A recent discussion with a person who pitches ideas for TV shows got me thinking about what a solid, informative, program about the paranormal would look like. The bottom line… it would be really difficult and producers are likely not willing to take a risk on it.
The slew of paranormal-themed “reality” television shows is petering out, thank goodness. It’s been done to death. One could argue it’s been both a boon and a bust to ghost hunting – prompting thousands of people to get off their couch and try it themselves while promoting baseless ideas about hauntings, demon infestations, and nonsense methods of how to “detect” them. Similar can be said about Bigfoot/cryptozoology-themed shows that more quickly slipped into the comedic satire realm (e.g., Mountain Monsters, though I’m not quite sure if they are kidding or really that absurd. See Poe’s Law.) Author Nick Redfern took a position that TV shows had ruined cryptozoology (Mysterious Universe, May 15, 2018). My alternate position was that rampant hoaxing, hyping of terrible evidence, and implausible claims and explanations had rendered the field non-credible independent of any TV depictions. Yet, TV certainly doesn’t help.
There are hopefuls out there who pitch ideas for paranormal TV series to producers. And, from what they tell me, these producers still want an intense and flashy (contrived) product that in no way reflects a credible investigation.
Can a good TV show even be produced? I’m doubtful. A good investigation requires a careful plan for research that may take months to set up and undertake. There will be a lot of waiting, testing, retesting, correction for errors, and attempts to eliminate other factors. This isn’t compelling TV viewing. The main problem with such situations, though, is that it’s highly likely that the cause of the weird experience at hand is not clear-cut but complex and messy. Perhaps the witness is experiencing health issues or is mentally unstable introducing thorny ethical issues into the conclusions.
Most of these shows exhibit sloppy writing and lazy research, as they are done on the cheap. They aim to appeal to the widest sample audience which is uncritical, looking to be entertained, and who feel better about the show when their personal beliefs or leanings are played out within the content. The shows are edited to be exciting and emotional. There is no doubt that some evidence on them has been faked and much more has been enhanced for effect, which is dishonest to the audience.
If pressed on what could be done different, I can suggest some options. We currently are missing humorous but sharp takes on paranormal topics. Viewers across the belief spectrum might appreciate that. I’ve had requests to focus more on the process of investigation to show how to think through examining a claim. Though debunking is frowned upon, there are often genuinely interesting factors involved that viewers would find surprising and fascinating. There are also niches available to discuss urban legends, folklore, and general Fortean phenomena. Experts would be more willing to participate in smartly written and well-balanced shows. As it stands today in our fake documentary-style cable landscape, there is no benefit and too much risk to appearing on today’s TV offerings.
Even if a new and improved useful format was proposed, it appears Hollywood is loathed to greenlight it. They want simple answers and dramatic results that fit into an hour time slot. They only wish to pay crews to stay at a location for no more than a few days and move on. They want action, charismatic presenters, and I’m pretty sure they want the paranormal cause to be promoted, not debunked. Budget constraints mean they jazz up their efforts with slick graphics and repeat snippets of the limited content repeatedly in the same episode. Ultimately, this model is unsatisfying to even mildly discerning viewers.
A few months ago, I was contacted by a documentarian who wanted me to talk on camera about a location that was deemed to be haunted. He was interested in my credentials as a geologist to discuss the Stone Tape theory of environmental recording and playback that some ghost hunters think is an explanation for residual-type hauntings. I was unimpressed by his background knowledge, for a start. Then, once I took a quick look at the setting and saw that they investigators involved were doing the same useless EVPs, EMF readings and night vision filming, I had no desire to be involved with it. When I told him there is nothing to the Stone Tape idea and that it would be unethical for me, as a licensed geologist, to risk discussing such a thing (when I secretly feared creative editing would change my words around), he broke off discussions. Entertainment types aim for entertainment. No surprise. They won’t undertake rigorous research methods as they aren’t conducive to the budget and, apparently, that’s not what they think the audience expects from such shows.
Diverse audiences can’t be universally satisfied. But it is short-sighted and ridiculous for production companies to continue to appeal to the lesser educated audiences with formulaic, inflated depictions of paranormal experiences and anomalous experiences. There are dozens of examples of deep and complicated programming on today that make people think and challenge their beliefs. We need more of that. A good portion of the public, I’d argue, would appreciate a step up from the Dude-Bro-Dumb Ghost Adventures. For example, I would LOVE to see a return of Fortean TV or Nature’s Weirdest Events that featured real-life strangeness. I’d even entertain a reboot of That’s Incredible as long as it didn’t have silly hosts or promoted pseudoscience and nonsense claims as true. Add in some commentary from credible experts and I think you’d have a great show.
But what do I know? I don’t even have cable TV anymore. You can probably understand why.
Opinions welcome. Can there be a good hour-long series about the paranormal?