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01 May, 2014

Shows that go Bump in the Night: Unimonster’s Favorite (and not-so-favorite) Paranormal Television Series



During my prolonged absence from these pages, your friendly ol’ Unimonster relocated the Crypt, and this move afforded me the opportunity to once again join the world of subscription TV service.  In other words, for the first time in nearly ten years, Uni’s Crypt is hooked up to cable.  In addition to discovering the Robertson clan, of A&E’s Duck Dynasty, a program with which I immediately fell in love, Man v. Food (honestly, you have to admire a man who’ll attempt to wrestle 74 oz. of steak into submission), and having the question, “what the hell is a ‘Honey Boo-Boo’” answered, I found a wealth of programming choices of which I had been ignorant.  Shows that appealed to the history-lover in me, shows that appealed to my inner ‘foodie’, even two networks devoted to guns and hunting.  Of course, me being me, a large number of the programs that captured my attention have reality-based horror or paranormal overtones.

I’m not referring to fictional Horror series, such as FX’s American Horror Story or AMC’s The Walking Dead.  Both are superb examples of horror storytelling, especially The Walking Dead, which takes the skin-ripping, gut-munching zombie genre and elevates it to a level of which Romero, Fulci, and O’Bannon could only dream.  Those series deserve an in-depth look in these pages, and will, in time, receive it.  But this month we look at the shows that are factually-based, or at least claim to be.  Those series that examine the paranormal world around us with, if not an open mind, then at least one that is a little less dead-set against the idea of the supernatural.

Such programs are hardly new.  The mid-1970s were a time when America’s interest in paranormal activity, especially UFOs and cryptids, those mysterious beasts such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, was at a fever pitch.  There was a spate of movies examining such unexplained phenomena as the Bermuda Triangle, and the possibility that ancient extraterrestrials had been responsible for wonders such as Stonehenge and the Pyramids.  Among the most notable (or perhaps notorious would be more fitting) of these was 1973’s The Legend of Boggy Creek.  Filmed in a pseudo-documentary style that is now referred to as a ‘docudrama’, the film purported to examine the legends of the Fouke monster, a bigfoot-like creature said to inhabit the woods and swamps of southwestern Arkansas.

In addition to spawning movies and documentaries, this interest in the paranormal gave birth to a series created by Alan Landsburg, a prolific television writer and producer.  Landsburg, who had previously produced the biographical documentary Kennedy, the First Thousand Days, which was screened for the 1964 Democratic National Convention, was inspired by the success of three made-for-TV documentaries on the paranormal that he had produced beginning in 1973 to turn the concept into a weekly syndicated series.  Debuting on 17 April, 1977, In Search Of… examined an incredibly diverse collection of topics during its five-year run, ranging from the possibility that Earth had been visited in ancient times by aliens (also the topic of the first made-for-TV documentary), to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, to the prospect that North Vietnam was secretly keeping American MIAs prisoner nearly a decade after the end of US involvement in the Vietnam War.  Hosted by Leonard Nimoy, formerly of Star Trek fame, the series had a built-in appeal for those lovers of Sci-Fi that would form the series’ most devoted fan base.  The show’s original run ended on 1 March, 1982, after 144 episodes, though it was briefly revived in 2002, with The X-Files’ Mitch Pileggi as host.  This incarnation of the series lasted only eight episodes.
On 17 April, 1992, fifteen years to the day that In Search Of… premiered, the Fox Broadcasting Network launched Sightings, a similar program presented in an investigative news magazine format, a sort of Inside Edition on the world of the paranormal.  Hosted by journalist Tim White, the series wasn't as wide-ranging as its predecessor, though it was nearly as successful, lasting until September, 1997.  Following the end of the series’ regularly scheduled run, a number of Sightings specials were produced, as well as a fictionalized, made-for-TV movie, Sightings: Heartland Ghost.  Reruns were shown on the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) until April, 2003.

As it was ending its run, the stage was being set for a new pattern of paranormal television, a style of programming that owed as much to Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer as it did to In Search Of… and Sightings.  The prototype of these shows, and one of the Unimonster’s personal favorites, was Haunted History, which began its run on The History Channel with the special, Haunted History: Charleston, in October of 1998.  Though it suffered from a relatively low number of episodes produced (only two specials and twenty-five regular episodes aired between 26 October, 1998 and 11 August, 2001) and erratic scheduling, the series featured high production values, interesting locales, and real efforts to capture, in-depth, both the legends and the facts behind the legends.  It also eschewed the sensationalism and tabloid-style approach of later programs.  The series enjoyed a brief revival in the fall of 2013, with eight new episodes being produced.  These bore little resemblance to the original version, and were generally inferior to it.

