Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Lowdown on Paranormal Lockdown. Season 1 Episode 5 "Hinsdale House" Reviewed

Paranormal Lockdown is the new darling of paranormal investigative TV, or so I'm told by people who actually know about this stuff. As it begins airing on UK television on 16/03/2017 I think some young, intelligent, up and coming skeptic based in the UK should review a few episodes!

Until they do here's my take on an episode I recently viewed.

Hosted by the team of Nick Groff, previously of Ghost Adventures and Katrina Weidman one time star of Paranormal State, Paranormal Lockdown has a gimmick in order to distinguish from the slew of other similar shows. In this case, Groff and Weidman (below) lock themselves in an allegedly haunted location for 72 hours in search of "groundbreaking evidence" of the paranormal. Another interesting factor is the inclusion of recognisable figures from the paranormal field in each episode. Guests thus far include John Zaffis, Steve Huff, Tony Spera and Lorraine Warren and Gregg Newkirk and Dana Mathews of Week in Weird "fame."

The show aired its first season between March and April 2016 on Destination America, with the second season which aired on TLC completing its run in March 2017.

I was first introduced to the show in preparation for the Spooktator episode 18, and as I simply wouldn't have anything to contribute if I didn't watch an episode, I viewed season one episode 5 "Hinsdale House". Watching the episode pretty much confirmed the presence everything I thought I'd find in the show. More than that, however, it actually allowed me to crystallise much of what I find vexing about this form of paranormal research, or what is better termed "ghost hunting", both on television and in the practice of many teams across the US and UK in particular. If you want a snapshot of why the modern idea of "ghost hunting" is becoming farcical you could do worse than view this episode of Lockdown.

What I'm going to put on the table here isn't a straight review of lockdown as I did for Demon Files. Rather, I'll view the show through a lens of the commonly occurring tropes and problems I find with this genre of reality television. The problems listed are by no means conclusive or exhaustive, but I'm going to use the framework to review future and past "ghost hunting" TV in the same way.

Enough inside baseball. Let's crack on.

Paranormal Lockdown, Season one: episode five, Hinsdale House. 

Before moving on to the details of the specific episode itself, it's worth mentioning the complete rip-off of House of the Rising Sun that operates as the series' opening theme. Which is laughable. In fact the whole opening looks more like some mid-90's Angel/X-Files rip off.

Problem 1: "Feels Over Reals" The Over Reliance On Subjective Evidence

Aww... Nick "feels sadness." I feel nauseated.
Most paranormal investigation TV shows place an emphasis on the "evidence" collected and presented during the course of an episode, but I've noticed that so much of this is in the form of the "feelings" of the on-screen investigators. These feelings are subjective and shouldn't be considered evidence at all. Statements such as "I have an oppressive feeling" or "I feel like something wants us to get out" may add a sense of dread to the show when not much else is happening, but they add nothing else.

Viewing this episode of Paranormal Lockdown allowed me to quantify just how reliant these shows can be on presenting subjective feelings as evidence. To do this I counted the number of times Groff, Weidman or the episode's guest "star" Tony Spera, son in law of Ed and Lorraine Warren, issued a statement that began "I feel..." or implied some unnatural sense which could not be verified. I also included times when Groff claimed to have "heard" sounds which were not recorded by the crew's equipment.

The total number of subjective statements made the team: 33.

Statements include:

"We all feel something dark."

"I felt a burst of energy."

"I feel like I'm being dragged back." and "I feel like I'm being strangled."

"I feel like I'm being punched in the head." 

"(I feel) a negative overwhelming energy."

And most laughably:

"I feel confident in the evidence we've collected."

Ok, that last one is a bit cheeky.

That's all in 42 minutes, so a subjective statement on average every 76 seconds! Consider I've not included the show's numerous recaps in that count, and that the running time includes the lengthy intro song.

Compare this with the number of pieces of objective evidence offered by the show: 2. Both EVP samples, which are, ironically, highly subjective in nature themselves!

"there's no heaven" After learning Paranormal Lockdown has been commissioned for season 3 I tend to agree
Unsurprisingly, these samples are presented with on-screen captioning so there's no possibility of the audience hearing anything that Groff doesn't want them to hear, or worse case scenario, random noise. In fact, this is so widespread in ghost hunting let's call that:

Problem 2: EVP and ITC methods presented in a highly suggestible way with no mention of the various equipment flaws, such as the auto gain circuit, which can lead to anomalous data.

Which all leads to:

Problem 3: Scientific Equipment as window dressing.

