If you’ve ever spent any significant amount of time sitting on a couch and flipping through the TV directory, you’ve almost definitely encountered one of the many ghost-hunting reality TV shows out there. There have been a million of them over the years from the Travel Channel’s Ghost Nation to Ghost Hunters on A&E and Syfy to Destination America’s impeccable Ghost Asylum. There’s a reason that there are so many of these shows across your channel guide; they’re incredibly entertaining and addicting to watch.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy paranormal-based programming as much as the next guy. However, it’s worth looking at the reasons why these shows have become so wildly popular and the ways in which they helped mold people’s perspectives on the paranormal. These reality TV stars are most people’s only point of contact with the profession of paranormal investigator, but they certainly aren’t the only people out there performing paranormal home inspections. Seriously, do a Google search for “paranormal investigator near me” and I can guarantee you’ll find a wealth of companies offering their investigative services.
At the expense of potentially losing all credibility, I must divulge that I am a believer in the paranormal, and I’ve met many other people who I considered to be rational and intelligent that have told me stories about their own paranormal experiences. However, the genre of ghost-hunting reality TV is, to put it simply, kind of a sham. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, I think it’s pretty obvious that the things you see on shows like Most Haunted or Celebrity Paranormal Project are mostly Hollywood fabrications. The methods and findings shown in these types of shows can serve to delegitimize the profession of paranormal investigator and the paranormal experiences that have affected many people’s lives.
Why Ghost Hunting Reality TV Is Obviously Fake
You turn on an episode of Ghost Lab or some other ghost hunting show, and you see some guy in a t-shirt holding a mysterious electronic device next to a wardrobe and saying that he’s picking up “activity” from this particular object. The camera zooms in on the electronic device to show that a needle is jumping back and forth; unfortunately, the units that this device is measuring are never mentioned.
Next, a guy with a ponytail holds out a large microphone boom and says that he’s picking something up. The team goes back to listen to the recording, and they hear something that sounds like a humpback whale off in the distance. Finally, they call in the paranormal medium and she says that she’s feeling the presence of an old man as she stares at a photo of the homeowner’s grandfather that’s hanging on the wall.
The team comes to the conclusion that the house is 100% haunted, and just then, one of them claims that they saw a figure moving down the corridor. The camera whips around to try to catch a shot of the figure, but of course, he’s too slow, or the room is too dark, for the audience to see it.
Obviously, all of the methods I’ve just described are anything but scientific. And even if one of the cameras were to pick up an image of a phantasm (which they typically never do), we have to remember how far CGI technology has come in recent years. In addition, all of these shows follow pretty much the same exact formula. The team will spend the night in a creepy-looking hotel or house or museum and emerge the next morning claiming that they were visited by a paranormal presence the night before. Then, the next day, viewers are meant to assume that fluctuations on their mysterious devices and strange noises are clear-cut signs of paranormal activity.
I don’t mean to say that everything you see on ghost hunting shows is stupid or has no merit; however, this type of programming can mislead people about what paranormal experiences look and sound like, and the ways in which paranormal investigators conduct their business.
What Real Paranormal Investigations Look Like
In reality, the process of paranormal investigation is a bit different than it appears on reality TV. I had a chance to speak on the phone with Steve Gartin, lead paranormal investigator at the Greenup County Paranormal Society, who gave me a rundown on what a typical paranormal investigation looks like. From speaking with him, I was surprised by how similar the methods of real paranormal investigators are to the methods we see on reality TV. In the words of Steve, “A lot of the stuff that you do see on TV is the method that we use.” However, there are some key differences between what you see on TV and what really happens in the field.
In describing ghost hunting TV shows, Steve said, “Most of them are set for entertainment, sadly.” Naturally, the television studios who produce these shows want to get the best ratings they can. Who wants to sit around and watch a paranormal investigation with no findings whatsoever? But, in a real scenario, you can’t just make ghosts come on demand, which is why these Hollywood shows are forced to create the illusion that they encountered something paranormal even if they didn’t.
