This time of year, when all things spooky are filling the air, my family likes to watch these “reality t.v.” shows where people go into supposedly haunted places and try to find evidence of ghosts, specters, poltergeists, and even DEMONS! And of all the ghost-busting style shows, our favorite has always been Ghost Hunters.
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual DVD that I watched. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Ghost Hunters was a long running, reality-based series on the SYFY channel that focused on TAPS, or The Atlantic Paranormal Society. The stars of the show (at least for the seasons covered by this “Best of” collection) were Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, two plumbers who started a paranormal investigation agency after they each, separately, experienced something that left them wondering what they’d encountered. In the “Myrtle’s Plantation” episode, Grant Wilson explains:
“In my personal search for answers, they just weren’t out there. I wasn’t satisfied with what was out there.”
This left Grant and Jason with a desire to seek out those answers for themselves. Interestingly, TAPS attempts, in their investigations, to find alternate explanations for the haunting phenomena that more credulous ghost hunters take for granted. Jason Hawes, also in the “Myrtle’s Plantation” episode, says:
“What makes us so much different than most of the other groups out there is that we’re going to a case to try to disprove a haunting.”
And it’s true that they will often find explanations for SOME of the common pieces of evidence shared by folks who have experienced something strange. For example, people often complain of knocks and bangs in mostly empty buildings at night, but being plumbers, Grant and Jason know that water pipes and hot water heaters can often make pops and banging sounds, which from a distance can seem like knocks or bangs on floors. They will also find that wind rattling loose windows or moving large headboards on beds can sometimes be interpreted as paranormal, even when the explanations are quite mundane.
With that said, the TAPS members also hold some interesting, not-so-scientific, beliefs as well. For instance, in the early seasons of the show, they would often have a “demonologist” come with them on investigations, and on at least one occasion, they brought along a woman who used dowsing rods to help detect ghostly activity. They ALSO indulge in a lot of pseudo-scientific conceits, which make some MASSIVE assumptions, which viewers are supposed to just GO WITH in order for the show to make sense, including the belief that ghosts produce or interfere with electromagnetic fields (and can thus be detected by electromagnetic field detectors), that ghosts can somehow make their voices appear on electronic devices that are made to pick up SOUNDS that, for some reason, can’t be HEARD by the people in the room (microphones are designed to pick up the same frequencies that EARS do, so if an ear can't hear it, neither can the microphone---unless MAGIC is involved), and---my favorite---that ghosts are sometimes radioactive! In the “Haunted Lighthouse” episode, investigator Steve Gonsalves explains why a Geiger counter might be useful in their next ghost hunt:
“A lot of scientists think that a Geiger counter would be useful in paranormal research because one of the theories out there is that paranormal phenomena, ghosts or spirits, does emit some sort of radioactive detectable frequency.”
Who are these scientists? Apparently, a "lot" of them are out there, BUT...as we all remember from our high school physics classes, RADIATION is given off by MATTER---as in physical, atomic based, matter…in other words easily DETECTABLE matter, whether that be a gas, liquid, or solid material. If a ghost can give off radiation, it should ALSO be detectable by standard scientific means. Even neutrinos, which almost don’t react with physical matter AT ALL, have actually been detected at this point, so it seems to me that an entity which is physical enough to give off measurable levels of radiation should be a cinch to detect---but scientific consensus on ghosts is that there is still not enough evidence to say they exist, at least in a PHYSICAL sense. (Psychologically, ghosts are very real…but we can talk about that later…)
So, what do we actually get with this DVD? As the cover says, this collection includes about four hours worth of material, including five full episode, as well as some deleted scenes for each. The episodes on this disc, which originally aired between 2004 and 2006, are the following: “Attack of the Irish Elemental,” “Eastern State Pen,” “Haunted Lighthouse,” “Myrtle’s Plantation,” and “‘The Shining’ Hotel.” And, in my opinion, these are all fun episodes, and I do enjoy watching them, even if I don’t ultimately agree with their conclusions.
