Evaluating Ghost Hunting Documentaries

Hand print plus angry jack o' lantern faceEach year, after Halloween, a few people express disgust for ghost-related TV shows and documentaries.  Usually, it’s because:

  1. The complainer went to a few “haunted” sites at Halloween, sometimes after a Halloween party.
  2. He or she spent 10 – 20 minutes at each location.
  3. Nothing happened, or nothing the person noticed.
  4. He or she decided that all ghost hunting TV shows are fake, and all paranormal researchers are delusional or lying.
  5. He or she joined a skeptics group, and his or her new friends further convince the person that ghosts aren’t real.

There’s not much I can say about that.  I’ve been ghost hunting for decades and know that ghosts don’t perform on command.  In addition, many sites that are haunted… they may or may not seem haunted when I visit them.

  • If I’d left the Myrtles Plantation (LA) after a few hours — or at any time before around 10 PM — I’d have thought the site had no ghosts.
  • At the other extreme, I expected nothing at Bradford College (MA), and the site quickly proved to be haunted and have poltergeist activity.

I can’t prove that ghosts exist.  I can’t prove that a location is haunted.  I don’t need to.  Others’ opinions are interesting, but once I’ve found an answer to a question — one that seems conclusive to me — I don’t rely on what others say or think.  I listen to them, but my personal experiences and conclusions will trump others’, at least until I’ve had time to test opposing theories myself.

Similarly, I didn’t create this website to convince anyone that ghosts are real.  Not at all.  I share my stories because people think they’re interesting, and my experiences may shed light on their ghostly encounters, too.  Mostly, I share how-to information about ghost hunting so that others can expand our collective understanding about ghosts, ghost hunting, haunted sites, and the paranormal field in general.

For most people, “proof” of ghosts (or any other paranormal phenomena) exists only in the context of the experiences of the individual.  The references are internal.  When the conversation is about spiritual matters — including ghosts and Deity — or about extraordinary phenomena (UFOs, crypto, etc.), others’ evidence may be compelling.  Despite that, at the end of the day, your experiences are what matter… not mine, and not anyone else’s.

Meanwhile, I can explain a few ways to evaluate ghost hunting TV shows.

1. Check the production company’s reputation.  Have they produced other credible documentary-type shows in any genre, or do they also produce silly, “just for fun” shows?  Have they been associated with discredited TV shows (like Extreme Paranormal, which was a product of Painless Productions)?

  • Check IMDb for the name of the production company.  Then, check IMDb’s link to the production company, for a list of other shows, documentaries, and movies they’ve participated in or distributed.  One bad paranormal-type show might reflect poor choices and later lessons learned.  Two or three frivolous shows — not just ghost-related shows — suggest that the producers are more interested in money than credibility. (Well, hey, it’s called “show business” for a reason.)
  • If the production company is large, check the names of the individuals involved as producers.  They’re usually listed at IMDb, at Wikipedia, and in the individual episodes’ on-screen credits.
  • Remember that production companies can change, even mid-season.  Sometimes the pilot or first six shows are by one producer, and then the network changes producers.
  • If you’re not sure why the production company matters, read star Jason Gowin’s interview about Extreme Paranormal: Extremely Honest: A Conversation with Jason Gowin.

2. Check the history and reputations of the people on the show.  Was he or she hired as an expert or as an entertainer? That can indicate a lot.

  • Has the star been working in the field for years?  If there’s no evidence online, or websites might have been created to look like there’s a lengthy history, check Amazon.com or other book-related sites.  See if the person was published.
  • Double-check the resume of the each star.  I describe that process in my article, Scams and Con Artists.  Never trust vague, evasive claims.
  • Just because someone worked on one discredited show, doesn’t make him or her a fraud.  Plenty of former stars would like to be as forthright as Jason Gowin was… but they can’t.
  • Has the star been associated with a series of bad shows?  Is the star belligerently defensive of his or her work? If so, that’s a warning about his or her future shows.

However, as Jason Gowin’s interview explained, even the stars don’t have much control over the edited episode you see on  TV.

