What Is The Cultural Meaning Behind Paranormal TV?
Note: The following contributing article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Paranormal Research Society.
Article By: Deonna Kelli Sayed
Paranormal reality TV is about more than ghosts and spooky experiences. Such programming is an American story attempting to define our existence at a post 9/11, globalized cultural moment. Ghost reports have historically increased during times of cultural and social change. With this in mind, paranormal reality TV – an American contribution to entertainment culture — is now the interlocutor around new ideas regarding history, spirituality, science, and cultural identity.
Ghost hunting is not really about spirits. The shows are about the living.
SyFy launched Ghost Hunters in October 2004, featuring members of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), a paranormal investigation group that has been in existence since the early 1990s. By Season Two, Ghost Hunters was SyFy’s flagship show, and is now in its seventh season.
A couple years later in 2007, A&E’s Paranormal State debuted. Ghost Hunters featured a “debunking, scientific approach.” Paranormal State highlighted the role of story, the influence of psychical research, and prioritized client experiences. The two shows differed in style and methodology yet both provided a substantial boost to America’s fascination and comfort level with ghostly occurrences. The initial wave of paranormal reality TV is now shifting due to the cancelations or discontinuation of several shows. However, the genre appears to now be an established entertainment offering regardless of its growing pains.
The immediate public response to paranormal reality TV was an exponential increase in the number of people conducting investigations or seeking a haunted experience. Paratainment is now profitable way for the public to engage ghostly interest. Historic locations charge for investigations and events. Paranormal interest often provides much needed revenue for restoration and operational expenses. Furthermore, there are now thousands of Meetup.com and Facebook groups hosting public paranormal events, and para-themed conferences and conventions take place all over the United States. The international broadcast of the shows is encouraging a global rise in paranormal investigation. There are teams in places such as Malaysia, Israel, and Afghanistan, for example.
What does this all mean?
The most obvious meaning behind the shows’ success is that many people do accept the idea of ghosts. The most exhaustive research on American beliefs in the paranormal is from the 2005 Baylor Religion Survey. Out of 3000 participants, 37 percent believe places can be haunted, while 20 percent feel that they have had a personal ghost experience. Sociologists discuss the results from the poll in the insight book, Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Big Foot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture.
But ghosts aside, the shows have profound meaning for our national identity.
American production companies first considered paranormal-themed reality TV due to the success of the United Kingdom’s Most Haunted. The show, which debuted in 2002, was a massive British hit. However, the American entertainment industry felt that the events of 9/11 were too raw for American audiences to engage the intimacies of ghost hunting at that time.
A few years later, however, the timing was perfect. The shows emerged to provide fascinating insight into that particular cultural moment.
The work of Dr. Jessica O’Hara in The Philosophy of Horror illustrates how paranormal reality TV delves into the narratives of mourning. Since that horrible event, she writes “history has presented itself as trauma, which invites us to imagine history’s task as uncovering and authenticating sites of disturbance and tragedy, the haunts of restless spirits.” 
Ghost hunting shows allow Americans to mourn and reassemble time, as well as history, back into something we can control. As O’Hara suggests, history is now presented as trauma since 9/11. The shows work to acknowledge the departed and mourn the dead. In many ways, televised investigation also seeks to put time back into order again. In the confusing world of post 9/11 where public space is compromised by terror threats, economic instability, and unemployment, the private space of home becomes our sanctuary. Yet, even those spaces are haunted. It is in our homes where we now negotiate the relationship with the “Other” (the foreigner, the immigrant, the terrorist) through the metaphor of hauntings.
This metaphor is not a casual one. In the summer of 2009, Lowes Home Improvement store had theatrical commercial spoofing Ghost Hunters. The segment featured a couple in a house “that is trying to kill them.” Possessed appliances and a maniacal flooded basement are on the attack. The camera then pans to a Lowes employee saying, “Hello, my name is Doug. I work at Lowe’s, and I’m here to help.” His dress, body language, and verbiage is homage to Ghost Hunter’s lead investigator, Jason Hawes, who often greets a client saying, “Hi, We’re from TAPS, and we are here to help.” Link to the video is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUc04qn7d2A&feature=relmfu
In many ways, the shows function to make history right, at least, metaphorically. Paranormal State illustrates this best with the emphasis on empowering the client, who is (sometimes) an active participant in the investigation. The show also prioritizes a homeowner’s emotional relationship to the haunting. All shows function to rectify the fear factor associated with the paranormal, where the ultimate goal is to make a client (and the viewer) feel less haunted.
Ghost shows also placate the fear and curiosity of the unseen. We are reminded daily that we are at war against terror and this remains undefined, invisible, and unpredictable. Terrorism can strike and any moment with no advanced warning. Citizens must be on alert at all times for suspicious behavior. Yet, no clear individual or group is identified as being the source of this fear. We are not sure about who comprises al-Qaeda, thus the move to profile all Muslims and others of Middle Eastern descent. American troops are in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet the reasons for being there are contested and unclear to everyday citizens. At this point, America is at war with a “haunting.” The enemy is a scary specter, and these shows provide an opportunity to make sense of and engage with this unknown.
While the United States battles an invisible evil with the War on Terror, the shows allow us to flesh out larger philosophical issues around that concept, as well as the discussion of free will. O’Hara points out that these shows promote the idea of real demons and evil entities that bother humans and sometimes oppress other spirits. Ghost Hunters once featured a case where they claimed a human entity was acting demonic in order to scare the family. On one level, this assertion defies logic. How can any person know what a ghost is thinking when it is hard to even prove the existence of one? Yet, the idea that a ghost would desire to behave demonically suggests the living and spiritual world is embroiled in a battle between good and evil. Likewise, this assumption surmises ghosts have free will to behave as they chose.
