Monday, November 21, 2022

28 Days Haunted & Other Spooky TV Shows

Don't get me wrong. I hugely enjoyed The Conjuring (2013) - and its 2016 sequel, based on the famous Enfield poltergeist case in London in the late 1970s.

The sympathetic portrayal of self-described demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren in both movies was, admittedly, a little troubling, but then the same could be said of many Hollywood films. If they weren't, in real life, quite the sweethearts portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, then surely some dramatic licence must be conceded.

Recently, however, Bronwyn and I have been watching the Netflix Reality TV Series 28 Days Haunted, which accords the Warrens almost folk-hero status as occult visionaries. The show purports to be a rigorous test of their theory that there's a period of 28 days (based on lunar cycles, perhaps?) which is necessary to 'break through' in any investigation of a haunting.

Sydney Morning Herald: Ed & Lorraine Warren

Needless to say, the theory passes the test with flying colours, and succeeds, too, in providing viewers such as ourselves with riveting footage of husky Americans with video cameras running around corridors screaming their heads off.

Is this serious paranormal research? Well, of course not. Is it particularly entertaining? Shamefully, the answer would have to be yes.

Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

It was the late lamented Shirley Jackson who first propounded the thesis that the most fascinating thing about haunted house investigations is the people who undertake them. The interaction between the various eccentric personalities on display far outweighs in interest any alleged 'findings' they may obtain.

The result, as you no doubt already know, was her classic novel The Haunting of Hill House (appallingly, shamefully, misadapted by clunkster extraordinaire Mike Flanagan in his travesty of a TV series of the same name).

Mike Flanagan: The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

1 - Most Haunted (2002- )

Such is my fascination with the genre, that I've inveigled poor Bronwyn into suffering through a whole slew of True Ghost Stories on TV. Let's see, there was the long-running British show Most Haunted, hosted by Yvette Fielding - we watched a huge amount of that.

Derek Acorah, the resident psychic, was worth the price of entry on his own. I still remember him channelling 'Cloggie', the spirit haunting a ghost train ride in, I think, Brighton.

Convincing? Not very, but there was also much entertainment to be had from watching the host, Yvette, getting steadily more and more terrified as it got darker and darker. Seldom did she last in any 'haunted' room for more than a minute or two ...

2 - Knock Knock Ghost (2014- )

Canadian TV show Knock Knock Ghost is more of pisstake of such hand-held camera reality shows than a serious investigation of hauntings. It can be very amusing - if a trifle one-note - particularly the struggle of host Richard Ryder's assistant Brie Doyle to achieve some on-camera recognition for their endless travails.

3 - Ghost Hunt (2005-6)

Continuing our international coverage, Kiwi TV programme Ghost Hunt was a surprisingly successful attempt to showcase various local pyschic hotspots, including Larnach Castle in Dunedin, the Waitomo Caves Hotel, and the Kinder House in Parnell.

The show's basic methodology was to have two investigators, Carolyn Taylor and Michael Hallows, wandering around in the dark with head-mounted cameras, with a subsequent analysis (i.e. digital tweaking) of their footage by computer whiz Brad Hills. I loved it. I wish they'd made a lot more episodes.

For convenience's sake, it seems best to sample some of the many American contributions to the genre in chronological order.

We'll start with Haunted Lives: True Ghost Stories, which I used to watch on idle afternoons back in the 1990s. Hosted first by Leonard Nimoy, then Stacey Keach, and directed by Tobe Hooper, the stories were first restaged with actors. Interviews were then conducted with the actual victims.

A certain lack of verisimilitude was therefore inevitable. Some of the accounts were very interesting, though.

5 - Ghost Hunters (2004- )

Despite its longevity, and its status as a pioneer in the field, I'm afraid I've never been able to warm to Ghost Hunters. It's hard to see how the investigators can maintain their enthusiasm for each uneventful night in yet another banal setting. Their pop psychology explanations of the 'phenomena' they discover are similarly unexciting. It seems more like an ongoing pension plan for the participants than a legitimate, edge-of-your-seat reality series.

I feel a bit ashamed at having watched so many of these Celebrity Ghost Stories. As I recall, the best one of all was provided by David Carradine, about his partner's ex's ghost, and his participation in their lives. Given that Carradine died shortly after filming it, it had a certain punch to it that the others tend to lack.

