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 the following series of events happened:

  1. First, the complainer went to a few “haunted” sites at Halloween, sometimes after a Halloween party.
  2. Then, 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, TV shows have never represented him as well as they could.
  • 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.

If You Want to Be on a Paranormal TV Show

Many of my readers are eager to star in a TV series.

Here’s what you need to know.

One of the main resources for media exposure is Help a Reporter Out, aka “HARO.”

Remember, those listings are not screened or verified. You could be talking to some creepy guy with no media connections at all.

Never give out personal contact information unless you have confirmed the person’s professional references.  Call the network, production company, or publisher to verify the contact information for that person.

Got a job offer? Get everything in writing.  Make sure it’s very specific about what you’re expected to do, for how much money, and exactly when you’ll be paid.

Know the risks.  Another producer offered me a part on a new TV show.  She said it was going to be a serious, academic show.

The production company bought my plane ticket, said they’d reserved an upscale hotel room for me, and promised I’d have a full-time chauffeur during the filming.

Everything seemed ideal.

Then, right before I got on the plane, someone on the production crew blundered.  She told me the show’s real name. It was far from academic.

I cancelled.

So, make sure your contract says exactly which show you’re being filmed for.  Don’t give the production company (or the network) free rein to use your interview or appearance in any show they like.

Listen to the producers’ questions. 

  • Are they too eager to believe your story?  Suspect false sincerity.
  • Are they fishing for drama where they wasn’t any?  It’s one thing to build a good story that engages viewers.  It’s another to turn your experience into something far more extreme (and ridiculous) than it was.
  • Are they digging for something to discredit you, or portray you as someone unstable?  Of course, producers want to avoid guests that could be a liability.

Jason Gowin (from Extreme Paranormal) said this after his confidentiality agreement had expired:

Realize that nothing you do on television will be safe from manipulation… Rest assured, you are there to make money for them, not be a beacon of integrity. [Link]

Pay attention to your gut feeling.  If something doesn’t seem right, maybe it isn’t.

Don’t expect fame for yourself or your paranormal investigating team.  Most TV shows avoid guests who might profit from a TV appearance. Producers may edit out anything that might help your career.  Expect that.

A paycheck is not guaranteed.  The producers’ (and the networks’) explanation is: A paid appearance could be misunderstood as a performance.

Many TV shows will get around this by offering to pay for your travel expenses and give you a “per diem” to cover additional out-of-pocket costs.

The per diem could barely cover meals from McD’s dollar menu.  Or, the per diem might pay for a nice big TV, to watch yourself later, when you’re on the show.

Generally, producers won’t tell you how much the per diem will be, unless you insist on it in the contract. Expect a tiny per diem, and hope to be pleasantly surprised.

If you’re going to be a cast member on a series, make sure you earn enough to cover your monthly bills.

I have a firm policy of not asking friends how much they earn from their shows.  I don’t want to know.  I already feel sorry for how much privacy they’ve given up, and how much they’re away from their families.

  • According to rumors, many stars earned a low four-figures, per episode, sometimes working seven days a week and 10- to 12-hour days.
  • I’ve heard that supporting cast members (not the two or three stars) earned about $500/episode. I hope I’m wrong about that.

You can be on TV if you really want to be.

If you’ve read this far, you probably think fame is worth the risks.

The first thing to consider is your strategy. Sometimes it’s easy to get on ghost-related TV shows. Sometimes, it’s easier to get on another kind of TV show, and use that as a credential to get on the show you want.  That’s why you’ll look at opportunities far beyond paranormal shows.

Start with the following resources.

Resources

I recommend HARO lists (linked above) and sites like RealityWanted.com (Sites like that appear and disappear rapidly. If you’re not dealing directly with the network, always be sure you’re talking with a reputable company.)

Also check network-specific webpages, such as casting calls for SyFy, MTV, ABC, VH1, TLC, HGTV, BBC (UK).

(You never know when a network will take an interest in paranormal programming.  I recall an episode of a food-related TV show where people competed by preparing ghost-themed cakes… and a real paranormal investigator was among the judges.)

You may find even more casting calls at production companies’ websites, such as Pilgrim (Ghost Hunters, etc.).

References

Get advice from experts.  Don’t leap into this field unprepared!  You may have just one chance to be on (or pitch) the show of your dreams.  Get it right the first time.