3. Check the sites (and their owners) before and after the episode airs.  A guest on TV show appeared to be terrified by the activity at her home.  (To me, it looked like she was acting, but some of these shows use re-enactments.)

After the show aired, the producers found out that the “terrified” owner had written a book.  She was waiting for the show to air to use that as a “hook” to attract publicity and book sales.  The producers were embarrassed, but the damage was already done.

  • Use a search engine using the person’s name, business, or address (in quotation marks) and words like ghost, haunted, or frightened.  See if the person was looking for help (or looking for an audience) at paranormal forums.
  • If it’s a business, look for bad reviews.  For example, if a restaurant’s food was awful and the service was worse, maybe they’re using a TV show to reinvent the restaurant as a haunted site more than a reliable place to eat.
  • On the other hand, if no one seems to own or rent the location (home or business) for very long, that’s a good sign that the paranormal activity is real.  (One example: The club at the corner of Derby and Central Streets, in Salem, Massachusetts.  I described that site in my article about great research sites for ghost hunters.)

4. Meet the stars.  Go to events where you’ll have a chance to meet, or at least listen to, the stars.  Face-to-face, you may learn a lot that research can’t reveal.  If you want to be very cautious or even skeptical, consider something like F.A.C.E. training before you talk with the stars.

  • It’s not news that I didn’t like Jason Hawes when I saw him on TV.  In person, he turned out to be one of the funniest, most interesting guys I’ve ever met.  So, my real-life opinion of Jason was 180 degrees different from my reaction to him on TV.
  • By contrast, another TV star seemed very sincere on TV, but in person… well, I’ve learned to take what he says with a grain of salt.  I like him, but his humor is so dry, I can’t tell when he’s joking, on-screen or off.
  • Another paranormal “expert” seemed really caring on TV.  In real life, he was rude.  I’d have taken it personally, but he blurted the same kinds of snide comments to other professionals.
  • On TV, Dustin Pari seemed nice. In real life, I’ve met few people as caring and sincere.  In my opinion, the TV show didn’t represent him as well as it could have.
  • But… I could list another dozen or more ghost-related TV stars who are, in real life, exactly as they seem on TV.

My advice: Always meet the stars before reaching a conclusion about any TV show.

In most cases, you’re evaluating two aspects of each show.

  • First, if the show has credibility as a documentary, or if it’s just entertainment.  That varies with the production company and the network.
  • Second, whether the stars of the show are credible as individual researchers.  Check the real background of each “star.” (Their past involvement with paranormal research should be evident, online.) Some people are cast in TV shows because they look like what the producers want… the guy who looks great in a tight shirt, the cute girl who shrieks when startled, the gritty “just the facts, ma’am” skeptic, and so on.

Except for the rare instances where someone like Jason Gowin speaks out, no one outside the shows & production team knows what really occurred at the site.  Sometimes, even the stars are fooled by hoaxes.  Most stars I know don’t watch their own TV shows. That’s especially true when they have no input during post-production editing.

In general, they’d rather not know if they’re portrayed as idiots… not until it’s time to renew their contracts, anyway.

These four evaluation points may not prove whether a paranormal show is real or fake. Most are somewhere in-between, anyway.

That’s why many producers are calling the shows “unscripted” instead of “reality” shows.

Only watch shows that entertain you. If they turn out to be real as well, that’s a bonus.

Mysterious New England (book review)

Mysterious New EnglandMysterious New England, edited by Austin N. Stevens, is an older (1971) book of folklore and weird stories — including ghost stories — from around New England.  All of them appeared in Yankee magazine and were tremendously popular.

Mysterious New England probably won’t appeal to someone who wants ghost stories (and only ghost stories… no crypto, etc.), or only true stories.  This book is a mixture of fact, fiction and folklore, and many of the tales are masterfully told.

For the low price of a used copy — sometimes only one cent (at Amazon.com) — I think this book is definitely worth buying.  I paid $2 for a hardcover copy at a yard sale, and I still consider it a bargain.