A few of the participants - C. Thomas Howell, I mean you - seem just to be taking the piss with obviously made-up tales designed to bolster up their flagging careers, but for the most part they're surprisingly convincing. I'd go so far as to say that one or two of them were genuinely disturbing.

7 - Paranormal Witness (2011- )

The sheer number of stories presented on Paranormal Witness over the years - albeit with 'reconstructions' of the principal events doubling with the victims' retellings of their experiences - have combined to give it a certain air of authenticity.

How could so many people bother to conspire to create such elaborate and circumstantial lies? It's far easier to believe in the basic sincerity of at least the vast majority of them.

Mind you, the easily deduced off-camera psychological effects of repressive parents, abusive spouses, and stressful living situations - as Stephen King once sagely observed, one thing people are really serious about is real estate: especially losing their equity in a hard-bought property - certainly offer possible alternative explanations for many of the events described.

But then that's another reason why this series' essential honesty makes it of genuine value to the aficionado.

8 - Haunted (2018- )

I never felt that the format the producers chose for Haunted worked very well. Friends and relatives of the people telling the story would sit in a circle around them, reacting to the events as they were recounted (and simultaneously reconstructed on screen for the benefit of viewers).

Unfortunately, this had a strangely stilted effect, and while it certainly sounds all right in theory, in practice the simiplicity of a talking head being interviewed directly about their experiences (as in Paranormal Witness, above) is far more effective.

We gave up on it after awhile, as the stories grew increasingly far-fetched. There was a Latin American spin-off which was rather more spirited, but still struggled to surmount this formatting issue.

Paranormal Caught on Camera can be, at times, mind-numbingly tedious - in particular all the shots of blurry lights moving around in the sky. But it's worth sitting through all that for the truly bizarre things it occasionally presents.

Susan Slaughter (Paranormal Caught on Camera)

My own favourite among the various half-psychic investigator, half standup comic commentators they feature to contextualise each piece of grainy film would have to be the redoubtable Susan Slaughter. It doesn't matter what they show - strange scissor-people without bodies, shadow figures, were-creatures of various varieties - she's seen them all already: had lunch with them in some cases.

I see from her IMDb profile that as well as being a "paranormal expert, she openly identifies as a Witch ... Susan is well known for her duality in both acting and the paranormal." All power to her, imho.

10 - Unsolved Mysteries (2020- )

Unsolved Mysteries mostly specialises in missing-person cases and gruesome, unsolved murders. Every now and then they include an episode on more supernatural matters, however, including a truly wonderful piece, "Paranormal Rangers", on the Navaho Reservation policemen whose job it is to investigate any and all unexplained sightings in the immense stretch of territory under their jurisdiction.

So, in conclusion, turning back to the UK, we come to the great-grandaddy of them all, Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World (13 episodes, 1980), and its sequels Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers (13 episodes, 1985), and Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World (26 episodes, 1994).

What can I say about this? It's clearly a masterpiece of the genre, though it could be argued that the longer it went on the less it stayed in tune with the sceptical reductionism of Clarke himself and more it was dominated by the wide-eyed credulity of the TV producers. But (as I explained in my previous blogpost on Clarke) that's of small concern to me.

It gave rise to a series of illustrated coffee-table books, as well as various sets of videos and DVDs (most of which I own):

  1. John Fairley & Simon Welfare. Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World (London: Collins, 1980)
  2. John Fairley & Simon Welfare. Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (London: Collins, 1984)
  3. John Fairley & Simon Welfare. Arthur C. Clarke’s Chronicles of the Strange & Mysterious (London: Guild Publishing, 1987)
  4. John Fairley & Simon Welfare. Arthur C. Clarke’s A-Z of Mysteries: From Atlantis to Zombies. Foreword by Arthur C. Clarke (London: Book Club Associates, 1993)
  5. Simon Welfare & John Fairley. Arthur C. Clarke's Mysteries (London: Collins, 1998)

  6. DVDs:

  7. Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, narrated by Gordon Honeycombe, prod. John Fanshawe & John Fairley, dir. Peter Jones, Michael Weigall & Charles Flynn (UK, 1980). 2-DVD set.
  8. Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers, narrated by Anna Ford, prod. John Fairley, dir. Peter Jones, Michael Weigall & Charles Flynn (UK, 1985). 2-DVD set.
  9. Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe, narrated by Carol Vorderman, prod. John Fairley, dir. Peter Jones, Michael Weigall & Charles Flynn (UK, 1994). 4-DVD set.
Not many of the episodes were specifically about ghosts, but those that were were models of the investigative genre: well-researched, well-constructed, and profoundly atmospheric. It's definitely worth watching again, if you ever have the good fortune to come across it.

