If A&E hadn’t swiped the title for its own series based around Penn State’s student-run college club of supernatural investigators, Paranormal State would be a rather accurate description of the media landscape circa 2010. Looking around the various cable and broadcast outlets, we see various permutations of Ghost Hunters and Adventures, child psychics and other underage fear factors, as well as a lingering set of tacky talk shows where hosts proclaim an ability to communicate with the dead (while, perhaps, conning the living?). Of course, it would be nice to draw some kind of social commentary parallel to this sudden surge in the search for signs of the spirit world, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a connection. Instead, shows like Paranormal State function as mere familiar folklore, digging beneath the surface of suburbia to discover what makes people afraid and then, how best to address said fears.
Unlike other examples of the type, Paranormal State centers firmly on belief, not debunking. All throughout the recently released Fourth Season DVD set, program director Ryan Buell and his interchangeable team of fresh faced helpers never once question the truth of the many claims made. A couple can discuss a one-off fling with Satanism and our guide suddenly suspects the mangoat for everything. Similarly, stories of children being “pushed” out of second story windows and suggestions of abusive, addictive behavior are waved off as being part of the Devil’s/Dead’s dominion over the living. Catholicism and religion are always part of the process, as is the surveillance camera and the EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) recorder. For each 22 minute show, Ryan sets up a situation, calls in his crew, does a bit of research, and then settle in for what they refer to as “Dead Time.”
It is within each premise and the process where Paranormal State thrives. Rarely is there a payoff – sometimes, the show is so anticlimactic that said letdown is in and of itself scary. But with a wonderful way with atmosphere and a lot of genre innuendo, Ryan and the team take us right up to the point of terror, if not totally all the way. Of course, it’s hard to feel threatened when the entire situation is played out in a nonplused, professional manner. Unlike a series such as Ghost Adventures which sees dim bulb Zak Bagans babbling like an idiot the minute anything remotely unusual happens, the Paranormal State‘s staff utter a few four letter words and then go about their business. Without an hour to mess about in, the show is lean and to the point. Ryan sets up the story, they go dark during ‘dead time’ (meaning no outside influences), and come up with something the others shows also avoid – solutions.
Finding answers is another interesting element of Paranormal State, arguing that many spirit manifestations can be battled by simply remembering what is sacred and what should remain profane. With the help of his occult specialist Eilfie, rituals are presented (like salt near the edge of a particularly active forest) and messages of empowerment are proffered. In essence, Ryan is arguing that many paranormal situations stem from the victim’s vulnerability and faith in what’s frightening them. If they simply stand up for themselves, and against the ‘entity’ causing the concern, a lot of the anxiety (and ancillary susceptibility) will disappear. Sure, it seems a little silly to see a harried mother lay down the rules to a mischievous spirit child, but Ryan seems to think it helps, and the post-credit wraps appear to suggest the same.
That doesn’t mean that all the episodes of Season Four are successful. The initial hour long installment, “Suicide Possession” often appears like an episode of another A&E favorite – Intervention – without the race to rehab feel. As we watch the couple kvetch over the man’s menacing behavior (there is a hint that he is on some manner of drugs for his demeanor), one can see that Ryan and his troupe – Sergey, Heather, Katrina, etc. – are in way over their head. Similarly, when the guest psychics are called in, the huckster nature of the experience starts to show through. While a familiar face like Lorraine Warren (noted for her work in the Amityville Horror case) takes things very seriously indeed, the campy Chip Coffey often comes across as Rip Taylor with a direct line to the dead zone.
Elsewhere, something like “Haunted Sex Dungeon” just asks to be ridiculed, the homeowner’s pensive mannerisms deflected by the goofy bondage gear in his basement (leftover from previous tenants, or so we are told). Even more hilarious is the solution – the ghost doesn’t like the perverted paraphernalia hanging around, so it should be gotten rid of. Oh brother. True, when we see a shape pass through the woods during the outdoor investigation of “Little Boy Pushed Me”, our spine starts to tingle. Similarly, a return trip to the notorious West Virginia State Penitentiary works because of the varying interactions offered. But “Devil in Jersey” does the entire Pine Barrens legend a disservice, while “Satan’s Soldiers” has so much potential that when it’s wasted, you wonder why Ryan and the gang even bothered.
But because of the nonjudgmental attitude offered by Ryan et al, because of the desire to not necessarily prove things false but render them manageable and livable, Paranormal State survives the problematic pop culture chasm. While it can occasionally come across as a bunch of university grads goofing off instead of getting real jobs, while the subjects can strain credibility to the point of unintentional humor, the focused format and smattering of God stuff really sets this series apart. In a backdrop littered by hacks hoping that no one will notice the con man concealed behind the night vision goggles, Paranormal State stands apart. It may not be more believable or bold, but it does attempt to keep the possible horrors front and center. Other shows want to offer definitive scientific proof one way or the other. Ryan Buell just wants us to believe, and when we do, his show succeeds.