Overall, I would rate the America Unearthed graphics as beautiful but inappropriate because they don’t visually communicate to the viewer what the show is about. Instead, they convey a misleading message that trades on the association of the news with credibility and trustworthiness to lend visual weight to Wolter’s lighter than air theories.
It’s probably telling that H2, different from other shows, does not draw on elements of the America Unearthed graphics package in its advertising but instead created a completely different visual identity for the show in its advertising, one dominated by muted earth tones and the silhouette of a pyramid emerging from swirling clouds. They wanted to emphasize ancient mysteries, while the show itself wants to convey a message of news-making action.
Neither show, though, does as good a job of marrying aesthetics to content as the ghost hunting shows do. They have it comparatively easy, however, since they can draw on well-established clichés dating back to the days of Gothic horror—vacant buildings, deep shadows, the suggestion of ruin and terror. Even when the shows are themselves incompetent, they can make use of such imagery to give false power to what are, essentially, shows about grown men running around in the dark scaring themselves silly.
Even the Syfy channel—home to so many ghost shows—has begun to realize that the audience for paranormal television has an upper limit, and it was interesting to learn that the network has finally recognized that fringe programming is no longer a growth field, as Syfy’s head of original programming, Bill McGoldrick, told Entertainment Weekly recently: "We had a long run with paranormal shows like Ghost Hunters and Paranormal Witness. Our audience really rejects those derivative filler reality shows. We have to work harder with smart producers to give them a different flavor of reality TV."
Or maybe there’s just too much of it. Ghost hunting shows had their heyday around 2006 or so, when networks including A&E, Biography, Discovery, Lifetime, Syfy, TLC, Travel, WE, and more offered such fare. Today, more than three-quarters of ghost hunting shows have been cancelled. Instead, the shows have moved, in large measure, further up the dial, where the diminished core viewership continues to enjoy them on more obscure channels like Destination America and Lifetime Movie Network, the latter of which now airs The Haunting of…, a former Biography Channel program focused on celebrities’ ghost stories, though with the twist of having a psychic medium on hand to connect celebrities with their favorite ghosts.
Have you ever seen that show?
I hadn’t until this weekend when, bored and waiting for America Unearthed to start, I caught an episode in which alleged psychic medium Kim Russo met with Jesse Metcalfe, who starred on Desperate Housewives and the recent Dallas revival, to help him come to terms with supernatural experiences he claims to have had in his childhood home circa 1990. These involved being afraid of going down in the basement because it was spooky.
Russo appeared to use a combination of hot and cold reading techniques (the nice thing about celebrities is that so much of their lives is easy to look up), and at no time did she or the production crew do even cursory research to substantiate her claims that Metcalfe’s childhood home had played host to the various dead people and murder victims she claimed were doing battle within, with a protective spirit holding off a malevolent entity to keep Metcalfe safe. (She was giving a pretty close summary of the 2005 Supernatural episode “Home.”) For his part, Metcalfe seemed to be trying hard to play along but could only bring himself to say that this experience with the supernatural and ghosts was “fun” rather than real or cathartic. I’d love to know what he thought about it after the cameras were turned off.
What struck me though was how little the medium seemed to care about the supposed supernatural mysteries she was uncovering; instead, she focused on probing Metcalfe’s family history and trying to get Metcalfe and his stepfather to express their love for one another on camera. “It’s therapeutic,” Russo said of her psychic efforts, and it was rather evident that the appeal of such programs has less to do with the ghosts—who never actually show up—than with watching celebrities go through an impromptu therapy session with a manipulative and incompetent therapist. I wonder if the emphasis on relationships and emotions is why ghost and psychic shows have an overwhelmingly female audience.
To tie this back in to where I started, I do want to point out that The Haunting of… made generally excellent use of Gothic clichés, from the title card with its suitably spooky appearance, to the dark and shadowy photography—really, there isn’t any reason not to turn on the lights. Given that this is a cheap reality show designed as a vehicle to promote Russo and various celebrities, the show made relatively great use of the aesthetics of the Gothic. It’s just a shame that it’s in service of such miserable crap.