Is Paranormal Investigation Science Or A Fading Fad?

I love doing hard, feature journalism. Today’s blog post a fine example of me at my best. Six years ago I took a trip to Niagara Falls and visited with notable professionals in the Paranormal Investigation community… to find out if the over-saturation of Ghost Hunting programming, so prevalent throughout the last decade on television, has harmed the fledgling science…

Reality programming is notoriously inexpensive to create and is extremely popular, the bottom line is people love to watch other people’s drama, as THE REAL WORLD informed us.  MTV’s smash hit led to the now television norm of reality programming. Over the past decade, any flip of the channels could reveal show centering on a celebrity’s home life ala THE OSBOURNES or HOGAN KNOWS BEST.  Now, until about 10 years ago, if you mentioned ghost hunting to the average Joe on the street, they would have sung a reply, asking “Who ya gonna call?” It was, however, in 2004 that SyFy premiered a stalwart program on the network, their foray into the reality TV format that was so profitable for other networks, the paranormal reality television program GHOST HUNTERS, a chronicle of the adventures of the members of TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society).  Starring Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, the show has gone on to be one of SyFy’s most successful and highest-rated programs, spawning a pair of spin-offs and a legion of clones on a multitude of cable networks.  

Networks that you would think wouldn’t have a paranormal bone in their fabric suddenly had ghost-related programming.  GHOST ADVENTURES (TRAVEL CHANNEL), THE HAUNTED (on ANIMAL PLANET because why?) and PARANORMAL STATE (A&E) are but a few of the more popular programs that accompany GHOST HUNTERS on our flat screens.  This cash crop of ratings grabbers has created a new breed of television mark that professional wrestling promoters wish they could tap into. This has opened the doors to every type of paranormal, Cryptozoic bug hunt possible, with Bigfoot hunting reality shows finding themselves as prolific as ghost hunting now.  Too many programs clearly have less than factual intentions in their presentations with some selling staged reenactments as reality. This has created a huge integrity problem, creating an oversaturation of preternatural reality TV programming that is, at the least, giving our urban legends and myths a very bad name; not to mention actually harming the fledgling sciences that are attempting to explain the phenomena under study.

The paranormal money-making machine expands far beyond television, though.  The hobby itself has been around longer than the TV shows, with many groups claiming a 20 year or longer heritage.  Autumn Pilot, a member of CNY GHOST HUNTERS, has been a member of the venerable group for only a year but has practiced her own investigations for nearly 10 years.  It’s certainly not an expensive hobby. According to Autumn, she spends “$300-$500, if that. It just depends on the type of equipment you get. I mean, you don’t need a lot of equipment like they show you. GHOST ADVENTURES and those kinds of things make it look a little extreme, you don’t need all that equipment to do this.”  She personally own a K2 Meter and EMF detector, devices that aren’t readily used today as Cell phones and other electronics can set them off (they measure magnetic fields). But the key, number one item they use is a voice recorder. And a flashlight.    It is from similar roots that TAPS and GHOST HUNTERS grew, as well as other groups, such as BEYOND GHOSTS, hosts of the Para-History Festival at Fort Niagara in Niagara Falls, NY earlier this year.  Spokesman John Crocitto told me “The reason we do these events, like with the Para-History today is there’s still a huge need to have education aspect for the public and professionals in the field probably have a better idea of how things go down and why they go down as opposed to basing their opinions on what they see on TV.  Coming in off the couches and actually doing it yourself in real life is how we do this event, so in a way, they’re almost like experiential entertainment. So you watch something on TV like the GHOST HUNTERS programming and you yourself want to try it, what BEYOND GHOSTS, my company does is actually give you a chance to experience that in real-time.”

You would then assume that education and sharing knowledge are at the center and are the central focus for most casual ghost hunting hobbyist.  This is a far cry from what is often seen on television programming, much of which is over-sensationalized and produced leading to a complete desensitizing of the product and a raised eyebrow of speculation, or, even worse, that it’s true.  Crocitto told me if this ever led to difficulties in finding guests with credibility and integrity for a convention such as the Para-History Festival: “As far as the mainstream public is concerned, I think there’s plenty of room for people who are just basically dabbling in it and trying to get their feet wet in the first place, and as far as people doing it the “right way,” there’s education and research first so we don’t seem to have a problem with credibility, as long as people are from the mindset that we this is still basically a fringe science, this is not a matter of fact anything, let alone a science, so to keep an open mind is imperative, but getting people to come in here and just do it the right way as long as they have that particular mindset never seems to be a problem because the paranormal is very popular right now.”  His last sentence leads us to the heart of the matter. With the paranormal being so popular, has it led to an over-saturation of paranormal reality TV? John seems to think it’s in the semantics of how you look at it, “As far as the entertainment aspect of it goes, when it comes to paranormal entertainment, I think there are quite a few shows and there probably are a few too many shows than there ought to be at this point.” Spoken like a true wrestling promoter.  

