Channel Guide: Unpacking Our Obsession with Paranormal Investigation Shows

By  · Published on November 19th, 2011

Editor’s Note: We are very excited to welcome you to the relaunch of Channel Guide, our twice weekly column covering the world of television. Taking over the column are not one, but two talented ladies with a wealth of knowledge and wit. Every Saturday will feature a new essay from Amber Humphrey, a writer who has been with FSR since 2009 and has, at every turn, impressed us with her unique voice. And now, on with the show…

The title is super cryptic so I’ll explain the premise of Ghost Hunters for anyone who has somehow managed to escape its hypnotic appeal: Ghost Hunters is a reality show in which some dudes (Roto-Rooter plumbers turned paranormal experts) hunt ghosts. Really, though, saying that The Atlantic Paranormal Society (or TAPS) “hunt ghosts” makes the series sound a lot more thrilling than it actually is.

The paranormal investigators on Ghost Hunters, just like the paranormal investigators on the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures or A&E’s Paranormal State, visit purportedly haunted locations with an arsenal of scientific sounding gizmos (Electromagnetic Field detectors, thermal imaging cameras); the technology lends an air of objectivity to the proceedings. Flying in the face of this objectivity: a typical episode basically just consists of people walking around in the dark, bumping into stuff, flipping out at the slightest little sounds, talking about how they just got the chills, and whispering, “did you hear that?” repeatedly (add a game of “light as a feather, stiff as a board” and you have every sleep-over that I went to in middle school).

There aren’t any ghosts on these shows. There have never been any ghosts on these shows. There will never be any ghosts on these shows. There is absolutely no rational reason why anyone should be watching these shows. Yet, we are watching them. In fact, we’re watching the hell out of them. Ghost Hunters has been airing on the SyFy channel for an astounding seven years.

So, why is a paranormal investigation series in which, arguably, nothing ever happens cancellation-proof? How do we explain our attraction to this genre? On Halloween night while flipping between Ghost Hunters Live on SyFy and the Ghost Adventures movie on the Travel Channel, I arrived at three possible answers to these questions.

1. I know they’re never going to find a ghost but they might find a ghost.

First of all, no they won’t. At least they’ll never be able to collect any evidence that definitively proves the existence of ghosts. (Wouldn’t we have seen the footage on CNN or some other major news network if they had?) This being said, I can still understand and relate to that irrational anticipation and excitement. It’s the same hopeful but ultimately foolhardy logic that prompts us to buy lottery tickets or watch Dinner for Schmucks – we know that it’s going to be a complete, soul-crushing waste but maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised. Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures may not prove the existence of ghosts but the longevity of these shows does prove that we haven’t all been turned into hardened, world-weary skeptics and that, like Fox Mulder, we desperately want to believe. Perhaps that’s something that should be celebrated. On the other hand, they say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So, there’s that.

2. They’ve totally found ghosts on these shows.

Now, the other school of thought is that there hasn’t been an episode of Ghost Hunters or Ghost Adventures where there wasn’t some kind of paranormal activity. Changes in temperature, unexplained noises, garbled “spirit voice” recordings, and orbs of light witnessed in photographs and video footage, are more than enough proof for most viewers, completely justifying the continuation of this genre now and forever. There’s no rationalizing or arguing with that kind of unshakable belief. Just don’t show one of those grainy, night vision videos to a Eureka fan. They’ve suffered enough.

3. Paranormal investigators have abnormally high levels of charisma. Fact: the primary ingredient in AXE Body Spray is essence of ghost hunter.

A couple of years ago, I went to Dragon*Con in Atlanta and the Ghost Hunters panel was packed. While walking around the convention floor, I saw a family – all wearing Ghost Hunters t-shirts – carrying around some fancy plaque with “TAPS” inscribed on it that I can only assume they’d planned on presenting to the show’s eponymous ghost hunters. I personally feel that Grant and Jason, the two lead investigators, are completely devoid of personality. But clearly, I’m in the minority. Sure, these shows appeal to a niche audience but they are an incredibly devoted and apparently large niche. Viewers relate to these investigators on some level. They like them. It’s fitting that a reality show about the intangible should be appealing for a reason that is as unquantifiable as the charisma of its stars.

For more from the world of television, be sure to stay tuned to the Channel Guide Archives.