At approximately the same time as the original run of Haunted History was winding down, a new program was getting underway on, of all networks, MTV.  Using the then-innovative concept of a competition, with the participants filming themselves with handheld cameras, night vision equipment, and static cameras placed strategically around the location to be investigated.  MTV’s Fear debuted in 2000, the first episode placing a group of young adults inside the recently closed West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville.  The six ‘investigators’ were locked in the prison overnight, staying in a prepared ‘safe room’ base of operations, from which they would be dispatched, in one or two-person, color-coded teams, to explore areas of supposed paranormal activity.  After the location had been thoroughly examined, then any participants who hadn't quit the challenge would share in a cash prize.

Subsequent episodes would take place at the Ideal Cement factory (renamed the Duggan Brothers Cement factory for the show) in Castle Hayne, North Carolina, on board the World War II aircraft carrier USS Hornet, moored in Alameda, California, and at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.  Though the series was one of MTV’s most popular shows, the high costs of producing it doomed the program, with only sixteen episodes having aired over two seasons.  However, while the show was short-lived, it was one of the most influential of the early paranormal reality series, especially the look and style of the show.  While MTV drew some fire for the obvious stage management of the so-called investigations, no one was claiming that this was a serious examination of paranormal phenomena.  The fans of the show accepted it at face value, realizing that it was nothing more than Survivor … with ghosts.
In 2004, with the phenomenon of “Reality TV” at its peak, the granddaddy of the paranormal reality genre premiered on the SyFy network.  Ghost Hunters, which chronicled the activities of a pair of plumbers from Rhode Island who headed a paranormal investigating group in their off hours, first aired on 6 October, 2004, and soon became a huge success.  Featuring Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, Roto-Rooter employees and the co-founders of The Atlantic Paranormal Society, or TAPS, the show followed the organization’s investigations into allegedly haunted locations.  Though the team’s efforts in the first season were limited to the northeastern US, by the second season the program’s success had led to investigations being conducted throughout the US, as well as the beat-up old TAPS van being retired for new rolling stock, and the team relocating from the trailer that had been their headquarters to rented offices.

While critics have found fault with the team’s investigative techniques, and fans have remarked that, despite the promotional hype each new episode brings they never seem to encounter anything of note, the series has continued to grow, despite Wilson leaving the show in the middle of the eighth season, and still enjoys good ratings.  What’s more, it has inspired a host of imitators across the cable landscape.

Following the success of Ghost Hunters, it seemed as though every cable network worth its licensing fees had to have a paranormal investigation program on its schedule.  At the higher end of the spectrum, at least in terms of seriousness and credibility, and of a completely different style was the Discovery Channel’s A Haunting.  Featuring a combination of interviews with the actual witnesses to the activity in question, as well as filmed reenactments, A Haunting never developed the massive amount of media attention that Ghost Hunters garnered, despite being the better of the two series, in the Unimonster’s humble opinion.  It did help popularize the reenactment type of paranormal series as opposed to the investigative style of programming.  Another excellent reenactment series is the SyFy channel’s Paranormal Witness.  Superficially similar to A Haunting, it manages to convey, even better than the latter series, the frightening aspects of the cases being examined.

Crowding the viewing landscape at the lower end of the paranormal spectrum we have haunted animals (Animal Planet’s The Haunted), haunted hillbillies (Ghostland, Tennessee, also on Animal Planet, and SyFy’s Deep South Paranormal), haunted collectibles (Deals from the Dark Side and Haunted Collector, both on SyFy), even a haunted gold mine (SyFy’s Ghost Mine).  While all are interesting, to varying degrees, all are lacking the key ingredient that makes a program of this type work, at least for me.  They just aren't scary.

Granted, it can be difficult for these programs to be overtly frightening, whether investigative- or reenactment-based.  Programs such as A Haunting lack the real-time element and familiar cast that can draw the viewer into the location, making them feel a part of what is happening on-screen.  Conversely, the investigative series try so hard to establish their credibility that it seems they seek to avoid anything genuinely frightening.  This is the greatest flaw in the otherwise interesting Ghost Hunters.  Each week, SyFy airs commercials hyping the upcoming episode, giving it the appearance of the most terrifying spectacle ever to air on television.  As the program airs, however, we are left with scenes of the TAPS team wandering through some darkened hallways, seeing vague shapes uncaptured by any camera, hearing faint noises that could be ghostly voices, or could be a crewmember’s stomach rumbling.  Just as something mildly interesting seems to be getting underway, that’s the cue for Hawes to call it a night, telling his team to pack it in.  Then the episode ends with the lead investigators sitting down with the ‘client’ to review what evidence they have collected, and proclaim that they can’t say, with any degree of certainty, whether the location is actually haunted.