Low-end hunter Autumn agrees, but bluntly explains the negative, “There’s way too many shows and half the time it’s all fake and it’s just baloney.”  

But how do the pro’s think of it?  And I use that word loosely because any good investigator will tell you there are no professionals in ghost hunting.  Even the pros themselves. Kris Williams is a genealogist and historian attached to the GHOST HUNTERS franchise, a former member of GHOST HUNTERS INTERNATIONAL, Kris left the program over an incident invaliding ritual bloodletting.  It’s this very type of over-sensationalized programming that has blurred the lines between reality and production and led to the canceling of the spin-off. Her personal interests in ghost hunting come from a far more personal place.  “I got into genealogy when I was 11, so I was always more of a history person, that’s how I got pulled into the team. But, the real reason I joined was the year before I jumped onto GHOST HUNTERS, we had 5 family and friends pass away in 11 months.  I’ve always been a skeptic, but my parents and my family have always been open to the paranormal, my Mom grew up in a house that was supposedly active, I say supposedly because I’ve never had anything happen to me there myself. It was kind of a thing I was interested in but on the other hand, I look at death as the end.  I don’t remember anything before I was born, so why’s it any different? You just stop. So it took those 5 people to make realize those two beliefs completely contradicted each other and I got into it for a more personal reason. It was more or less, “OK, I’ve lost all these people, I don’t go to church and I don’t have that background like a lot of people, so where do they go and how does it work?  I find myself more skeptical now after 5 years of chasing this stuff. I still have those handful of experiences I cannot explain, and that’s what keeps me interested in it.” Kris believes, “it’s gotten to the point where there’s a lot of people getting into the paranormal thinking it would get them on TV, so they’re actually getting into the field for the wrong reasons which is hurting us in a lot of ways.”     The charming and ever arachnophobic Adam Berry came out of the GHOST HUNTERS ACADEMY to become part of the core program and can be seen on current episodes of the venerable show.  His interests in the paranormal are innocent as well. “I came in as, I would say, I believed something but I don’t know what it is. So I like starting from a place of skepticism because that way you don’t jump to conclusions, you get excited for the right reasons, so I’m still at that place of skepticism but I’m also at that place of “I really I don’t know what it is,” Is it a ghost? It could be.  We’re getting verification, it’s telling us names, it’s giving us information, but I also believe in a lot of other things; it could possibly be an angel or someone else, it could be anything.”   

He believes the contrary when comes to the over-saturation,  telling me, “I think everyone has their own techniques and as long as we’re all working together for the same goal which is to find out what really is out there and we’re all doing it for the same purpose and the same goal, so no.”  Though he warns “You have to do it for the field rather than the fame.” And that’s key, as former GHOST HUNTERS ACADEMY para-sensitive, Jane Riley also told me, “… everyone wants to jump on the train and it’s a little too much right now.  You don’t even know what to watch, it’s all become polluted in a way and you don’t know what to watch. I guess that’s just how it is with television.”Jane is a sweet, but extremely shy, young lady.  A talented musician, she is also carrying the weight of being an “empath,” a term used in the metaphysical community to refer to a person who is “in-tune” with the emotions and feelings of others, to include spirits.  They are as much a part of a ghost hunting team as the aforementioned flashlights and tape recorders. Jane told me, “If the team has been working with a medium or psychic for a long time, they know that person, they know what they have to bring to the table, they know they’re honest then they’re a component of the team and ultimately it can help solve what’s going on.  The client may not be into that approach, but either way, whether they like it or not, a true sensitive, will be able to help them.  The scrutiny, when I watch these shows, is I’m like, “Oh, my God, this person’s full of shit.”  I can tell they are lying. I consider myself sensitive, whatever that means.  I don’t label it anything.  Intuitive? Call it that? I’m more correct about my intuition and my feelings towards something than not.  So usually when I feel a certain way about someone and I can confirm it, later on, that’s empathy and that’s proven.  It’s like when you have a certain feeling about someone and you mention it. I don’t know what you would call it. I call it common sense.”  And that is the true key to much of what alleged psychics play in a ghost investigation. They often study and analyze the parties involved and are used to rule out mental illness or other natural occurrences, to include taboo topics that often can include domestic, or some other, abuse in the “haunted” household.

