'Ghost Hunters' living up to the spirit of pop-culture's best

About halfway through a rerun last week of the SCI FI Channel’s “Ghost Hunters," paranormal investigator Grant Wilson began the oft-repeated sentence, “E.V.P. stands for electronic voice phenomenon …”

As Wilson read off the definition on camera, myself and a few friends watching the show from my living room finished the line with him, following the cadence and rhythm as closely as we might if a red ball had been bouncing across words on the screen.

That’s when it struck me that I was witnessing something pretty rare, like the pink albino dolphin or a coherent Britney Spears. Wilson and partner Jason Hawes - along with their team, The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) featuring Kris Williams, Steve Gonsalves and Dave Tango - have become more than just stars on a popular show that draws about 2.8 million viewers a week. It doesn’t matter if you believe in ghosts or not because the stars of the four-year-old are pop-culture prodigies.

Since the 2004 premiere, “Ghost Hunters” has re-invented the reality-TV genre by focusing on a topic outside of most of our realities. It’s not about contests on an island, weird foods, big families, small families, lousy roomies, bachelor’s harems and hot tubs, racing, singing, dancing, or working for, and being eliminated by, a perpetually angry boss. But it is about a group of friends that started a hobby with the intent to help people as well as get answers about the afterlife.

Whether by design or mistake, the show is also unique among its reality-TV brethren for observing the basic formulas present in the best of pop fiction.

The heroes are believably human. From Peter Parker to Homer Simpson, most memorable heroes are flawed but likable with an everyman attitude. Unlike the cocky, overconfident nitwits who populate reality-TV and lack the potential for introspection, Wilson and Hawes (and especially Tango and Steve) achieve this and do it without seeming to take themselves too seriously.

“Ghost Hunters” has also implanted its mythology into our consciousness. I have known about T.A.P.S. since a 2002 “New York Times” article and have interviewed the stars on a few occasions, but most of us can recite a version of the Wilson, Hawes and Co. story from the show alone. After about 80 episodes, even if the names are fuzzy, they’re well-known as the Roto-Rooter plumbers with the working-class appeal from Rhode Island who investigate the paranormal. Since the group began in 1990, when a door opens on its own in an old house, they try to find out why; when there is a loud crash in the dark, they give chase instead of running away (except for the one catchphrase-making “Dude, run” incident). And when something truly startling happens, audiences are likely to hear “what the frig?” instead of a scream.

But along with a familiar mythology, “Ghost Hunters” honors a code that we love to see in our pop-culture. There are three rules to owning a Mogwai, charge the power ring every 24 hours, observe the Prime Directive, you must reach 88 miles per hour to generate 1.21 gigawatts of power needed for time travel, and always try to debunk ghostly reports before calling it haunted.

Audiences may enjoy surprises, but we also like a framework of rules and expect our heroes to follow them.

In the case of the so-called “T.A.P.S. method” of debunking before believing, the show has also redefined what audiences are used to seeing in reality-TV, and haunted house shows in particular. As opposed to the Travel Channel’s “Most Haunted” (featuring shaky cams, dramatic psychics and jumpy Brits) or MTV’s deceased show “Fear” (featuring head-mounted cameras and a lot screaming), “Ghost Hunters” places emphasis on the process of investigating instead of trying to deliver scares.

By giving off a CSI: Paranormal vibe, the show allows a sometimes anti-climactic climax. This reduces the audience expectation of a spectral money shot; if there is one, and there isn’t always, they get even more traction from it.
Although the TAPS team sometimes catches spooky disembodied EVPs on digital recorders, or amorphous forms on a heat-sensitive thermal camera, or electro-magnetic field anomalies on a gadget called the K-2, much of their show is about something we all relate to: waiting and talking. They talk to scared homeowners, they wait around reviewing hours of evidence, they wait around in the dark while talking. It’s compelling television, but it’s not always very exciting.

Of course, anytime something new is created and becomes a fixture in popular culture, there will be followers and imitators, as well as detractors and naysayers. That’s to be expected as much as the “Ghost Hunters” spin-offs and T-shirts, and the eventual TAPS breakfast cereal, action figures and video game. Most of the imitators won’t last long, and the controversies won’t prove to be true, I suspect, but they don’t matter anyhow.

Frankly, whether ghosts do exist or don’t doesn’t matter either. Even if the truth isn’t out there, as Mulder believed, “Ghost Hunters” is a very real game changer on the reality-TV scene and has secured a spot in pop-culture history.

Follow the live blogging of the TAPS event at Fort Mifflin in Philadelphia tonight, Saturday, June 27, from 9 p.m.-2 a.m. at Examiner.com. I'll be talking to cast members and paranormal investigators on site, looking for ghostly activity, posting photos and making you part of the action. When not at the computer, catch me on Twitter (@aaronsagers)