Saturday, June 14, 2008

I Don't Want To Come Back As A Splotch With A Speech Impediment

As might be expected, I have spent much time recently wondering what will happen to me when I die. For centuries, the ignorant and superstitious have sought answers to that question in religion. However, I am an educated modern man of science and logic, and so I instead seek those answers in cable television reality programs, specifically Most Haunted, Paranormal State, and, of course, Ghost Hunters.

All three purport to be true accounts of actual scientific investigations of hauntings and other paranormal activities conducted by a team of investigators using instruments such as electromagnetic field detectors, infrared viewers, digital videocams and recorders, etc. Much of each episode takes place in the dark, filmed with night vision camera, as members of the investigative teams take turns saying things to each other like "did you hear that?" and "I can't believe what I just saw!" All claim to have captured evidence of hauntings, including photos and audio recordings of actual ghosts. And, since it's on TV, I have to assume it's all true.

The granddaddy of these programs is Most Haunted, a British import airing on the Travel Channel that is an absolute hoot; it's like an episode of Monty Python set in a haunted house. The star is Yvette Fielding, a blonde whose main investigative talent is apparently the ability to project a look of wide-eyed astonishment at all times. Her partner is David Wells, a medium with a gift for telling outlandish stories with a straight face. They are assisted by a rotating crew of investigators. Their night investigative sequences are filmed with a night vision camera that gives everything and everyone a Hulk-like greenish hue, and their eyes glow like a cat's. Most of their investigations take place in the UK, although they have done a couple of road trips to America.

I first came upon Most Haunted during a trip they did to America to conduct an investigation in San Diego. I was idly channel surfing and recognized the location as the Old Town section of San Diego, so I immediately stopped to watch what they were doing in the city I lived in for over a decade. Within minutes, I was laughing hysterically. Some of the errors were perhaps excusable for a British cast and crew unfamiliar with American geography-----I'm sure the citizens of Miami or Hilo would've been surprised to learn San Diego is the southernmost city in the United States!------while others were pure bullshit. At one point David Wells went into a "trance" and said he was hearing the spirit cries from warriors who died in a great battle at that site. . . . . . . a battle to the death between the Navajos and Comanches. . . . . . and by that time I was laughing so hard my sides hurt. David seemed so sincere and convincing that I'm sure his intended UK audience had no idea the battle he was describing was just as ridiculous as the notion of a battle to the death between Vikings and Mongols in the countryside of Kent.

Much of the "evidence" presented on Most Haunted looks really cheesy, like moving lights that look exactly like those I can produce using a laser pointer in a dark room. Moving "blobs" they capture with their cameras are just like those I get when an insect or mote of dust moves in front of my digital camera. They also have seances in the dark where tables, chairs, etc., move, but those are the type of cheap spiritualist tricks exposed by Harry Houdini decades ago. All in all, Most Haunted is profoundly unconvincing, and I suspect they know they are fooling no one but the most hopelessly credulous. Like professional wrestling, their attitude seems to be that it's your own fault if you believe any of it, and I can't argue with that. Oh well, it's good fun just the same.

I'm a little more concerned about Paranormal State, an A&E series about an investigative team composed of students from Penn State University. One thing I dislike about this series is how all the cases they investigate seem to involve people with obvious mental problems-----if someone tells me they hear voices when they're alone at home, my first reaction is it's far more likely a case of schizophrenia than a haunting------and I think such people are being exploited by the Paranormal State crew. The leader of the investigators, Ryan Buell, is an aspiring screenwriter and----by remarkable coincidence!----many of the cases "investigated" borrow several elements from The Exorcist and other movies about demonic possession. In fact, some episodes have involved bringing in a supposed exorcist to "cleanse" a house or building of evil spirits, and the people involved seem sincere when they claim the "hauntings" are now over. The cynic in me says those people feel better because they got what they really wanted-----namely, someone to listen sympathetically to their outlandish stories and put them on television, briefly making them famous-----instead of feeling better because they no longer have demons in their house. But what do I know??

The evidence gathered and presented on Paranormal State is flimsy and laughable, leaning heavily on electronic voice phenomena (EVP) recordings of sounds supposedly made by ghostly entities. Given how easy it is to fake such evidence-----especially when those EVPs fit in so well with the narrative of a given episode-----it's impossible to take them seriously absent corroborating evidence. And the Paranormal State crew are not a warm-and-fuzzy bunch; they're a grim and humorless group, making the series feel like a cross between the old Scooby Doo cartoon series and the 1920s film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Yes, Paranormal State is indeed creepy, but not for the reasons they intended. As you can tell, this is my least favorite of the three shows.

