Ghosts are real. Not only in October, where the American mainstream entertains the notion of things going bump in the night. Nor are ghosts only real within the context of horror movies, books, comics, video games or the latest episode of American Horror Story.
No, for many Americans, belief in the dead kicking around in spectral form is a way of life.
Let’s break down the numbers. A 2013 Harris Poll found 42 percent of our nation believe in ghosts. A HuffPost/YouGov poll put that number at 45 percent. The Pew Research Center poll on the topic published, in 2009, that about 18 percent of U.S. adults say they’ve been in the presence of, or seen, a ghost – and 29 percent say they’ve been in the presence of someone who has died. And a 2005 Gallup survey, which closely followed its 2001 results, reported that three in four Americans held some sort of paranormal belief (32 said ghosts/spirits can return in certain situations; 37 percent said houses can be haunted; 21 percent said communication with the dead is possible).
Of course, belief doesn’t equal proof.
Despite psychical societies, ghost hunting groups, and a lot of reputable (and not-so-reputable) personalities pursuing evidence for more than a century in the United States alone, there is no incontrovertible scientific proof that the dead are coming back to pal around with the living.
Although there are scientists trying to change the perception, paranormal research is still confined to pseudo-science. Or as a religious philosophy. For some, the belief in ghosts is an almost dogmatic theology with rules and rituals. Others go on ghost hunts as a hobby, looking for a spooky thrill. They visit haunted locations as part of paranormal tourism to maybe catch a photo of some shadowy figure or record a seemingly unexplained sound using cool toys – but also to hang out overnight in pretty amazing landmarks.
Meanwhile, still others dig ghosts purely as fodder for a story told on Halloween night or over a campfire.
Combine all these elements -- from the pursuit of evidence, pseudo-science, and dogma to travel and tourism, nifty gadgets, and a whole lot of scary fun – and the result is the paranormal reality-TV subgenre. And one thing is for certain: For nearly 40 years, ghosts have made for entertaining reality TV.
To get a sense of how reality TV became haunted territory, join me for a history of paranormal programming in this country.
But first, a disclaimer: All my life I have been fascinated by ghost stories, and how they connect to history. My professional research on the topic has focused on how belief in ghosts influence entertainment – or “paranormal pop culture” as I call it – and vice versa, how entertainment influences belief. I have worked on, and with the cast of, nearly every major paranormal reality-TV show out there. I count ghost hunters, researchers, psychics, demonologists, etc as friends and collaborators. (It makes for fun parties!) While I try to avoid advocating for, or against, the belief in the paranormal, I also discourage anyone from labeling all believers and so-called “skeptical believers” as gullible crackpots, chumps, and frauds – even if those types certainly exist.
WATCH: We assembled a group of celebrity ghost hunters at San Diego Comic-Con for an impromptu supernatural superstar panel. Check out Amy Bruni and Adam Berry (of TLC’s Kindred Spirits), Nick Groff and Katrina Weidman (of Destination America’s Paranormal Lockdown), and John Zaffis (of Destination America’s Haunted Collector) as they discuss paranormal drama, a sense of humor in ghost hunting, how pop culture has gotten ghosts wrong, and their favorite scary movies!
Although reality-TV dates back to the late 1940s, it took a while before ghosts got in on the action. However, “real” ghost stories were the basis for the Twilight Zone-esque One Step Beyond anthology series, which ran from 1959-61. Host and “guide to the supernatural” John Newland would take viewers through re-enactments of supposedly true paranormal tales. Although dramatized (and featuring young actors like Warren Beatty, and William Shatner) the tales were meant to be straightforward re-tellings, and set a tone that would later be utilized by other shows decades later.
But the first reality-TV ghost hunting show hit the airwaves back in 1977, courtesy Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of … The first season of the Nimoy-hosted docu-style mystery series featured an episode revolving around ghosts, and featuring perhaps the most famous ghost hunter of all time (and “parapsychologist,” and author of more than a hundred books), Hans Holzer. The show established a familiar paranormal investigative format still in use nearly 40 years later.
Check it out, courtesy a clip from researcher John E.L. Tenney of Weird Lectures:
Even though Holzer’s investigation was missing out on night vision cameras, the episode begins by lightly debunking the ghost at one location before moving on to interviewing the haunted residents of a Port Clyde, Maine, home. He enlists the help of a psychic, does a walkthrough of the location, asks the supposed ghost questions still very much in use in paranormal shows to this day, and heads to a local historian to corroborate his findings.
Though the origins of ghost hunting television go back about four decades, it has really only been within the last 20 that paranormal investigation has become a major genre within “unscripted” programming.
Back in the late 1980s through the late ’90s, Unsolved Mysteries (famously hosted by Robert Stack – with specials hosted by Raymond Burr, and Karl Malden – and later by Virginia Madsen, and Dennis Farina) was a documentary-style show in the vein of In Search Of that occasionally focused on ghosts. And in 1991, a paranormal news magazine series called Sightings was hosted by news anchor Tim White, aired on Fox, and later on Sci Fi Channel, for five seasons.
