Television comedies are usually formulaic and rarely worth the time, but unintentional comedies are entertainment gold. And I’ve found no better source of unintentional comedy than ghost hunting shows.
Before I get into any specifics, let’s go over the elements of these shows that make them ripe opportunities for unintended laughs. First, and most important, they have an air of seriousness that permeates everything about the show. The ghost hunters are serious, they’re serious about their serious gadgets, they’re serious about walking around very serious places in the seriously dead of night. All of this stoicism amounts to a priceless set up for a special kind of idiocy.
Second, the ghost hunters always arrive at the haunted sites with enough equipment to stock an average sized Radio Shack. They unload duffel bags of gizmos: motion detectors, night-vision glasses, digital thermometers, hearing enhancers, ion counters, EVP recorders, and on and on. These are the props with which our unintentional comedians will soon move us to rib-dislocating laughter.
Finally, the ghost hunters (or “paranormal investigators” as some prefer to be called, which is cool because it’s even funnier) must get the skinny on the haunted site before they begin, which typically means talking to people who say they’ve been spooked. I love this part because the stories—the more convoluted the better—supply the build up of creepy energy for the rest of the show. Customary details include, “Suddenly, out of nowhere, I was pushed” and “Then it got really, really cold” and “A little girl dressed in a nightgown was standing on the stairs.” The ghost hunters listen intently, though with no sign of surprise—like Quint the shark hunter, they’ve heard it all before.
By my count, there are about half a dozen ghost hunting shows on cable right now. The best known is “Ghost Hunters” on the SyFy Channel, featuring Jason and Grant—the RotoRooter plumbers by day turned earnest paranormal trackers by night. These guys are uber serious and plenty funny, but they’re not my favorites. That title goes to the newcomers on the haunted block: Zak, Nick and Aaron of “Ghost Adventures” on the Travel Channel.
This crew takes unintentional comedy to a level I couldn’t envision before watching their show. Zak is the strongest personality of the three with a gym-buffed frame to match, and his histrionics are magnificent. He accosts the ghosts, taunting them into making contact. “Come out you *beeping* cowards! Wassup??!! We wanna see your *beeping* faces!”
Zak’s “how you like me now ghost bastard” approach to paranormal snooping works because he believes it. To really sell something, you’ve got to be invested, and Zak is one invested mofo. What makes it even better is that the Ghost Adventure crew only investigates in total darkness. Gadgets in hand, they stumble through pitch black hallways in the falling-apart sanatorium/prison de jour, shouting for ghouls to manifest. Hands outstretched with sensitive sound detectors, they listen for replies to their taunts—and sometimes they hear something…
But not just any static, because if you listen closely you can detect faint voices breaking in, like you might if you were listening to a transistor radio in a basement. And this makes sense, since the ghost adventurers are, in fact, picking up radio signals in a basement, along with the occasional blurb from a CB radio chat and probably a couple baby monitors. This seems obvious enough, but Zak and his buds work it up into a panic-stricken discovery. “Wait, did you hear that just then? Let me ask the ghosts again…’How many of you are in this room?’…Shit! Did you hear that? Someone said seven. Or two. Maybe…twelve? No, definitely seven.”
That’s how ghost hunting comedy works. Every little beep and hiss, every flash of light and creaky sound—all of it gets wrapped into the recipe for midnight hilarity. I especially enjoy the temperature reading portion of the show (and all of the shows do this), when someone wanders into a corner with a digital thermometer and deduces that the temperature has dropped. Dropped! Then, as the person moves a few feet in another direction, the temperature goes back up. The unavoidable conclusion: there’s a disembodied spirit in the room. What else could it possibly be? Spirits like it cold. We know this from years of speculation on the matter. Hence, when it gets chilly…ghost.
While watching Zak and the other ghost adventurers, I find myself wishing for all the world that a ghost would materialize and smack Zak in the chops. Actually, I have this same sort of wish anytime I watch a ghost hunting show. Will a freaking ghost appear already?! I mean, these idiots are staying up all night to walk around condemned buildings with their night goggles and gizmos, the least the ghosts could do is make an occasional cameo.
But they never do. And never will. The ghost hunters are left to make the most of bleeps and blips, light orbs and fuzzy auras. Sometimes they’ll get what sounds like a voice on their EVP doodads (and that’s a big night when they do, even if all they hear is one barely recognizable word that sounds like someone farting into an oil funnel) but mostly—and this is really the heart of the humor—it’s a group of people scaring the shit out of themselves in the dark.
The power of self-delusion is a door to unbounded comedy, and the ghost hunters walk right through it for every show. I personally hope they never give up the search.