Ghosts have come a long way from being served up with S'mores as a staple of campsite storytelling to being a big part of marketing the multimillion dollar travel industry. Gettysburg and Williamsburg now have at least one or more "ghost" tours as one of their visitor attractions as do many other tourist destinations.
This has led to a booming industry where ghosts have become big business. They are pretty much reported to be everywhere; for example, many trendy bed and breakfast inns are discovering the allure of claiming that some of their guests "might" be haunts.
Skeptics suggest that the real "sprit" is a desire to make money; but the public is the real driving force behind the craze of looking for ghosts under the bed. Ghost stories have been around as long as people, though I suspect our mania to recast the ghosts and ghouls as entertainment may be uniquely American.
In our own area we have the tales of the uncanny apparitions in the Octagon House in Washington and even the White House. Some reports are made by some pretty distinguished people who claim to have seen ghosts. I enjoy the edge between entertainment and open minded inquiry. Fortunately my curiosity is shared by a couple of plumbers who are the protagonists of a TV show that manages to do both.
The Sci-Fi Channel's "Ghost Hunters" is a show based on Grant Wilson and Jason Hawes, who are the co founders of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (or TAPS). These guys work as plumbers for Roto-Rooter by day and are Ghost Hunters by night. Considering how popular the show has become I suspect that their days at Roto-Rooter are numbered.
The series is about investigations of places where "para-normal" activities have been reported. The TAPS crews arrive in vans and wielding DVD recorders, heat sensors, digital recorders and thermal sensors that they employ in a planned fashion to try to find evidence during the night. Each show usually has two separate investigations.
It starts with you riding up front in the van along with Jason and Grant. They talk about the case and its problems; and they often have conversations about the failures and foibles of crew members.
Now, they know there is a camera there, so how much is their forgetting about the camera and how much is scripted, you simply don't know. Jason and Grant share a good sense of humor and they bring to the show a sense of reality that comes from their day job dealing with backed up toilets and leaking plumbing. These guys would fit in just fine at a local sports bar cheering for their football team. They are unrelentingly "normal" but are investigating things that are not.
Most shows do not discover anything paranormal. In one case the location they investigated turned out to be "haunted," not by spirits, but my mold and toxic chemicals stacked near the intake vent of a heating system. No wonder the residents were seeing things.
The series is now into its third season and has progressed from spending an inordinate amount of time (reality TV style) covering group dynamics and dysfunctional relationships to spending more time on location telling us the history of the site. At the heart of this show it is history.
The show does have some flaws, such as the manufactured screams, skulls projections and adventure-style music dubbed in after filming. Some genius at the Sci-Fi Channel probably insisted that it would jazz up the show but it really detracts from it.
Worst of all is the overused ploy of doing close ups of crewmembers examining evidence who suddenly exclaim "Oh My." just as they cut to a commercial. When you return you usually discover that all the excitement was just another false alarm. Oh, it was just dust or I guess that's just a reflection.
Often the crew thinks they have found something only to have Jason or Grant dismiss it as dust or just another darn "orb" of light. Despite the fact that they often don't find anything, it is a very entertaining show. It is a strangely comforting mostly because Jason and Grant are so, well .normal!
Skeptics of the show just laugh at it because the investigators are themselves being followed around by a producer and film crew. Could it all be staged?
The short answer is yes, but you would think that if it was staged they would have more shows were evidence was found; they usually don't find anything. So, if you watch the shows and take them at face value you have to consider the skeptic's viewpoint that you can not rely on the shows to prove there are ghosts.
If you watch the show over time, it gains credibility merely due to the many hours spent debunking things. They do not find a ghost every show and even then they rarely say that someplace is "haunted."
They have gotten some interesting electronic voice phenomena (EVPs) which are not easy to explain (unless, of course, as a skeptic you think that they are fraudulent). One show they filmed what appeared to be someone standing on the spiral metal stair in an old lighthouse in Saint Augustine, Florida. No one was supposed to be there and when they went up to the top there was no one there and the exit was locked.
Was what they filmed actually proof of the existence of ghosts? Watch and decide for yourself, you might not be convinced by "Ghost Hunters," but I think that you will probably be entertained.
So, if you can find the show (the schedule is irregular) on your cable or satellite system, give it a watch. In the meantime when you drive around town take a close look at some of our older buildings and wonder, is there really something to the stories you've heard?
In the end it is all about history and here in Frederick we have a rich history complete with wars, murders, tragedies and tales of love and heartbreak. It is probably only a matter of time before we see the TAPS vans driving into town.