To Whom It May Concern: Make with the spooky

One mans crabby demands for more and better ghosts on TV

By Chris Stewart
January 15, 2005

It’s not much of a secret, at least among those who know me, that I’m a big ghost fan. I dig ghosts. In particular I like ghost movies, but this is a natural extension of being interesting in ghost stories in general. When it comes to ghost movies, I’ve got a lot of great stuff to choose from. Those flicks with “ghost” in the title alone would take weeks to work through before we ever get to the stuff with clever reference-type titles. As with books – lots of books on ghosts. Everything from collections of ghost stories to collections of ghost investigations, complete with creepy photos. But TV, you’d think TV would be kinder. TV has a lot of time to fill, so there’s a lot of opportunities for ghosty things. But, as with everything to do with TV, that mass of timeslot void that needs filling leads more often than not to crappy shows with bad re-enactments of stuff that comes off as crappy rather than creepy. I really wanted to like Psi Factor, I really did. And I’m in Canada, which means there’s a lot of programming, again heavy on the bad re-enactments, featuring either “experts” from Ontario or “experts” from Quebec. Often both. It’s a tax break up here.

I want more ghostbusting on TV, meaning I want to see more people running around after ghosts that as far as anyone can tell, are possibly real. Because that shit’s freaky. There are some excellent examples of what I have in mind, but even they have a few flaws here and there. But before I get to those golden few and their wooden errors, I’m going to bore you with some background. Then bore you with some overviews. Then bore you with my outraged, fanboy demands to which I feel entitled.

In 1992, the BBC aired Ghost Watch on Halloween eve. The premise was that it was a live television investigation at a haunted house. In the two hours the show ran, viewers met the bedraggled family living in the cursed house, saw photos and clippings of the haunting from various newspapers, heard callers from around the UK talk about phenomenon they were experiencing while watching the show and share information and rumours about the featured haunted house. All the while the hosts, who were real BBC presenters, tried to make sense of it all, except Craig “Red Dwarf” Charles, who proclaimed the whole thing to be bunk.

The effect was it scared the crap out of people. A subtle helping of special effects, glimpses of things that you may have imagined (an effect heavily adopted in current horror films), not to mention the presence of real TV personalities made it seem that much more real, which only made people freak out. The problem was, it wasn’t real at all. In fact, while the show started by presenting itself as happening live, it ended with writers credits. Not that anybody was paying attention by that point. In the end the BBC received thousands of calls from people convinced it was real – a miniature, television War of the Worlds.

In general, I hate reality TV. If I were to assign blame for it’s creation, I’d start with the UK for their early pioneering forays into the genre and end with the US for taking it to outstanding and garish extremes. However, there are a couple of shows I watch, I will admit. Assuming Ghost Watch was an early test of boundaries (and I do – I mean, I don’t think it was planned as such, but it amounted to the same thing), it was only a matter of time before the concept of ghosts on TV got a second look and so they did in the British production Most Haunted and American production Ghost Hunters, both of which I just love to watch.

Early out the gates, again, were the Brits with Most Haunted. Hosted by the ernest Yvette Fielding, the show follows her and a team of experts from a variety of fields. Historians, paranormal investigators, mediums, and infamous spiritualist Derek Acorah travel around England (and more recently parts of Europe) to spend a night in a haunted location. The show proved to be a big hit, even going so far as to borrow from Ghost Watch in creating Most Haunted Live, a half hour follow up to each episode, where people could call in and discuss the episode.

Two years later, the Sci-Fi Channel started Ghost Hunters. The more blunt name should give you an idea of the difference in tone between the two shows. Again, a team of investigators travels New England, hanging out in supposedly haunted locales. Except for a love of night-vision cameras however (which I suspect is more of a producer favorite – it just looks spooky), the two are very different shows.

The key to Most Haunted is that each episode is presented as an event. One location gets the sole attention of the team. To begin with, the audience is introduced to the history of the location (which, being England, is usually extensive and colourful) and to hear first hard stories from the people who live and work in the area.

The next step is for Yvette, Derek, and one or two others (sometimes paranormal investigators, or in one farcical episode, Uri Geller) to wander the location. This is Derek’s time to shine as he talks with Sam, his spirit guide. Sam knows it all apparently and is surprisingly good at digging up some good hits. If the other members of the crew had no personality, Derek has more than enough to spare. You haven’t seen anything on the show until you’ve seen Derek get possessed.

Finally, the entire crew splits up during the night to hold vigils in various rooms. If you can count on one thing from each show, it is that at this point, members of the crew are going to freak one another out. You put a bunch of people into a haunted house, tell them to watch for ghosts, and then turn out the lights, yeah, you’re going to get some drama. This is the comedy of the show.

What I live for though is when “weird shit happens.” Most shows, the best you’ll get are random noises. Often strange, they are still just noises. However there have been occasions of clear footfalls from rooms that are empty or knocking that responds to questions. Oh, and to be sure there are a lot of light orbs. These, I feel, are often filler. If the producers can’t find anything, orbs can add a little colour. But it’s when genuine scary shit happens that I can’t get enough of. The best example was one episode that appeared to be bust, except while fast forwarding through footage of a camera left in an empty hotel room, the editor noticed furniture moving. Played at normal speed you wouldn’t notice it, but in fast forward, a chair and bed move several inches.

