Perfect smiles, expert dictum, and a Hollywood agenda; how far will reality TV go to keep us hooked on their wares? In a field where scepticism and faith have boldly drawn lines in the sand, is there a responsibility on the part of producers and on screen leads in maintaining a critical eye and sensible attitude, or are these shows given free reign to exaggerate and even fabricate scenarios and evidence?
Clearly there is some responsibility, the level of which is blurred by clever marketing and a public zeal for believing in anything considered off the mark, by even a single step.
In the growing cultural interest for paranormal phenomenon, our modern society seeks avenues to express and share the various views, arguments and leading events within that culture, it seem the logical culmination of that progression is to create television shows within a genre that actually exploits those people who either pursue the phenomenon with academic interest, or whom are pursued by the phenomenon itself.
It may sound as if I have little reverence for the ever popular ghost hunting show, but the contrary is actually true, only to a lesser extent than some. I have immensely enjoyed the premiere seasons of the most popular shows, though invariably as each of these franchises moves from the “next new thing” to a seasoned product that has to be packaged and marketed to survive, the teams behind them begin to make some mistakes.
In comparison to a season one haunting investigation, a season two or three investigation tends to take on a sensational tone. I don’t necessarily think this is a deliberate change, in most cases, but actually a natural evolution of the show. The production teams are tasked with keeping the presentation “new”, which over the course of two to three season becomes harder and harder to achieve. The consequence is that the stories, techniques and interpersonal dramas they exploit, become more and more fantastic, until eventually they no longer resemble the truth.
I hesitate to mention a specific franchise name, only to avoid the same sensationalism in my own work, but the argument deems it necessary.
While any investigation team, paranormal or otherwise, is prone to assumption, authority arguments and tunnel vision, the elements of an investigation that cause its lead to step further in that direction are caused by either an inborn need to prove his or her point, or, in the case a reality TV investigation team, the pressures they experience from those in executive production.
Lets face it, TV programming of any kind is a money making venture; shows are designed to get us to watch, so that networks can sell ad space and in turn make billions of dollars of profit. When the teams on Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State are faced with challenges from new shows, rival networks and production costs, they actually have an incentive to ignore proper investigative practices, in favour of a more exciting and TV worthy outcome.
This effect begins small, and I’m not suggesting that either show has done any more than frame the definition of their findings in more dramatic brackets, but the slippery slope approaches.
To cite an example, Ghost Hunters, season two, episode: The Playhouse and the Firehouse
This episode, actually made up of two separate investigations, one of a famous Connecticut Playhouse and the other of a haunted Fire Station, ends up being an exercise in primetime soap drama. The team ends up airing interpersonal issues, and spends more time patting each other on the back for jobs well done (or not), than on the actual investigation.
In the end, the team finds little evidence, which is less than surprising, but, and this may have been a trick of overzealous editing, what evidence they did find (i.e. a door moving two to three inches directly behind a team member during dead time) was presented conveniently with more camera shake in the episode filming than could be deemed reasonable for a professional crew, and as a result, the viewer was left with a quick second hand view of what may or may not have been a door moving. No explanation was given for how or why the door might have been nudged and a gaping hole in their investigation was opened, leaving room for questions about whether or not the door actually moved, and if it did, was it a deliberate attempt to manufacture evidence?
Taken on their own, the above issues can easily be explained and accounted for, but taken over the lifespan of the show, and with an eye to a progressive trend toward more and more dramatic and sensational claims, evidence and outcomes, one begins to wonder just how far they’re willing to go.
One could suggest, believably so, that the progression of their fame, the popularity of the show and the subsequent production budgets that go along with such success, enable them to employ more effective and accurate techniques, better equipment and even more effective support, though for those who are familiar with the science of paranormal research and investigation, it remains unclear why those types of “upgrades” would have such a drastic effect on their results.
Ultimately, reality TV is nothing more than an entertaining distraction, it is meant to be dramatic and exciting, and to draw your attention away from the mundane in order to generate add income, all of which perpetuates the cycle indefinitely. Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State, among many others, are all subject to that same catch-22; all in all, they remain entertaining, distracting and above everything else, money making juggernauts.