The history of paranormal TV + A supernatural superstar panel with Kindred Spirits, Paranormal Lockdown

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Aaron Sagers
Oct 20, 2016

Ghosts are real. Not only in October, where the American mainstream entertains the notion of things going bump in the night. Nor are ghosts only real within the context of horror movies, books, comics, video games or the latest episode of American Horror Story.

No, for many Americans, belief in the dead kicking around in spectral form is a way of life.

Let’s break down the numbers. A 2013 Harris Poll found 42 percent of our nation believe in ghosts. A HuffPost/YouGov poll put that number at 45 percent. The Pew Research Center poll on the topic published, in 2009, that about 18 percent of U.S. adults say they’ve been in the presence of, or seen, a ghost – and 29 percent say they’ve been in the presence of someone who has died. And a 2005 Gallup survey, which closely followed its 2001 results, reported that three in four Americans held some sort of paranormal belief (32 said ghosts/spirits can return in certain situations; 37 percent said houses can be haunted; 21 percent said communication with the dead is possible).

Of course, belief doesn’t equal proof.

Despite psychical societies, ghost hunting groups, and a lot of reputable (and not-so-reputable) personalities pursuing evidence for more than a century in the United States alone, there is no incontrovertible scientific proof that the dead are coming back to pal around with the living.

Although there are scientists trying to change the perception, paranormal research is still confined to pseudo-science. Or as a religious philosophy. For some, the belief in ghosts is an almost dogmatic theology with rules and rituals. Others go on ghost hunts as a hobby, looking for a spooky thrill. They visit haunted locations as part of paranormal tourism to maybe catch a photo of some shadowy figure or record a seemingly unexplained sound using cool toys – but also to hang out overnight in pretty amazing landmarks.

Meanwhile, still others dig ghosts purely as fodder for a story told on Halloween night or over a campfire.

Combine all these elements -- from the pursuit of evidence, pseudo-science, and dogma to travel and tourism, nifty gadgets, and a whole lot of scary fun – and the result is the paranormal reality-TV subgenre. And one thing is for certain: For nearly 40 years, ghosts have made for entertaining reality TV.

To get a sense of how reality TV became haunted territory, join me for a history of paranormal programming in this country.

But first, a disclaimer: All my life I have been fascinated by ghost stories, and how they connect to history. My professional research on the topic has focused on how belief in ghosts influence entertainment – or “paranormal pop culture” as I call it – and vice versa, how entertainment influences belief. I have worked on, and with the cast of, nearly every major paranormal reality-TV show out there. I count ghost hunters, researchers, psychics, demonologists, etc as friends and collaborators. (It makes for fun parties!) While I try to avoid advocating for, or against, the belief in the paranormal, I also discourage anyone from labeling all believers and so-called “skeptical believers” as gullible crackpots, chumps, and frauds – even if those types certainly exist.

WATCH: We assembled a group of celebrity ghost hunters at San Diego Comic-Con for an impromptu supernatural superstar panel. Check out Amy Bruni and Adam Berry (of TLC’s Kindred Spirits), Nick Groff and Katrina Weidman (of Destination America’s Paranormal Lockdown), and John Zaffis (of Destination America’s Haunted Collector) as they discuss paranormal drama, a sense of humor in ghost hunting, how pop culture has gotten ghosts wrong, and their favorite scary movies!