Sociological Specters: A Review of Amy Lawrence’s Ghost Channels: Paranormal Reality TV and the Haunting of America
Ghost Channels: Paranormal Reality TV and the Haunting of America. Amy Lawrence. University of Mississippi Press, March 2022.
America is extremely haunted. At least, that’s the conclusion you might come to when looking at the proliferation of paranormal reality TV in the first two decades of the 21st century. I have a longstanding relationship with this particular niche of television, though not entirely by choice: I married a “ghost guy.” Seriously, my husband is a huge fan of ghost hunting and other paranormal reality shows—we’ve been watching them together for nearly 20 years. I’m rather agnostic when it comes to questions about the supernatural, so I often find myself playing Scully to his Mulder as we watch men in vans chase ghosts with infrared cameras and voice recorders. Reality television, with its boilerplate formulas and predictable rhythms, has bolstered my skepticism rather than diminished it.
Yet, it’s possible the United States is haunted—just not by the kinds of spirits you may be expecting. We are, indeed, haunted by many terrible specters of our checkered past. But even this metaphorical haunting-by-history is not quite what I mean. What if we are being haunted by our own insecurities? What if the specters that so fascinate us are not manifestations of the past, either literal or spiritual, but the uncanny realities of the present?
This is the thesis of Ghost Channels: Paranormal Reality TV and the Haunting of America. Amy Lawrence, author and professor emerita of film and media studies at Dartmouth, postulates that the rise of the paranormal reality show reflects a fascination with the supernatural that goes beyond a simple curiosity to know what happens after death. Rather, this preoccupation is a manifestation of instability— a mass reaction to the erosion of reliable information, the collapse of institutional authority (including shifting gender norms), and the capitalism-driven precariousness of 21st century life for the average person in the United States. When combined with the rise of reality television and niche cable channels that cater to very specific interests, this instability has resulted in a wave of television shows that hope to probe the unexplained in ways that are both literal and metaphorical, as audiences channel their genuine fears into a different, less concrete kind of horror. It is, after all, a longstanding tradition for humans to transcribe the terrors of the real world into a less tangible—and more entertaining—form.
Lawrence divides the paranormal reality television genre into three distinct (yet occasionally overlapping) subgenres. She starts with the first-person confessional, where ordinary people narrate their personal experience with the supernatural. This style of show, according to Lawrence, is reflective of the financial and class insecurity that came to a head with the 2008 recession and housing crash. It offers an unsettling mix of ordinary life and intangible horror, highlighting Lawrence’s theory that our hunger for these stories represents a channeling of larger, more immediate concerns into a more diffuse fear. When these stories are placed in the hands of TV producers, however, much of the real concerns of these ordinary people are buried under layers of schlock. Lawrence helps peel back the layers of melodrama and cable TV-grade effects to reveal a foundation of genuine despair and class anxiety.
The next sub-set of paranormal reality is the one I’m most familiar with: paranormal investigation or “ghost hunting”. These shows are a fertile ground for exploring the intersection of our ideas concerning objectivity, technology, and rationality (with a heaping dose of hyper-masculine gender norms). Shows like Ghost Hunters (the OG paranormal investigation show), Ghost Adventures, and Haunted Highway use technology and (questionable) scientific methods to bolster their credibility as rational approaches to the supernatural. Here, the focus shifts to the ways we use rationality to deal with the irrational or unexplainable (and how this rationality is distinctly gendered). There’s also a similar thread of class consciousness—generally, ghost hunters are “average” people, though once they become TV personalities, that water is distinctly muddied.
The last of the three subgenres is devoted to mediums and psychics, and in many ways these are the flip side of the coin in relation to ghost hunting. Instead of the posturing of masculinity and technological prowess, there is an emphasis on “traditionally feminine” qualities like empathy and emotional connection. Since mediums relay their subjective experience with the paranormal, they are often taken less seriously, and their shows are seen as less credible. Again, gender and class insecurity are a recurring focus, as most reality TV psychics are either female or openly gay and precariously middle class. This is the reality TV type I am least familiar with, and Lawrence’s deep dive into the foundations of these programs was particularly fascinating—and damning, in terms of the ways we gender our conceptions of reality.
This current glut of shows (Lawrence covers from 2004-2019, but from personal experience a lot of these series are still going strong today) is not the first time a cultural mania for the supernatural has arisen in times of social and cultural flux. The “spiritualists” of the late 19th and early 20th century tapped into a similar vein of insecurity, and much of what we see in the current fascination with the paranormal can be traced back a century prior. This historical throughline is vital to Lawrence’s observations, as without it the book would drift into a decontextualized realm of media studies that readers not well-versed in the field would likely find opaque. Ghost Channels is an academic study, so the heavily footnoted and example-laden text may put off readers looking for something geared towards the pop-nonfiction style. But it is also delightfully jargon-free, and Lawrence’s clearly stated observations make the text accessible.
Ultimately, Ghost Channels is not interested in whether the paranormal—or even individual belief in it—is real; it instead finds its target in the terrifying realities of everyday life, mediated through our television screens. We may indeed be haunted by specters more terrifying and intangible than any ghost. And yet, I wonder if these hauntings will continue to capture the imagination through the lens of the supernatural (and the medium of television), or if we will finally turn our attention to the real specters of insecurity and inequality. Media studies like Ghost Channels may not hold the ultimate answer, but as any good ghost hunter knows, sometimes you have to illuminate the dark places to find what lurks there.
Amber Troska is a writer, copy editor, book blogger, and media critic from central Virginia. She is a regular reviewer for the Canadian feminist magazine Herizons and occasional contributor to the Tor.com blog. She has a BA in Fine Art that is utterly irrelevant to her life choices and considers buying books and reading them two completely different hobbies. You can find her on Twitter.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. It was edited by Ashley Domingo Hendricks and copyedited by Alex Skopic; the author and editors had no previous acquaintance. The review author was provided a review copy by the University of Mississippi Press.