Television's ghost busters are bringing ratings back from the dead. Today’s supernatural-themed reality shows on the Discovery Channel, A&E, TLC and even Animal Planet are all cashing in on the paranormal phenomena. Just flip through your channels and you're bound to land on programming based on weird science.
The godfather of the genre, SyFy's Ghost Hunters, has managed to surpass even the network’s most popular scripted shows, such as Eureka and Stargate Universe, with viewer numbers exceeding three million, according to Nielsen.
features Grant Wilson and Jason Hawes. These guys are your average plumbers by day, but by night, they're the founding members of the Atlantic Paranormal Society (also known as TAPS). The duo leads a team of investigators who travel the country making haunted-house calls in an attempt to decipher what is really going bump in the night.
Hawes and Wilson stake out purportedly haunted locations—typically large, dilapidated structures such as abandoned sanatoriums, railroad stations or factories. The brawny men tiptoe through the buildings with their TAPS crew in tow, sporting high-tech gadgets such as parabolic dishes, K2 meters and night-vision goggles. They spend the next hours taking electromagnetic field readings, capturing murky noises on audio, searching for electronic voice phenomena (EVP) and taking shadowy film with their digital cameras.
Often, the team attempts to coerce the "ghosts" into responding. Their final step is to break down all the data they’ve collected and determine whether there is legitimate supernatural activity.
Since the show's inception in 2004, countless imitations have tried to jump on the bandwagon: My Ghost Story, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Lab, Paranormal State and Haunted Collector are based on similar premises to Ghost Hunters.
A few have had success putting their own spin on the spook and spectre scene. On SyFy's Destination: Truth, for example, the focus is on cryptozoology rather than ghosts. Host Josh Gates spans the globe in search of leprechauns, yetis, chupacabras and other creatures of folklore and superstition. The Haunted is an Animal Planet series wherein every day people recount experiences of family pets acting strangely, allegedly due to the presence of the paranormal.
What remains unique to Ghost Hunters, however, is the sincerity (and healthy skepticism) with which Hawes and Wilson approach their work. Their instincts are to first search for the most reasonable, real-world explanation for the flickering lights and the creaking in the pipes. Hawes states:
“Anybody can walk into a house and say, ‘This place is haunted’,” Hawes tells montersandcritics.com. “Where’s the proof to solidify those claims? If you’re basing that just on feelings you have, then you’re not helping the field. You’re setting the field back. If you’re going in to try to debunk what’s going on and you catch evidence...well, that’s more substantial evidence that you’re able to put out there for the world to see where it’s not going to be torn up by the skeptics. Also, if you go into a place believing that it’s haunted and going in trying to prove that it’s haunted, you’re willing to accept any evidence you catch as proof of the place being haunted.”
So, what makes these shows so fascinating? Hawes and Wilson claim the interest runs much deeper than those just seeking a good scare from the safety of their sofas. Perhaps it's the vicarious charge that comes from chasing dangerous knowledge.
“Well, you know, we’ve been to the depths of the ocean,” Wilson states. “We’ve been to the dang moon. You know, what’s left? The Earth is all – we know it, you know. And so I think the last frontier is really paranormal and everyone just wants a little bit of mystery in life. Because science has taken over and they’ve got answers for everything.”
A show such as Hunters may even bring understanding, comfort and, surprisingly, hope, says Hawes. “People, of course...have their own experience and they want to understand it. But what I’m seeing more and more of is people who just want to know that there’s something after this life, that when they pass on they’re going somewhere.”
Shows like Ghost Hunters may amount to nothing more than just a fleeting trend, but whatever their motives for watching, viewers are bewitched.