On Ghosts and the Hunting Thereof
We are once again on the cusp of October, and we all know what that means: all the good Halloween candy is already sold out and the only costumes left at Walmart are the counterfeit superhero get-ups that rip apart at the merest stretch of the fabric and bear names like “Wealthy Flying Robot Metal Man” and “Sticky Thrower Arachnid Boy.” Of course, these costumes must be dug out of the clearance bin, where they were thrown by store employees just after Labor Day to make room for Christmas merchandise—itself now nearly depleted.
Mercifully, television is not as quick as retail to clear out seasonal stock, and those of us stuck eating stale Russell Stover peanut butter cups as we wear our frayed “Celibate Space Wizard with Glow Sword” costumes may still partake in the supernatural-themed avalanche of consumerism that marks October. Commercials for Halloween specials and horror movie marathons already fill our crisp September airwaves, and when the clock strikes midnight this Friday, many of our favorite channels will begin to channel the dead. If you had a dollar for every time the term “spooktacular” is uttered on television in October, you’d be able to buy some decent Halloween candy next summer.
What I am most excited for is the spate of new cable television ghost hunting shows that will air throughout the month. For the unaware reader, there is an entire subgenre of reality television dedicated to the investigation of ghosts, ghouls, specters, phantasms, and ectoplasmic entities of all makes and models. Shows like Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters have proven themselves popular, or at best, profitable—enough to have aired many, many seasons.
These shows, at least the American variety, are nearly indistinguishable from one another in form: a ragtag crew of investigators with dubious scientific qualifications amble about old buildings at night with the lights off and their cameras rolling, calling out to empty corridors and dust-covered rooms in hopes a bored apparition will deign to respond by manipulating the furniture. They haul in and erect all manner of ghost hunting accoutrements as well. These electronics are designed to capture “heat signatures” and “voice phenomenon,” phrases technical and ungainly enough that they must be valid science.
It would be maddening to be a ghost, I think; you sit around waiting for centuries for someone to discover your buried treasure or avenge your murder or what have you, but the only reason people pop in to see you is to wave camcorders and microphones in your face and demand you rearrange the dining set.
My enjoyment of these shows is predicated on their uninhibited lunacy. When I say “investigators with dubious scientific qualifications,” I am being optimistic. The head honcho of Ghost Adventures is a former Las Vegas wedding DJ, and the Ghost Hunters team is lead by a licensed plumber. I have doubts how many of these teams have members with degrees from accredited academic institutions. There’s really no scientific, philosophical, or religious basis for their wild theories and methodologies. In fact, each new ghost hunting series seems to adopt its investigative practices merely because that’s how every other ghost hunting show does it. The amount of circular reasoning is spooky. Do ghosts have heat signatures? Well, of course they do! Our thermal camera caught a heat signature, which must be a ghost because ghosts have heat signatures. QED.
My favorite piece of evidence presented in these ghost hunting shows is what they term “electronic voice phenomena,” or the voices of ghosts caught on recording equipment. The way EVPs work is this: they ask an empty room some questions, turn on their voice recorders, and play back the static they record. The static crackles and bursts and pops (as static is wont to do), and the investigators hold it up to their ears as they listen to the noise over and over again until someone decides that a particular crackle sounds like a ghost saying something ghostly like “murder” or “why do you want this couch moved so badly.” The investigators then present this as unqualified evidence of ghosts at the end of the episode. Strangely, not one investigator has decided this is evidence that the furniture is speaking to them.
The EVP aspects of these shows is particularly amusing to someone who, for several years, listened for voices in static at the behest of the federal government. I worked in signals intelligence, and I listened to static all day, five to six days a week, for years. Your brain is designed to pick something recognizable out of noise, and let me tell you: your brain can easily find something that sounds human whether or not it’s really there at all. Just this past week I had to cover my head with a pillow as I slept because my mind kept turning the whirr of a box fan into the sound of my sick daughter crying. This is proof the brain makes connections with the familiar, not that ghosts exist. The same goes for the majority of evidence these shows proffer to the willing viewer. It is not evidence that ghosts exist so much as evidence that the investigators want ghosts to exist.
However, as much as I like to make fun of these shows, all of this actually presents something of a problem. How does a person know whether anything supernatural is true? It strikes me that there are people who watch these shows and accept the evidence given, no matter how specious and flimsy. In such cases, how does one distinguish between proof of a hotel haunted by spirits and a chapel haunted by the Spirit? I doubt turning on a thermal camera during a prayer meeting will show us the heat signature of the third member of the Trinity. Nor will we capture an EVP of Jesus after the pastor lifts his eyes to the ceiling and says, “Lord, speak to us.”
Some may be tempted to say, “Well, it’s true because the Bible says it’s true.” It’s true because the Bible says it is, and we know that because the Bible is true! QED. The argument couldn’t be less convincing on logical grounds than if a former Las Vegas wedding DJ made it. Christian apologetics is, of course, far more robust than this, and we can rely on things like historicity of documents and the limits of modern epistemology to make the case that believing in God is not as preposterous as it might prima facie seem to skeptics. Apologetics, however, can be taxing to study, and I suspect less of it trickles down to the congregation than we’d like to believe.
There’s likely enough material on the subject of faith and paranormal reality television to cover an entire book, and far more than to cover in a brief internet post. For today, I simply wanted to share my unfortunate epiphany that while I delight in scoffing at the absurdity of ghost hunting TV series, doubtless there are many who would receive any evidence I give for the Christian faith with the same. Watching these shows does make me guarded about epistemology and the problems of what can be known and how it can be known. To be honest, I’m not convinced my own theories and authorities are as safe from mockery as I’d like to think. Modern ghost hunters have the authority of plumbers and DJs. Early Christians had the authority of fishermen and (even worse!) women.
Does that even matter? I suppose in the grand scheme of things it might not. We are called to speak truth with charity, to proclaim a miraculous as inconceivable in antiquity as it is today—and no, the bodily resurrection of some dead provincial convict wasn’t something people were prone to believe back then. In the end, what I take away from these paranormal reality shows is that the claims of the Christian faith are indeed ludicrous. I still believe them, of course, but I will do so in good humor and a heightened awareness of just how outlandish they seem.
Photo courtesy of Eugene Kim from Flickr Creative Commons.