Responding to media skeptics: Dislike, but don't dismiss, paranormal TV

When it comes to the appeal of paranormal pop culture, some people just don't get it.

As you may have noticed, there are just a few reality-TV paranormal investigative shows out there. They do pretty well on cable, ratings-wise, and the genre remains healthy enough for a new one with a different gimmick to pop up every month or so. We have ghost shows about animals, kids, students and cops - and it's only a matter of time before audiences are treated to a paranormal pre-school show.

The point is, these shows are put together by production companies and picked up by networks because there is enough interest to create a trend, and everyone in the entertainment industry (wisely) wants to ride the wave on a moneymaking trend.

Which leads me to this column by Franklin Harris, the Assistant Metro Editor of the Decatur Daily in Alabama. In it, Mr. Harris skewers the genre of paranormal investigative reality programs. He saves most of his poison ink for Zak Bagans and his Ghost Adventures crew, but also writes the tricks of the ghost hunting trade
"are not difficult skills to master" and infers that investigators lack critical thinking abilities and are still clinging to childish fantasies of haunted houses like "half of my elementary-school classmates." Moreover, Mr. Harris is "amazed at what counts for evidence during these so-called investigations" and breaks out the old reliable orb-as-evidence example to illustrate his point.

Mr. Harris is welcome to his opinion, but I can't help but wonder if he approached his viewings of any investigative programming openly, or if he simply tuned in to trash.

As far as Bagans goes, I've never met the dude or investigated with him. I enjoy his show enough, and actually like the theatricality of it. But frankly, I don't have enough information to either endorse his prowess as an investigator or to claim he's full of ectoplasm. Besides, Bagans doesn't need me to stick up for him, nor does anyone on any show, paranormal themed or not.

But who I do think Mr. Harris wrongs in his column are the people who enjoy these shows, and probably not an insignificant number of his own readers. After all, out of the three million weekly viewers who watch Ghost Hunters, the top-rated paranormal investigative series, you can bet a handful of them hail from 'Bama.

To be clear, I view paranormal investigative shows as entertainment. Just as I am naturally skeptical that the ShamWow is as good as Vince Shlomi promises, I don't automatically believe everything a TV paranormal investigator tells me. So I watch the shows for fun. Besides, regardless of my own belief in the existence of ghosts, viewing a TV program alone won't transform a viewer into a solid investigator. Nor do I think most of the celebrity ghost hunters on the shows would claim it will.

Additionally, like all pop culture, paranormal pop culture varies in quality. Some of the investigative shows are admittedly pretty lame. There are those that do actively add to the negative perception of the paranormal community, and others are just painful to watch because of the unlikability of the living personalities on display.

But dismissing the significance of even the worst of these shows, or all of them as in Mr. Harris' case, is as much of a folly as dismissing the Twilight Saga, American Idol, country music or pro football simply because you don't care for it.

The latest online Harris Poll (which, despite the name similarity, has no connection to editor Franklin Harris) reported 42 percent of American adults believe in ghosts. Conducted in November 2009, the same poll also reported most adults believe in god (82 percent), angels (72 percent), heaven (75 percent), hell (61 percent), UFOs (32 percent) and the life of the soul after death (71 percent).

Polls are tricky things and who really knows - out of the
2,303 adults surveyed - what types of people took this questionnaire. To be fair, in October, Rasmussen Reports conducted a similar poll that only showed the number of ghost believers to be around 23 percent. Still, the 40 percent figure is more or less the standard reflected in most polls. This is hard to ignore and foolish to dismiss.

If Mr. Harris is a skeptic, as can be assumed, then he should not kowtow to those who investigate and believe in the paranormal. Skeptics are necessary, and most investigators love having them around. I daresay there are a fair number of investigators who'd benefit from a little more skepticism to aid in their debunking, and to prevent them from quickly labeling all things as paranormal. Even the folks who run Web sites solely dedicated to picking apart evidence from ghost shows are cool by me because they encourage good investigators to be better and sharper, and to avoid sloppy mistakes.

Further, I do not think Mr. Harris is actively intending to insult people who enjoy paranormal reality-TV any more than he'd try to offend those reflected in that poll who have faith in another intangible, unseen force like god.

Maybe he's just looking to ruffle some feathers and drive Web traffic by taking a contrarian tone on a popular trend - sort of like shouting "Pats suck!" in Boston. If that is his intent,
I'm certainly assisting in this endeavor by yammering on about it. And more power to him since so many of us writers live and die by page hits. Unfortunately, I think Franklin Mr. Harris' words do come across as condescending to a large group of believers, investigators and probably more than a few people in his own paper's distribution zone.

Fans of the paranormal are everywhere, and their support translates into major revenue for the entertainment industry. Regardless of how much Mr. Harris personally dislikes, or even loathes, the paranormal reality-TV genre, when millions of people are tuning in every week, it is simply unexplainable to dismiss the entertainment of the unexplained.

-Aaron Sagers