Friday, July 22, 2011

A Rose By Any Other Name...

About a week ago, author Deonna Sayed brought up an interesting and very valid question:
What makes someone a paranormal investigator? Is it active field work (with or without a team)? Watching "the shows"? Going to a few conferences? Just knowing people in "the field"? At what point does someone earn the right to claim the title?

These days, there are people out there who watch a few episodes of Ghost Hunters and BAM! They're "paranormal investigators". It's a word thrown out to describe the thrill-seeker who pays fifty bucks to tramp around a haunted prison with a hundred other people in a black logoed t-shirt as well as the die-hard individuals who've spent decades tirelessly perfecting their methods just the same. And honestly, it's a self-denoted title; there's no college accredited degree for investigating ghosts, no ectoplasmic trophy differentiating the "amateur" from the "expert" in the field (although many people use the word expert to describe themselves).

But we can't just blame it on the explosion of paranormal television. In the past decade--yes, even before cable ghost busters--I have watched people join a group, go on one investigation, quit within a week, start their own "group" a day later, and suddenly say they're "experienced professional paranormal investigators". There might be something psychological at play here: the human need for superiority, recognition, praise, and/or approval. No one likes being low man on the totem pole. We live in a world of instant gratification. Why work toward something when you can jump right to the end goal?

So, let's take a closer look at Deonna's question and break it down. Does active field work make you an investigator? Yes and no. Just like you can't learn proper brain surgery from reading a book and watching a documentary, the best real way to earn the title of investigator is to, well, investigate. A lot of important things can be learned from reading books or observing others do some form or work, but real know-how is a hands-on experience. Not everything works as well as it seems on television, and some methods used by others may be completely unreliable. Trial and error rules out the bogus from the plausible. That's something you can't simply sit back and take notes to learn. Repeated effort (and failure) is a wonderful way to learn and one way true progress is actually made.

Does watching a show make you an investigator? That's a big fat "NO". I've watched building and construction documentaries and shows, but I'm not an architect not do I pretend to be. You can learn some things for television, but it's no substitute for real life. The same applies to online websites. And for the record, no; playing Farmville doesn't make you a farmer. So how about going to a conference? Again, it's the same thing. Does going to a book conference make you a writer? Maybe if you're a hipster...

So what about knowing people in "the field"? Again, that doesn't necessarily make you an investigator. It can, however, better educate you and help you learn skills, bounce ideas off someone more knowledgeable than yourself, or even give you role models who point you in the right direction. Of course, some people like to "collect" popular people as friends as if associating yourself with a para-celebrity will suddenly give you credibility. If you want to befriend someone in the field, ask yourself why you want to know them. If it's for sharing limelight or to show off that you know the "in crowd", it's for the wrong reasons. On the other hand, if it's someone you admire or find fascinating/interesting/good-natured on a human level and wouldn't care if they were a nobody, then I say go for it.

The reality is that there are several true categories of "paranormal investigators" all lumped under the same umbrella term: the beginner curious to find explanations for the unknown, the history buff tickled at the idea of discovering 'living history', the entertainment junkie looking for a good scare or creepy old building to wander around in, the scientific-minded seeker who wants to validate or disprove the phenomena, the writer looking for an interesting story, the social person looking for a different sort of group activity, and the seasoned "professional" archiving and collecting data to try to arrive at a hypothesis. Some people are a combination of these. Others fall somewhere between. We don't have specific terms for each type of ghost hunter; to many, they're all "investigators".

Over the years, I've referred to myself as an "investigator" less and less. It's not due to early retirement or somehow being a sudden complete skeptic. (I've always held a certain level of skepticism; I find it invaluable when dealing with strange occurrences and eye-witness testimonies.) The main reason is that in recent years, I've spent more time writing about locations and researching the historical background of legends and places that I haven't spent enough time actually investigating allegedly haunted places. Do I miss it? Of course I do. And my days of looking for the unexplained are far from over. But it's the history that drives me forward. Having a psychic tell me that a 12-year-old girl died in a hotel room is all fine and dandy, but finding a documented account of that event correlating to a legend of a ghostly girl brings me a level of excitement I can't even describe. More often than not, the real history is much more interesting than the rumor.

Some of us live to find that piece of concrete evidence to prove ghosts aren't all in the mind. Others just live to be scared out of their wits. Is everyone with a flashlight, camera, and EMF meter a "paranormal investigator"? Hardly. There are the inexperienced and experienced, the green and the seasoned, the serious and the carefree. Only you know where you fall on the spectrum; whether you choose to state the truth or bend it is your own choice. But if you're true to yourself, positive things can happen. Only by knowing where you stand can you find the path to where you want to be.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Let's Hear It for the Boy...