Negotiating between good and evil, according to the shows, is something individuals do regarding the paranormal. We hear that playing with Ouija boards is bad. Clients are sometimes told a dysfunctional home and drug or alcohol abuse can attract negative energy. Therefore, we are agents in this battle, and our free will determines the outcome. With the shows, of course, good always triumphs over evil. Cleansings and blessings are performed with great results. Clients can merely ask or demand a ghost to leave or quiet down, and the spirit can decide whether to consent. Homeowners are also reminded that whatever is present will not hurt them nor does it intend any harm. Free will and good versus evil are negotiated on every episode of paranormal reality TV.
The Postmodern Analysis
Paranormal reality TV is some of the most postmodern, anti-authoritarian programming on TV, and that is probably why so many find it fascinating. It is telling a new story of who we are at this cultural moment.
There are many meanings for postmodern, but I am going to stick with what is relevant to this discussion, with the help of the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Postmodernism is “relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language.” This means that we can question long-held assumed Truths (like if Science really knows everything). It means we can bring historically marginalized voices into being (like a feminist retelling of history, which becomes herstory). Postmodernism makes novels like Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code popular because it refutes the formal version of religious history, that of a male God, and brings in alternative perspectives. History and Authority (with a capital A) are questioned, and the role of personal and private experience carries as much weight as objective scientific evidence. Postmodernism insists on mixing familiar symbols and their meanings to create something completely new. It is very much about going beyond the cliché. The postmodern is a pastiche allowing us to reexamine what and how we know and understand commonly held assumptions about the world and ourselves.
Paranormal reality TV challenges the privileged discourse of science. All shows take assumptions from different religious, scientific, and cultural traditions and merge them into a type of pastiche theory used to explain the paranormal.
Here is a hypothetical example (this did not happen on any particular show): there is a direct-response EMF, as well as EVP, captured during an investigation. The EVP says, “Help me!” Someone will submit a “scientific” hypothesis about EMF and paranormal activity, while another will recommend a cleansing ceremony to help the spirit cross over. In one sweep, science and the spiritual join to create a little truth about the paranormal. No one can argue that this analysis right and no one can argue that it is wrong. The shows inform us that there are no experts in the field. Like postmodernism, the paranormal has no grand authority. Anyone can assert any truth and there are few ways to refute it. You can be a parapsychologist with a PhD, or a plumber—each has an equally valid role in this endeavor. A modern-day myth is created as the shows reassemble perspectives from science, religion, folklore, and personal experience to function as truth. In this process, they validate the way we view the world as well as our place in it. The funny thing is that the shows never provide a real answer or final resolution. Regardless of the activity featured on the episode, we never really know who or what is behind the haunting.
In many episodes, there is never a forever resolution to the haunting. The lack of a clear solution is something that reflects our own postmodern identity. As individuals, we are never completed projects, and the metaphorical ghosts that haunt us never actually materialize. Or, if they do materialize, do they ever go away?
The shows also tear down big history by prioritizing local histories, particularly those of the departed. Postmodernism allows silenced voices, like those of women and minorities, to finally speak back to a history that often excluded their stories. Investigators do what has been thought to be impossible: they allow the dead to utter injustices, losses, or grievances. The majority EVP sessions begin by asking, “Is there anyone here who would like to communicate with us?” or “Can you give us a sign of your presence?” When an EVP is captured, this prioritizes the property’s history over an official version. There are real cases where captured evidence encourages fresh avenues of historical research. This sometimes forces new questions to be asked, and may unveil previously unknown information about a location.
The paranormal allows a collage-type of spirituality to compensate for what many are no longer getting from religious institutions. Australian scholar Em McAvan names this as the “postmodern sacred.” This new type of spirituality is inspired by science fiction, horror, and fantasy pop culture through movies like The Matrix trilogy, the Harry Potter series, The X-files, and paranormal reality TV. These shows and movies attach new meanings to religious symbols and ideas without consulting established religious discourse.
The individual (paranormal) experience is the “sole arbitrator of truth and authority,” writes McEwan. Affirmed are the rights of ghosts—no longer does the living have sole authority to write history. Science is embraced, yet constantly challenged, through paranormal realities. These shows may engage Christian concepts of free will and good versus evil, but they also dispute traditionally held assumptions of God and theology.
Author Jeff Belanger agrees. He shares an enlightening experience, “A few years ago, I was out with some paranormal investigators somewhere. I was at a cemetery or something. Then it hit me! I had a ‘holy crap!’ moment. I realized this was church for these people. This was where they were getting their spiritual experience,” Jeff details.
The media component creates a postmodern sacred, and embraces larger cultural issues in ways few TV programs do. Paranormal reality TV takes everything we know about world — science, Truth, and ourselves — and throws it out. These larger concepts are reassembled, and a new truth is asserted.
These shows encourage us to mold the world in way to reflect who we really are at this cultural moment.
About the Author: Deonna Kelli Sayed is a writer and a paranormal investigator with Haunted North Carolina. She explores topics in this essay (and more) in her forthcoming book, Paranormal Obsession: America’s Fascination with Ghosts, Hauntings, Spooks, and Spirits. (Llewellyn, Sept 2011). Deonna also writes for Ghostvillage.com. Join her official author’s Facebook page.
 Thomas Fahy, editor, The Philosophy of Horror (University of Kentucky Press, 2010)
 Em McAvan (2007), The Postmodern Sacred: Popular Culture Spiritualties in the Genre of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Fantastic Horror. Ph.D. Thesis, Murdoch University