True story: When I was 9 years old, I invented a game to play during sleepovers as a way of outing my friends and my elementary-school crushes. We’d take turns picking female classmates at random, and each of us would rate them on a scale of one to 10 in three categories: looks, body, and personality. (My wife still doesn’t understand what differentiates those first two criteria.) On Paranormal Challenge, a competitive reality spinoff of Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, host Zak Bagans and a weekly panel of judges evaluate two teams’ spirit-tracking prowess by assessing their teamwork, grasp of that haunted location’s history, and use of ghost-busting technology. And after enduring the series premiere, I can safely deduce that Paranormal’s approach to documenting evidence of the afterlife is about as scientific as my pre-teen method for uncovering who gave my friends a boner.
Shockingly, it’s also twice as sexist. Not that I should be surprised. For those unfamiliar with Bagans and Ghost Adventures, he’s the sort of “edgy” character who dresses like Jeff Hardy and slicks his hair into a jet-black modified crew cut. And Paranormal Challenge is the kind of show that uses Disturbed’s “Down with the Sickness” as its theme song and could have easily been conceived by the “extreeeeeme!” dudes from Harold and Kumar.
The premise is simple, although it offers a potentially interesting twist on the typical Ghost Hunters/Ghost Adventures Scooby-Doo-style investigation of reputedly spooked landmarks. In Paranormal Challenge, two teams of three explore the same allegedly haunted space, armed with equivalent time and resources, while supposed experts in the field—in this case, willing and available nerds Dave Schrader, Gary Galka and Patrick Burns—remotely watch their every move and eventually determine a winner based on the aforementioned categories and audio/visual evidence. Basically, it’s a hybrid of Ghost Adventures and every VH1/51 Minds competitive format.
As Bagans and his crew set up camp at the creepy-crawly Rolling Hills institution in Betham, NY (talk about the inmates literally running the asylum), our host eagerly explains that this week’s episode will be a battle of the sexes between the all-female Paranormal Expeditions squad and their macho counterparts in Resident Undead. In case it wasn’t clear that this means serious bros vs. bras business, Resident Undead leaders Adam and Dan helpfully identify themselves as the figurative quarterback and running back of their team, with Dan adding for good measure, “If I wanted to watch three girls play paranormal, I’d watch Charmed.” Nice.
After the requisite background on Rolling Hills—a one-time poor farm, hospital and senior-living facility that dates back to the 1820s—and accompanying, amateurish reel of stock morbid imagery, our teams are sent into the building’s various decrepit wings, chapels, morgues (oooh, the “Morgue” sign is hanging half-titled off its hinger—scary!) and facilities. But not before Bagans makes sure to check in on the full-grown women of Paranormal Expeditions and inquire, “Are you girls ready?”
The ensuing, interminable middle section plods along about as you’d expect. For those of you who read my review of Ghost Hunters’ recent season premiere, you’ll know what that basically amounts to: a lot of shaky night-vision theatrics, nebulous white noise that the on-set crew never seems to capture live, and a whole lot of melodrama from the expedition members themselves, presumably in the hopes of directing enough attention to their phony, faux-Frighteners intramural club that they can avoid ever having to work a real job among the living.
But back to the sexism. Apparently, in a moment of anxiety, PE leader Danielle flippantly referred to a piece of equipment as a “thermal thingy,” infuriating Bagans and prompting him and his fellow judges to unleash Thingy-Gate and derisively mock Danielle’s casualness with boogeyman vernacular throughout the remainder of the episode. (e.g. “What is your favorite piece of equipment: the beepy thingy or the thermal thingy?”) Meanwhile, Dan gets a free pass for taunting the institution’s potential night-crawlers by asserting that, “Jay-Z may run New York, but I run Rolling Hills Asylum.” Unfortunately, I don’t think Hova was referring to Genessee County, which is geographically closer to Canada than the Marcy Projects.
Resident Undead’s general m.o. throughout its search is to bully, intimidate, and patronize the ghosts into either initiating physical confrontation or acknowledging that boys rule and girls drool via use of makeshift "dowsing rods" (imagine psychically energized tuning forks). All I kept thinking—especially during the scene in which Dan mimics the role of a pastor to draw out lost souls in the chapel—was that if this were a movie, Adam and Dan would be the arrogant meatheads who get picked off early by the savvy demons out of sheer exasperation from their antics.
The women of PE, meanwhile, were going for a more gently encouraging approach. That is, when they weren’t dropping those darn digital recorders and sending Bagans into a fit of flustered intolerance. They, like Resident Undead, provided the judges with assorted, completely illegitimate audio playback of apparent sinister hissing and hilariously bogus camera stills of possible silhouettes and mysterious light orbs. So in that respect, both teams are culpable of having wasted their time and ours, and the episode’s editors are equally guilty of stretching out the final segment with the judges to epically unnecessary lengths, and with little sense of competitive drama. Especially since Resident Undead were awarded the victors in TV’s least surprising—and most inconsequential—finale this side of Scotty McCreery .
Paranormal Challenge is a ridiculous, silly, boring and exploitive little show that makes the case for some of these cable-reality franchises trimming their runtimes down to half an hour. At least then, regardless of what fate awaits participating casts and the walking dead they’re challenged to resurrect, we viewers can be more efficiently put out of our misery.
- Sample insight from judge Gary, after Resident Undead announces it has wrapped one stage of its mission: “Well, they’ve just completed their investigation in that area, and they’re moving onto the next spot.”
- Nice gloves, Zak.
- Resident Undead leader Adam to alleged ghost Roy: “Do you like us better than them? That’s right, we don’t like ladies either.”
- Zak on Thingy-Gate: “The thermal thing? That’s what they called it?! It’s a camera!” Nerd alert!
- Zak's comically barked demands for his judges to raise audio on their investigations might be the new "Release the Kraken!"
- “Your reputation dies tonight. You are then a fairy tale.” Could this also apply to Paranormal Challenge?
- Hey, Bagans and judges, if your decision-making process really almost came to blows, then show us that!