Featuring Ryan Buell as the lead ghost hunter, and four other college kids who comprise his team, A&E’s docu-reality series Paranormal State, now in its third season, travels around America pursuing and investigating supernatural claims. Think Scooby-Doo meets The Blair Witch Project. Buell, who has the sleepy good looks of Jake Gyllenhaal, tires to cultivate an edgy John Constantine vibe, but he’s a charisma-free zone—as wholesome and unthreatening as root beer and ice cream. Kind of embarrassingly, he describes his team as “students, seekers, and sometimes warriors.” Looking at his accomplices, however, one sees feckless young kids, uncertain and entirely suggestible. They look like they lack the spines to stare down their dorm master, let alone demons from the dark side. No matter, assuming a pseudo-professional posture, they travel form case to case searching for ghosts.
The show attempts to elicit the creeps by using a stock array of tricks from horror films. Spooky music whistles and bends, disorienting night-vision cameras zoom in and out, and jarring sound effects make the heart leap, but we never actually see anything. The faintest scuffle or dimmest movement is all the evidence the jittery crew needs of the supernatural. As each person’s excitement and agitation ignites the others’, what becomes clear is that the axiom “seeing is believing” should be inverted to “believing is seeing.”
Although Paranormal State is stagy and bereft of any actual evidence of the paranormal, I find it compelling all the same. The vulnerability and need for assurance of both those reporting the haunting and those investigating it, is palpable, and you can see how desperately they need some higher power to assume responsibility for the confusing, often uncertain circumstances of their lives. Making regular appearances on the show is Chip Coffey, an effeminate and fussy 54-year-old medium who wears a saucy thumb ring. When he says something, he looks around for approval, and then when he gets a little encouragement, he pushes forward with yet more grave and dramatic statements. You can see in him a need to be liked, to be valued, as if he were an outsider all of his life who finally found a welcoming niche in the subculture of paranormal enthusiasts.
On a recent episode involving a demon that was purported to be particularly malignant, Chip lost his cool. Waving his arms about in the pitch-black of the house, the man threw a temper tantrum, shouting at the invisible presence, “I will not be bullied!” It was not lost on me that Chip was screaming at something that wasn’t actually there. At that moment, it wasn’t hard to imagine that he probably grew up an outsider in a hostile and unsupportive environment, and whatever ghost he was yelling at on the TV show was likely a specter from his own unhappy past, not somebody else’s.
In the end, Paranormal State uses, whether intentionally or not, the supernatural as a means to deliver therapy. The goal isn’t really to find proof of a malevolent afterlife, but to offer those who need it a mystical vocabulary through which they might act out, and hopefully resolve, the troubling and unpredictable narratives of their lives.