I was living overseas and returned to the States for a summer visit in 2007. It was nice to be home, to be back in the South. I missed bagels. North Carolina was a welcomed respite from the sand scorched Persian Gulf.
My hairdresser cousin, Diana, was cutting my flaxen locks. While I sat in her chair with hair damp yet enthusiastic for a trim, she asked,
“Do you miss American TV over there? Do you get any good shows in the Middle East?”
As she took an inch off the bottom, I responded,
“Nope. I don’t watch TV, regardless of what country I’m living in.”
She sighed, “I just love my shows. Gotta have my shows.” Her eyes squinted a bit. Diana’s CVS reading glasses could not penetrate the depths of my split ends.
Then she paused to open a cupboard at her station. In her hand was the DVD of some TV program. On the case were two average looking men in blue Roto-Rooter shirts. One was bald, and the other looked nerdy.
“You’ve got to watch this! I bought the whole first season. You’ll love it!” she exclaimed, quite brilliantly, as she handed me the case.
“What is it?” I inquired, hoping her answer would be more engrossing than the image on the DVD. Diana organized her nightlife around her shows. TV was a nonentity for me. I wondered why anyone would watch something with plumbers and creepy houses.
I was a bit of an elitist when it came to my entertainment choices.
“Watch it. You’ll love it,” she uttered between scissor snaps.
Dear Reader, that is what I did.
Looking back, that was probably the most influential haircut of my life.
Ghost stories are part of cultural folklore, even if one does not believe that ghosts are real. Specters do not need to exist to have meaning. I grew up in the rural South on a dirt road that dead-ended at the oldest graveyard in the county. My childhood was a cross between a Steven King novel and a Truman Capote story. Of course, anyone from below the Mason-Dixon Line knows that family histories, ghost stories, and the Holy Spirit fill in the blanks of Southern childhood.
My cousin, Diana, still cuts hair in a small North Carolina town. She can attest that everybody has a ghost story, or knows somebody with a ghost story. Diana has heard many such accounts in that chair of hers. (It is almost like that space is some sort of beauty parlor portal).
There is nothing unusual about having an experience or a haint, as some people call it. I have had several. The first occurred where I grew up. One took place at 2 am in a Manhattan apartment, and a few fell my way in foreign countries. It never occurred to me to intellectually engage these experiences. The events were always mystified, creepy, and somehow external to the real world. Besides, I was too busy being married with a blended family and moving around the globe to really invest in anything other than my immediate obligations. That was, of course, until my cousin Diana put season one of Ghost Hunters in my hand.
I cannot really explain why I found the show fascinating. TV was not my thing. I was living in an oil rich country in the Persian Gulf, hanging out with ambassadors’ wives and expatriates. The paranormal was an interest, but not a pressing one.
Ghost Hunters was the first time that I had encountered a deductive, systematic approach to understanding this type of phenomena. Of course, I now know parapsychologists have studied hauntings with academic rigor for decades, but this whole concept of paranormal investigation was completely novel to me. Ghost Hunters asserted that this interest did not have to be all woo-woo; there was a procedure and critical thinking approach to understanding the paranormal. And, as the show pointed out best in those early seasons, there was often an alternative, non-paranormal explanation.
For reasons I did not understand at the time, I really wanted to try this for myself.
I know I am not the only one. The show debuted in October of 2004, and millions of Americans have since tuned into Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters International, Paranormal State, and Ghost Adventurers. Some viewers decided that they also wanted to try out paranormal investigation. It is not just Americans; more investigators are popping up around the world. This ghost hunting business has become globalized. I have an idea why so many people have responded to paranormal reality TV, and that discussion is included in my forthcoming book.
For now, I want to explain why I do it, and the journey that led me to this moment.
Here is how it happened: That evening after the haircut, I put the DVD into my computer, turned off the lights, got on my bed and started watching.
Here were my first impressions: The bald guy is loud and arrogant! Everybody is so working-class! Oh my God that EVP is so amazing! This is very cool and fascinating, It is so NEAT how they debunked that claim! That Brian guy is sweet but weird! How do they find time to do this? What dedication! There are just normal people calling TAPS into their homes? See, this kind of stuff isn’t so creepy? It is like an intellectual journey.
This is absolutely amazing.
Ghost Hunters was about a story — a claim — and the journey to put the pieces together of a puzzle. The process occurred at a personal, deeply intimate level for the homeowner and, most poignantly, for the viewer.
Season one was completed in a few days. Then I downloaded season two. I returned overseas and kept downloading new episodes, as well as Jason and Grant’s Beyond Reality Radio. I did not watch TV, but I did watch Ghost Hunters.
I did not know it then, but I was doing research on TAPS, Ghost Hunters, and paranormal reality TV, in general. This would serve me well – my first book is coming out in September, and it is a cultural studies discussion regarding the impact of paranormal reality TV on American society. Along the way, I have come full circle in my understanding how the “paranormal” and culture intersects and relates to one another. I realize most who have become investigators in the past seven years use the paranormal as a personal, metaphysical journey. It is now obvious to me that, for many, the mechanisms behind “ghosts” and unexplained phenomena are secondary to having a personal experience. Then there are those who started investigating because of Ghost Hunters and now find every opportunity to publicly criticize TAPS and the show – the very thing that made “the paranormal” contemporary public culture currency.
Thankfully, however, first impressions are not always accurate: Jason Hawes, the bald guy, has been kind to me. Off-camera investigations are far more complex than what TV can ever show. TAPS is but one small piece of a rich history between America and ghosts. Many forget that TAPS was a volunteer-based effort for fourteen years prior to the show. A TAPS Home Team remains very active and very much off-camera. They have paid their dues.
I am a product of TAPS and Ghost Hunters, and this has encouraged me to appreciate the larger heritage of psychical research, parapsychology, and the diverse legacy of paranormal studies.
Of course, this is just the beginning of my story. Patience, oh Reader — there is more to come.