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First, a brief history of ghost hunting tv shows
In the early 2000s, ghost hunting TV shows introduced ghost hunting to a wide audience.
Ghost hunting looked like fun. Or maybe a “good scare.” Lots of people wanted to try it, too.
So, this field expanded – practically exploded – almost overnight. Everyone wanted to visit a haunted place and find ghosts.
But… many viewers were disappointed.
Ghost hunting wasn’t nearly as much fun as it had seemed on TV.
I’ve talked about this in the past, and – I’ll admit – ranted more than a little.
Here are my current thoughts about ghost hunting TV shows.
Recently, a news report confirmed what I’ve been saying… and more concisely (and perhaps with more authority) than I have.
The article is “5 Myths about Reality Television,” and it was in the Washington Post newspaper.
Here’s part of what the article said, with emphasis added:
With very few notable exceptions (like “Big Brother”…), most reality television is shot first over a period of days or weeks, then edited. A month in the field could be whittled down to 44 or 22 minutes of action. That way, the audience sees reality stars only in essential moments… Almost nothing airs exactly as it fell into the lens, but the final product is usually more or less what happened.
That’s true about many (not all) ghost hunting TV shows.
A typical one-hour episode might require three to five days of daily filming at the site… so you see about 10% (or less) of what really happened.
After filming, there’s editing. That makes the show compelling to watch.
Also, ghost hunting TV shows schedule cliffhangers immediately before each commercial break, even (or especially?) when what follows is a big letdown.
What viewers see are the highlights of an investigation.
When you watch a ghost hunting TV show, you don’t see time spent waiting while nothing happens.
“Nothing” can be most of what goes on, at many (perhaps most) ghost investigations.
- We sit for an hour, and then something odd happens.
- We investigate it and debunk it. Big letdown.
- So, we sit or walk around for another hour.
- And then – finally! – something creepy happens, and it’s memorable.
When we can’t debunk it, that’s what makes the wait worthwhile.
It starts with a good location.
Two things you should know:
1. The stars of ghost hunting TV shows don’t decide where to investigate or where to film. When it comes to locations, producers usually make that decision
2. Most ghosts don’t perform on command. So, wherever a show is filmed, the location should be very, very haunted. The odds should weigh heavily in favor of at least something weird to happen during a full day of filming.
That’s the job of a location scout:
The producers rely on location scouts. That’s something I do: When a producer hires me, I’ll spend days (or more) looking for genuinely haunted places in a location that interests the producer.
The producer might ask for “haunted places around Tilton, New Hampshire,” if the producer also wanted to film at the famous, haunted Tilton Inn.
With that kind of request, I’d look for known haunts in the area, plot some ley lines to identify “hot spots” for ghosts, and — if I’m in the New Hampshire area — start visiting likely locations.
(But if a producer asked about that specific location, I’d tell them to read Rue Cote’s book, Ghost Hunting in Tilton, New Hampshire. I’m not likely to find any additional locations.)
Or, it might be a request like, “Find me some haunted hotels near Avebury, England,” and I’d dig into historical records if I’m not in the U.K. when the producer called. Then, I’d use maps and insights from British friends, and then start sending emails to prospective sites.
Location scouts know that many (or most?) ghost stories are more fiction than fact.
(If you’ve gone ghost hunting, I’m sure you’ve visited many places where absolutely nothing happened. It can be discouraging.)
As I said, the stars of ghost hunting TV shows rarely have much input. They go where they’re sent, and hope they find something ghostly. Or at least eerie enough to hype into a good, startling scene.
Nobody wants to have to rely on editing to make a scene look scary.
That means finding great, very haunted locations that are willing to let a film crew in, usually for three to five days.
Finding a site that meets those requirements can take time. Perhaps weeks. And some shows have rushed schedules. So, they film at “good enough” locations… and hope for the best.
Don’t blame the show’s stars when their investigation looks hyped. Or downright fake.
