We all watch stupid shit. Although terms like “golden age” and “peak TV” have been thrown around quite a bit in the last few years, referring to the acclaimed offerings of HBO, AMC, Netflix, et al., sometimes you just want to look at garbage. I’m sure there are people with advanced degrees and high-paying jobs who get through the day just to race home to their tastefully decorated domiciles to gorge on Real Housewives on their DVR.
Me? I’m hooked on paranormal shows. And thanks to the wealth of cable channels, I can feed my addiction on a pretty much constant basis. It’s only a matter of time before there’s an all-paranormal channel. (Destination America comes close, but it’s been having audio problems the last few days. And I’m on my summer staycation! I’m almost ready to put a bullet through the screen, Elvis-style, because the sound keeps dropping when I’m trying to watch Monsters & Mysteries in America.) If there’s someone wandering around in an old abandoned hospital, turning the screen green with their infrared cameras, and asking each other “did you hear that?”…then I want to watch them doing it.
I don’t believe a second of it, of course. But that wasn’t always the case. Where did my abiding interest in this subject come from?
A much younger Holy Bee had quite a scholarly interest in the paranormal, and took it pretty seriously. Maybe because by studying it, I could control my fear of it. I was the kind of kid who always slept with his bedroom door open and the hall light on, when I wasn’t actually bringing my Garfield sleeping bag onto the floor of my parents’ bedroom after a particularly unsettling episode of In Search Of. ISO, hosted by Leonard Nimoy, was the first TV show to seriously investigate mysterious phenomena. Running from 1977 to 1982, it popped up in syndication on Sunday afternoons a lot.
My earliest recollection of a non-Halloween “true” ghost story was my grandmother relating a tale involving a friend or relative who late one night observed, through a bedroom window, a spectral woman roaming her front yard and gradually fading from sight. She wasn’t telling the story to entertain or frighten me. She was matter-of-factly telling it to someone else when she thought I was already asleep on the daybed in the living room. That did quite a number on me.
Another big subcategory of the paranormal is cryptozoology — “hidden animals.” Bigfoot/Sasquatch, Yeti, Loch Ness Monster, etc. My first major exposure to this was an old 1970s documentary Bigfoot: The Mysterious Monster, which I saw on TV while staying up way too late when I was about seven. Hosted and narrated by a Very Serious Peter Graves, it was full of dramatic recreations of Bigfoot encounters and presented everything as bona-fide fact. I knew I was watching re-enactments, but the Bigfoot costume that the special effects department created for that low-budget doc joined my grandmother’s front-yard ghost in my Nightmare File.
(For some reason, I had little to no interest in the third major area of the paranormal — UFOs.)
The local library was about six blocks away from my house, and I pedaled my bike there a lot during summer vacations (scrupulously mashing the crosswalk button at the lone busy intersection that bisected the journey.) The children’s section was in the basement, and boasted powerful air-conditioning and several beanbag chairs. They also had a robust selection of paranormal books for kids like me, who ate this stuff up. It’s still a thriving realm of children’s publishing, if Amazon is anything to go by. Ghost stuff was in the 133 section of the Dewey Decimal System, cryptozoology in the random catch-all section of 001. A lot of them were by a guy named Daniel Cohen, who is probably responsible for many grade-school bookworms’ sleepless nights. When I exhausted the children’s section (which took awhile — I had no problem re-reading and re-re-reading), I ventured upstairs and nosed through the adult books on the topic. By the time I was thirteen, I had a subscription to the Time-Life book series Mysteries of the Unknown.
As I grew into my teens, this particular hobby went on the backburner, although I would still occasionally pick up a Hanz Holzer paperback.
TV didn’t provide a lot of programming in this area in the late 80s/early 90s. The old In Search Of re-runs had finally been put out to pasture. Oh sure, occasionally Robert Stack would tell a ghost story on Unsolved Mysteries (aficionados remember to this day the famous “General Wayne’s Inn” episode with the disembodied head of the Hessian soldier), but the show seemed mostly preoccupied with murders, disappearances, and miraculous recoveries. TV — even cable — was mostly a paranormal wasteland.
Then along came a show on the Fox network called Sightings, presented in a straightforward “newsmagazine” format. I didn’t actually catch this show until the end of its run in 1996, but this was the first show I can recall that actually showed footage of “paranormal investigators” plying their trade. It was the first time I heard an “EVP” (electronic voice phenomenon, where an audio recording device is left running to capture voices that may not be audible to the human ear.) Hearing those ghostly voices on that tape reduced me once again to the quivering seven-year-old watching a cheesy Bigfoot movie. The gates slowly began opening on paranormal cable shows in the late 90s. The History Channel’s Haunted History became a favorite of mine.
