TV Ghost Hunting Shows
by Matt Posner
Oct 20, 2010
ARE TV GHOST HUNTING SHOWS AUTHENTIC?
Yes and no. I don’t know if the phenomena they discover are ever genuine, or to what extent, or how often. My argument is going to be that it’s impossible to know how genuine they are without being present during the investigation. I’ll give you lots of reasons for my point of view.
To begin with, my overall view of the ghost hunting shows can be explained by an analogy with professional wrestling. In pro wrestling terminology, a match in which the professional wrestlers work together to put on a good show is called a “work.” If they really competed, it would be a “shoot,” as in the old term “shoot fighting” which is similar to MMA. Pro wrestling matches are always “works,” designed for entertainment purposes, but they are still real in certain aspects, because the wrestlers do things that hurt, sometimes by agreement and sometimes accidentally, and they are almost always banged up and frequently injured.
I think the ghost hunting shows are like this. They aim to provide entertainment and are staged for this purpose. They are open to finding genuine phenomena, but they are still entertaining when they don’t, and they take advantage of the principles of caveat emptor and dramatic license.
PRINCIPLES OF WHAT? AND WHAT?
“Caveat emptor” means “buyer beware” and refers to the consumer’s responsibility to be informed about the products he buys in terms of their quality and proper use. The proper use of a ghost hunting show (by a consumer) is of course entertainment, not scientific enquiry, so the possibility of it being altered for entertainment purposes is implied. If you take it too seriously, that’s your fault, at least under the law.
Dramatic license is the right to invent details in order to create drama for entertainment purposes. It is used in biographical fiction to fill in the gaps where research cannot reveal what people actually said or did. In terms of the ghost hunting shows, it means that the investigators can exaggerate and be very flashy in their reactions. Although this annoys more science-minded viewers like you and me, it isn’t really a misrepresentation, at least under the law. For example, I happen to think Barry Fitzgerald, on Ghost Hunters International, is too much of a showoff, and I don’t trust what he claims to see or hear, but his performance may be defended on the grounds that he is dramatizing what ghost hunting is like for the benefit of audience members who won’t grasp the subtleties. Anyway, who can prove he didn’t see and hear what he says he did? Certainly I can’t.
HOW GOOD IS THE EVIDENCE ON THESE SHOWS?
I’ve seen a lot of evidence that has intrigued and excited me, but absolutely none that convinces me beyond a shadow of a doubt. Let me go over the categories of evidence, starting with the least persuasive.
ORBS are useless as evidence. The ghost hunting teams may give reasons why they aren’t dust, insects, lens flare, or other camera-created objects, generally talking about the way they move, but I don’t buy it. I expect a photography expert not on payroll could dismiss nearly all the orbs.
EVPs, electronic voice phenomena, have a long history, going back to the early 20th century, when you could record a vinyl disk in your home. The history is described on this page: http://www.evpuk.com/evp_history.html. As an example of the older stuff, the EVPs Dr. Konstantine Raudive recorded in Germany in the mid-1960’s on vinyl disks were unclear and in multiple languages and sound like snatches of radio broadcasts. (I’ve heard some of them – I found mp3s online a few years ago.) To relate them to what the investigators were discussing or asking requires a very broad and flexible interpretive style.
In recent years, EVPs have become the standard method for ghost investigators to provide evidence of haunting. I think this is unfortunate, as they are unconvincing. Any sound engineer should be able to fabricate these, given that they usually sound electronic, or have the tinny qualities and echoes of an old, degraded recording. Because they can be easily faked, you can only trust EVPs if you trust the investigator or have both made and retained control of the original recording.
These days, on certain shows, EVPs seem to provide direct responses to investigator questions. I would advise being VERY suspicious of this. The last group of “investigators” to provide results that good during ghost communication were Spiritualist mediums of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the overwhelming majority of them were frauds. (Read A Magician Among the Spirits by Harry Houdini for evidence of their fraudulence.) If these nineteenth-century frauds could deceive people of their time with fake raps, knocks, table-lifting, photographic plates, and other tricks of prestidigitation (stage magic), leading people believe they were conversing with and even physically touching the dead, it is fair to suppose that prospective frauds of today could use digital technology and other trickery to deceive you and me.
Let’s say the investigators are sincere. Have they really been diligent enough to exclude environmental factors like radio broadcasts and other ambient waves? Do they have as much knowledge of how sound recordings work as they think they do? I don’t know the answer to either question.
Some of the newer devices for spirit communication, the ones which allow the spirits to select words digitally or speak through radio static, the ones which have been guest-starring on Ghost Adventures, seem to me too good to be true. They work so well on those shows that I feel the need for some independent verification of how they operate. They are very entertaining, of course, and that’s all the show has an obligation to be, but they have diminished my confidence in the quality of investigation being done.