An encouraging trend
From my experience, most sites featured on TV shows are actually haunted places, even if the ghosts weren’t fully active during the filming.
Also, what viewers see is usually what happened… more or less.
Are ghost hunting shows getting more real?
Shortly before Covid, I saw a shift – towards almost radical authenticity – in some ghost hunting TV shows.
In fact, it’s looked like Most Haunted’s producers were eager to test show ideas (and investigation techniques) and go far out on a limb with fresh ideas.
For example, Most Haunted producers suggested they may air shows featuring outtakes. That’s a fun idea. (See @OnlyMostHaunted at Twitter.)
While more authentic ghost hunting TV shows – like Most Haunted – aren’t the adrenaline fuel of their fast-paced, highly edited counterparts, I like this trend.
I hope it continues.
2021 update: Okay. Some TV shows have reverted to absurd, extreme, and campy pretenses. Ick. That’s not real ghost hunting. We aren’t that gullible.
Others have returned to formulaic “ghost hunting.” Knowing many of the stars as well as I do – I’m raising an eyebrow. Their facial expressions suggest at least some of what they’re doing is just for the cameras. Learn more from Jason Gowin, former star of “Extreme Paranormal.”
Another problem: shows’ time limits
Ghost hunting shows are short— really short — compared with real-life ghost investigations. What you’re seeing on the show probably isn’t a “real-time” investigation.
In the U.S., a one-hour TV episode is typically 37 to 42 minutes long, including the “reveal” (or summary) at the end, if you don’t count commercial breaks. If it’s a 30-minute show, what you see is around 22 minutes.
The only sites I’ve investigated that rapidly are those that seemed too dangerous for research.
Usually, that had nothing to do with ghosts; instead it was about creepy people in the area, or imminent lightning strikes. (Vale End cemetery was an exception.)
My average, first-time visit to a verified, haunted site is probably 2 – 3 hours. Maybe a little more.
Later, I may revisit that location multiple times, and each additional visit can last several hours.
Or, if I’m familiar with a site and just checking to see what’s new, I might investigate for 45 minutes (the content of a one-hour TV show).
That brief ghost investigation is probably a follow-up visit, to debunk (or confirm) anomalies we previously encountered. I’m revisiting a creepy room in the building, or a particular area at a battlefield, or a limited number of graves in a cemetery.
So, though the time problem isn’t exactly new news, I’m glad to see mainstream media mention the reality behind many “reality” TV shows. (Okay, they’re now calling them “unscripted,” since producers can tell the cast to say or do certain things, but there’s no actual script.)
Your investigations will be different
If you’re new to ghost hunting, don’t expect something startling every five or ten minutes.
Instead, arrive at events and investigations with low expectations. Lots of waiting may be required.
That’s a good opportunity for you to do a thorough (and sometimes repeated) “baseline yourself” check, so you’re always aware when weird things start happening at a haunted site.
What you see on TV rarely represents everything that happened at the site. I’d describe it as “ghost hunting without the boring bits.” (That’s a nod to Horrible Histories and Ghosts. I love their humor.)
However, TV shows can reveal the wide range of phenomena you might encounter at an extraordinarily haunted site.
Shows that emphasize real ghost hunting experiences… they’re well worth your viewing time.
You can learn a lot from them.
And, with their insights, you might be better prepared when you encounter something chilling.
- Baseline Yourself for Ghost Hunting – article and podcast. (The free worksheet will return, soon.)
- Are Ghost TV Shows Real? (Earlier, 2009 article)
And, since so many TV shows seem to feature creepy or gruesome “haunted mirrors,” here’s a short, honest video about seeing ghosts in mirrors, and where you might see one, yourself:
Do you have a question about haunted mirrors? Here’s one ghost hunter’s opinions, including two places to see haunted mirrors, and what to do if you think you’ve seen one. (Hint: Tell a ghost hunter. We’re always looking for interesting haunted mirrors!)
Learn more about ghosts and haunted places at my YouTube channel, Ghost Hunting with Fiona Broome.