Regrettably, more often than not, team para-sensitives can cast a shadow of scrutiny over an investigation.  Jane approaches this in the only manner she knows how “I’m honest. I stay true to what I know and what I feel. I don’t make money off of this and I don’t advertise it.  People have questions and I’m more than happy to answer them to the best of my ability. I just approach in a sense of honesty. As I said, I don’t get paid to do this, I don’t benefit off of it in any sort of way. I write music all day.” 

Regardless of the alleged “powers” that some team members may or may not have, the essence of being a ghost hunter is in that of the skeptic and debunker.  Adam believes “we come from a place of science, I would say, we don’t jump to conclusions, and honestly, I’d love for every place that we visit to be haunted, cause that’s what I love, but it doesn’t have to be.”  Williams further supports this thought process, “I say we come more from a place of common sense, and I think it’s lacking these days because there’s such an oversaturation of shows, people believe everything and anything, and that’s unfortunate.  Because before people would question, and I liked it when they would question evidence, now it’s like I could put something completely bogus in front of somebody and they would just run with that because people don’t question anymore. It’s kind of the reason I got out.”  Science is just that, a desire, a yearning to learn the truth about a matter or subject, and ghost hunting is no different.  When asked what she saw of the future paranormal research, Williams told me, “I honestly feel it’s going the same way of spiritualism is, in a lot of ways, it’s following the same pattern.  I think it became very popular for certain reasons, it was just kind of the right time, it took off. You see this whole surge of new tools and approaches and all this stuff, but you also see a lot of people that are fame chasers coming in and they’re getting into something that it’s not and I like I said; it’s hurting us in a lot of ways, it’s bringing us backwards in a lot of ways, and I think people are losing faith in the field in general because of it. So I think there’s kind of a danger of it crashing and burning for that reason and if people don’t stay skeptical and honest with it, there’s no reason to believe it.  It’s scary.” Adam agrees, “Everything has an ebb and flow,” Adam said, “eventually it will come back around to where it started, but I don’t know how long that’s going to take.”

It all begins with the hobbyists.  As long as they can differentiate between produced fiction and actual reality, they can be at the forefront of the educational battle for mainstream acceptance of para-science.  But the process of actually doing a ghost hunt investigation is long and tedious, and one must keep in mind that what you see on TV is quite often a day or two of investigating packaged for your pleasure. “It’s all the time.” Adam told me. “Because sometime you don’t always know what’s going on, so you sit there and you talk and you try different tactics and you explore different ways to communicate and sometimes it’s like beating a dead horse, you don’t get anything from it but that’s ok, because really at the time you don’t know if you’ve gotten anything, you have to review your evidence and see and it’s not as easy as it looks, it’s not as exciting as it looks.  We have 9 hours times two days dropped into 45 minutes. You are seeing the best of the best of our investigation, when really sometimes it is painstaking. But I’m OK with that, when it’s exciting, it’s really exciting and the pay-off is amazing.” He further elaborates, especially regarding an atmosphere like Para-History that includes a massive ghost hunt. “When we investigate in these big groups, there’s people that are really going to want something to happen, and the first thing I say to them is everyone take a deep breath and don’t expect anything and that is maybe when something will happen. The moment that you force it, the moment you try harder than anyone else in that room to have something happen, you’re going to walk away empty-handed because you’re going to focused on your goal and you’re not going to be looking at what is happening in front of your face, you’re going to miss it.  You’re not going to be looking where you’re supposed to be looking; you’re not open. It’s a fun thing to do, it’s definitely a hobby for a lot of people, and I encourage it but I really want people to do their research and move past the orbs.”  Hobbyist Autumn fully understands this. “Most of the stuff that happens to us, a lot of the time we don’t even catch it on film and it pisses us off because it will happen to us personally and we’ll be like “Hey, did you see that?” And somebody else has seen it, but we didn’t catch it and it’s frustrating.”  