  • The 2006 book, Get on TV, is still one of the most popular books on this subject.  It’s not specifically about reality shows. It teaches you how to build a career by being on a wide range of TV shows.  If being a TV star has been your life-long goal, this book is worth reading.
  • If you’re interested in reality TV and you’d like to be a guest, a star, a producer or a writer, you’ll want to read Reality TV: An Insider Guide to TV’s Hottest Market.  This 2011 book gives you a good overview plus specific advice, and earns rave reviews from people in the industry.
  • This next book is by the winner of Big Brother 10 (U.S.), Dan Gheesling:  How to Get On Reality TV.  And, since it’s a Kindle book, you can download and read it immediately.

There are other books about this subject, but those look most useful.

American Idol House, CA – Haunted or Not?

American Idol house… haunted? Probably not.

Season 10 of American Idol was hosted in a house that some contestants felt was haunted.

They complained of the following phenomena:

  • Flickering lights in the house. (Could be a wiring issue.)
  • An infestation of spiders. (I’ve lived in Hollywood. It’d be an anomaly if a Southern California home didn’t have spiders now & then.)
  • A door that blew open, even when blocked with a chair, and leaves flew into the house. (I’d start by checking weather reports for that evening. If they didn’t reveal an explanation, I’d suspect a prank.)
  • A sheet that moved on its own, and possibly flew down a corridor by itself. (This definitely sounds like a prank.)

There was only one event that sounds like something potentially paranormal. According to a report in OK! magazine (USA), some of the American Idol contestants were watching a horror movie. Contestant James Durbin decided to follow-up with a prank.

According to his report, “”I opened the door to the garage – I was trying to freak out Pia [Toscano] – and it freaked me out because something white that looked like an arm that kind of came down.”

Later, another contestant described it as a hand that fell from the ceiling.

That could be something normal, but it’s far more consistent with paranormal activity than anything else mentioned.

Supposedly, the contestants immediately moved out of the house and were given alternate housing.

Since only one incident sounded even remotely paranormal, I’m not sure why this was news. Personally, I wouldn’t investigate a house just because someone thought they saw an arm or a hand appear when a garage door was open.

It seems like at least some of the cast quickly came to their senses, too.

Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures suggested a crossover show, where his team would investigate the house and use the American Idol finalists as triggers for activity. He was turned down.

Since that could have been a ratings bonanza for Ghost Adventures while attracting more attention to American Idol, being turned down increases the likelihood that the whole thing was a prank.

Floating sheets, spiders, and flickering lights sound like something out of a very bad “scare” show on MTV.

AmericanIdolHouseGhostsThe real test will be whether the house’s new owner, Munchkin, Inc. millionaire Steven B. Dunn, encounters anything odd in the house.

Personally, I don’t think he has anything to worry about. He’s a clever entrepreneur with an MBA from Harvard and a noted art collection, so I expect the spectacular views (seen at right) were more important to Dunn that the American Idol connection or the house’s possible ghosts.

The selling price of the house also suggests that it’s not haunted. According to reports, Dunn paid over $11 million for the American Idol house.

For a 15k square foot house on two acres in Bel Air, where houses sell for about $480/square foot, $11 million is a good price in today’s market.

So, I’m not seeing any of the usual indications of a distressed, haunted property.

I’m not sure if the floating sheets and flickering lights (etc.) were a very amateurish effort at faking a haunted house. Surely, the producers could have found some bargain-basement SFX guys from actual ghost “reality” shows…?

If someone is looking for a spectacular haunted house in or near Hollywood, these are better choices:

  • Harry Houdini widow’s former residence at 2435 Laurel Canyon Boulevard. (Not #2398, as some erroneously report.) [More info.]
  • 1005 Rexford Drive, former home of several personalities including opera star Grace Moore and actor Clifton Webb, both of whom are supposed to haunt the house.
  • 1822 Camino Palermo, where Ozzie & Harriet and their family lived. Apparently, Ozzie is still haunting the house. [More info.]
  • 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive was the home of TV’s Superman, George Reeves. His death was declared a suicide, but most people close to Reeves are sure it was murder. [More info.]

For more Hollywood haunts like these, you’ll find plenty of lists online. One of the most complete is at Haunted-Places.com, but since they have the wrong Houdini address, it’s smart to fact-check any address (and story) on their long, detailed list.

I don’t think we’ll hear anything more about ghosts at that American Idol house. Except for Durbin’s report – the only one with credibility – I don’t see any reason to suspect paranormal energy at the Season 10 house.

However, the ghost reports at the Season 8 house could be more serious. Apparitions and unexplained growls are far more credible, at least among “reality” shows like this.