Chasing Television’s Ghosts

There are no such things as ghosts, many of us get taught in childhood.

But somebody forgot to inform the millions of viewers tuning into the various ghost-hunting, spirit seeking, and paranormal-oriented series on such cable networks as Sci Fi Channel, A&E Network and Lifetime.

The whole paranormal genre is certainly not new to the big or small screens. Over the last quarter-century, moviegoers have watched Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd successfully battle supernatural spirits and marshmallow men in the Ghostbusters series, while Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams gave new meaning to watching television in Poltergeist.

Turn of the century paranormal-tinged movies such as Gothika, Final Destination and, more recently, the Jessica Alba film The Eye — which last week generated $12 million at the box office in its opening run — have thrilled audiences and scared up some decent ticket revenue.

On the small screen, Scully and Mulder studied paranormal happenings and each other in Fox’s 1990s series The X-Files and currently, Jennifer Love Hewitt helps spirits clean up unfinished earthly business in Ghost Whisperer.

But now it seems you can’t surf your 200-channel cable lineup without coming across some enterprising 20-something with night goggles walking into some eerie, dark, often uninhabited dwelling, or a psychic attempting to reach the spirit of a deceased dog for a distraught pet owner.

More often than not, channel surfers are stopping to watch.

Sci Fi Channel’s three-year old Ghost Hunters franchise — in which two ordinary plumbers by day ditch the plunger at night, using infrared cameras to explore the scariest of haunts — is averaging a network reality-series high 2.0 million viewers, nearly double the network’s 1.1 million average primetime viewers for 2007.

A spinoff series, launched last month, that took the hunt international tapped 2.8 million viewers in its Jan. 9 premiere.

Sci Fi Channel arguably birthed cable’s love affair with the paranormal with the launch of Crossing Over with John Edward in 2000. The psychic, whose claim to fame is talking to those in the afterlife, has since crossed over to WE TV with a new series that now goes Cross Country.

Meanwhile, Lifetime has its own resident medium in Lisa Williams, who consistently drew more than a million viewers for her show Life Among The Dead.

And 1.6 million viewers tuned in last November to see the finale of a competition series America’s Psychic Challenge, according to Lifetime.

A&E is also seeking to scare up viewers with its ode to the supernatural, Paranormal State. The freshman series, in which otherwise normal Penn State college students actively seek out people who are terrified by shaking walls and other unusual events in their homes, is drawing an average of 1.7 million viewers since its launch last December.

Why the growing interest in ghosts and spirits? Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television believes that people will always have a macabre interest in the afterlife.

“We all know we’re going to die, but the need and desire to know what happens after we die is a huge human issue, and these programs attempt to satisfy that curiosity,” he said. “Because science is unable to actually go into this realm, it leaves an enormous vacuum that these shows fill for many viewers.”

Perhaps there is a simpler explanation: most of the shows are just flat-out entertaining. Sci Fi, A&E and Lifetime have become adept in packaging suspense, excitement, action and emotion around subject matter that would otherwise be hard for most rational-minded people to swallow.

It’s not difficult to get pumped up or excited when the adrenaline-kicking music is cued up and the camera is frantically moving around a dark room as the plumbers of Ghost Hunters sense a spirit among them.

Viewers clearly believe it’s OK to see dead people — as long as their images are being channeled through the television set.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.