Ghost Hunters takes on a more reality TV approach. Each episode follows the core members of TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society) as they are called in by the public to check out oddness. This was something they did prior to the show – the addition of cameras just means we all get to watch. At the core are two plumbers, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, with an interest in the paranormal. Joining them on their investigations are a group of enthusiastic, but very random members of TAPS. Whereas Most Haunted brings along researchers and bona fide paranormal investigators (ok, I will admit I’m not sure what makes they bona fide, but they seem really pro), psychics, and skeptics, the Ghost Hunters bring their equipment (way fancier than the Most Haunted crew. Actually, other than cameras, the Most Haunted crew rarely bring much more than an EMF reader and even that is rarely seen) and their personal baggage (which is considerable). Oh and a pair of twin demonologists – that’s pretty neat.

The point is that Ghost Hunters, on an episode to episode basis, has the same proportions of intrigue and suck like Most Haunted, but is more about the team and how they get along – which is at best sarcastic and at worst bitchy. The Most Haunted team gets along fine – interpersonal drama is never a feature of the show. It feels to me like both shows are a little light on the dead and heavy on the living, with the simple formula that the more spastic they are, the better.

After three years of watching Most Haunted (apparently you can’t find it in the States, which is a shame, but I recommend you keep an eye out) and half a season of Ghost Hunters, I’m starting to notice other patterns. For starters, the Ghost Hunters have captured, taken at face value, some seriously incredible footage. EVP (everyone should know what this is – thanks Michael Keaton) that’s clear as a bell, things moving on camera, and one very freaky… something. All that in six episodes.

To a certain degree there’s even a bit of snottiness on the part of the up-and-comers. Several times Hawes and Wilson have thrown dirty looks at anyone who brings up orbs as evidence. Which illustrates the key difference between the two shows; The Most Haunted crew is looking for anything and dismissing little when they investigate, whereas the Ghost Hunters won’t be happy until they run into the librarian from Ghostbusters.

At the end of it all, I’m not happy. I want more of the weird evidence. I don’t want people re-enacting or telling me about the weird evidence (at least not solely), I want to see weird evidence. The trouble is, if these shows are running into interesting phenomenon once every handful of shows, obviously cutting the shows down to just the good stuff gets very expensive. Is there middle ground then? Yes, and in the most literal way possible – Most Haunted needs a dose of Ghost Hunters and Ghost Hunters needs a dose of Most Haunted. If anyone can mix these two shows, then we’ll have the near perfect show.

Here are some simple, and not terribly expensive examples of how either show can benefit by lifting off of the other;

♦ Bring more equipment. For five episodes the Most Haunted team thought table-tipping, a lame-ass cousin to the ouija board (complete with all the usual questions and doubts associated with any method involving several people assuming the others aren’t moving shit around) was a direct line to the afterlife. Meanwhile the Ghost Hunters are hauling out wireless cameras and digital recording. For the love of Sam, the Most Haunted crew needs a couple of techies.

♦ Read up a bit more and stay the whole night. I always applaud the Most Haunted team for researching a site in advance and then investing a good deal of time at the site. It’s not like they can stay for a week, but they do hang around for the entire evening, as evidenced by a lot of after thoughts from the crew being filmed in the early morning’s light. They’ve even, on a couple of notable occasions, been so impressed by events, they’ve stayed an extra night. Ghost Hunters on the other hand, can be a drinking game. If Grant or Jason say “Hurry up, we don’t want to spend all night here”, take a drink. Make sure you have a designated driver, because friends don’t let friends drive drunk.

It was just a given the two shows would have different tones – they’re from two different countries after all. Traveling from site to site on Ghost Hunters is a serious undertaking of time. On Most Haunted it’s often driving two doors down. As well, England is sitting on a lot more history than America, even relatively old New England. If we assume ghosts are real (and if you’re watching either show regularly, you’re at least half-convinced) then England’s got a lot more potential spooky. And finally Ghost Hunters is shot as hard reality TV. Which means that while Most Haunted can benefit from behind-the-scenes, rarely seen, always digging producers and researchers, everything theGhost Hunters do has to be up on screen. And seeing as they don’t have a volunteer researcher (they need one – I think a history professor that doesn’t go out into the field, but can offer creepy insights via cell phone would be awesome), that means they have little to no research of sites, beyond what they can get out of the people living and working in the area.

I don’t know that I’ll ever get the Fortean show I deserve (and I do deserve it, dammit. Because) but I can always hope. I hope that the days of Greatest Mysteries and In Search Of… type shows are over (but one look at cable TV tells me otherwise). I hope that someday someone will figure out a way to collect enough supernatural that simply showing it on TV is good enough, no song-and-dance required. And I hope that the two shows that have come closest get a chance to tweak themselves closer to that ideal show.

In the meantime, it all comes off like Henry Silva’s Bullshit Or Not to me.