In those days, I would generally get off work after midnight, and my girlfriend at the time — I was her ride home — was often even later. I’d wait out in the parking lot, listening to the paranormal call-in show Coast to Coast AM on the car radio. The show, which still runs weeknights from 1AM to 5AM, was known for taking unscreened calls, and for host Art Bell’s patient acceptance of whatever nonsense the caller was spewing. 90% of the callers were obviously bugshit insane tinfoil-hat conspiracy froot loops, but there was occasionally a genuinely spine-chilling story.
Speaking of stories, in the early 2000s I got hooked on the “submit your true ghost story” website theshadowlands.net. There was some great stuff on there, particularly the earlier entries, but it has a huge archive, and the webmaster does not have time to copy-edit the submissions. It became wearisome plowing through submissions that eschewed punctuation entirely (a whole story would appear as one long sentence), were screaming in ALL CAPS, or had so many spelling errors that it was illegible. Also, as one works backwards from the original postings to more recent stuff, it becomes clear that more and more of the stories are submitted by over-dramatic 13- to 17-year-olds.
The Haunted History style ghost docs got in a bit of a rut after a while. There would be ominous music, some spooky tilted-angled shots of the location, some talking head interviews with historians and witnesses, and actor re-creations of the incidents being discussed. All getting very ho-hum, but in the early 2000s, a new formula arrived to shake up the world of paranormal cable shows: Find a creepy location, give a bunch of clueless volunteers some cameras and recording equipment, then lock the poor schnooks in the location overnight. MTV’s Fear and ABC Family’s Scariest Places on Earth were definitely audience-goosers. There was a lot of loud music stings, and screaming by the participants (made up of whole families on Scariest, and rock-stupid Real World types on Fear). But the “evidence” they captured on their equipment was even more dubious than usual. And the scariness factor was pretty low, since I remember watching Fear reruns with my son Cade, who was about five at the time, and he found the whole thing laughable. The scariest part of the show was the theme song, Godsmack’s “Voodoo.”
MTV’s Fear was a powerfully dumb television experience, but I’ll credit it with starting the tradition of family bonding over paranormal shows, and that may explain my ongoing affection for them. Especially once the focus shifted from lame stunt shows to more “serious” investigative shows. When my sons were a little older, I became a single dad. Ghost Hunters was appointment TV for us. We considered it the most “credible” of the shows, mostly because they did not rely on hammy psychics, and sometimes had an episode where they found nothing at all. But we didn’t limit ourselves to the good folks at TAPS — we would gorge ourselves on MonsterQuest, Destination Truth, Fact or Faked, Ghost Lab, Paranormal State, and whatever else we could find.
We generally did not sit through what we considered the nadir of the genre, Celebrity Ghost Stories, having no interest in the eerie experiences of Corey Feldman or the guy who played Peter Brady. Another loser was A Haunting, which consisted entirely of witness interviews and re-enactments (no “real” footage.) And each episode had a tiresome formula: 1) family moves into new house, 2) one family member begins experiencing odd things, 3) other family members don’t believe her (it’s always the wife or daughter), 4) events escalate and the family becomes believers, 5) the haunting is always determined to be “demonic,” and 6) the situation is always resolved by a blessing from a priest or kooky New Age shaman. If the other shows were hokum, A Haunting took it to a new low. We made it through an episode and a half of Finding Bigfoot before deciding everyone involved was obnoxious and off-putting.
Ghost Hunters may have been the favorite, but we also had a soft spot for the jackass antics of the spook-hunting bros on Ghost Adventures. (New episodes still airing! The narration and on-camera hosting by lead investigator Zak Bagans was always over-the-top, but nowadays his grandiose pontificating is a babbling, surreal word salad. Highly recommended.)
It wasn’t just passive viewing, either. The shows spurred discussions of religion, philosophy, life and death, empirical evidence, and the nature of belief. I was a total skeptic by then, and taught my kids to be the same way, but there may have been 5% of my mind that would think...could there be…?
It was difficult to reconcile my militant religious atheism with allowing a chance — however infinitesimal it may be — that hauntings may have a supernatural origin. If I mentally allowed for the existence of ghosts, even a tiny bit, why would I stubbornly refuse to mentally allow for the existence of a “God,” even a tiny bit? I couldn’t have it both ways.