Generally, I don't watch any paranormal television shows. Sometimes I'll watch an old episode if it deals with a place I'm curious to find out a general synopsis about or (as in the case if Haunted Collector) if there happen to be antiques being discussed. I'd much rather be out exploring new locations than playing armchair observer. But it seems I might have to start tuning in later this year to a show I haven't watched in years. It's the perennial favorite SciFi Channel series Ghost Hunters.

I never watched a single episode of Ghost Hunters Academy nor did I ever submit an audition tape to any paranormal show (unless you count responding to an email from an agent of a well-known actor looking for possible cast members for a show that never made it off the ground). I do admire people who have been in front of a camera and while I haven't been on any major network I have found myself being filmed for television, so I know how much actually goes into a short piece. (And the fun of walking up the same hill three times to be filmed from different angles.) So of course, when I learned about the winner of the last season, I didn't think anything of it.

Yes. I'm so far out of the loop I couldn't tell you anything about ghost shows from the past year. Even worse, I doubt I'd recognize any of the names. But I guess I'm still used to the good ol' days of paranormal investigation when the people we looked up to were rarely on television and all we learned came from books, documentaries, and the occasional online discussion. I sort of miss those days.

Anyway, I was poking around through news articles the other day trying to find an old cold case I read about when I stumbled across some things about Adam Berry, the newest cast member of Ghost Hunters. And I was taken aback slightly. For the first time, someone openly acknowledged their sexuality before becoming a cast member on a hit paranormal show. That's right; we have ourselves an out gay man on television who happens to hunt ghosts. For anyone who lives under a log like myself and missed it, here's his audition tape for the show:

According to an interesting interview with AfterElton, Adam said he hadn't experienced any negative treatment on the basis of his sexuality, which is quite promising news. Author Deonna Sayed interviewed me a year back about being a gay ghost hunter and I mentioned some of my own past issues in the field. Of course, I'm in Ohio and not Provincetown, Massachusetts like Adam. As they say, it's all about location, location, location. Both Adam and his boyfriend founded Provincetown Paranormal Research Society (and I believe I ran across the name somewhere in my research, likely when I was in Salem shortly after my book came out), and he's spent about two years looking for spooks. Whether or not they've checked out some of the places I interviewed for my book and the others I've saved for a sequel I'm not sure. " I’d love to investigate something [gay] in Provincetown," Berry told AfterElton. Maybe one of these days I'll try to set up a brief interview and fill him in on some great spots in his neck of the woods.

I do hope the show goes well for him and the trend of tolerance continues. Of course, this means I might have to go back a few months and catch up on the past season that I missed entirely. Between college, writing, and editing, this year has been a bit of a blur for me. But at least now there's another source of televised amusement for the dull times. Yes, I know I'm terrible... suddenly watching a show with a gay cast member. But it's always good to see "family" on the air. And who knows; maybe one day, I'll be thought of as a freak more for wearing a bowler instead of being one of the rare few gay ghost hunters.

Monday, July 11, 2011

When Being First Means Second...

A lot of paranormal shows (as well as paranormal groups) relish in the idea of being the first investigators allowed into a reputedly haunted site. It can be a big announcement if there's enough publicity. But sometimes, things turn out to be incorrect. With a little digging, anyone can find these mistakes.

Such a claim was made back in an episode of Ghost Adventures aired on February 18, 2011, when the team went to Salem, Massachusetts, for a two-part investigation including the Lyceum Restaurant and the famous Witch House owned by Jonathan Corwin. The episode talked about the Witch House investigation and the difficulties of getting access and permission to film at the site. They showed a local Salem News article about the show which stated, "This may be the first time ghost hunters have been allowed in the home. . ." Unfortunately, this guess was snagged by Zak Bagans and mentioned several times as false truth.

"That's cool, man! We had to... you had to go to a committee and a board hearing..." Zak said while talking to author Jeff Belanger during the filming, "but we won! We won lockdown at the Witch House!" Later, inside the home, Zak went on: "This is a huge moment for the Ghost Adventures crew being the first allowed to investigate the historic 'witch house'. . ."

Actually, he might be right that no one has ever been "locked down inside" for a night in the museum. (Not many people feel the need to lock themselves inside a haunted building at night.) But as far as being the first people to investigate at the house... well, that's wrong. Another television show actually did investigate the Witch House just a few years back. Episode six of the second season of Dead Famous aired on October 18, 2005, in search of Betty Davis. (Click here to watch a clip.) During their hunt for the famous actress, they stopped for a brief ghost hunt inside the Witch House. They even interviewed warlock Christian Day briefly for the show. (If you have seen the episode, Christian was the one performing the ritual inside the house for Zak and the gang--much to their horror.)

