Saturday, February 4, 2012

Ghost Hunting in the Hell-Fire Caves

I've chosen to consider the video above, a segment from the Syfy (formerly 'Sci Fi') channel program Ghost Hunters because it was selected for viewing in another class I'm taking this semester called "Night". (I'm not sure why we selected one with Spanish subtitles, but está todo bien.) This video depicts the "reveal" portion of the show, in which the Ghost Hunters lead investigators, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, present the results of their investigation to the senior caretaker of the Hell-Fire Caves, Theresa Tedman. I think this summation presents a good opportunity to examine the methodology of the Ghost Hunters and their organization, The Atlantic Paranormal Society, through the lens of our critical thinking 'Elements of Thought' framework.

The Hell-Fire Caves, also known as the West Wycombe Caves, are a series of man-made underground caverns located in the Chiltern Hills, Buckinghamshire, England. They were excavated at the behest of Sir Francis Dashwood, an 18th century English noble and political figure and the founder of several organizations that would later come to be referred to collectively as the Hellfire Club. The club, consisting of "persons of quality" that sought a safe, secret outlet for their more amoral activities, held as its motto Fais ce que tu voudras ('Do what thou wilt'). For the past two centuries the caves in which Dashwood's club met have been held to be haunted, most notably by Paul Whitehead, a friend of Dashwood's, and the 'White Lady,' a maid at a local inn rumored to have been killed in an incident in the caves. (More information about these legends can be found here:

For their investigation, Hawkes and Wilson and their team explored the caves and also placed digital audio recording devices and 'Zero Lux' (i.e., no light) cameras in various locations to record potential paranormal activity. They report their team as having seen a person walk past a doorway in the cave system where no one should have been at the time, and an unexplained moving shadow where, again, no one seemed to be present. Their electronic monitoring of the caverns reveal what they purport to be unexplained voices (i.e., 'EVPs', or 'electronic voice phenomena') and a video showing what they suggest is an ethereal presence moving towards the camera and reflecting light onto the cave wall. The lead investigators portray themselves as objective ("I know we investigate the paranormal, but we're very logical minded...") and spend a bit of time debunking some aspects of previous reports from the caves (explaining the bits of ceiling that sometimes fall as the potential source of unexplained sensations of being touched, e.g.), but ultimately betray a distinctly non-objective, "want to believe" outlook. For example, during their playback of the audio recordings (2:00), they ponder "what it's trying to tell us," and suggest that "a lot of times, they're just trying to communicate." When their video "evidence" is revealed (3:25, with eerie music for effect), the caretaker's report that she has seen light at this same spot in the caves is treated as overwhelming corroboration of their case. Hawes' final summation captures their less-than-objective outlook:

When it comes down to it, I believe you have paranormal activity here. I believe the place is haunted... I would love to spend more time here... We just, of course, we don't have the time.

It would seem, of course, from an outsider's perspective, that actual audio and visual evidence of paranormal events confirming the existence of ghosts would suffice to interrupt their busy schedule, but, they seem to be implying, there are just so many ghosts out there, that we have to move on to the next... The life of a Ghost Hunter is a busy one.

To consider this segment from the standpoint of our critical thinking criteria, we are best served by carefully considering the question at hand: Do ghosts exist, and, if so, are the Hell-Fire Caves haunted? The implicit suggestion given by the show's title is that ghosts almost certainly exist, and it is therefore a matter of "hunting" them, seeking conclusive evidence that confirms once and for all that they are real. The investigation of the caves is itself the enactment of the basic question at the heart of the series, an attempt to supply an answer to the age-old question of what happens to us after we die. Although not fully unpacked, the question of the existence or non-existence of ghosts and a 'spirit world' confronts an issue as old as humanity that lurks in the figurative shadows of Ghost Hunters. The idea that life in some way continues after the death of the body is at the heart of the show and its investigations into the paranormal. The specific case presented here is almost irrelevant, as Hawes' comment about not having the time to further investigate reveals.