Simon Welfare & John Fairley: Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World (1980)

28 Days Haunted: The Control Room, with hosts Aaron Sagers & Tony Spera (2022)

So what are the principal hallmarks of the genre? Let's see:
  • a complete lack of verifiable information or results
  • deliberately poor picture and sound quality
  • endless credulity in the face of flimsy conjectures
  • constant reliance on weird and pointless - mostly electronic - gadgets
  • frequent bombastic assertions of close knowledge of the Other Side and its ways

And yet, and yet, every now and then one gets the slightest glimmer that there might actually be something going on in some of the places these investigators get themselves into. It's that, I suppose, that keeps me watching.

To adopt a more (Shirley) Jacksonian perspective, however, even the most sceptical viewer would have to admit that some of the personalities on display in 28 Days Haunted really are quite priceless:

28 Days Haunted: Madison Dry Goods (Madison, North Carolina)
l-to-r: Brandy Miller & Jereme Leonard

Jereme [sic.] and Brandy, shut inside a Dry Goods store in Madison, North Carolina, were particularly good - he a loud, useless, fraidy-cat, who, despite his claims to be a 'Cajun Demonologist,' actually managed to get himself possessed by one of the entities; she a dedicated nag who could go on and on about the same topics for hours in an endless, terrifying loop (as the onscreen time-count recorded dispassionately).

The most frightening thing about their stay, however, was not so much the building they were trapped in as the weirdly deserted town surrounding it. Cars would occasionally pass, but not a single person could be seen on the streets or in the surrounding shops and offices. It might as well have been Innsmouth, Massachusetts, rather than Madison, North Carolina.

28 Days Haunted: Captain Grant’s Inn (Preston, Connecticut)
l-to-r: Nick Simons & Sean Austin

Then there were those three tomfools, Sean, Nick and Aaron, staying in Captain Grant’s Inn in Preston, Connecticut. Sean, the self-professed psychic was locked in a constant battle with sceptical technician Nick. The latter presumed to doubt the validity of a message written on a steamed-up mirror in the bathroom. The more Sean denied having written it himself, the guiltier he looked.

Hapless would-be peacemaker Aaron felt increasingly overlooked and undervalued by the other two as the investigation progressed. In W. H. Auden's phrase, he sank into "a more terrible calm" as their seemingly interminable ordeal continued.

28 Days Haunted: Lumber Baron Inn (Denver, Colorado)
l-to-r: Ray Causey, Amy Parks, & Shane Pittman

Somewhat surprisingly, Shane, Ray and Amy, at the Lumber Baron Inn in Denver, Colorado, may qualify as the least harmonious group of all. The brutal way in which the two men conspired to bully psychic sensitive Amy into dangerous and uncomfortable situations had to be seen to be believed. She made it clear that she would not channel spirits through 'mirror-portals' (whatever those are). Her counter-offer of using candles to establish contact was accepted reluctantly by the thuggish pair.

That is, until Shane managed, fortuitously, to resuscitate his own psychic abilities as a result of immersing himself in a tin bath under a tent out in the grounds. Ray, by contrast, seemed to do little except complain, foment mutiny, and (we're reliably informed) do most of the cooking.

Riveting though 28 Days Haunted was at times, it was hard to persuade ourselves that there was much more to it than some kind of unholy cross between Survivor and The Amazing Race with a few bits of hokey psychic folklore thrown in.

Joel Anderson, dir. & writ.: Lake Mungo (2008)

All in all, none of these programmes can really compare with the sheer sense of strangeness and haunting loss achieved by Australian filmmaker Joel Anderson in his classic faux-documentary Lake Mungo. If only some real film footage could be found to rival the brilliantly executed camera trickery he beguiles us with so impeccably!

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