Many fans of ghost hunting television are commending Lockdown for its use of scientific methodology and equipment, that fact that absolutely stuns me, as in the Hinsdale house episode, barring the use of what seems to be a simple dictaphone and night vision cameras they don't actually use any equipment! I was expecting the usual tropes of K2 meters, thermal cameras or at least laser thermometers but Groff and Weidman don't use any of it. They do appear to have this stuff with them on the investigation, but it isn't directly referenced.

It's for this reason, I've decided to review a second episode of the show, I was going to do it immediately but this post is likely to be lengthy enough. I know Groff and crew must resort to this kind of bunk at some point as Steve Huff has been involved with their show and bullshit paranormal technology is his bag.

What I've noticed is the technology that is featured in these shows is mere window dressing, employed to lend an air seriousness and credibility to findings. Of course, this credibility instantly disappears under the scrutiny of anyone who can actually use or understands the equipment in question. I'd go even further, in the case of the TV shows in question, the equipment used is a MacGuffin, a device required to move the plot along. Easy to conclude when you see a hapless ghost hunter waving an EMF detector around like Harry Potter with his wand.

During a section where Tony Spera explains the swarm of flies in the window is due to a strong electromagnetic field produced by a demon (presumably a tiny demon sat on the window ledge) I expect Groff to whip out some form of equip to detect this. He doesn't, perhaps because he knows flies swarm in windows because they tend to be pretty warm during the day, also some species of flies lay their eggs in window frames. Also, there is no evidence flies are attracted to electromagnetic fields despite Groff laughably telling us that "many believe" this.

As for the claim that demons give off electromagnetic fields.

Problem 4: Unverifiable Statements about entities not proven to exist given as fact.

A statement like the one above by Tony Spera that demons give off electromagnetic fields in patently nonsense, as are any similar comments made in these shows about ghosts. As these things have never been shown to exist, and as of yet, there aren't any phenomena that occur in the natural world that can only be explained by something with attributes of demons or ghosts. So not only have ghosts and demons not been shown to exist, there isn't any NEED for them to exist. It's shocking how casually ghost hunters slip in facts about paranormal phenomena and the qualities possessed by the same.

Include in this:

"What we're getting in... all adds to to demonic."

"Their overall goal is to break you down..."

"These physical effects... are warning signs of a demonic possession"

All mentioned in this episode, and which lead to:

Problem 5: If ghosts and demons haven't been shown to exist.....

....Then there's no way to distinguish between a "demonic haunting" and a regular haunting. Again, Groff, Spera and Weidman's justification for making this differentiation in the class of haunting is how they all feel about the house. This cuts down the drama of the paranormal investigation show, a genre of TV that has been used "demons" increasingly over the last decade as a device to up the ante with a public desensitised to ghosts, which can often be presented as placid or even well meaning. Demons are always evil, dangerous and menacing, the mention of such, especially in more fundamentalist Christian areas of the US is likely to increase the audience's cathartic sense of fear and titillation. It's more likely to keep them watching.

This means that big moment when one of the investigators turns to the audience and says "I think... it's demonic!" is essentially a damp squib if any thought is actually given to what they propose. "Well, we don't actually know if demons exist. or ghosts, so we've no way of actually knowing if our location is haunted at all... but if we did, I've had a headache since lunch....and was roughly the time we entered..." may be more honest, but it isn't going to fly with viewers.

Crinkly old shill Lorraine Warren menacingly warning Groff to go to Church for protection, I can see that working with both Bible belt Americans and thrill-seeking movie goers.

Problem 6: How Dangerous are demons again?

This isn't necessarily a major point, but one thing that strikes me about shows that wax lyrical about the dangers of demons, ghosts and negative entities is that on occasion when these beings to manifest physical harm, it's normally a superficial scratch or welt. In this episode of Lockdown, for example, we hear from Groff. Spera and Warren how dangerous demons are. Spera warns Nick he may be battered physically (with some glee too). Warren even describes being strangled in the house, but when it comes time for Nick to be assaulted he receives a small scratch on his hand. One that doesn't even leave a mark.

Problem 7: An Over-emphasis on a location's history.

Groff and Weidman, during the course of the investigation, tell us numerous accounts of Hinsdale house's history, fleeing families, brothers shot in the woods and boys killed in bandsaw accidents, amongst other anecdotes we'll cover in problem 8 below. This is a common theme with ghost hunting TV which has carried through to pedestrian teams, a great deal of research is conducted in the history of a supposedly haunted location. These anecdotes of past events and encounters are frequently linked by these teams to current events with little or no reason to do so. Investigations should be conducted without the risk of a prior knowledge of a location introducing bias to collected data.

Local history is often added in these shows for "flavour" who doesn't love a ghost story? And ghost stories need a narrative beginning, in the case of a ghost story the beginning comes in the form of a death. Unfortunately, real-life teams have taken a blatant story-telling element from these shows and integrated it into their work.

Speaking of "story telling".