Part of what makes this show fun is the set-up. Each show starts with some kind of vaguely soap-opera-esque drama---some investigator will be on thin ice or the company is moving into a new office or somebody can’t come on an investigation because they’re afraid of flying and the destination is too far away to drive to. These “HUMAN” elements of the show, seeing how the interpersonal relationships between the various cast members grow and shift, is part of what keeps viewers coming back. Next, the team arrives at the destination they are going to investigate, and they are given a tour of the place by someone who knows the history of the place AS WELL AS the details of the paranormal activities. Sometimes employees who have had personal experiences are interviewed, and the viewer is given a chance to get a feel for how lurid or dangerous or spooky the investigation is going to be. (Priming the pump, if you will.) Then TAPS is usually shown setting up cameras and recording equipment, before the lights are all turned out and the investigation begins…
And here’s a question that Mathew Baxter (from the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society) brings up in a great episode of MonsterTalk, about “Ghost Hunting Gear”: Why do people think a place is MORE haunted in the dark? Are ghosts neutralized by light? All it takes for a haunting to stop is leaving the lights on??? No. It’s not that…
Turning the lights off does a few things: 1. It helps make the INVESTIGATOR feel like the situation is more spooky. It’s easier to imagine scary stuff happening in the dark, and even the most scientifically minded, skeptical person is susceptible to being “creeped out” in the right circumstances and ambience. 2. Having the lights off takes away the investigator’s ability to easily determine the possible CAUSE of a given phenomenon. If a book falls off a shelf with the lights off, it was a ghost that threw it. If the lights are ON, you might be able to see that a camera bag or cable caught the book’s corner and knocked it over. 3. Low light makes recording equipment get all fritzy, especially digital equipment, which will glitch, pixelize, and try to interpret what little information it’s receiving---and these fuzzed-out, glitchy images are perfect fodder for interpretation, false pattern recognition, and pareidolia (which is the tendency for people to see faces in random images.) Turning the lights off, simply put, makes it easier to find “evidence” of ghosts.
After TAPS investigates for several hours, in some cases even over multiple nights, they go through the audio and video that they recorded and see if they can find any anomalies that they can’t explain. Then, in a final step, they share their findings and personal stories from the night’s searches with the venue’s owners and will sometimes share their opinions as to whether or not they think the place is haunted. Sometimes, they even say that they didn’t find enough evidence to suggest that the place is! (By including scenes of debunking certain claims and the occasional admission that they found nothing during an investigation, the TAPS crew gains credibility…as long as you can go with their initial premises to begin with!)
As I said above, my family and I do enjoy watching the show, partially because we enjoy the human drama elements, and partially because we like coming up with our own interpretations of the “evidence” that the team collects. For example, in the episode on “The Shining” Hotel, aka The Stanley Hotel in Colorado, one of the investigators is woken up in the middle of the night by a glass on his nightstand breaking. He notices, at this time, that the closet door is open, so before he goes back to bed, he puts his video camera on the nightstand facing the open closet door---and a bit later, in a scene that some find very creepy, the viewer sees the closet door close “by itself” on camera. Unfortunately, in the view that we get from the camera, the entire bottom left-hand corner of the closet door is obscured by the end of the bed---meaning that it would be VERY easy for someone to simply crawl up to the door and push it closed, and we’d never see them on the screen. I’m NOT saying that the Ghost Hunters fake some scenes or occasionally get pranked and just keep this material as “evidence.” (I’m not saying it, but at least one former Ghost Hunters cast member HAS made the accusation that her part in a show was edited to portray events in a way that didn't correspond to what actually happened, but other cast members on the show claimed she was just a disgruntled ex-employee.) It is a bit suspicious, though, that all of the GREAT evidence: people getting pushed down by ghosts, doors closing, tables moving, and spooky images, all of these things happen either slightly off camera, with a portion of the moved object hidden from view, or in light conditions that are so low that trickery would be easy.
For example, in the “Haunted Lighthouse” episode, there is a shadowy figure, several floors above the camera, that can be seen leaning over the edge of a stairwell, and the TAPS crew make a big deal of saying that, if it had been a PERSON up there, then the motion-sensor activated lights would have turned on when the person moved. Sounds right---but what if someone just turned the motion sensor lights off before they filmed that scene. Again, I’m not saying that TAPS have faked evidence, just that it would be POSSIBLE for them to fake the evidence or to be tricked by someone who was faking… (Here’s the CYNICAL take: a ghost hunting show that NEVER found evidence of ghosts wouldn’t last long or make much money in advertising.) I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but things like having a chunk of a door that’s about to close “all by itself” off camera smacks of stage magic to me. (Magicians make people disappear by putting them in boxes or covering them with sheets for a reason, you know…)
Still, if you enjoy shows that visit exotic locations, include a lot of exciting soap-opera drama, and talk in interesting, pseudo-scientific ways about theories involving paranormal phenomena, then this DVD will be quite an entertaining collection for you to watch! I wouldn’t say this stuff is very SCARY, nor would I say it’s particularly CONVINCING (for a skeptic, at any rate), but it’s enjoyable enough for me and my family that we return to it about this time every year. We LOVE ghost stories, and with this set, you get a LOT of stories as well as some interesting locations. In addition, the editing and sound are quite good, so the MOOD in these episodes is well sculpted. If you’re scientifically minded, there’s quite a lot in this show that could piss you off, but if you just go with it and enjoy the SPECTACLE (like you would with a stage hypnotist or a magician), then this DVD is a solid bit of value for the money!
---Richard F. Yates (Holy Fool)
[P.S. – One of these days, maybe before Halloween, I’ll do a more in depth essay about paranormal claims, like those explored in shows like Ghost Hunters….but not today…]