21st Century Ghosts
It was MTV’s Fear, which debuted in 2000, that marked the largest step forward in paranormal reality television since that 1977 Holzer/Nimoy team-up. Sure, Fear had a bit of a forced set-up, including leading contestants into a haunted location blindfolded, then having a computer “dare” one of them to venture into a supposed paranormal hotspot, alone – all for the chance to win some cash.
Yet the series was fairly scary, and provided a ratings win for the network. Moreover, it used POV rigs and nightvision cameras – as well as quiet, eerie moments -- to heighten the sense of isolation, and build anticipation. The show also included ghost hunting gadgets, such as electro-magnetic field (EMF) detectors. It likewise popularized actual historic landmarks, such as Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, with notorious stories (and reported haunted activity). It only ran for two seasons, not counting its 2006 doppelganger Celebrity Paranormal Project on VH1, but Fear’s legacy continues to be felt in ghosty TV.
The British series Most Haunted, which premiered in 2002 and would find a home stateside on Travel Channel, added more theater to the solidifying genre. Moody lighting, fog effects, swooping cameras, a spooky score, as well as demonic possession and dramatic reactions to alleged knocks and bumps made it an early target for spoofing – and contributed to the celebrity status of host Yvette Fielding and psychic Derek Acorah. When you (and Saturday Night Live with Hugh Laurie in this skit below) think of over-the-top British characters hearing the cries of a ghostly child, you’re thinking of Most Haunted.
The series also has the dubious reputation of being among the first programs of its kind to receive accusations of fakery – so much so, in fact, that the British Office of Communications ruled in 2005 the show is merely entertainment, and not to be taken seriously as a “legitimate investigation.”
Other short-lived paranormal investigative shows followed Most Haunted, while some programming, such as Discovery Channel’s A Haunting in Connecticut (later adapted to series as, simply, A Haunting) relied on re-enactments and interviews to tell their stories. Similar stylistically to forerunners like Unsolved Mysteries, A Haunting was an anthology series, and continues today on Destination America. It revived interest in the ghost hunting cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren (most famous for their involvement with The Amityville Horror and The Conjuring, which I’ll get to later), and made a paranormal celebrity out of their nephew (and researcher/religious demonologist John Zaffis).
However, 2004 might be remembered as the year ghost hunting went mainstream. Debuting October that year on the erstwhile Sci Fi Channel, Ghost Hunters became the most well-known paranormal reality-TV show yet.
The docu-soap revolves around a team of investigators (TAPS: The Atlantic Paranormal Society) who seek to debunk, or affirm, claims of ghostly activity. The show’s DNA combined elements with In Search Of and Fear, but also slyly borrows from fiction’s Ghostbusters.
Take a look at the reality-TV show, and then the 1984 movie, co-written by paranormal believer Dan Aykroyd. Not unlike the show, the film features a group of blue-collar ghost-obsessed buddies who use funky equipment, drive around in a signature vehicle, and rock matching threads while on the case. (An observation confirmed by Aykroyd himself who told me Ghost Hunters was “no doubt” inspired by his movie.)
Clearly, the formula worked. Ghost Hunters was a hit for the network for a while, and at its peak, pulled about three million viewers per episode. Although it is coming to an next Wednesday, Oct. 26, at the end of its eleventh season, it is heretofore Syfy’s longest-running series with more than 200 episodes.
Co-founders, and original co-leads, Grant Wilson and Jason Hawes (famously Roto-Rooter plumbers by day, busters by night) appeared on late-night talk shows and The Today Show. It spawned spinoffs, live episodes, a syndicated radio show, merchandise, apps, and ghost hunting events at famously “haunted” landmarks. In recent years, the show's formula has been tweaked to make it scarier and flashy, but even in the early days it became part of the pop culture lexicon (See: "What's that?" and "Dude, run!"). If you have an idea of what an EVP, or “electronic voice phenomena” is, you can probably thank these guys. Same goes if you primarily associate FLIR cameras as the company that makes thermal imaging cameras used to capture images of ghosts.
Sure, it also attracted a lot of derision and was spoofed by Saturday Night Live, and South Park (shown here) – but the Ghost Hunters legacy cannot be denied, as it ushered in an era of similarly-themed reality-TV shows.
Before the trend began to fade around 2012, there were about three years where you could find upwards of two dozen or more ghosty reality-TV shows on the air in the U.S., not including shows about aliens, cryptozoology, or conspiracy theories. Most ended up buried in an entertainment graveyard (you can check out Sharon Hill's extensive list at Doubtful News), with the exception of Travel Channel’s long-running Ghost Adventures, which launched in 2008 with Zak Bagans, Nick Groff, and Aaron Goodwin.