Problem 8: Complete fabrication and wild speculation.

The only thing worse than the use of historical events introducing bias to an investigation is the introduction of completely fabricated events, to which a framework of wild speculation is built.

During the course of the episode Groff and Weidman, with Spera in tow, set from into the woods surrounding Hinsdale house. Groff tells us the woods have been a site of satanic rituals for some time, quite how he knows this is unclear. If there is a secret cabal of Satanists performing black masses in American forests, isn't the keyword "secret"? This becomes part of the haunting narrative when Groff later claims to hear "chanting" in the same woods.

He also tells us the house is built on "native Indian burial grounds" that old chestnut. He later adds "supposedly" to that assertion. And who exactly is asserting this? Where has Nick got this information from? We're never told. Just that clearly this has something to do with the hauntings.

We are also given the story of a woman, allegedly hung in the woods around Hinsdale. "Over 100 years ago, a woman was said to have been hanged in these woods..." Groff suggests. Again we get no indication of where Nick acquired this information, who this woman was, who hung her, who found her. Nothing. What we do get is a laughable sequence in which Groff and Weidman, and I'm not fucking joking here, go looking for a tree that "looks old enough" for the woman to have been hung from. Of course. they find one that fits the bill and conclude that it very likely is the correct tree. A few supposed EVPs confirm this is the right tree, as does Weidman's feeling of unease.

Looks creepy enough... this is definitely the location of our imaginary hanging

On the journey to the tree, Weidman speculates that the woman was an unwed woman, pregnant with child. Nick agrees "she could be pissed off" he adds, later speculating that this is the reason the Hinsdale spirit has targeted him. It doesn't like men. Again wild speculation is built into the show's narrative.

Problem 9: Investigating in the dark

Again a staple of both paranormal television and real ghost hunting groups, no investigator who uses this technique has been able to explain to me why ghost hunting is more likely to bear fruit when conducted in darkness. Surely investigators should be seeking to emulate conditions in which past sightings have occurred? Of course, ghost hunting in a well-lit environment isn't half as tense. The investigators themselves may not be as frightened and thus lessen the catharsis experienced by their viewers. Also hunting in well-lit environments may cause dissonance in a general public conditioned by television and film to expect ghostly occurrences in darkened enviroments.

Problem 10: The "Lockdown" premise is faulty

In a similar theme to the one above, no ghost hunter has yet to explain to me satisfactorily the purpose of locking down a location during an investigation. Many suggest that this is a form of control as exercised in scientific experiments. Here's the problem with that thinking. Firstly, as ghosts are yet to have been quantified as possessing particular qualities or causing particular environmental effects, how can one put in place "controls" for these effects.

Secondly, if we speculate that ghosts do, for example, cause cold spots, or anomalous electromagnetic fields, simply preventing people from entering a location isn't going to protect that location from drafts or electromagnetic fields generated by cameras and other pieces of equipment.

Finally,  these locations are rarely ever truly "locked down", in the episode in question Weidman wanders in and out of the house with a cameraman as Groff is conducting EVPs in an upstairs room. We are told there are no other crew members in attendance, but we can't be sure of this. In most ghost hunting shows we see different members of the crew split into teams to investigate different areas within a location, surely causing environmental disturbances.

Problem 11: Where's the baseline?

As with every other ghost hunting television show I've ever seen, the Lockdown team make no effort to measure baseline readings in the target location. As a result, they simply cannot know what constitutes a normal reading for that location. This means they can't suggest what is an anomalous reading is for that location!

For me, this is one of the main factors why I simply can't take most "ghost hunting," again delineating this from legitimate paranormal investigation, seriously.  If paranormal occurrences are suggested by anomalous data, it's vital to know what constitutes an anomaly.

Conclusion and Problem 12: The lack of originality in ghost hunting TV.

During the show Groff suggests that what he and Weidman are doing is "hardcore investigation", I legitimately don't see any investigation happening in this episode. A stark example of this is the image of Groff "investigating" by lying on a bed talking to himself. Shouting "I need answers" does not constitute looking for answers. The only thing Nick is investigating here is the comfort of mattresses in haunted locations!

Nick investigating Hinsdale house in a similar style to the investigation Goldilocks conducted in the three bears home.
The most striking thing about Paranormal Lockdown is how nonstriking it is. It's so similar to what has gone before, I was able to use a sample episode to define problems with the genre as a whole. Sure it has a gimmick, one which happens to be commonly employed in many other shows of this nature. But, it's otherwise indistinguishable. In fact, I'd say the most distinguishing factor is that Nick and Katrina seem strangely unmoved by what they are doing. Almost bored even...

Problem 13: When the stars of your ghost hunting show seem exhausted and bored maybe it's time to find a new format.

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