TV Skeptic: 'Ghost Hunters' and things that go bump in the night
In Wednesday night's season premiere of "Ghost Hunters" on Syfy, the Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) travel to Alexandria, La., to investigate three allegedly haunted buildings in the heart of the city.
The stars of the show, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, plumbers who put down their plungers and picked up video cameras, were invited by city officials to investigate unexplained occurrences at three Alexandria locations: the Diamond Grill, an upscale restaurant; Finnegan's Wake, a tavern; and the Hotel Bently, a vacant 103-year-old landmark.
In a typical episode, the cast and crew arrive at a location and are greeted by a host -- usually the owner or proprietor -- who describes events he or she has experienced or, more often than not, events he or she has heard about second- or third-hand, to which the host ascribes some kind of supernatural presence. The crew then deploys a variety of audio- and video-recording equipment throughout the site. At night they turn out the lights and explore the location in two-person teams armed with an arsenal of high-tech devices that they hope will illuminate any unnatural phenomena. They then reveal their findings to the host.
In Alexandria, Hawes and Wilson met with Bill Hess from the mayor's office, and he described the buildings and provided a bit of the history. Hess is the city's liaison with film and television and is charged with encouraging productions to shoot in Alexandria. Clearly, he was successful in this case.
The process of investigation involves wandering around the empty buildings and interpreting nearly every bump in the night as some otherworldly presence. What else could those noises -- thumps and knocks and such -- be? Possibly the buildings settling, as they are all old and have undergone extensive renovation. Sounds could be caused by drafts. Most likely water in the plumbing, heating pipes or sump systems. But the viewer doesn't know because we see no effort to investigate any other possible source. You'd think plumbers would know better.
To their credit, some of the "Ghost Hunters" try to resolve a few claims with plausible explanations, but their skepticism never goes far enough.
Whenever some kind of spiritual presence is imagined to be nearby, these seemingly macho paranormal investigators react just like little children listening to spooky stories around a campfire.
The biggest laugh of the season premiere came when Hawes is startled by a shadow in a kitchen at the Diamond Grill and said, "I just saw what looked like someone, and every hair on the back of my neck is standing up right now."
As he said that, the back of his neck is in full view of the camera and it's as hairless as the rest of his scalp.
While the investigators try to pick up on the slightest sounds, the audience is bombarded with a soundtrack laden with effects, reverb and creepy music. Perhaps it's meant to create a eerie mood, or simply fill the void, but the result for the viewer is a heavily synthesized cacophony muddying the distinction between evidence and added effects.
Wednesday' s episode concluded with a "Ghost Hunters" town hall meeting. Wilson and Hawes played audio with hiss and crackle -- what most audio experts refer to as "noise." Here the noise is interpreted as whispers of paranormal origin.
When Jason and Grant played the "whispers" to the crowd, their response was blank stares. But when Jason suggested that one sound was a voice saying "I'm sorry," then played it repeatedly, suddenly audience members could hear an enunciation. The only power on display here was the power of suggestion.
Another example of the power of suggestion occurred when team members Steve Gonsalves and Dave Tango were investigating the staircase at the Bently Hotel, where they were told paranormal forces tripped people on the stairs. As Tango climbed the steps, daring any nearby spirit to trip him, he stumbled, but he did it on his own, with no help from the spirit world.
A good subtitle for this series would be "Confirmation Bias in Action." In each case, they set out to prove there is a haunting, look for evidence that supports their claim but often fail to investigate more reasonable explanations. If there truly were a ghost in any of these locations, being confused with loud plumbing or noise on a audiotape would probably be an insult.
Given the absence of critical thinking, thoroughness and intellectual discipline that these investigators demonstrate, I can't imagine any self-respecting ghost would want to be caught dead on this show.
-- Ed Stockly
Photo: Jason Hawes, left, and Grant Wilson. Credit: Sheryl Nields / Syfy