There are many good reasons to read this book. Here are just a few:

  • The gory tale of the Lizzie Borden murder mystery includes a fascinating (and often overlooked) addition provided by a reader of Yankee magazine.
  • C. B. Colby’s crypto zoology article, The “Black Panther” Never Dies, will make you wonder what else is in New England’s woods.
  • Village of 100 Witches, by Maria Dabrowski, shares a chilling overview of Dogtown, a New England settlement abandoned since 1830.

This is storytelling at its best, and it’s a good creepy book to read on a dark autumn night.

In addition, readers have a chance to enjoy short stories and true tales by writers such as the legendary Edward Rowe Snow, who describes the unsolved mystery of Boston’s Lady in Black.

If you’re looking for a fascinating book of strange tales and ghost stories, this book is a classic and worth owning.

Rating: 2-stars

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. Suitable for mature teens and adults, but only those who like classic literature and folklore.

Haunted Hikes of New Hampshire (book review)

Haunted Hikes of NHHaunted Hikes of New Hampshire is a true delight.

It reveals little-known haunted sites that can only be accessed on foot.  They’re often “in the middle of nowhere” along some of New Hampshire’s most magnificent trails.

As I said when the book was first published:

Get ready for fun… and a good scare!  This is one of the most interesting, unusual books for ghost hunters, and it’s something different for hikers, too.  This is one of the best regional ghost hunting books I’ve ever read. It’s filled with great, haunted hikes along some of New England’s most beautiful — and eeriest — trails.

I still feel that way about this book, and recommend it to anyone who’s both a ghost enthusiast and a hiker.

If you’re looking for truly off-the-beaten-path haunted locations in New England, this book is a must-read.

Rating: 4-stars

Are Ghost TV Shows Real?

In the past, and especially when “ghost hunting” TV shows became sensational, people asked me if the shows were real.

The simple answer is no, they’re not. They may represent what we do, as ghost hunters, but even the most authentic shows are edited to make them more entertaining.

Also, some people use ghost hunting TV shows as training for their own investigations. That can be risky, foolhardy, and — in some cases — miss the point of real ghost research.

Here are some points to keep in mind:

1. Lighthouse - photo by Horton GroupTV shows don’t represent how many houses we visit that aren’t haunted.  The majority of houses that seem haunted are either victims of high EMF or infrasound levels, or some other very normal (if odd) explanation.  Even if they are haunted, the issue is related to residual energy, not a ghost or an active entity.

2. Demons and malicious spirits are very rare.  If you think you’re being bothered by a demon, call an expert, not just the local ghost hunting club.  However, demons and evil entities appear at about 1% of the hauntings we’ve encounter… if that many.

3. Don’t let TV shows convince you that most ghosts are evil or dangerous.  They’re not. Watch the “ghostly” TV shows & movies of the past, and see how they portrayed ghosts.

Topper – the Cary Grant movies
Topper – the TV series
Ghost & Mrs. Muir – original movie with Rex Harrison
Ghost & Mrs. Muir – TV series (unavailable in Dec 09)
One Step Beyond – TV series (described as “historic accounts” of paranormal events) (Episode on YouTube (one of many))

 

4. Provoking ghosts?  Instead, look for someone like “ghostbait” from the Hollow Hill team:  Someone who, just by being there, seems to attract ghosts and hauntings.

5. ‘Tis the season!  When you’re watching “A Christmas Carol,” think how you might interpret Scrooge if you were at a location that he (and his ghostly companion) were visiting.  Would you think he’s a ghost that is scary, or needs help to “cross over”?

TV shows aren’t “reality.” (Even TV producers changed the term to “unscripted,” since they didn’t want to be sued for pretending a show was “real.”)

Don’t try to mimic TV shows or movies. Don’t take seriously any advice from paranormal TV shows. In many cases, the ghost hunter didn’t really say whatever-it-is; the advice was edited to give the audience chills.

Learn what ghostly phenomena really are. Study the history of paranormal research. Discover what psychics and ghost hunting equipment really do.