A more in-your-face investigative show, Ghost Adventures remains a ratings contender for Travel. Plus, while he has earned a reputation for being an alpha-male “come at me, ghost” personality, lead Bagans has maintained an entertaining persona throughout the course of the show.
The Ghost Adventures brand has been leveraged for spin-offs, and book deals, and earned enough popularity to be parodied. Bagans and Co. were chummy targets of Joel McHale on The Soup! Their big characters at least partially inspired Nick Kroll’s “Ghost Bouncers” skit on Kroll Show, and the protagonist in the found footage horror film, Grave Encounters.
A New Haunt?
Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, and related shows even arguably contributed to the return of ghosts as popular movie monsters. Following the era of frequently (mis)labeled “torture porn” film, the massively popular found footage horror Paranormal Activity, released wide in 2009, had aesthetics and tropes familiar to paranormal investigation programs. Meanwhile, director and producer James Wan has enjoyed much success in this scary sandbox with his Insidious, The Conjuring, and Annabelle franchises (not to mention recent entry Light’s Out).
Not only do these films involve haunted houses and objects, demons, and ghost hunters, but The Conjuring movies feature characters based on real-life celebrity paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Although The Warrens’ popularity goes back to the 1970s, Lorraine has maintained active in the reality-TV world, having appeared on Paranormal State and A Haunting – not to mention she was a consultant on 2013’s The Conjuring. Also, everything seems to come full circle in the new Ghostbusters movie; while Dan Aykroyd thought Venkman/Spengler/Stantz/Zeddemore influenced reality-TV, the new bustin' characters view ghosthunting shows as, well, scaring away any chance of legitimate respect for paranormal "science."
But while ghosts are stalking scripted fare, the spirit got weak in reality-TV. A dozen or so ghost shows would still pop up on cable networks in 2013 and 2014, but not many lasted – and most were bad knockoffs with a stale formula. They’d premiere but disappear quickly without receiving a full season, or getting a picked up for renewal. Others appeared to be in near-permanent hiatus. Ghost Adventures, its Aftershocks spinoff, and The Dead Files look to be sticking around on Travel, but networks cooled on the ghost genre. For instance, in 2014, Syfy announced a move onto bigger prestige projects (while allowing Ghost Hunters to haunt its programming schedule through the end of this current season).
Yet fans of the fading subgenre received an unexpected treat in 2015 when Destination America, the Discovery Communications network, announced a pivot to a largely paranormal line up.
Along with airing previously run series, such as Haunted Collector with the aforementioned Zaffis, DA has placed a lot of belief in ghost TV: from last year’s live exorcism Halloween special; to the more traditional black shirt-wearing burly guy ghosthunting show Ghost Asylum; to Paranormal Lockdown and Ghosts of Shepherdstown (both starring and executive produced by Ghost Adventures co-creator Groff, who also hosts paranormal tourism events); to the Black American-led show, Ghost Brothers.
The network is also going big by touting the “longest paranormal investigation ever on television” with its Halloween special. The extended episode of Paranormal Lockdown, set at the Black Monk House in Yorkshire, England, is based on a record-breaking 100-hour ghost hunt.
As opposed to many networks that air paranormal programming with little fanfare, Destination America is promoting its ghost shows – especially the Black Monk House special – with a publicity push not seen since the early days of Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures. Between media buys and a presence at fan events like San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic Con, DA is betting they have a strong shot at reminding viewers that paranormal shows are fun again, and they are the network to go to for all their ghosty needs.
Meanwhile, Discovery’s sister network TLC is getting in on the afterlife action with Kindred Spirits, debuting Oct. 21. Starring Amy Bruni and Adam Berry, formerly of Ghost Hunters. The lifestyle network, home to Long Island Medium, has previously focused on psychics with some paranormal investigations thrown in. Bruni, who also owns the Strange Escapes event company, has a young toddler and has said Kindred Spirits marks a departure as a ghost hunting show as one specifically focused on family cases.
Do these new shows, along with the enduring series on Travel Channel and elsewhere, mark the return of paranormal reality-TV as a popular genre? Possibly. While I don’t think these types of shows will enjoy the same mainstream popularity they did a few years back, there are so many networks and viewing platforms available that fans can find the perfect ghosty program for them. There is less expectation to pull the same three million viewers that Ghost Hunters once did, which is frankly a good thing for new shows. If you are not already into this style of reality-TV, chances are good you won’t ever take notice when one premieres, or is canceled. (The same can be said for countless cooking, house flipping/hunting, or bridal shows.)
Whether Destination America, TLC, and other networks are ushering in a new era of ghosthunting TV, or not, rest assured the genre won’t ever disappear forever. After all, paranormal reality has haunted television for four decades, and while the ghosts moan a little louder at times than others, these spectral programs are never entirely dead.