There was a theory about ghosts that I passively accepted as a teen and young adult because it sounded satisfyingly scientific. Humans contain electrical energy in their nervous system. We’re taught in science class that energy never goes away, it just changes form. Ghosts were simply human electrical energy in altered form. Not “paranormal” at all, just a weird electromagnetic phenomenon, too elusive for the rigorous type of study that would move it from “supernatural” to “natural.” I knew, deep down, that the explanation was too pat and too easy, and an actual scientist could probably dismantle it if asked, but it allowed me to maintain my atheism still get a little thrill over the spooky and unknown.
Until one day, about eight or nine years ago, a question occurred to me that finally snuffed out that last 5% — why are the ghosts that people see wearing clothes? If “ghosts” are just electrical energy of a deceased individual manifesting itself in a shadowy facsimile of its former physical form, why would their wool, cotton, and/or polyester garments re-appear along with them, sometimes right down to the buttons? There’s no “energy” in clothes. If my “logical” explanation were truly logical, each and every ghost should be naked as a jaybird. I’m sure paranormal experts have some kind of response to this, but for me, it was like running into a brick wall. My last tiny nugget of credulity crumbled to dust. The reassuring mantra of childhood is true: “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
I watch paranormal shows as nostalgic comfort viewing these days.
Everything has an explanation. We may not be aware of it at the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. I’ll relate a little story that has an explanation — but an explanation I don’t have. It’s of a cryptozoological nature. I give you The Weirdest Thing I Ever Saw.
Around the time I was eleven, we moved from town out into the country. It wasn’t far from civilization — just about twelve miles from the town we moved from, and only two miles north of the much smaller town of Knights Landing. We were right on the Sacramento River, surrounded by several acres of walnut orchard. On either side of the property were open fields used for various crops during the years I lived there. Bordering the property perpendicular to the orchard was the river road on one side and a fairly busy highway on the other (Route 113).
We did not maintain the orchard, we just rented the house on the land. Agricultural crews were around all the time, watering, spraying, harvesting, and culling the walnut trees. One early autumn evening as the sun started dipping, I was on the very edge of the orchard, playing with my Star Wars action figures on a massive pile of brush and dead wood that had been cleared out. It made a pretty good Endor for my Ewoks. I came around one side of the brush pile, glanced at the empty, plowed field occupying the next lot, and stopped in my tracks.
I swear I was looking right at a pair of Sasquatches.
Not face-to-face, of course. I would say about 350 yards from where I stood paralyzed were two hulking figures. They were sitting or squatting right in the middle of the field, facing away from me. Both appeared solidly black, with large heads, no necks, and massive, wide shoulders. Apart from a few minor head turns, they did not move. I tried to make sense of what I was seeing — why would a couple of (very large) weirdos don football pads and identical heavy black coats (it was still quite warm), then go sit in the middle of a dirt field? My interest in cryptozoology was never far from my mind, so the word “Sasquatch” occurred to me. That didn’t fit either. This was not the remote forests of the Pacific Northwest, nor the trackless swamps and bayous of the southeast (a lesser known Sasquatch habitat I had read about.) This was flat, agricultural land right in the middle of California’s north-central valley. There was some dense foliage along the river, but that was a narrow strip. Cars went by on the highway not far from the two figures, oblivious.
I processed all of this for about thirty seconds. Then I made a run for the safety of the house. I figured even if they saw me and gave chase (they gave no indication of noticing me whatsoever), my house was close enough to make it safely indoors long before they covered the distance. Even my paranormal-addled brain knew they couldn’t be Sasquatches. The area just didn’t fit the location profile. So I decided to get a second opinion.
“Dad!” I yelled as I burst through the door. “Come quick, and bring your binoculars!”
Dad decided to indulge me, got up from whatever he was doing, and grabbed his binoculars. My heart pounding in my throat, we walked back across the property to the brush pile. I was afraid they would be gone. I was afraid they wouldn’t be gone. I was really afraid they would have moved closer.
They were still there, not having budged an inch from their original position. Dad peered at them for a good long moment through the binoculars. “Well?” I asked. Dad gave kind of a dry, nervous chuckle. “It looks like a couple of big monkeys,” he said. My blood froze. Independent confirmation! I don’t really remember what happened immediately after that. I didn’t ask to look through the binoculars. Dad didn’t offer. We walked back to the house in silence. It wasn’t brought up again. The two figures never re-appeared, but it was a long time before I would venture out to play on the edge of the orchard at dusk.