The assumptions that underlie the video segment are numerous. Leaving aside those that are implicit in the show's very existence, already mentioned above, we may note to begin with that the idea that the Hell-Fire Caves are ripe for haunting is suggested by their very "spookiness"... in this case, the word can be taken quite literally. The associations with Hell and the immoral behavior of libertine aristocrats serve to support the notion that this location is particularly prone to paranormal activity. Also, the explicit assumptions of both the caretaker and the Ghost Hunters team are, as previously noted, clearly on the side of the unquestionable existence of ghosts. It seems just a matter of confirming their presence, rather than one of questioning whether the reports might be explained in some other way. The audio and video "evidence" are presented matter-of-factly, with little attention to what would, were it truly capable of being confirmed, undoubtedly be stop-the-presses level news. Though viewed with some interest, the alleged capture on video of a ghost barely raises an eyebrow on the investigators, which certainly reveals their assumption (on-screen, at least) that ghosts exist. And this also exposes another assumption that underlies the show: it is all but certain, even to those involved, that nothing that the Ghost Hunters or The Atlantic Paranormal Society display as purported evidence on their show will rise to the level of a scientific discovery. They are both implying the validity of and simultaneously marginalizing the reality of the paranormal by their methods and lack of gravitas regarding the significance of their work. There is no attempt made to truly influence the acceptance of the paranormal (and, especially, ghosts) within a wider societal framework, suggesting that the assumption is ultimately one perhaps best described as "You're either with us or against us." Few minds will be changed by a viewing of Ghost Hunters.

I have already touched on the implications and consequences that are perpetually at stake on the show. Were evidence clearly and undeniably presented that confirmed the existence of ghosts, human understanding of the world we live in would be forever altered. Of course, many societies and probably billions of individuals already support the theory that in some way life continues on after death. But were the grainy video we see in this segment to be accepted as actual evidence of a ghost, and were this somehow to be discovered to be the "spirit" of, say, Paul Whitehead, we would have confirmation of a phenomenon that until the present day has eluded any objective attempt at investigation. While many religious individuals and other believers in the paranormal would simply feel vindicated, the scientific establishment would be all but overturned. This is what the almost nonchalant reaction of the investigators betrays, and what the fact that this is not breaking news but, instead, a weekly series on basic cable reveals. The gargantuan consequences of any actual confirmation of their assumptions are ignored... "We don't have the time."

This leads to a consideration of the point of view from which the team makes its observations and conducts its investigations. The presumption, of course, is that The Atlantic Paranormal Society consists of believers in the phenomena being examined, and seekers of evidence providing confirmation of theories that would overturn many of our deepest scientific convictions. This is no doubt true to some extent, but it must also be observed that this is also a television show. Thus, there are viewers to entertain, network executives to satisfy, and advertisers to attract. This reality underlies everything that we see on TV, and especially suggests the inherent bias towards entertainment rather than science which can hardly be avoided given the circumstances. Viewed in this light, the point of view of our investigators must be seen as one which seeks both somewhat plausible evidence, but also the constant gratification of viewers seeking thrills, chills, and excitement. This explains both the tendency to confirm their apparent belief in the paranormal while also simultaneously hedging their bets. The team seeks to come across as open to the point of view of true believers in these phenomena, while still "logical minded." At the end of the day, the highest stakes at play are television rating numbers and full-season renewals. This point of view, while perhaps somewhat cynical-sounding, must always be considered when television programs are under investigation.

I must confess to never having watched a full episode of the show, and so any conclusions that I make here are based on a tiny sampling of evidence. I can't in good faith judge the show or its team based on this one video segment. I generally maintain an open mind to any and all claims, be they paranormal, religious, scientific, or what have you, with an eye out towards what is motivating the claim. Were a show such as Ghost Hunters to conclusively debunk one claim after another on every episode, it would hardly last a season, and so it behooves the show's creators to leave as many questions open as possible. At the same time, were the investigators to portray themselves as wide-eyed and credulous about every claim, they would simply appear ridiculous (as some already perceive them: So they seek an open-minded, yet "logical" middle ground. In my opinion, they miss the mark, however, and fail to generate a sincerely speculative effort to investigate the paranormal, at least in this segment. They are far from objective in their assumptions, and clearly aren't concerned with the magnitude of their claims, and so come across as merely capitalizing on the belief in ghosts in an effort to keep their show exciting enough to remain on the air for as long as possible.

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