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.

2 thoughts on “Evaluating Ghost Hunting Documentaries”

  1. I was just wondering if you have ever met the cast of Ghost Adventures?? ZAk, Nick and Aaron and if this show is actually real oe just for entertainment?

    1. Hi, Rhonda!

      I’ve met most stars of ghost-related TV shows, and consider many of them very good friends, whether I like their shows or not. (Sometimes, what they’re like in real life is very different from how they’re edited from their TV footage.)

      Weirdly, I’ve never met the Ghost Adventures guys. I had an opportunity to be on the show, but felt uneasy about how their producers approached me, so I declined.

      However, everything I’ve seen and heard about the guys lead me to think I’d like them in real life. Zak has a zany sense of humor that doesn’t always convey well in videos, but he seems very likeable. I’m pretty sure that — when our paths finally cross — I’ll like them.

      Their show, like most ghost-related shows, seems edited to be sensational. I feel like they rely on certain “cliffhangers” over and over again, and the added drama can seem a little silly.

      Despite that, I think much of the show is real, with minimal “let’s film that scene again, guys” moments. When I watch shows, I figure that only 50 – 70% of the show is what really happened. The rest is edited to entertain, and — in most cases — that’s completely out of the hands of the stars of the show.

      The parts that look real to me… the guys look like they’re genuinely interested in paranormal events at that site, and finding the low-key anomalies that indicate something worth further investigation.

      The rest of their shows — and most ghost-related TV shows — seems kind of hype-y to me. Also, the shows rarely convey the hours (and hours) of sitting around, waiting for something interesting to happen.

      In real life, at least half of every investigation is spent listening and watching, with occasional breaks to chat so you don’t fall asleep. Many investigations are 90% “just waiting,” and evidence suggesting a haunting is pretty weak.

      So, I’m not sure that any ghost-related TV show conveys what really goes on during the filming. Those shows are edited to be far more entertaining.

      While a few stars (and producers) have practically oozed sleaze when I met them or talked with them on the phone, I’ve had the idea that I’d like the stars of Ghost Adventures. We’d probably have some fun conversations about the absurdity of working in this field, and the coolest moments from our real-life investigations.

      That said, when I talk with people from Ghost Hunters or GHI, we hardly ever discuss anything paranormal. We discuss plumbing (really), whale watching, cities we’ve liked (or didn’t like), writing & publishing, genealogy, and so on. I think it’s like anyone who meets a co-worker outside the office: Generally, work is one of the last topics we want to discuss.

      I hope that gives you some insights. Like many ghost-related TV shows, I think most (not all) of what you see on TV really happened. How it’s edited, and the sequence in which the events are shown… that’s another matter, and usually outside the control of the cast.

      Everything I’ve heard from mutual friends suggests that the Ghost Adventures guys are sincere.

      Cheerfully,
      Fiona

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