Ah, but Ghost Hunters is another story! This is the most popular series on the SciFi network for a lot of reasons, with the biggest one being the cast. It concerns the adventures of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS----get it??), which is headed by a pair of Roto Rooter plumbers named Jason
Hawes and Grant Wilson. Jason is a beefy, balding guy who looks pretty scary all by himself; you could see him playing the role of a serial killer in some made-for-TV movie. Grant is a thinner, more normal looking guy. They are aided by Steve Gonsalves, their "technology specialist" who sets up their equipment and leads analysis of collected evidence. I can't help but be reminded of the cast of Gilligan's Island, with Jason being the Skipper, Grant being The Professor, and the often hapless Steve being Gilligan. They are assisted by other TAPS members who change with each season.

The big draw of Ghost Hunters is their pseudoscientific use of gadgets and technology in a Ghostbusters-like fashion. They show up at a supposedly haunted place like they've been on a buying frenzy at Fry's Electronics. Electromagnetic field detectors! Night vision cameras! Infrared-sensing cameras! Digital voice recorders! Computers and more computers! One of the highlights of each investigation is the painstaking assembly and disassembly of their monitoring equipment and cameras, and each episode is certain to include segments where they detect magnetic field variations, glowing blobs visible only in infrared, disembodied voices, and other evidence of paranormal activity. Ghost Hunters is the only show of the three that relies more on documented "evidence" than personal testimony, and it really throws down the gauntlet in showing images of what seem to be actual, no-shit ghosts and apparitions. In fact, what really got me hooked on this program was an episode investigating a supposedly haunted lighthouse in Saint Augustine, Florida, in which a shadowy, ghost-like figure was videoed climbing a spiral staircase inside the lighthouse. As they say in poker, that was an "all in" moment which left no middle ground: either they were skillfully perpetrating a very convincing hoax or they had captured an actual ghost on film.

Sadly for me and my chances in the afterlife, I think they were just skillfully perpetrating a very convincing hoax.

I'm of the school that says that extraordinary claims must be backed by extraordinary evidence, and this is where Ghost Hunters really falls short despite its veneer of being scientific. The biggest problem is what the legal field calls the "chain of custody of evidence." All of the video, audio, and other evidence collected by TAPS remains in the possession of TAPS before and after airing, and there is no independent third-party review of the evidence-----nor, for that matter, is there a skeptic or other independent person not convinced of the reality of ghosts on the TAPS team. In other words, there is no way to make sure their evidence has not been altered or created (and to alter a digital video or audio file is ridiculously easy these days) and TAPS goes into investigations with the presupposition that ghosts and other paranormal phenomena are indeed real. Both Jason and Grant are writers of science fiction and fantasy books and screenplays, which strongly suggests both possess the ability to create very convincing fictional scenarios. The array of equipment used by TAPS looks impressive, but the evidence they gather with it is much less so. Electromagnetic fields vary throughout a house or buildings for very non-paranormal reasons (like the fact that any wire carrying an electric current, like ordinary house wiring, will be surrounded by a magnetic field!) as can temperatures, etc. The EVP evidence might initially seem impressive, but the human mind inherently tries to find order in random sounds and can easily interpret varying background noise as words (this is something I know very well from my ham radio activities; it is very easy to mis-identify a weak station barely above the noise level). And any audio editing program like SoundForge will allow you to "creatively edit" a digital audio file.

Some web sites have done a good job of showing how the TAPS crew misinterprets data or worse. One of the best known episodes of Ghost Hunters featured what was supposedly the apparition of a Civil War soldier revealed in infrared, but this has been convincingly debunked (at least to my satisfaction) by others. More serious are cases where it appears TAPS may have altered evidence or willfully perpetrated an outright fraud. (Note: in an earlier version of this post, I said Grant was an amateur magician and this would be a big help in perpetrating a fraud. A reader e-mailed me to say this way incorrect, and the amaturr magician was a former TAPS member named Dave Tango, who participated in investigations in earlier seasons of the program. I appreciate the correction!) Numerous viewers, including me, have also noted how many of the EVP recordings sound nothing like what the TAPS investigators claim they sound like; an EVP the TAPS crew claims is saying "Get out of here!" sounds more like "Goortrifffahhhchah" to me.

So I'm depressed. Is it my fate to spend eternity merely as a beet-red splotch, visible only in an infrared camera, mumbling unintelligibly, pursued in the night by a team of investigative plumbers?? Should I abandon my quest to understand the afterlife through science and instead seek solace in religion, even if it means forgoing the worship of graven images, an activity I find greatly relaxing??

Just in case there is a way for the dead to communicate with the living, I have given Di a two word phrase that will identify me as the spirit responsible for uttering it or otherwise making myself known. If you think you have made contact with me after my demise, tell Di what I supposedly said to you. She'll know if it was really me.