Well, it being the day after Hallowe'en, let's talk ghosts.
Plenty of documentaries have been made about ghosts over the years; some by skeptics, some by believers. Do ghosts exist? Who can say? Certainly, there are things we can't explain and phenomena that are beyond our ken, but whether the unexplained and unexplainable are dead relatives, invisible energies or figments of our imaginations will forever be up for debate. As much as I love James "The Amazing" Randi and the fact that he's not afraid to cry "bollocks" to the so-called magicians and psychics, I feel that both he and his like are too quick to discount that which none of us understand. I can't say I blame them, there are too many charlatans out there (coughcoughJohnEdwardcoughcough) whose skills amount to little more than the power of suggestion and a technique known as cold reading. But two recent TV shows are dealing with the subject with more of a hands-on approach, and from two different sides of the argument.
The first of these - and the better of the two, imho - is the Sci Fi Channel's "Ghosthunters", in which a team of investigators use technology to try and capture video or audio of paranormal activity. What is admirable about this show is that the two main investigators travel the country to try to debunk hauntings. Yep, you read that right... they try to DEBUNK. Despite their willing band of volunteers who are quick to scream 'ghost' at every piece of dust that floats past one of their cameras, the two main men in charge try to recreate anything that they can't explain and nine times out of ten a percieved haunting has a less exciting explanation. One house had a mysterious swinging ceiling fan. Was it a ghost? Nope - it was simply vibrations when someone walked on the floor above. Another location had a disused water heater that clicked and thumped all by itself. The work of an angry spirit? Nope - it was a water heater that worked perfectly and was connected to sump pumps. Another house had a really heavy door that opened and closed by itself despite the big ol' mattress blocking it from behind. That one they had no explanation for and couldn't recreate it. Same with the unmistakably human figure that appeared on their thermal camera inside a boat. Same with the person who ran toward and fled their night vision camera. There's been some pretty crazy stuff on there, but what's the most compelling part about this show? That nine times out of ten, they don't find anything. There are stories galore and plenty of anecdotal evidence like squeaks and bumps in the course of the investigation, but unless the team find something that is entirely unexplainable or bizarre, it gets put firmly in the "Who The Hell Knows" file and the case is closed. It's the paranormal series that people like me, who are neither belivers nor skeptics, have been waiting for.
The second spooky show, Most Haunted, takes a different approach. Each location is assumed to be haunted and every bump and thump is immediately stamped "100% GHOSTS". Helping the team of sound dudes, camera dudes and a former children's TV presenter along is a psychic medium called Derek Acorah whose 2000 year old invisible spirit guide, an Ethiopian man called Sam who was his friend in a previous life, passes along information about the locations and their deceased inhbabitants. (Stop laughing, I'm not making this up) Is it real? Probably not, and recently published reports claim that the crew are responsible for most of their findings, but when you really look at the show... at no point do they claim it's real. Nowhere is there a disclaimer that tries to convince us that what we see is unedited and untampered-with. I'm not claiming that it is... alls I'm saying is that they don't deny it or claim otherwise. It's great fun though and although, like Ghosthunters, anything they do find is purely anecdotal rather than convincing, it makes for some fun viewing, particularly when they run screaming from a room because they *think* they see something.
Since being picked up by The Travel Channel here in the US, the show has picked up a cult band of fans, most of whom will vehemently defend the show, the psychic and their findings. And that's OK. We all need something to believe in. The show has been such a hit for the channel that they carried their most recent live outing, in a hunt for Jack The Ripper. The "Most Haunted Live" shows follow an easy format. A large audience clap enthusiastically at the start of the show, at breaks and at the end but serve no other real purpose, whilst the team report live from a location and several semi-competant presenters . As I watched the 4-night Jack The Ripper special which came to... well, I was going to say 'conclusion', but that would imply a big finish. It just sort of... ended, mid-ouija. As it came to an end (hey, that works) I couldn't help but recall the notorius Ghostwatch, a BBC drama disguised as a live investigative show. The viewer emails and text messages suggesting that some paranormal activity was occuring in the homes of the viewers as a result of watching the show are almost identical in both "Ghostwatch" and "Most Haunted". The psychic residents spouted simiar theories, as did the resident skeptics in both. If the "Most Haunted" team got possessed and injured by the spirits, I'd cry out and out 'copycat', but - as far as we know - they all escaped unscathed.
As I write this, a strange breeze has whipped up around my hands (I'm not kidding) that feels somewhat frosty, like there's an outside door open. Is it the ceiling fan whipping up a cross-breeze that I didn't notice before, or is there the spirit of a long-deceased English teacher come to critique my spelling and grammar...?