Monday, 1 May 2017

Exorcism and Exploitation: Ghost Adventures Season 14 Episode 6 "Exorcism In Erie."

The most common complaint or criticism I receive with regards to anything I write about paranormal television has the implication that I shouldn't really focus too much attention on these shows. I shouldn't take them seriously. I have to offer a refinement of that statement:
 "I shouldn't HAVE to take these shows seriously!" 
Unfortunately, as the recent furore regarding Most Haunted, a show most skeptics considered a spent force to say the very least, exemplifies there are many people who do watch these programmes and DO take them very seriously indeed. These people are being misled, and as I've pointed out before, the role of skeptics shouldn't be to sniff at these people regarding their credulity. Until this changes, I will take paranormal television as seriously as any news media that aims to misinform and mislead. The second most common complaint I receive with regards to these posts? Even if there are lots of people that take these shows at their word, and consider them legitimate forms of investigation into the paranormal, what harm can they possibly do?

When it comes to legitimising archaic and outmoded ideas of demons and possession I think the propagation of superstition and fear can be very harmful indeed. Belief in demons undoes much of the hard work of mental health practitioners and GPs in removing the stigma and ignorance surrounding mental health disorders. In rare cases the belief in possession by evil spirits can lead to death in cruel and barbaric exorcism rituals. Such incidents may not be common in the west, but they're common enough to be a concern. Even one death as a result of something totally preventable, that only occurred because of pure ignorance is way too many.

As I'm pondering these ideas and preparing to write a blog post regarding my position on paranormal investigation shows, I hear of the latest episode of US show Ghost Adventures via an e-mail alert. Rather than dropping in via the usual channel of my "ghost hunters" alert, the IMDB write up of this episode drops in via both my "demon" and "exorcism" alerts. The episode description states:
"On tonight’s Ghost Adventures, Zak Bagans and his team enlist the help of Bishop Bryan Oullette to perform an exorcism on a man with a demonic oppression. The episode sees the team head to Erie, Colorado, where Chris Stone obtained the demonic attachment after trying to conjure an entity several years ago...."
Now, I have no idea how much of a departure this is for Ghost Adventures. For the record, as of this post I've watched one episode of Ghost Adventures for a Twitter live feed. The "event" wasn't particularly rewarding, I found the show irritating to an extreme level. Zak Bagans, who I spent the entire feed calling "Grant" for some unknown reason, struck me as a colourless, boring, condescending jock and I was frankly bewildered that the show has fared as well as it has with someone so bland at the helm. I found the rest of the show as lame and unentertaining as most ghost hunting shows. What I can be sure of about this episode is that it is an extremely unpleasant and exploitative 42 minutes of TV which warrants a closer look. I won't be using the framework I used in the Paranormal Lockdown review, as that's explicitly designed for "ghost hunting" and that's not strictly what we see in this episode, although there's plenty of overlap.

Zak and the team arrive at the home of Jeff and Darlene (above), a couple from Erie, Colarado. Clearly, there's no intention of taking an actual investigative approach here as Zak immediately declares that the family is subject to a demonic haunting. The utter lack of any ambiguity shocks me. Not only is Zak not prepared to offer any possibility that the house isn't haunted, it isn't even questioned what the nature of this haunting is. In the introduction to the show Zak claims he and his team have worked years to build credibility, yet he sacrifices any credibility as an investigator within seconds of the episode!

Zak tells us a clue to the source of the activity is the fact that the house is built on a fault line, near an old mining facility. Quite what this has to do with demons escapes me. There may well have been an old structure where the house now stands too. Hmmm.... I must be missing something here, but somehow these are "clues".

Zak asks Jeff and Darlene if there's "things going on in the house?" Isn't that what this "investigation" team is there to ascertain? The answer is of course unequivalently "yes". Talk immediately turns to the couple's son, Chris, and his struggle with mental illness. We are told he has struggled with depression and anger issues. Sickeningly these conditions are immediately linked to "demonic" activity.

We meet Chris in the basement of his parents' home. He looks nervous and uncomfortable. He is also drawn and gaunt. His mother tells us he frequently sees "spirits" and he relays to us that his "haunting" began when he perform animal sacrifices in an abandoned local home he labels "the witches house". I'm pretty sure almost every childhood includes an excursion to a local abandoned house, that has some local legend or paranormal tale attached to it. I'm also pretty sure most don't include animal sacrifice though, whether Chris' story doesn't or not is up for debate. he tells us it did, but then also tells us he never performed "rituals" in the house. Surely animal sacrifice counts as a "ritual" of sorts? He then tells us he was trying to "conjure something". It's clear Chris can't exactly keep his story straight for one reason or another. Chris also states he saw "the devil" at this abandoned property. Unsurprisingly, his image of Satan is that of a cloven-hoofed creature.

Zak relays back to Chris' parents that he read "satanic passages" in the witches house. Quite what these passages are is unclear. Was it Anton LeVay's Satanic Bible? Many people have read that book, myself included, and never experienced anything remotely paranormal. This is when Zak reveals another "clue": Chris took a horse-shoe from the house. Again, so what. Oh, the horse was involved is "satanic rituals" any proof of this? Any proof that would make a damn difference to it anyway.

