[24 February 2010]
It’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Technically, it’s a vinyl bank of Mr. Stay Puft from Diamond Select Toys, and he hangs out on my desk – a paranormal plump, puffed sugar relative of Bib the Michelin Man – simultaneously offering to give me a hug and destroy my world. Mr. Stay Puft was acquired at last week’s Toy Industry Association Toy Fair in New York City where, amongst all the action figures, board games and plush dolls, I noticed a theme: Ghosts are good for business.
Whether they are scary, cuddly or funny, we ain’t afraid of no ghosts. In fact, we love them.
The allure of spooks and specters has returned in a big way in the last five years. Even Ghost Busters, the 1984 comedy from whence Mr. Stay Puft originates, has experienced pop-culture revitalization with last year’s successful video game, next year’s sequel re-teaming much of the original cast and with several toys on display at the aforementioned Toy Fair.
Perhaps ironically, the old Ghost Busters required the new ghostbusters to return spooks to the forefront. Set in both famous locales and private homes, each week the reality show Ghost Hunters explores those bumps in the night, and they’re ready to believe the crazy sounding claims of frightened people. Much like Venkman, Stantz and Spengler, the ‘Ghost Hunters’ have a famous logo, use an array of gadgets, drive around in a signature vehicle and – most importantly – bustin’ makes them, and audiences, feel good.
It has also made the Syfy network feel very, very good now that the hit reality-TV show will reach the milestone of 100 episodes on 3 March 2010, with the premiere of the sixth season – which will be celebrated with an episode at Alacatraz along with an interactive fan viewing of the case.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have covered the Ghost Hunters, the two spin-off shows Ghost Hunters International and Ghost Hunters Academy, and much of the show’s TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society) team on several occasions since stars Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson began their televised mission of paranormal investigations in October 2004. In that time, I have frequently wondered what makes the show so compelling to me as a writer, and to the three million viewers they draw each week.
Even though the show has its detractors, there has to be sizable momentum for anything to last 100 episodes. Beyond the curiosity of “what’s beyond?”, what is it that inspires fans to spend small fortunes to travel across the country to join Hawes, Wilson and the rest of their TAPS group at lectures, signings and ticketed ghost hunts at haunted locations?
Based on personal interactions, I accept the image of the approachable, blue-collar family-men who are plumbers by day, ghost busters by night as legit. Even if the ghost hunter characters were complete orchestrations of an imaginative producer, it would be worth watching.
Additionally, the interplay of the paranormal unknown, the personalities of normal team members and the relateable blue-collar attitude succeeds in drawing about three million viewers each week. And the show’s personality and formula of investigation, evidence review and reveal has been spoofed and imitated by a dozen other shows—each attempting to add their unique spin to the paranormal TV genre.
Yet amongst the familiar mythologies in all of reality television, theirs ranks in the top ten. Love the show or loathe it, believe it or call it bunk, Ghost Hunters is a product of popular culture and has earned a spot in the reality-TV pantheon (which may be a dubious distinction considering the company).
Moreover, while true that paranormal investigative groups existed long before the Ghost Hunters show, it did spearhead the mainstream awareness of – and to a growing degree, acceptance of – these groups. The show ushered in something of a new wave of Spiritualism, the movement that began in the mid-19th century when séances were held in homes and people gathered in concert halls to watch a medium speak to spirits. However, this time the movement inspired people to form their own ghost hunting communities to help troubled home owners cope with undead squatters, or to spend nights exploring historic landmarks.
Maybe it all comes back to Ghost Busters. Yes, the appeal of exploring the unexplained connects to all of us on some level, but the Ghost Hunters show realizes and breathes life into those fictional pop icons. Anytime a “real life” James Bond or Batman pops up on the news, we take notice.
When life imitates art, it’s intriguing. If Gozer the Gozerian ever shows up to ask us to choose our destroyer, we’ll have some guys ready to strap on the proton packs for our supernatural elimination needs.