I love a good ghost story. Book, TV show, movie—doesn’t matter. Scare the bejesus out of me and I’m a happy boy.
I have no idea why that is. I’ll leave that to my therapist. I know some people avoid horror movies and thrillers like the plague, saying, “It will give me nightmares!” I guess I am fortunate that I am able to forget about the thing minutes after it’s over and rarely suffer any residual emotional blowback. I think that’s because, on an intellectual level, I’m well aware that things such as vampires, werewolves, boogiemen and ghosts are simply the conjured-up fodder of some industrious imaginations. Things like war, famine, pestilence, and election-hacking, however, are all too real and will keep me up at night.
My affinity for all things spooky started around sixth grade when I started reading authors such as O. Henry, Robert Louis Stevenson and, my fav, Edgar Allan Poe. From there, I graduate to Lovecraft, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury and many more, too numerous to mention here.
Then, of course, there were those TV shows: “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits,” “One Step Beyond,” “Night Gallery,” “TJ Hooker.” OK, I am kidding about the last one, but you have to admit, William Shatner’s acting was pretty damn scary.
All those old shows (except “Night Gallery”) were in black and white, and somehow, I think, that made them even scarier. Color seems to lighten the mood.
In the interest of full disclosure, there actually were two occasions when I did suffer nightmares, and one of them wasn’t even from a TV show or movie. When I was in second grade, my family took a trip to Washington D.C. (we had relatives living there at the time) and we did the whole tourist thing: all the monuments, Capitol, White House, Smithsonian and the cherry blossoms. We also visited the Franciscan Monastery, which features replicas of the Roman catacombs, a place where the Christians would hide to avoid persecution from the emperor. It was a dark and scary place and the docent pointed out that many died while hiding down there and were laid to rest in alcoves cut into the walls. Fake skeletons were laid out in those niches to feed the realism; to an impressionable 7-year-old, it was terrifying.
When we got home, I began having the same chilling dream almost nightly. A mob of shrouded oppressors was coming down our street, looking to take me and my family away because we were Catholic. Some of these shadowy figures seem to be carrying scythes, though I didn’t know that’s what they were called. In the dream, I knew we had to escape to the catacombs and I would wake up bathed in sweat calling to my mom and dad to follow me there. Eventually, this nightmare went away on its own, but to this day I can still picture that ghostly throng assembling under the yellow haze of the streetlight just outside our house.
The second nightmare was caused by “The Exorcist.” I had read the book and thought it was great—no problems. Then I went to see the movie with my cousins. To me, “The Exorcist” is the best and scariest horror films of all time. Well-acted, well-written and brilliantly filmed, it brought a hyper-realism to a subject that otherwise could have come off as puerile. Consequently, Linda Blair’s swiveling head and guttural admonitions disturbed my dreams for weeks.
Nowadays, it’s hard for me to find a horror movie to give me a proper jolt of adrenaline. The genre is packed full of derivative been-there/done-that tropes more likely to elicit giggles instead of gasps.
I did enjoy “A Quiet Place,” partly, I admit, because it was filmed in Pawling, my hometown, but also because it was completely original, atmospheric, well-acted and well-told. And I confess to jumping out of my seat on more than one occasion. That doesn’t happen very often anymore.
As America’s obsession with the supernatural grows, the cable TV landscape has become littered with paranormal-themed “reality shows.” It started with “Ghost Hunters”—about a bunch of plumbers who moonlight as paranormal investigators. They have some cool equipment to aid them in their ghostly enquires, including special recorders to help them track down EVPs—electronic voice phenomenon. Since “Ghost Hunters” became a big hit, there have been dozens of knock-offs, and in nearly all of them they try to get themselves an electronic voice phenomenon. They’ll walk around the haunted house (hotel, abandoned prison, abandoned mental institution, museum, movie theater, school, whatever) holding out their recorders and calling out questions to the unseen entities: “To any spirit who may reside here, I am asking you to identify yourself. What is your name?!”
Then they play the recording back.
Investigator: To any spirit who may reside here, I am asking you to identify yourself. What is your name?!
EVP: Smereggh rahg zif blahga farg! Arrg.
Then they all gasp and say, “Oh, my God! Did you hear that? It said, ‘My name is Daniel Johnson and I live in this house. Would you like some tea?’”
And I’m like, whaaaat?
Truth is, none of these TV paranormal investigations have ever gotten any true, provable evidence of an actual ghost on any of these shows—though you’d never believe that from the way they behave. The worst shows are the ones where they create re-enactments of the haunting, featuring really bad acting and really bad dialogue. Inevitably, every story centers on a new couple who buy their dream house. The husband has a job that takes him away from home for days on end. While away, the wife experiences all kinds of paranormal stuff—noises, voices, moving objects, foul odors, scratches on her back, flickering lights, excessive amounts of spam in her email, hacked Netflix account. When she tells hubby about what’s going on, he haughtily dismisses it as part of her overactive female imagination. It puts a strain on their marriage, which is about to pop, until—BOOM!—stuff starts happening to him, too. Now he believes her! Then they either hire a weird lady with purple hair to set fire to some sage in their living room and the evil entities depart (they hate sage; parsley and thyme are OK though). If that doesn’t work, the family just moves to a new ghost-free dream home and...end of story.
I recently did a little research online and discovered at least 60 paranormal shows, besides “Ghost Hunters,” that involve ghost stories and/or investigations. I have had the jovial pleasure of having watched many of them. Here’s a few: Ghost Adventures, The Dead Files, Paranormal Witness, A Haunting, Destination Truth, Paranormal Lockdown, Paranormal State, Celebrity Ghost Stories, Haunted Collector, Scariest Places on Earth, Ghost Asylum, My Ghost Story: Caught on Camera, The Haunting, Psychic Kids, Most Haunted, Ghost Lab, In Search Of…, My Haunted House, Sightings, MonsterQuest, UFO Hunters, When Ghosts Attack, Ghost Detectives, The Unexplained Files, Finding Bigfoot, Ghost Brothers, The Ghost Inside My Child, Paranormal Afterparty, Stranded and Extreme Paranormal.
I have a couple of favorites. “Ghost Adventurers” is great because their goal is to insult the ghost. One of the guys is constantly yelling at and challenging the ghost and trying to lower its self-esteem. “Finding Bigfoot” is hysterical; kind of the Keystone Cops of monster shows and poorly named because they never do (find Bigfoot). Finally, there is “Ghost Brothers.” It’s a paranormal investigation show exactly like all the others except its investigators are African-American. Yes, (sigh), that’s what they mean by “brothers.” It does seem a smidge racist, though the ghosts probably don’t notice.
The one show I’m waiting for is: “My Haunted White House: When Presidents Attack.”
I’ve got goosebumps already!