Paranormal Politics: Debates About Doing History Good

On January 31, 2011, I interviewed Jason Hawes, the lead cast member of
SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, for History.FM, an online radio community of

Hawes made a comment during the interview alluding to how much his organization, the Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), has contributed to promoting historic sites by featuring selected locations on Ghost Hunters and conducting off-show public fundraising events. He suggested that some sites may not be operational if not for increased public interest due to TAPS’ exposure. Of all the things discussed during the interview, this comment drew public criticism, prompting Hawes to respond on his public Facebook page, thus clarifying his words to 140,000 plus people.

The debate’s nature concerns me, and not because of criticism against Hawes, which is often misguided and engaged as sport rather than meaningful and constructive dialogue about larger issues of importance. I know a bit about how TAPS, as well as other paranormal teams and researchers, have increased public interest in historic sites, and the importance of utilizing paranormal interest to change public narratives of local landmarks.

Let me provide a lesson about how historic sites stay open: through volunteer work and uncertain fundraising. Public tourism does not always cover operational costs — in fact, it rarely does. Most locations rely on membership, donors, private funds and grant solicitation. As all of these sources have diminished due to the economy, historic sites are suffering. Paranormal interest, endowed by paranormal reality TV, is a well-timed blessing.

Most historic sites, with a few exceptions, are experiencing a decline in visitors because of the current economy. Being on a “show” gets more people in the door, and therefore, makes it easier for locations to keep existing funding sources. Increased traffic may also make locations eligible for additional grants. Local communities sense renewed pride in their landmarks and membership donations increase, and often, more volunteers step forward. Public exposure from reality TV alone does not sustain a location, but it creates a ripple effect that makes it much easier to solicit money.

I have a connection to two locations promoted by public paranormal interest.
The first site, USS CAROLINA, was featured on season two of Ghost Hunters. The team I am with, Haunted North Carolina, brought that location to the show and HNC representatives were in that episode. Danielle Wallace, the ship’s program director, told me that Ghost Hunter’s exposure issued unprecedented public interest. Dawson’s Creek filmed there in the 1990s, and even Kate Plus Eight had a crew on board, but nothing changed the way the public identified with the ship like that original GH episode.

Korner’s Folly has not been on a show, but the unique NC house museum enjoyed a state-wide media campaign around a paranormal investigation which resulted in record breaking number of visitors in the weeks that followed, increased membership and volunteers, and continued media exposure regarding its “haunted” status a year and a half after that initial investigation. I was part of that endeavor, and I am very proud that public interest in the paranormal altered the way the local community responded to this property. It is an active location (yes, it is really haunted) and visitors still come because of the ghosts. featured the location in its October video segment. Like USS CAROLINA, the paranormal is now part of the official story, and it is a story that keeps growing. I am very honored to now be a volunteer grant writer for Korner’s Folly, and value how ghost hunting has led me to engage discussions about historic site preservation and restoration.

Cast members of Ghost Adventurers, Paranormal State, and others have also been very influential in supporting historic sites, and the same can be said for savvy teams and researchers around the country who do nurture local landmarks. (AdventureMyths provides a great example how paranormal teams promote history and location. They investigate, film, do historical research, then they produce a documentary which is handed back to the site. AdventureMyths does this for free.

These efforts also teach local history to a new audience, and often functions to literally preserve forgotten history. Public interest in the paranormal, when conducted responsibly, is a creative form of historic preservation and an example of micro, grassroots economic development. Critics, calm down and rejoice; paranormal investigators, TV based or not, are doing history good.

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