On a family trip to Cape May, New Jersey, some years back, a ghost tour caught my eye. My daughter was old enough not to be unduly scared, and appropriately curious. With a group of total strangers we walked the streets after dark, hearing tales of tragedy and woe. Little did I know at the time that I was being trendy. I just finished Annette Hill’s Paranormal Media: Audiences, Spirits and Magic in Popular Culture. The first point that really haunted me from her study is that the media has transformed the paranormal from religious to secular. I have always considered that paranormal belief and religious belief share an enormous amount of fuel—they are driven by similar engines. Then some media folk figured out that, like religion, the paranormal could become a revenant “revenue stream.”
Hill has other ghosts to hunt in her study—she is a media scholar after all—but I kept wondering about the cheapening effect of commodification. That which creates the most wonder becomes the most tawdry when it’s put up for sale. Life is terribly ordinary. There’s an ennui to much of human experience, so people turn to religion, drugs, or increasingly, the paranormal, for escape. But as any savvy media expert (or Heisenberg fan) knows, being involved in the experience changes the outcome. This applies to money just as it does to people. One is more evil than the other, however.
Experiences of awe are a dwindling resource. The frisson of many an adolescent night when something unexplained or holy lurked outside your window has now become just another CGI gag pulled on a gullible public. I used to watch Ghost Hunters on DVD. Then someone released debunking b-roll footage on the internet, making me feel like I’d wasted more than a few irredeemable hours on a fraud. Just one prank is all it takes. Why? The show has to make money, and who is going to watch if nothing is found? Don’t be offended, it’s only entertainment after all. Nobody said there really was anything that you couldn’t plumb yourself. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems nothing frightens a ghost away like money.