Friday, October 7, 2011

Paranormal state of TV

BY AARON SAGERS

It is a lively time for the haunting dead, the undead, the walking dead and the deadly things in the water, forests and outer space. Especially in the midst of Halloween season, all the creeping, crawling, shambling and stalking amounts to a lot of bumps in the night. And many of them are coming from the television.

Scary movies, comics and video games aside, there is a lot of paranormal activity on TV this fall, but instead of slipping away after Oct. 31, there is a trend of the entertainment of the unexplained continuing year round as part of ongoing seasons. And there are plenty of bogeyman for viewers to choose from. Ghosts, vampires, zombies, werewolves, witches, beasts and demons are currently haunting in high-def on reality-TV and scripted fare every day of the week.

On Sundays, The Walking Dead brings high-brow zombie drama to audiences on AMC. Monday is a good night for the MTV creature comedy Death Valley. On Wednesday, Syfy offers the long-running reality-TV show Ghost Hunters followed by reenactments of bigfoot, alien and spectral encounters on Paranormal Witness. The twisted modern ghost story series American Horror Story on FX also gets the Wednesday treatment. A Thursday-night trifecta of vamps, werewolves and witches invade The CW with The Vampire Diaries and The Secret Circle. Friday is guys’ night as a trio of reality-TV investigators search for the unknown on Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures while two brothers battle biblical forces on The CW’s Supernatural. Even in the dead zones of Saturday or Tuesday, it’s a solid bet that reruns of Celebrity Ghost Stories, My Ghost Story, Ghosts: Caught on Tape or some such programming will be airing in the primetime on the Biography Channel.

Of course, paranormal pop culture isn’t particularly new. The human race has always told tales about the things in our universe that had yet to be explained (paranormal) and that which existed beyond the rules of nature (supernatural). But why does the fascination remain today?

The de facto response of the spiritually-minded was to say the need to believe in something larger than ourselves was necessary in a post-9/11 world. Lately the trend points to an impending shift in 2012 where the unreal is going to get real. Depending on the view point, the end of the Mayan calendar will lead to humanity either getting scraped from the Earth’s sole (due to the The Rapture or zombie apocalypse) or experiencing a spiritual re-awakening.

Then there is the “same as it ever was” David Byrne argument: Mankind has always been curious about the unknown and told tales, found religions and created myth to explain it. But old fears persist about what’s “out there.” Regardless of the answers we learn about our world and universe, there is an unsettling realization that there are things that remain unexplained.

Of course, another way to look at it is that the paranormal is just a fun sandbox of the imagination to play in. Even without any expectation of ghosts, vampires and zombies being real, they’re still as much fun to think about as having super powers or traveling through time and space in a police call box.

On the still relatively new medium of TV, The Twilight Zone - and The Outer Limits to a lesser degree - explored the paranormal in the 1960s. In Search Of … with Leonard Nimoy and Unsolved Mysteries did it in the 1980s and ’80s, as did The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But instead of just a few scripted or reenactment programs on the air, the midpoint of the new millennium’s first decade saw paranormal entertainment shift into high gear on television. In the fall of 2004, Lost premiered as a show laden with supernatural phenomena. Also in the latter half of 2004, the erstwhile Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) debuted Ghost Hunters. By fall 2005, genre shows Medium, Ghost Whisperer, Night Stalker, Supernatural, and the documentary series A Haunting had debuted. The list would only continue to grow even as some shows survived and others got the axe.

Although the big three television networks fairly quickly became gun shy of paranormal programming targeting adults, The WB – emboldened by previous successes Charmed, Angel and Buffy – picked up the supernatural slack with shows marketed to high school and college students. They then continued the trend as the reincarnated CW network.

The CW programming expanded and toyed with literary tropes from the “dark fantasy” subgenre such as angels, fairies, witches, werewolves and vampires. Those paranormal shows would eventually include The Vampire Diaries and this fall’s witch coven series The Secret Circle on The CW – both based on young adult fiction - as well as True Blood on HBO, Teen Wolf on MTV and Syfy’s upcoming succubus soap (imported from Canada), Lost Girl. However, aside from a few exceptions – Syfy’s werewolf-vampire-ghost roommate series Being Human, which returns for season two in January – apparitions have been most successful on reality-TV.

Many scripted shows have used ghosts as a plotting technique and metaphor for the unresolved past returning to haunt the present. Lost used them to great effect (or was that just the Man in Black the whole time?), as did the once-successful, now canceled ghost series Ghost Whisperer and Medium. But the spirit has been weak with rating on ghost-centric scripted shows in the last few years.

