Monday, June 30, 2014

Paranormal TV: Time To Give Up The Ghost?

[Editor's note: Sharon Hill is a writer who focuses on the topic of skepticism and "sciencey" sounding claims. She has a B.S. in Geosciences and a Masters degree in education focusing on science and writes for HuffingtonPostI Doubt It and Doubtful News.]


I recall watching MTV's "Fear" back in 2000 (or so) and thinking, "What easy TV drama! People just scare themselves and the viewers get drawn in!" Since the dawn of the modern paranormal encounter show 14 years ago, has anything really changed?

Nope, not really.

With Amy and Adam exiting "Ghost Hunters" we're left wondering if they can launch a new media venture significantly different than the parade of ghost investigation shows we've watched for the past 10 years. I'd be pleasantly surprised if that could be pulled off but I doubt it. Shows are packaged to be different but underneath, it's the same old lines, same old places and same tired ideas.

The attrition rate for ghost shows is high; "Ghost Hunters" is the standout exception in its 10th year. Many reality paranormal shows are long gone with "Ghost Hunters" remaining. Most of the original cast, however, is gone and the spinoffs have spun down. After losing so many of their key people, can the TAPS crew come up with something new? All the famous places have been "TAP-ped" already.

The ideas have run out so the embellishment and drama is amped up.

We can see evidence for the staleness of the genre from the failure of "Deep South Paranormal" (Syfy), which only lasted one season after it got low ratings. Actual paranormal researchers, which you might think is a key part of the audience, have been vociferous in stating that reality TV ghost hunting shows in no way depict what they see in their own rounds. "Deep South Paranormal" was accused of perpetuating the myth that crews go around with gadgets to “prove” the paranormal, overreacting to any anomaly. Maybe the ghosts weren't threatening enough so they had to add live alligators and snakes? Everyday paranormal investigators simply don't like shows that portray their activities as a joke, even inadvertently. A few parodies have hit the web that suggest the concept of ghost hunting can be comedy gold.

It's time for "Ghost Hunters" to hang up the gadgets and call it a career. They never once found evidence that was compelling to the scientific community. Science isn't done by amateurs on TV. For any who are looking for a more scientific approach, this is not the road to go down.

There are indications that overly-credulous paranormal investigation shows are in their death throes. Syfy announced new paranormal shows back in April 2013 but we didn't see hide nor hair of most of them. Joe Rogan's show "Joe Rogan Questions Everything" was surprisingly popular with non-believers because Joe actually investigated some of the questions and (heaven forbid) was doubtful about them.

There was no word on if it's returning. As the evidence-focused skeptic who is looking for the best answer to what is going on, I really hope someday there is a true mystery solving show for a change. What a concept! (A real life Scooby Doo or Nancy Drew? Where are you?) Here's a chance – a haunted house show. Please bring in some actual investigators.

As hackneyed as reality paranormal shows are, I don't think we are quite done with them yet. "Most Haunted UK" has just been revived on another channel after a long run and subsequent hiatus. "Mountain Monsters" has been a ratings success for Destination America and is in its second season. The line between folklore and fact is perpetually blurred on Animal Planet, which has garnered big hits with scripted fiction show disguised as docu-drama about mermaids, monster sharks and dragons. The ratings successes ensure more of the same will follow.

What else might we see in the future?

Paranormal themes lend themselves to travel and tourism, so we will likely continue to see shows that highlight localities with unique character. Though Bigfoot is dumbed down and played out, endless other tales of frightening cryptid creatures exist around the world. A crop of demon-hunting shows threatened to fire up but fizzled out; if angels make a comeback, the devils could be on their way as well. Stay tuned.

You can see a list of reality paranormal television shows at my blog from the dawn of television to “in development."