Two series, however, manage to achieve that rare mix of credibility and excitement that quickly made them favorites of the Unimonster.  The Travel Channel’s The Dead Files features a retired NYPD homicide detective and young female medium who travel to a new location weekly, at the request of someone who is experiencing what can only be described as spectral attacks.  Conducting their investigations separately, never interacting until they meet with the homeowners to reveal their findings, Detective Steve DiSchiavi, NYPD (ret.) and psychic Amy Allen each bring their talents to bear on the case, DiSchiavi by interviewing the clients and researching the background of the location, and Allen by conducting a night-time ‘ghost walk’ through the property (without the residents being present), in which she not only sees dead people, but interacts with them.  Despite their differing styles of investigation, both bring a sincerity and compassion to their work, a concern that speaks to their experience with horror in their own lives.  What makes the show so enjoyable to me is the degree to which the separate investigations dovetail once the pair comes together for the reveal.  Unless one totally discounts the reality aspect of the show, then that level of synchronicity between the two is impressive.

By far my favorite show of this type, however, stars three thirty-something guys who roam the world picking fights with ghosts, poltergeists, and assorted other supernatural entities, locking themselves into the most famous haunted locations imaginable, without any crew other than themselves and an occasional guest investigator, and experiencing what comes across as genuinely terrifying situations.  Ghost Adventures, also on the Travel Channel, is the brainchild of 37-year-old Zak Bagans, a Las Vegas-based documentary filmmaker.  It stemmed from Bagans’ desire to capture proof of the paranormal on camera.  Previously skeptical about the existence of spirits, he reportedly changed his mind following an encounter he had with the specter of a suicide victim in his apartment in Michigan.  He and 34-year-old Nick Groff filmed a documentary in 2004 examining haunted sites in Virginia City and Goldfield, Nevada.  38-year-old Aaron Goodwin is the third member of the team, or, as they refer to themselves, the “GAC,” or Ghost Adventures Crew.  He and Groff met at UNLV as film students and he joined the crew after the initial documentary was produced.

Though critics deride the show’s confrontational, aggressive style of investigation, Bagans defends it, claiming repeatedly that it’s done only to provoke those spirits with a demonstrated propensity to attack the living.  It does seems to get results, with the team’s documented success in gathering photographic, audio, even video evidence of paranormal activity.  It also makes for damn good television, as the trio explores such historic sites as the Winchester Mansion; the Villisca, Iowa home in which two adults and six children were brutally murdered in June of 1912; and Bobby Mackey’s Music World, a night club in Wilder, Kentucky that might be the most malevolent location the series has investigated in what is now nine seasons on the air.  After touring the site with the owner / caretakers, reviewing the history of the site, and giving us a glimpse of the local attractions (remember, it is the Travel Channel), our intrepid investigators are locked inside the location for the night, with only their own cameras to record the night’s events.

Though occasionally the investigations fail to deliver much in the way of spectral activity, some are truly frightening.  The ninth season premiere, which aired on 15 February, 2014, featured an investigation of the David Oman mansion, in Hollywood, California.  The house, located in Benedict Canyon, at 10050 Cielo Drive, is built on the location of one of the most infamous crimes of the 20th Century … the Manson family murders of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, and three others in the early morning hours of 9 August, 1969.  The original house was torn down in the 1990s, and the current home was subsequently built by producer David Oman.  Soon after the home was built strange events began to occur, and Oman soon came to realize that he had inherited some, tenants, from the former home.  The Ghost Adventures Crew had one of their most terrifying investigations to date in that house, and while I’ll do nothing to reveal any spoilers, I will say this much:  While I would love to join in with the GAC on one of their adventures, and would enjoy touring many of the locations they have visited, you couldn't pay me to visit the Oman house … even in the daylight.


I’ve only touched upon a few of the paranormal television series that currently populate the cable landscape, and more are sure to come.  The occult and the paranormal have always drawn an audience, and that isn't likely to change now.  Also not likely to change is the cable networks willingness to profit from it.










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