Meanwhile, it was two Roto-Rooter plumbers by day, and paranormal investigators at night, who put a spotlight on ghosts on TV.

While the reality-TV British show Most Haunted – memorable for the nightvision camera theatrics of host Yvette Fielding – preceded Ghost Hunters by two years, the Syfy program can be credited with launching the paranormal investigation docudrama where teams set out to explore, prove or debunk unexplained phenomena.

Perhaps without actively intending to do so, the show breathed life into the characters from the 1984 comedy hit Ghostbusters. Team leaders Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) approach their investigations with a debunking-before-believing “scientific method,” and an assurance that the paranormal isn’t often something to be afraid of. They combine a blue-collar ethic along with a sense of humor and a “We’re ready to believe you” attitude with spooked clients. Like the team led by Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters, TAPS utilizes fun gadgets, wears clothing branded with their logo and drive around in a cool signature vehicle. In a 2010 interview with ParanormalPopCulture.com, even Ghostbusters creator Dan Aykroyd said the program is “no doubt inspired by us.”

After seven years on the air, more than 150 episodes, two spin-offs (Ghost Hunters International and the since-canceled Ghost Hunters Academy), five live Halloween-night specials and one canine investigator, the show is the network’s longest running program and has been renewed for an eighth season in 2012. The two plumbers by day “origin story” has even a recognizable origin story – a unique feat for reality stars to achieve. Moreover, the show has cemented itself in pop culture and encouraged other cable channels to air their own ghost hunting programs.

New paranormal reality-driven shows are appearing constantly – Paranormal Challenge, Paranormal Witness, Haunted Collector, to name some recent additions. But there are also enough canceled, or un-renewed, reality-TV ghost hunting and documentary-style shows from the last seven years to fill a TV graveyard; A Haunting, The Haunted, Ghost Lab, Ghost Cops, Paranormal State, Extreme Paranormal, Psychic Kids, Psychic Detectives, The Othersiders and Monster Quest are just a few that would appear on headstones.

Meanwhile Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures is a marked contrast to Ghost Hunters on TV. Co-created by team leader Zak Bagans and Nick Groff, it premiered on Travel in 2008 after a 2007 documentary aired on Ghost Hunters network, Syfy. The fittingly-named show is more adventure-based than Hunters. Bagans and his two-man team, which also includes artist Aaron Goodwin, are “locked down” overnight in the locales where they actively pursue the darker elements of the unexplained - namely nasty ghosts and demons (which Bagans refers to as paranormal “bullies). Not surprisingly, by merging the dark fantasy subgenres with paranormal reality-TV, “Adventures” tends to appeal to the audience watching Supernatural on The CW.

Although ghost hunters, adventurers, explorers and trackers have had a good run on reality-TV, the paranormal investigation show is poised to be overtaken by new reenactment programs. Paranormal Witness, another supernatural Syfy show, features new stories of encounters with the unexplained each week. Produced by documentary filmmaker Mark Lewis, whose work for the BBC and National Geographic has won him multiple awards, Witness attempts intercuts eyewitness interviews with reenactment featuring actors. The show premiered in September and highlighted harrowing and inspiring tales involving angels, demons, beasts, UFO and a ghost without a face. The appeal of the shows is it allows viewers to reset their skepticism each week. If you don’t believe the account of a helicopter pilot pursued by a flying saucer, then there’s always next week to try again.

Paranormal Witness intentionally dips into the scary aspects of the paranormal. While other paranormal reality shows have a habit of sanitizing the topic too much, or assuring people they shouldn’t be afraid, Witness is happy to terrify. Along with the scares of Witness, there is FX’s new drama American Horror Story, created by Ryan Murphy (Glee, Nip/Tuck). Debuting Oct. 5 to a respectable 3.2 million viewers, the series is a about a fractured family in a haunted house and is like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining meets Twin Peaks. Similar to the zombie survivor show The Walking Dead on AMC, American Horror Story meshes high production value and top tier talent with the horror genre on a weekly basis.

If the early successes of the plot-driven, horror-based shows are any indication, it would appear that paranormal TV is going to continue heading down a scary street – but the question is whether the trend will be to the detriment of the dark fantasy teen shows or investigative docusoap. Yet there is little question about the enduring power of the undead or the dead on TV. Whether it is a reality-TV ghost, a dark fantasy teen vamp or a hardcore horror zombie, these beasts don’t appear to be dying off.