Thursday, January 28, 2010

Culture Shock 01.28.10: Who wants to be a paranormal investigator?

Night vision is scary.
If you have a pair of night-vision goggles and like stumbling around in the dark, maybe you can be a ghost hunter.

It's all the rage. At least three cable channels currently air shows devoted to "paranormal investigations." And ghost hunting doesn't take any special skills. The hosts of Syfy's "Ghost Hunters" are plumbers, which I guess can be useful if your toilet is haunted. And who hasn't seen something scary in a toilet?

Airing since 2004, "Ghost Hunters" — the granddaddy of the current crop of paranormal TV shows — has spawned two spin-offs, "Ghost Hunters Academy," where aspiring paranormal investigators learn the tricks of the trade, and "Ghost Hunters International."

Again, these are not difficult skills to master. Mainly, it amounts to wandering around creepy, abandoned, decrepit buildings and attributing every creaking floorboard and drafty room to a ghostly presence.

It's so easy, college students can do it, which they do on A&E's "Paranormal State." The show follows members of the Paranormal Research Society at Penn State University as they try to bust ghosts and cast out evil spirits.

I've seen about a half dozen episodes of "Paranormal State," and two of those led the Paranormal Research Society to Alabama. Make of that what you will, but I blame Kathryn Tucker Windham, whose "13 Alabama Ghosts" books used to have half of my elementary-school classmates believing their houses were haunted.

Earlier this month, A&E launched a new series, "Paranormal Cops," about four Chicago police officers who arrest the living by day and confront the dead by night. I hope they're better at catching crooks than they are at catching ghosts.

Not to be left out, Travel Channel airs my favorite show of the bunch, "Ghost Adventures."

As a Travel Channel show, "Ghost Adventures" goes to the some of best locations — places that are downright creepy whether or not they're haunted. But apart from that, "Ghost Adventures" has the most entertaining cast of ghost busters.

Zak Bagans is the team's leader. With his spiked hair and tight, Ed Hardy-like T-shirts, he is a stereotypical alpha male. His main investigative technique is to yell at any ghosts who may be present and dare them to attack him.

If any ghosts have ever taken Zak up on that offer, I missed that episode, unfortunately.

Next is Nick Groff, Zak's second in command. Nick tries to copy Zak's alpha-male routine, but he's nowhere near as good at it. He'll always be just a wingman.

And then there's Aaron Goodwin, the team's equipment technician.

Alas, poor Aaron. He's the one the ghosts supposedly always pick on, to the point that Zak and Nick often use him as bait to lure ill-tempered spirits into showing themselves.

Again, if this trick has ever worked, I've not seen convincing proof of it.

I'm not a scientist, but I'm amazed at what counts for evidence during these so-called investigations.

Motes of dust filmed on night vision are "spectral orbs," and low-frequency ambient noises caught on tape are voices from beyond.

I don't blame the average person for not knowing that our brains are wired to detect patterns, sometimes even where no pattern exists. That's cutting-edge neuroscience. But you'd think expert paranormal investigators would be familiar with the concept. Then they'd be more skeptical about what they see and hear.

Or maybe critical thinking is a special skill.

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