While many may doubt the veracity of the tales of paranormal encounters depicted in Destination America’s series A Haunting, one need not believe in ghosts and spirits to recognize the sincerity of the individuals telling their stories. These ordinary people are the heart of the show, and the fact that they truly believe they had real supernatural experiences brings the reader to empathize with them. But the real merit of this series is that, although clearly seeking validation for its subjects, it does not espouse any particular idea of what is “true”. A Haunting leaves itself open to interpretation, and more than anything calls for open-mindedness.
Opening with the ominous declaration that “in America, there is real evil,” A Haunting’s fifth season certainly has a flair for the dramatic. Interviews with families who profess to have had legitimate supernatural encounters are interspersed with dramatic re-enactments and spine-tinglingly evocative narration. The series depicts more than just traditional hauntings, as some episodes deal with demonic activity, possessions, and ghostly visions, but one feature that is common to all of the accounts in the 2012 season is the centrality of family. The paranormal activity usually affects an entire household, the only way to end the hauntings requiring the participation of the entire family. This gives an added emotional element to the show, bringing family members together as they learn to trust one another through strange and terrifying experiences.
As is usually the case in shows that employ such dramatizations, the re-enactments are hit or miss. Some episodes contain convincing and even moving performances, but others are painfully underwhelming and strained. While for the most part the show is successful enough at visually representing the strange and often terrifying experiences of the interviewees, this is primarily due to the show’s direction rather than to the acting. Indeed, the re-enactments are most successful because of the striking images they often contain, capturing in terrifying snapshots the most intense moments of the subjects’ experiences. And while this gives these ordinary people’s extraordinary stories an added element of theatricality, it doesn’t merely sensationalize them. The re-enactments stick very closely to the direct accounts of the interviewees and the narration may embellish how the story is told, but it rarely embellishes the events themselves. This approach to dramatization makes for a truly riveting show, but doesn’t overwhelm the subjects genuineness.
A Haunting necessarily has overtly religious overtones, as hauntings imply an encounter with the spiritual, and exorcisms and house cleansings are commonly associated with prayer and religious rituals. Most episodes include some invocation of the “power of prayer” in the families’ attempts to rid their homes of supernatural forces. Some episodes are more directly associated with one religious tradition or another, often calling on the services of either a member of the clergy or a medium, but the paranormal investigators involved generally exhibit an openness to a wide variety of belief systems. One such investigator explained that this is a matter of efficacy when it comes to putting spirits to rest: “To effectively do a cleanse, it has to be based on what the homeowner believes in.”
All in all, this sort of openness to others’ beliefs is the most striking characteristic of A Haunting. While this reality show largely seeks to give credibility to the belief in the supernatural, it does not force one particular belief system or another, nor does it attempt to identify any specific set of “truths” about the spiritual realm. Rather, it calls for open-mindedness and sensitivity to the convictions of others. In most episodes at least one individual is especially adamant about finding logical explanations for the strange phenomena, and in each case their experiences and their loved ones’ pleas lead them to find no other reasonable conclusion than to accept the existence of the supernatural.
One such skeptic-turned-believer in season five emphasizes the need to “just listen” to your loved ones and to take their beliefs seriously because, to them, what they are experiencing is very real. In this way, A Haunting makes a valuable point. No matter whether you believe in ghosts, the series’ emphasis on the need to be open-minded and accepting of other views makes it more than just an attempt to legitimize one belief system or another. Rather, it offers the riveting tales of ordinary people who simply want to be heard. A Haunting is therefore both entertaining and thought-provoking, asking viewers to “just listen” and still leaving room for them to make up their own minds.