SHADOW PEOPLE, in other words semi-humanoid shadows, sometimes appear in photos or on videotape. I wonder why a spirit would have the ability or motivation to look human. If you were to tell me that the human brain interprets some anomalous information in terms of a familiar images, and so people see spirits in some other form and interpret them as humanoid, I accept that. It’s called pareidolia, the same phenomenon that makes a burn pattern on toast look like the Virgin Mary or the craters on the Moon look like a man’s face. However, we are talking about the spirits looking that way on camera. I would say that the investigators and viewers want to see the shadows as human forms, so they do, but the visuals, while intriguing, are not convincing to me.
What about OBJECTS THAT MOVE JUST OFF-CAMERA? For me to accept a moving object as evidence of haunting, let the camera show the object moving in a way that absolutely excludes human action. For example, the door shuts when you can see both inside and outside the room, or the furniture moves when no one is positioned to pull a string attached to it. Yes, I’ve seen video that convinced me, but not too much of it was on the ghost hunting shows. I was somewhat convinced by the glass that shattered in Jason Hawes’ room at the Stanley Hotel. It could have been faked, but I didn’t think so either time I saw it.
I SAW IT? DID YOU SEE THAT? DID YOU HEAR THAT VOICE? MY HAIR IS STANDING UP ON MY ARM, LOOK!. IT’S REALLY COLD HERE NOW. What investigators say they experience can’t be discounted; no one wants to call an investigator a liar. You can’t disprove it, but, on the other hand, you can’t prove it either. Therefore, the paranormal experience may be convincing if you’re at the location, but it’s worthless to the TV viewer. We all know that when you are in darkness, your brain compensates for lack of sensory information by inventing data. If you’ve ever been in an isolation tank or a psychomanteum, you know that to be true.
EMF DETECTORS AND DIGITAL THERMOMETERS are also common tools. I’m not convinced that I know entirely what natural phenomena can trigger EMF detectors. I know scientific investigators use EMF detectors, but they use them by gathering long-term data for analysis, not momentary data like you see on the TV shows. Long-term data, because they are the result of repeated experiments, are more convincing and valuable than are singular experiences. When you get a result multiple times, it's considered verifiable and merits a higher level of trust. That’s how science works. I’m skeptical of digital thermometers also. On the shows, both devices produce one-time results. They are interesting, but all possible alternate causes for their readings are not consistently eliminated.
THE BOTTOM LINE
You can never be sure of a paranormal experience, even one you have in person. The paranormal events on TV must always be suspicious because there are so many opportunities to fake the results that you either believe or you don’t, based upon your assessment of the investigators’ integrity. There are certain aspects of TV ghost investigation that activate my “crap detector.” I will explain.
First, if you want to be scientific, then why only one night of investigation? Scientists who are investigating ghost phenomena spend weeks to months observing, gathering data, recording and analyzing. How can one night at a place produce comparable results?
Second, why always in the dark? Ghosts aren’t only active at night. They are active at every time of day, depending on the situation. If you read eyewitness accounts from people who have interacted with ghosts, you will see that the experiences are distributed among various times of day and varied lighting conditions. Investigating in the dark makes for better TV, though, because there is more mystery, things can’t be seen well, the investigators look more interesting (and in some cases, more attractive) with the IR camera, and a general creepy atmosphere ensues.
Third, why do so many shows not acknowledge the camera crew? This is a pet peeve of mine about TAPS. An investigator who is alone on-camera isn’t really alone, but is accompanied by a camera crew or one or two people, but still says “I was alone.” Why pretend there is no cameraman? It might work on Survivor or Hogan Knows Best, but it doesn’t work if you want to appear really scientific. (Look up “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle” for more on this.)
On Ghost Hunters’ Halloween live show a few years back, the flaws built into ignoring the TV crew became apparent when a TV crewman barged into the kitchen and Jason Hawes told him to get out, distracting from the viewer’s mood and perhaps the quality of the investigation, if it had been sincerely done up to that point. Shortly after that, another blunder took place when the live camera switched to a team of investigators who were just standing around waiting for their cue to begin on-camera activity. On the assumption that TAPS is genuine, rather than just a media phenomenon, they must have been very frustrated with the TV production making them look bad. I presume they are less produced when shooting their regular investigations, but one can certainly feel disillusioned seeing the metaphorical puppet strings being pulled. I have gone on to wonder about some other aspects of their filming schedule. How are the shots set up of the vans traveling on the highway or passing through town? Probably the TAPS teams are not in the vans at the time, right? And when the camera crew goes inside the haunted location to film Jason and Grant’s arrival, how far in advance do they go in? And how many meetings or phone conversations have taken place to orchestrate that situation? These very typical reality-show quibbles do not in any way demonstrate insincerity, or lack of scientific seriousness: they are just necessities for TV, which provides funding for the work TAPS does. However, they are distracting.
SHOULD I WATCH THE SHOWS IF I DON’T TRUST THEM?
Yes. They are designed as entertainment, and they succeed as entertainment.
SHOULD I INVESTIGATE GHOSTS?
Ghost-hunting should be done only by adults.
Matt Posner is a featured contributor to this WorldOfTheStrange website.
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