For instance, Steve described a technique that he calls the “two-tap method” in which he’ll knock twice on a door that’s of particular interest to the investigation. Sometimes the ghost will knock back, and sometimes it won’t. In Hollywood, on the other hand, as Steve described it, “If they don’t get something, production tells them, ‘Re-do this. Ask again for a knock.’ And then production itself will know to get the hype up.” In this way, thanks to Hollywood magic, the paranormal teams on TV get a 100% hit rate with the two-tap method, whereas Steve estimated that his rate was more around 2%.
Another key difference between Hollywood and reality is, as Steve said, “We don’t know anything that’s going on. Unlike the people on TV, they know everything.” In saying this, Steve was referring to the fact that they tend to go into investigations with no knowledge of the paranormal occurrences that have been happening. In doing this, they remove any expectations that might skew their investigative process. In describing what happens when you go into an investigation with prior knowledge, Steve said, “When something would happen, your mind automatically says, ‘Okay, they said that door would open, so that’s paranormal.’ And you’re not stuck in that mindset of the detective work, saying, okay, that could be a vacuum effect. It could be the way the house is settled, anything.”
By contrast, TV ghost hunters are briefed on the paranormal situation before entering an investigation. In this way, they enter the investigation with the expectation of finding something paranormal and prior knowledge on where to search for it. Going in “cold” gives Steve and other paranormal investigators the ability to separate their own biases from the investigative process, making the process much more scientific than what you see on TV.
One way that paranormal investigators in the real world are similar to those on TV is actually the instruments that they use. As Steve said, “Everything you see on TV, we’ve got all of that.” They use audio recorders, handheld camcorders and DVR cameras, and different types of electromagnetic field meters (which apparently can be skewed by your Wi-Fi). They don’t, however, use a thermal imaging camera, which appears in pretty much every ghosting hunting show. “If you’re in a home and someone touches a wall,” Steve said, “it could be showing that hot spot for an hour, two hours. And then somebody doesn’t know they touched it, and they show it, they’re going to freak out thinking that’s, you know, a spirit.”
Steve is also very upfront about the fact that the readings they get on these instruments aren’t hard evidence of paranormal activity. In his words, “The hardest part is that none of it’s really used for evidence. I mean, you could get a good response on your ghost box, which is just a radio, but to say that that was actual evidence, you can’t really do.” I think that this is really what separates real paranormal investigators from the ones you see on TV. Real paranormal investigators don’t try to create results or extract findings out of evidence that isn’t there. They look for a natural explanation to any strange occurrences first, they understand that their science is imperfect, and they don’t delude people into thinking that they’ve communicated with a spirit when they haven’t.
What To Take Away From This
After speaking with Steve, it occurred to me that many people might have never experienced anything paranormal for themselves, and that their only point of contact with the world of the paranormal would have been these ghost-hunting reality shows. Thus, I can understand how many people would write off others’ paranormal stories as the ravings of a lunatic or a blatant lie. However, as I mentioned before, I’ve spoken with many people who are smart, logical, and even skeptical and have had paranormal experiences of their own.
Steve Gartin is a well-spoken, God-loving man (in fact, he’s an ordained pastor) who makes a living investigating paranormal occurrences. He grew up in a haunted house, he hears ghosts call out his name regularly, he’s had ghosts hurl cuss words at him, and none of it has shaken his faith in God. Whether or not you believe the incredible stories that Steve tells is up to you, but in his reality and the realities of a lot of other people, the paranormal world is very real.
So, next time you hear one of your friends tell you about a paranormal experience they had, don’t think about Ghost Hunters or Ghost Lab and assume they’re just as full of it as those shows are. Think about all the normal people who have had paranormal experiences, and the real paranormal investigators who spend their lives searching for the truth behind these experiences.
If you want to hear the full audio of my phone call with Steve Gartin, you can listen here:
Check out Greenup County Paranormal Society on Facebook! Thanks again, Steve!