The early ‘90s were a heyday for paranormal-inspired TV. Between NBC’s Robert Stack-hosted Unsolved Mysteries (whose box set rests comfortably amongst my DVD collection) and its duly popular FOX counterpart/imitator Sightings, the “big three” were keeping spineless teenagers awake in fright nationwide. Just about a quarter-century (or 4,576 years, in ghost aging) after Mysteries debuted, SyFy rolled out Ghost Hunters, a reality hit that followed an amateur team of afterlife investigators from Rhode Island, headed by close friends and bogeyman enthusiasts Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson known as The Atlantic Paranormal Society, or TAPS. Hawes, Wilson, and fellow supernatural researchers Amy Bruni, Steve Gonsalves, and Dave Tango (the team also includes newest recruit, Alabaman singer/actor and Hunters junior-sleuth competition winner Adam Berry) weren’t so much interested in busting apparitions as sourcing them out for both posterity and their own private curiosity.

Between then and last week’s improbable season seven premiere, A & E launched Paranormal State, U.S. theaters were seized by two rounds of Paranormal Activity (those guys have really taken possession of the box office, huh?), and Charlie Sheen started to resemble a partially decomposed vapor of his former self. It’s interesting that our revived interest in serialized ghost-tracking has been resurrected almost precisely during the lifespan of the War in Iraq. More than any period since Vietnam, America is haunted by the constant, unseen specter of soldiers dying in faceless combat overseas or coming home to their families as hollow outlines of who they were when first deployed.

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During this week’s “Pennsylvania Asylum” installment of Ghost Hunters, it struck me that a huge percentage of the show’s loyal viewership probably comes from homes in which transcendental faith, soulful refuge, and spiritual redemption are strong enough to light up a pantheon of magnetic fields. The other segment of its audience, if one were to visualize Hunters’ ratings as a pie chart, is likely split evenly among adults who grew up registering old-fashioned chills with Mysteries and stoned college students. The latter, naturally, account for some chunk of any cable programming aired after 9 p.m.

None of this prevents an hour of television like “Pennsylvania Asylum,” which finds our crew looking into a slew of reported paranormal weirdness at Pennsylvania’s notorious Pennhurst Asylum, from being entertaining and suspenseful at times. But given hardly a minute of its night-vision stakeouts goes by without enormous leaps of faith and/or shortcuts in the editing process, it’s an experience with tremendous upside and historical intrigue but little to no actual payoff or persuasive evidence for the average channel surfer.

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One contradictory, enraging habit on display throughout “Asylum” is that all three of TAPS’ divide-and-investigate duos act as if they’re going to be silent long enough for us to hear supposed whispers and footsteps. But their version of quiet apparently means pandering hostage-crisis rhetoric used to lure out the alleged spirits and avoid the inevitable dead air. Even if that’s a choice made in post-production, it indicates Hunters is more interested in keeping us hooked than making it a truly inclusive and honest encounter.

“Asylum” relies  primarily on additional editing-room smoke and mirrors, like having TAPS members’ testimony after an apparent scare distract us from the convenience of cameras and microphones never quite being in the right place at the properly haunted time. Which, given the level of sophisticated equipment brought along in their glorified Ecto-Van, requires a metaphysical suspension of disbelief.

Belief is probably the key word when it comes to Ghost Hunters. Amy definitely has it, so she and Adam’s journeys through Pennhurst’s tunnels suck you in with more empathetic tension than Jason and Grant’s day-at-the-office inspections. And there is no doubt that a moment with Steve and Dave involving slamming basement doors echoed with the most palpably eerie believability. While the latter provided impetus to stick around with anticipation when John and Grant played back their recordings for Pennhurst’s owner/operator, the climax offered little in the way of new confirmation. More disappointingly, “Asylum,” on the whole, was straining so hard for authenticity that it only sporadically conceded to the infinite number of explanations for any nebulous sights and sounds (old buildings do breathe, you know). And when room was made for some embarrassment, i.e. Amy and Adam discovering a nearby cow pasture was the origin of creepy baritone utterances, it was a bit too comically discrediting.

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Hunters is a fun show, and “Asylum” provides a fascinating backstory about its namesake’s shuttered institution and some very cool footage of the decrepit interior, to the extent where two separate shows are happening at once: an esoteric documentary on a site that hosted numerous atrocities and a live-action episode of Scooby-Doo. Whether you get caught up in its campfire tales or would simply prefer the flesh-and-blood history behind its lore probably depends on how much in your own life feels like it hasn’t been put to rest. Or what strength of apparatus you typically use to get stoned.

Stray Observations

  • I kid about TAPS’ methods and legitimacy, but I do think it’s cool that, strategically, they’ve figured out how to handle different types of sites, like Pennhurst’s daunting campus layout.
  • How do the hairs stand up on the back of a bald man’s neck? Unless it’s actually upper-back patch. Ew.
  • Is it just me, or does Steve resemble the hated Dom from Entourage?
  • I wanted to discuss the period between Mysteries/Sightings and Ghost Hunters in paranormal pop culture, which was earmarked by Blair Witch Project and shows like MTV’s Fear, but it ultimately felt superfluous. I would be curious to go deeper into that whole timeline in the comments though.
  • Why do I feel very confident that all these guys have the absolute worst taste in music? Not that that’s at all relevant. But it’s haunting me.
  • My native Long Island has a bounty of creepy, closed mental wards, for the curious explorers. That’s what happens when you’re pretty much a mass of farmland with no connecting roads to the city pre-Robert Moses.
  • The supposed footsteps they caught on tape kinda had me erring on the side of belief there for a minute. Until I remembered absolutely everything about this show could be a hoax for all we know. Which I mostly had to convince myself of so I didn’t have nightmares.
  • Kind of curious that when Grant heard a ghost whisper “Spring City”—which the asylum operator later confirmed was a popular settling town nearby for ex-residents—he was talking about it off-camera…

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