has some payoff. This is especially true of the second season, which focuses more on "most haunted" places (the Winchester Mystery House, the Lizzie Borden House) than personal homes. There's a nice episode on the Queen Mary, in which someone tampers with their equipment to show a bed "unmaking" itself. The TAPS guys do a nice job of catching it.


One thing that I've just recently noticed about this show is that it's one of the few accurate presentations of straight guys in the media. Most characters on TV and film live lives which are, by necessity, much more wrought with drama than those of your average straight man. (As we know, "wrought" is an understatement for the amount of drama in the lives of women and gay men.) And these male characters are played by actors who are pseudo-straight at best. Straight men on other reality shows don’t count: they are so busy primping for the cameras they might as well be A&F boys. The producers of "Ghost Hunters" also produce "American Chopper," and while amusing, no one would mistake those guys for straight. The TAPS crew are just guys (and some women), and it's a nice change.


Another Scary Thought

Speaking of life after death, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association announced yesterday that they won’t grant the Kansas board of education permission to use their copyrighted materials in the state’s new science standards because of their approach to evolution. Copyrighted material appears on almost all of the document's 100 pages. A joint statement by the two organizations read, "Kansas students will not be well-prepared for the rigors of higher education or the demands of an increasingly complex and technologically-driven world if their science education is based on these standards. Instead, they will put the students of Kansas at a competitive disadvantage as they take their place in the world." A third organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, went even further, saying, "Students are ill-served by any effort in science classrooms to blur the distinction between science and other ways of knowing, including those concerned with the supernatural." I'm happy to see someone refer to creationism as "the supernatural."


  • John,
    I watched the entire first season of Ghost Hunters with great relish. I agree with everything you said here, and it's great to find someone else as enthusiastic about the show as myself. I particularly enjoyed the moving chair in the attic of the lighthouse episode, as well as the Eastern State Penitentiary episode. In season 2, I have been missing Carl and Keith though. When Carl blessed Brenda's house in episode one of Season 1, I had an intense emotional reaction, and I've been a big fan ever since.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:52 PM  

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