Zak's use of Satanism as a method to drive this narrative distinctly reminds me of the USA's "satanic panic" of the 80s and 90s a craze which resulted in many innocent parents and carers having their lives, careers and relationships with their children irreparably damaged. His presentation of "satanism" most definitely resembles the stereotypical picture of child and animal sacrificing devil-worshippers gathering in secret to summon some terrible, Christian bothering denizen of hell. To be clear, there's zero evidence this satanic network has ever existed, and the picture presented is a million miles away from the modern satanist many of whom not only don't believe in a literal devil, but also aren't theistic at all.

Zak tells the family that their experiences stem from Chris burying the cursed horseshoe in the back garden. I can't help but feel sorry for Chris, and concerned for his welfare here. Clearly, the GA team are pandering to his delusion as are his parents to some extent. If Chris believes what he is saying and I've no reason to suspect he doesn't, he needs healthcare, not this bullshit.

As Zak piles misery on the family exploiting their already heightened state of fear and feelings of oppression, he is stuck by a "cold energy". Yeah, we call that a fucking breeze mate. There's is no "cold energy". Cold only describes a lack of heat. Is Zak always this monumentally stupid? How does anyone take this man seriously? This only makes his statement about "credibility" in the show's opening credits more laughable.

I get a distinct impression that Chris'
mother is genuinely concerned for her son. I believe that her appearance on the show is genuinely motivated by a desire to help her son. This makes me hate the producers of the show, exploiting mental illness is bad enough, to exploit a parent's concern for his or her child in this way is utterly beyond contempt. As is the idea that there will be parents watching this show who rather than guiding their children to proper mental health practitioners, will instead resort to the measures that follow in this show.

In fact, we can see the spread of this superstition and ignorance within the show itself when Chris' sister describes her eight-year-old son's sightings of a "zombie ghost" is the house. It's not unusual for eight-year-olds to fantasise about ghosts, we certainly shouldn't take this as evidence of anything paranormal. What parents in these situations often fail to realise is how much children actually pick up from their parents and extended family. It isn't unusual for a child exposed to a lot of talk of ghosts and the like to have their own experiences. The potential harm is when these fears and fantasies are left unchecked and continue into adulthood.

We're then treated to the investigation section of the episode. This contains little more than Zak obtaining a thermal image of two glowing red bedposts. There's no possible heat source that could cause this he tells us. How about hands? Body heat? That could warm the bedposts enough for them to appear warmer than the surrounding frame.

"They look like glowing devil horns." Zak witlessly points out.

It's day two of the "investigation" and Zak drives to collect Bishop Bryan Ouellette in order to perform an exorcism on Chris. They meet in a cemetery of course. Why not? Ouellette, a PhD in what we're never told, is a member of the totally orthodox section of the Catholic church The religious Order of Exorcists of The Sacred Order of Saint Michael the Archangel. A sect that meets every few weeks to discuss their superstitious drivel on SKYPE. The irony is staggering.

Zak tells Ouellette that given what he has witnessed Chris has a serious demonic infestation. Wait. What exactly has Zak witnessed?

A breeze and warm bedposts. And there's the crux of this episode of Ghost Adventures, there's nothing to suggest that Chris isn't anything more than a troubled young man. 

The highlight of the show is Chris having the GA team minus Zak dig up his backyard in search of the cursed horseshoe. They find it sat in the garage.

This look says it all really.

The explanation Zak gives us.... wait for it.... this is gold.... a series of freak weather events unburied the horseshoe and deposited it in the garage... uh yeah... no. I've a better explanation: Chris is not well, he can't keep his story straight. Or he purposefully isn't telling the truth. He's leading the crew on a wild goose chase because he's enjoying the attention. Maybe he's been using stories of the devil and disappearing horseshoes and witches' houses and rituals that weren't rituals that were rituals to get attention for a long time.

Possibly because he's deeply troubled.

The Bishop unsurprisingly decides after five minutes of meeting Chris, an exorcism is absolutely necessary. Zak sensitively, acting in the pure interests of this family that he must bring Darlene in the room to witness this unnecessary and archaic intervention. She rocks backwards and forwards as the ritual is conducted.

 Pure exploitation.

Unfortunately, the exorcism isn't the end of the team's involvement with Chris. They place him in isolation and monitor environmental conditions around him. We are told the barometric pressure "bottoms out" around him, obviously, we are given no actual readings and there's no evidence that the team has actually taken a baseline for barometric pressure so we've no idea if this is normal or not. They then proceed to further investigate the family home. This strikes me as exceptionally cruel. I don't agree that performing an exorcism is a valid method of alleviating conditions mistaken for "possession" but there is an argument that the ritualistic nature of the process can help via suggestion. That's ripped away from this family, the GA crew's desire for more footage sees to this.

During the course of the episode, it's important to note that at no point does anyone mention seeking psychological help for Chris. There's no mention of any form of medical intervention. The help of a medical or mental health professional is never sought. This sends a dangerous and inflammatory message to viewers. "Is your child showing signs of mental illness? Consult a priest or a bullshit bishop. Call a paranormal investigation team. Or a jock who doesn't know what heat is." That's why it's important that skeptics take these shows seriously. It should be our role to minimise the potential harm that these shows pose. Just because something claims to be "for entertainment purposes" doesn't mean it can't be cruel and unusual too. It doesn't mean it can't cause harm. It doesn't mean we should ignore it.