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Rant #8: In Which the Author Discusses Spooky Stuff on Television

Halloween.

It's a horror writers' favorite time of the year, right? People are digging horror, AMC is showing a back-to-back-to-oh-God-let-it-stop marathon of the Chucky movies (how, exactly, does something like that get the designation of "classic" anywhere outside the home of the director's blood relatives?), and ghosts and ghouls are all around.

This is true. But what is also true is that it's the best time of the year for my videographic guilty pleasure, that staple of theoretically semi-educational cable channels, the bastion of on-the-cheap fall programming known only as…the ghost documentary. Yes, when leaves start to turn and jumbo-sized candy corn appears in supermarkets, it's time for TLC, Discovery, the History Channel, the Travel Channel, and the What the Hell, There's Nothing Else On Channel to unleash a year's backlog of shot-on-video documentaries purporting to show us the nation's most haunted hotels, beds and breakfasts, former prisons, lighthouses, fast food restaurants, and outhouses.

They're all put together the same, of course. First, you have the breathless narration of the story that supposedly explains the haunting, often with Tom Baker-era Dr. Who-level special effects. Then, the twisty, turny camera angles, often overclocked into slo-mo and filtered for maximum spooky. Next, there's the interviews with folks who may or may not have seen something (the heavily moustachioed park ranger is almost a must), and then the walkthrough with the mandatory two EMP readers, the night vision goggles, and the local psychic. Then it's on to the next location, though there's at least a 50-50 chance that The Myrtles plantation will show up at some point during the broadcast out of general principle.

Now, I have nothing against ghost hunting, ghost hunters, or television about same. I get a tremendous kick out of these shows, as well as some great reference material, and find the whole concept enjoyable. But honestly, they're not very good. They're designed to fill seasonal programming space, the same way Food Network goes psychotic for turkey in mid-November, and provide a few cheap thrills. That's all, nothing else.

I do find myself, even as I get suckered and watch these things, wishing that, well, they were better done. Production values aside, the fact that these are all so formulaic as to be easily reduced to one snark-laden paragraph hints that there's a lack of respect for the source material, and a lack of interest in digging deeper into a subject that weaves deep into local fabric, wherever you go. Every town in America has its haunted places, its La Llorona or doomed lovers or headless soldier story, and often these stories are tied inextricably to the real, fascinating history that has occurred. Often they're tied to landmark architecture or important events, really good stories that could lead to exploration of wider topics or just some good storytelling, instead of cheap scares for one month per year and dust on the shelf for the other eleven.

But it's not going to happen, not this year at least. And I'll still be watching, no doubt. Who knows? Maybe I'll finally learn something new about The Myrtles.




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