Can you make a good paranormal-themed TV show?

A recent discussion with a person who pitches ideas for TV shows got me thinking about what a solid, informative, program about the paranormal would look like. The bottom line… it would be really difficult and producers are likely not willing to take a risk on it.

The slew of paranormal-themed “reality” televisions shows is petering out, thank goodness. It’s been done to death. One could argue it’s been both a boon and a bust to ghost hunting – prompting thousands of people to get off their couch and try it themselves while promoting baseless ideas about hauntings, demon infestations, and nonsense methods of how to “detect” them. Similar can be said about Bigfoot/cryptozoology-themed shows that more quickly slipped into the comedic satire realm (e.g., Mountain Monsters, though I’m not quite sure if they are kidding or really that absurd. See Poe’s Law.) Author Nick Redfern took a position that TV shows had ruined cryptozoology (Mysterious Universe, May 15, 2018). My alternate position was that rampant hoaxing, hyping of terrible evidence, and implausible claims and explanations had rendered the field non-credible independent of any TV depictions. Yet, TV certainly doesn’t help.

There are hopefuls out there who pitch ideas for paranormal TV series to producers. And, from what they tell me, these producers still want an intense and flashy (contrived) product that in no way reflects a credible investigation.

Can a good TV show even be produced? I’m doubtful. A good investigation requires a careful plan for research that may take months to set up and undertake. There will be a lot of waiting, testing, retesting, correction for errors, and attempts to eliminate other factors. This isn’t compelling TV viewing. The main problem with such situations, though, is that it’s highly likely that the cause of the weird experience at hand is not clear-cut but complex and messy. Perhaps the witness is experiencing health issues or is mentally unstable introducing thorny ethical issues into the conclusions.

Most of these shows exhibit sloppy writing and lazy research as they are done on the cheap. They aim to appeal to the widest sample audience which is uncritical, looking to be entertained, and who feel better about the show when their personal beliefs or leanings are played out within the content. The shows are edited to be exciting and emotional. There is no doubt that some evidence on them has been faked and much more has been enhanced for effect, which is dishonest to the audience.

If pressed on what could be done different, I can suggest some options. We currently are missing humorous but sharp takes on paranormal topics. Viewers across the belief spectrum might appreciate that. I’ve had requests to focus more on the process of investigation to show how to think through examining a claim. Though debunking is frowned upon, there are often genuinely interesting factors involved that viewers would find surprising and fascinating. There are also niches available to discuss urban legends, folklore, and general Fortean phenomena. Experts would be more willing to participate in smartly written and well-balanced shows. As it stands today in our fake documentary-style cable landscape, there is no benefit and too much risk to appearing on today’s TV offerings.

Even if a new and improved useful format was proposed, it appears Hollywood is loathed to greenlight it. They want simple answers and dramatic results that fit into an hour time slot. They only wish to pay crews to stay at a location for no more than a few days and move on. They want action, charismatic presenters, and I’m pretty sure they want the paranormal cause to be promoted, not debunked. Budget constraints mean they jazz up their efforts with slick graphics and repeat snippets of the limited content repeatedly in the same episode. Ultimately this model is unsatisfying to even mildly discerning viewers.

A few months ago, I was contacted by a documentarian who wanted me to talk on camera about a location that was deemed to be haunted. He was interested in my credentials as a geologist to discuss the Stone Tape theory of environmental recording and playback that some ghost hunters think is an explanation for residual-type hauntings. I was unimpressed by his background knowledge for a start. Then, once I took a quick look at the setting and saw that they investigators involved were doing the same useless EVPs, EMF readings and night vision filming, I had no desire to be involved with it. When I told him there is nothing to the Stone Tape idea and that it would be unethical for me, as a licensed geologist, to risk discussing such a thing (when I secretly feared creative editing would change my words around), he broke off discussions. Entertainment types aim for entertainment. No surprise. They won’t undertake rigorous research methods as they aren’t conducive to the budget and, apparently, that’s not what they think the audience expects from such shows.

Diverse audiences can’t be universally satisfied. But it is short-sighted and ridiculous for production companies to continue to appeal to the lesser educated audiences with formulaic, inflated depictions of paranormal experiences and anomalous experiences. There are dozens of examples of deep and complicated programming on today that make people think and challenge their beliefs. We need more of that. A good portion of the public, I’d argue, would appreciate a step up from the Dude-Bro-Dumb Ghost Adventures. For example, I would LOVE to see a return of Fortean TV or Nature’s Weirdest Events that featured real-life strangeness. I’d even entertain a reboot of That’s Incredible as long as it didn’t have silly hosts or promoted pseudoscience and nonsense claims as true. Add in some commentary from credible experts and I think you’d have a great show.

But what do I know? I don’t even have cable TV anymore. You can probably understand why.

Opinions welcome. Can there be a good hour-long series about the paranormal?

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7 thoughts on “Can you make a good paranormal-themed TV show?

  1. I keep thinking of ways to make the financing happen, then I backspace over the comment because the tone is too cynical.