With so many paranormal shows having come and gone in the last decade, it's easy to forget about them. And as always, we do love to forget our history, be it recent or long ago.

Having watched both of these episodes--and the reactions of the hosts--it makes me glad, in a way, that I am who I am. Both Chris Fleming and Zak Bagans seemed completely clueless about witchcraft or anything outside traditional Christian beliefs. Most of my life, I've experienced different things, different places, and different people. I've exposed myself to so many ideas, religions, and types of people that nothing really seems bizarre or foreign. Some things are definitely different, but not too shocking. It's always amusing to see people be shocked (or overreact) to anything outside their own view of "normal life." This world is a complex, unique place where everyone sees things in a different way. It's hard to find out what really is average or normal when it's all relative and subjective.

While our life experiences shape who we are, we tend to limit our view of the world to what we know or familiarize ourselves with. That leads to misunderstanding people and beliefs as well as coming across as ignorant or self-righteous in front of a camera or a crowd. There is no true right or wrong, only different. Opinions, morals, and views of truth and history are all based upon a society or individual point of view. But one thing is for certain; only one person can be the first.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Some Things are Better Buried...

Another long week is drawing to an end and is heading into a bit of a busy weekend. Finally, my library talk on Australian ghost stories and legends went off without too many hitches on Tuesday. I did enjoy the experience and everyone seemed to enjoy both the presentation and prizes, yet for many reasons I'm just glad I can toss everything back in a box and forget about it.

Now that's not to say I suddenly dislike Australia or have anything against the country. That's certainly not the case. But after a few events earlier this year, the last thing I wanted to do was reflect more on my trip and dust off my box of brochures from my various adventures. I guess you could say there were some bittersweet experience in the months following my big trip. Those fun trust issues I can have from time to time were brought forth in the most severe way yet. I would even hazard to say that the events of this year have permanently altered me. Whether it's for the worse or better is still up in the air.

Normally, I'm a very lax person when it comes to getting over petty disagreements or situations, but there are always exceptions to the rule. I'm not one to hold a permanent grudge on most matters and I've gotten over a good many things over the years (and amazed some friends and exes at how forgiving I can be sometimes). That doesn't mean I always make nice, though. Sometimes, a string of events, behaviors, and issues connect into one big ball of bile that taints something so strongly that you have to either lock it all in some trunk to be shoved between empty rafters in the far recesses of the subconscious... or let it make you bitter.

Bitterness can be a tough thing to shake, but I prefer blocking things out over becoming a grumpy old man.

A lot of people who know and have met me have realized I can appear tranquil on the surface while there's a hurricane going on inside me. I can smile and be friendly with just about anyone—even if I can't stand them—and at other times, that extreme shyness I've battled most of my life can downright paralyze me (yes, even lead me to have a cocktail too many in a social situation to calm my nerves, which usually leads to even more shyness since I don't want to sound like an idiot by opening my mouth with liquor in my system). I can be a very complicated and hard-to-understand individual. And with that, there are plenty of faults which come with the territory. But I do believe in giving people benefit of a doubt. I also have come to expect the same in return; it just doesn't always work out like that.

There's a quote that I love, often attributed to Einstein, which seems to pinpoint the source of so much of my disappointment and bad experiences: “Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not yet completely sure about the universe.” Sometimes, this stupidity can be downright hilarious. At other times, though, it can be the source of anger, frustration, sadness, or any one of a number of negative emotions. Too often lately, it's been the latter instead of the former. I have to work on bringing the balance back in favor of laughing at all things stupid instead of wishing it were some terminal illness.

In a lot of ways, my inner turmoil has been one of my biggest writing blocks this year. In previous years, being busy with adventure has kept me from getting much written. Having an emotional battle raging through my mind and body might be vastly different, but it produces the same effect. Hopefully, I'll tackle some of this baggage and depression and get things sorted out in time to start some new projects. One thing we can't change is the past; but we can stop looking over our shoulder and focus more on the journey ahead. At this pinnacle in time, I honestly can't say where the next ten years of my life will take me or even where I'll be at the end of it. Hopefully, there will be some more interesting books and projects woven in with the madness. I have ideas in my head and a few good people I consider friends still in my life. Hopefully I'll bring those back to the foreground soon, get back to actively writing more, and start back at making my life an eye-opening, awe-inspiring experience instead of something to cringe at.