Kris isn’t as enthusiastic about the number of ghost hunting groups that have sprouted up as a result of the TV programming.  “The whole thing is people are believing anything now, I think that if you want to believe something enough you’re going to hear it and see it and feel it.”  She continues to say, “It’s good and bad. It’s good because it’s obviously to the point where people aren’t afraid to talk about this stuff, it’s bad because anyone can have a t-shirt printed up and call themselves a professional.  There is no professionals in this field. There’s no way of proving what we’re doing, so when people throw the word professional or expert at me I can laugh at them, I’m like, “No, we’re not.” Adam adds again to the “professional” argument, “There’s no such thing, we’re all learning, that’s why I like to do these things, there’s some reputable teams here and we learn things when they have equipment we’ve not seen and we have things they’ve not seen and they want to ask us questions and they ask us questions. That’s why I think no matter how many people are doing this, as long as everyone is doing it for the right reasons then we’re all going to succeed.”  But what’s the right reason? He says, “I think it’s for finding out really what we’re talking to and who’s out there and what it is that we’re trying to find. I don’t think it’s for having a TV show or being on TV or being famous because that’s not the purpose. My purpose is to go in here tonight and to connect with something that’s there. And if that’s not your purpose and your purpose is to impress people with your equipment and to get people to visit your website, that’s OK, but that’s not the purpose for an investigation.”

Despite all the skeptics, there are still things that can’t be explained by the ghost hunters, and it doesn’t matter if you are on TV or not.  The paradox about it all is the lack of fear the investigators have of the paranormal, something that would take an otherwise “normal” person and stick their hair on end, causing them, to tuck tail and run from the haunted premises.  Autumn has experienced things that has made her skin crawl. “There’s been a couple of occasions, at Fort Ontario, where it was a calm day and the wind wasn’t blowing at all and I kept hearing footsteps behind me and there was nobody there. I’ve been touched on many occasions and there’s nobody around me, and you can just feel it.  To me that’s believable, but there’s always explanations for something. You don’t know if it’s definitely paranormal, we don’t say, “Hey! It’s paranormal!” But you find when there is no explanation for something, that it can be paranormal, but we never come out and say it’s definitely paranormal. We try to rationalize it, but a lot of times there’s just no explanation for anything that’s happened.”

Adam approaches the unexplained moments with curiosity as well.  ” I’m not scared of ghosts, look at her shirt,” he motions to Kris, her shirt reads GHOSTS DON’T SCARE ME, PEOPLE DO, “what does it say?  “Ghosts don’t scare me, people do,” and that is the most honest statement. There have been some people who own houses that we’ve investigated that are absolutely out of their mind, there are animals that are rabid and raccoons and things like that, those things frighten us.  The other stuff might get us very excited, but really, I want that to happen, so I’m not scared of it, I’m scared of people.” When they do get a result, ” You want it to happen again, no matter how frightening it was, you’re trying to make it happen again and again, and it comes to a point where you’re like, I’m so sorry I have to keep asking you to do this, and I know you did it once and really that should be enough for us, but we sadly need verification again, so do it again, please.”

Kris told me, “I’ve seen a few, I’ve seen shadow figures walk out of one corner and into another and vanish.  There’s one case where I heard a voice just come out of nowhere and it sounded like it was right in my ear and Amy (Bruni) and I caught it on tape.”  Adam agrees, “Uh huh. That’s happened to me before.” Kris continues, “There’s been a few things. Part of me is like, I’ve had those experiences so there’s something to it, I don’t know what, but the other part of me is, as a human, we can’t handle not having answers and when we don’t we create stories around them so that we are OK with it.”

Kris smiles, “As far as investigating when something happens it’s usually not as big or in your face as some teams would like to make it seem.  It’s usually just enough to get your attention and then you’re going through all the rational possibilities, so by the time you get to the part where you realize you can’t explain it, you’re not scared, you’ve already been in the room for another 20-40 minutes, if it was going to kill you it would have done it already.”   

Who will win the preternatural reality TV war?  Will it continue to grow out of hand, misinforming its audience, or will the next generation of ghost hunters steer it on a more acceptable path and turn it from fringe to mainstream science?  I asked Adam and Kris what mystery might be explained first, would we find positive proof of spiritual activity or discover Bigfoot? Their ever-skeptical answer? 

“Aliens.”  

 

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