Ghost hunters and God chasers

The paranormal extremes of reality TV
By JAMES PARKER  |  November 7, 2006

LOST CATS: Celebrity Paranormal Project is the anti–Blair Witch.

How quaintly reverent it now seems, The Blair Witch Project. Remember those poor kids reeling in circles in their hiking gear, howling “Fuuuck! This is America!” into the wet trees, refusing to believe that the woods had not been purged of their mystery? Hand-held mikes, no script, situational claustrophobia, the Cyclopean blunderings of one Hi8 camera — the 1999 movie was a foundation text for reality TV. But it was also a wicked little ghost story: three smart-assed film students disappear into cold and trackless rural Maryland to research a bit of folklore and the folklore eats them alive. Chomp, chomp. The clever-cleverness of these young snots, their humor, and their rote sophistications are all dismantled, and the bad old world of leaf mold and stone asserts its claim. Fuck with the woods, pal, and the woods will have you.

Or maybe they won’t. VH1’s Celebrity Paranormal Project (Sundays) is the triumph of reality TV over the Beyond, the anti–Blair Witch, in which it is not just proposed but proved that you can waltz into a place thronged by the shades of the damned, taunt them all night long with thermal gizmos and “channeling scrolls,” and make it home for breakfast without a mark on you. In episode one, Donna D’Errico from Baywatch, the great soul warrior Gary Busey, and various other B-listers penetrated the Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville, where 63,000 people died of TB, in search of “shadow people” and a ghost called “The Man in the White Lab Coat.” They found a room supposed to be frequented by spectral children and rolled rubber balls around in there, calling, “Timmy! . . . Timmy! . . . ,” as if to a lost cat. Busey even went into the derelict operating theater and sawed an old rib in half, in the hope of triggering psychic after-images from deceased former patients. Nothing. “This is a very strange silence that I’m living in right now,” he said, hacksaw in hand.

Episode two found Survivor winner Ethan Zohn deep in a disused asylum for the criminally insane, re-enacting the lobotomy that legendarily released the malign spirit “Pearl” from the brain chambers of her schizophrenic host. He had a mallet, an icepick, and a human skull: “Okay, we crushed the other eye socket, now what?” But the crowning blasphemy came last week, when Michael Bergin — another Baywatch alumnus — sat in the ancient electric chair of a haunted penitentiary and blah’d his way through Psalm 23: “ . . . Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anoints — anointens — anointest my head with oil.” (“Is that my voice?’ he wondered later, listening to the recording. “I sound like God!’) Again — nothing. Some panting and a bit of pipe clank. There’s Bergin, in total darkness, a psalm on his lips, settling into the corrosion, vibes, and gnawed leather of the mercy seat, and not one of the souls who fried there can bestir himself to so much as cough in this dude’s ear? The dark side has gone soft.

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