    All I can do is offer to help write it. Karl Popper — with jokes! That would be my angle.

  2. I believe your right.
    Iim a member of Native Paranormal Seekers, as a Native, Paranormal has been a part of our culture, traditions and spirituality for 1,000’s of years.
    We believe their is more out there than just ghost/spirit and angels/demons.
    We investigate not only paranormal, but supernatural, the grey area people seem to be afraid of.
    Debunking should be half the evidence any paranormal team, that should be investigated.
    If everyone doesn’t all agree that it’s paranormal, then it is considered a normal occurrence.
    We’re Native American and everyone automaticly believes we assume everything is Supernatural, but that is further than the truth. Natives first instinct is ito doubt, because of the past treatment of my people, we now don’t trust everything we see.
    There are so many paranormal groups hunting ghost, we see the danger. Supernatural is nothing to laugh at, Investigating the paranormal is something that should be respected and not chosen on a whim to do because your are bored or just because you had a experience or want to try, this is serious stuff!
    Our group want to show the world these Beings are real, to show there are more than just ghost or spirits, Angels or demons, we want to use our traditions with the old way of “magic”, of using prayer and herbs, create energy to coax or bring out Supernatural and fight evil.
    Get back to the basics of communicating with the paranormal, even the Supernatural likes humor, because laughter creates positive energy.

  3. I’m a member of Native Paranormal Seekers, we became paranormal researchers 10 years ago to show people how to investigate the way it should be done correctly.
    We seen there were so many people interested in investigating or hunting ghost, because they had a experience or just curiosity to experience anything paranormal or just plain want to be scared, but they are forgetting these spirits or ghost used to be people once, that in order for Supernatural is to reveal itself to you, you first have to show them respect.
    As a Native Supernatural has been a part of our Spirituality and Traditions for 1000’s of years, we still practice working with energy, herbs, oils and minerals. We know the power of prayer really does work.
    We are sceptical of everything because of our past, so to investigate even our evidence is always a afterthought, we don’t always believe everything we see.
    These things are what make a Native a perfect, seasoned, paranormal investigator.
    With our paranormal group we investigate more than your typical investigator, than the ghost/spirit or angel/demon, there is a whole great big grey area, no one has tapped into, therefore we will be that paranormal group that captures the best evidence.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Tonya. This post was about portraying paranormal topics on TV shows. Please see my other posts for my thoughts on general paranormal investigation.

    But I have some comments on your comments.

    First, is what is considered “paranormal” the same as what Native Americans experienced throughout their history? I don’t quite understand how spiritual beings can be investigated in an objective manner. If beings are supernatural, that is, they do not obey the laws of nature, they can’t be studied scientifically and I would wonder how they can be studied at all except by those specially trained in a religious frame. I may not be using the words “paranormal” and “supernatural” in the same way as you are.

    I agree that supernatural belief is nothing to laugh at. However, I have seen many paranormal investigators that are crude and disrespectful, they claim expertise they do not have, or they claim to be scientific when they are not. I have no respect for them or what they do. I also, however, see no evidence anyone has been hurt by ghosts or been actually possessed by demons. Stories don’t count for much because there is a great amount of imagination, interpretation and outright invention in many of these stories. On the other hand, I don’t have much to say about how a person wishes to interpret their experience. I’m just not going to conclude much from it because I can’t.

    Finally, I don’t agree with your conclusions that prayer works or ghosts are beings like us or that these things are real as you say they are. We simply don’t know that for sure, though people have many of their own personal ideas. That’s fine for yourself but it is not fine to declare that you know these things.

    If your goal is to show the beings are real, you aren’t doing an investigation, are you? You are trying to prove your belief. That’s something very different. See my other posts here and my book Scientifical Americans for more on objective paranormal investigation and thoughts on what groups are doing.

    Please only reply once. The comments are moderated and take some time for me to check and approve.

  5. I like the idea, but I admit that I’m not sure if a show like that would work well or would be “exciting” enough to stay on the air or even get picked up by a network in the first place. It would basically be a group of skeptics going to allegedly haunted locations, discovering that of course they aren’t haunted, and explaining why they aren’t to the audience. The reasons people think places are haunted are generally the same regardless of the location (they get worked up and imagine or misinterpret things, mental illness, natural/normal physical occurrences that are interpreted as supernatural, reactions to mold or other toxic materials, etc.), so I don’t see them doing episode after episode of that. I’ve seen ghost hunting shows exploit people who are clearly mentally ill, but those people are in need of professional medical help, not another team of people with camera to exploit them for another show.

    It might work if they added interest by talking about the folklore and ghost stories–maybe complete with dramatic reenactments–and then going through and debunking it. I’d also like to see a group like this talk in-depth about the pseudoscience of the methods and equipment of most ghost hunters (or “ghost pokers” as I like to call them) and why they don’t prove anything. While anyone can look it up themselves online, it’s something I’d like to see disseminated on TV because too many people take it as fact because they saw it on a “reality” TV show.

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