Reality Bites: Ghost Adventures

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There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch all of them, one at a time.

The Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures, which I can only assume draws a somewhat smaller audience than No Reservations, begins with what is supposed to be convincing first-hand testimony from host/executive producer "Zak" Bagans.

My name is Zak Bagans. I never believed in ghosts until I came face to face with one.

Zak looks like the lead singer for Papa Roach, which is reason enough to hate him. And has apparently overcompensated for his hobbit-y last name by pumping iron and striking aggressive poses. It seems to be a hit with the ladies (more on that later), but how effective it is at riling up spooks remains to be seen.

The episode I watched was a season 4 entry about the Rolling Hills Sanitarium in Bethany, New York. Formerly known as the Genesee County Farm, a "home for homeless (how does that work?), drunkards, and the criminally insane." Sort of like Guadalupe Street in Austin during the 1980s.

This was apparently a crossover of sorts, as the "special guest investigator" was Dave Schrader, who hosts something called Paranormal State. This glut of ghost-oriented marketing is something we can blame on the Paranormal Activity movies. And all those people trying to contact Lady Di's spirit.

Formatwise, Bagans and his fellow investigators Nick Groff and Aaron Goodwin (Bagans is the non-bearded one) do a "walkthrough" of the allegedly haunted property, usually shown around by local experts or eyewitnesses (I'm not sure how it works for the entire show, but last night, at least, the eyewitnesses were almost entirely women). Afterwards, the crew goes on "lockdown," which entails three grown men performing that high school dare of staying on the haunted property overnight, complete with various ghost-detecting gadgetry, of course.

Considered the worst "work farm" in the state during the Civil War, the Genesee Farm became an infirmary, then an asylum. 1700 people are (allegedly) buried in unmarked graves on the site, which is also close to local ley lines (and if, like me, you know what those are, my sympathies). This is all according to Sharon, the far too enthusiastic owner of the property. Though whether she's excited about the possibility of paranormal encounters or basking in Zak's beefy presence is difficult to say.

Among the spirits haunting Rolling Hills are "Raymond," a child molester who still touches women visitors inappropriately, and "Roy," afflicted with giantism, who was left there by his banker father when 12 years old. Perhaps the creepiest part of the whole place is the "Christmas Room," a sadly decorated chamber where people read stories to the children's ghosts, if in fact they *are* children's ghosts and not malevolent spirits looking to lure humans to their doom. Or something.

Of particular interest to Bagans and company is Emmy, an abusive nurse who also dabbled in the Black Arts. Unsubstantiated (and you'll hear that word a lot) reports say she actually conducted ceremonies with her coven in the hospital itself.

Having gotten the niceties out of the way, this show -- like all others of its ilk -- is Grade A bullshit. We must have seen two dozen clips of "digitally enhanced audio" which supposedly captures spiritual communication (the dead apparently like to mumble). It's all suspiciously like those backward masking messages Judas Priest allegedly put on their albums; listen to it enough times -- with helpful subtitles -- and you'll hear things like "Kill Zak" too.

The lockdown itself is basically a bunch of "extreme" night vision footage with more enhanced audio (Raymond tells Zak and company to "get out," which is something we've never heard before). Oh, and Zak's specialized temperature/electromagnetic measuring device (think the PKE meter from Ghostbusters) reads "666" for good measure. Considering we're never told how this particular device works, this is hardly illuminating.

Paranormal investigator Schrader shows up with "specialized" equipment, which conveniently fails to record anything of significance, even on the radio frequencies spirits allegedly speak through. Maybe they're all busy bitching about the Texans on 1560.

My favorite part is probably when Bagans rushed to the camera to show us his goosebumps, because surely there could be no...natural cause for those (say that in your best Bill Murray voice). In fact, speaking of Ghostbusters, I think the best way to watch this show is to actually imagine Peter Venkman is narrating the whole time.

I honestly don't have a problem with Ghost Adventures, or the eleventy billion other shows like it. Bagans may be a bullshit artist, but what he's doing is a mostly harmless re-creation of creeping through abandoned houses when we were kids. I don't believe in ghosts or poltergeists or Eskimos, but I'd like to. Supernatural evil would be a lot more refreshing than the kind practiced by politicians and the clergy on an everyday basis.

And it's certainly less offensive than frauds like John Edwards, who "enhance" their flim-flammery by duping the bereaved into thinking they can communicate with their lost loved ones. Give me a bulked-up goofball with Ed Hardy jeans and an Iron Cross belt buckle playing Blair Witch Project over that any day.

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