Explore haunted places with a pro. Events are a good starting point.

Never go ghost hunting alone. Always have a level-headed person with you, and — if you feel frightened during an investigation — leave at the first hint of danger.

TV shows can be fun to watch, but most of them don’t represent what we really do as ghost hunters. You’re seeing an edited version, and it was edited with a specific production goal in mind.

Real ghost hunting is different.

Ghost Hunting Personalities – Entertainers… or Researchers?

In ghost hunting — and the paranormal field, in general — there are two very different approaches… and a broad overlap between them.

tv-remoteEntertainers appear in the media, and they’re paid guests at events and at “investigations.”

They are there to entertain you. They may be speaking from memorized scripts. If what they’re saying (or portraying on TV) is true, that’s nice… but not necessary, as they see it.

If you enjoy their performances, they’ve succeeded and their careers grow.  If they don’t, they fade away, reinvent themselves, or shift to another line of work.

They create an illusion so the audience suspends disbelief long enough to enjoy the performance.  That’s measured in TV ratings and tickets sold at events.

David Blaine is one of many entertainers who appear to be working mystical feats. He correctly describes himself as an illusionist.

clue-magnifierResearchers look for breakthroughs in paranormal studies.  Their standard is integrity.

Most don’t care if they entertain anyone.

What they discover — and the tools and techniques that they develop — may become far more famous than the developers’ names.

Bill Chappell is the inventor of many brilliant research tools (often featured on Ghost Adventures). More people recognize the name of his inventions (such as the Ovilus) than his own name.

I’m a researcher, not an entertainer.  I say, “Fiona Broome” and people may look confused.  I mention HollowHill.com, and they suddenly recognize me.  (It’s nice when people recognize my name, but I’d rather have them remember my discoveries.)

Few are both researchers and entertainers.

Some researchers have been cast in paranormal “reality shows.” Some actors in those shows — with no prior research experience — became brilliant investigators.

But, in general, how someone seems on TV may be very different from how they appear in person, and how much ghost hunting expertise they actually have.

I could list several “ghost hunting experts” from TV shows who, in real life, had little understanding of paranormal research.

I’ve also known several genuine experts who had more experience and integrity than viewers saw on related TV shows.

A couple of genuine researchers who’ve starred on TV shows

John Zaffis is a good example of someone who’s worked in both research and entertainment (The Haunted Collector).  He was a respected researcher and demonologist for many years before ghost hunting became popular. His joking manner can be entertaining… but he’s speaking from decades of genuine research.

Barry Fitzgerald is another researcher who’s bridged the gap between academic and scientific study, and the entertainment field (Ghost Hunters International).

They’re just two of many researcher/entertainers I’ve admired for their integrity and expertise in real life. (I mention them because wasn’t thrilled with how they were edited for their respected TV shows. They deserve more recognition as innovative investigators.)

Have low expectations and you won’t be disappointed.

Before attending an event or public “investigation,” it’s important to adjust your expectations.  For the past 15+ years, I’ve said in my Guidelines for ghost hunters, “…if someone is charging you money as if they’re providing a show… perhaps they are.”

Keep in mind that there’s a difference between a con artist and an entertainer.  In most cases, the entertainer separates his (or her) role, on stage, from what’s true in his personal life.  The lines may blur, but there’s no fraud involved.

 

Sure, an entertainer may disappoint you with a poor performance, but that’s different from being a fraud.

Likewise, a researcher’s results may be disproved by later studies.  That’s not a con, it’s a normal part of trial-and-error research… there will be errors!

The vast majority of entertainers and researchers are good, honest people. They have every reason to be proud of their work.

The biggest confusion is when a TV show or movie presents an entertainer as an expert when he (or she) isn’t one in real life.

Or, when people attend an event or public ghost hunt, and expect every expert to be chatty and entertaining.

“Reality shows” can blur the lines. When you meet stars or researchers in real life, keep your expectations in check so you’re not disappointed.

Do you have a question or opinion on this subject?  Let me know in the comments form, below.