A beefy, black-clad, gel-haired, sometimes-badly-tanned man stands dramatically in the middle of a desert. He did not believe in ghosts, he tells you, in a deep and strangely jarring monotone. Until he came face to face with one. What follows are high-contrast images of creeping shadows, sped-up footage of anonymous scary-looking women in white dresses, someone with what I assume is meant to be blood but looks more like lipstick gone wrong around their mouth, and flickering grayscale images of frightened-looking or conspicuously-posing members of the cast. The strange fusion of jock, nerd and theatre kid stereotypes is Zak Bagans, the other guys are his paranormal investigation crew, and these are their Ghost Adventures. And you can already tell you’re in for a wild ride of reality television.
Currently with twelve seasons and still going strong, Ghost Adventures follows Zak and his team as they travel to reputably haunted locations and lock themselves in for a night to try and capture evidence of ghosts. Along the way, expect shoddy re-enactments of the local ghost stories, over-dramatic narration, and the three investigators inevitably screaming “BRO! HOLY [BLEEP] BRO! DID YOU SEE THAT DUDE? [BLEEP], DUDE” and/or “I can really feel an energy in here man. Holy [bleep].”
It is ridiculous. And it is the best reality TV show I have ever watched.
Sometimes, it falls into the “so bad it’s good” genre, as opposed to a lot of mass-produced reality TV which is often so bad it’s bad. Though I’ve watched hours upon hours of it, it’s surprisingly difficult to pinpoint what exactly makes Ghost Adventures so entertaining. Perhaps part of the appeal is that I watch it with my friends, and part of the fun is looking at each other in disbelief and laughing about whatever over-the-top thing is happening on screen.
I’m also reliably told it makes a very fun drinking game—take a shot every time they freak out over an orb of light that definitely could not just be dust. If you’re easily spooked by ghostly tales but are still kind of interested in them, I’d definitely recommend it: the inherent creepiness of the reported hauntings is nicely balanced by how over-the-top the re-enactments and investigations are, so you’re more likely to go to bed chuckling about Zak’s antics than checking over your shoulder for ghostly shapes.
But it’s not just that this show is fun to laugh at. It’s weirdly engrossing in its own way, which I suppose is somewhere the editing has succeeded rather than just ended up hilarious. Why do I find ghost hunting shows so much more engaging than other “reality” series about, say, getting into fights with people who don’t want their cars towed or finding treasure in abandoned storage lockers? Well, one possibility is that I think we all know at this point that there’s not too much reality in reality TV. As well as being cleverly edited to fit a storyline, a lot of the events are also set up or heavily scripted. If my reality TV is going to be unbelievable anyway, it may as well go the whole hog and be about the supernatural to begin with.
Yet… there is a degree of sincerity in Ghost Adventures that you just don’t get in other reality TV shows. Does that mean that I’m more ready to believe that ghosts are real than believe that the episodic family drama behind the counter of Pawn Stars isn’t scripted? Yes, actually. The Ghost Adventures team reach incredibly far to tell you that what you’re seeing is paranormal activity, but you somehow never get the sense that they’re lying to you. Sure, Zak, keep replaying that crackly soundbite that only sounds like “ajjhzxgzjhgjh”, add subtitles and narrate that it’s definitely a ghost saying “I’m on the stairs”. I might not believe it, but I can believe that he believes it, if that makes any sense. The team is clearly scared out of their wits half the time, but you can tell that they legitimately love their job and have a passion for this field of study, even if it does make them maybe hear “I’m on the stairs” in what everyone else hears as “fjdhgmjhgjhd”.
You can’t fake this kind of show. Or at least, you can’t pay actors to pretend they love hunting ghosts, because the paranormal-loving community would pick up on it in an instant and the show wouldn’t last. Heck, even the non-paranormal-loving TV viewer would probably pick up on that insincerity, say “pfft” and change the channel. What makes Ghost Adventures so weirdly endearing is how dedicated the guys are, not just with their piles of tech and equipment and their nerd-level adoration for the lore and history of ghost stories (and the “science” of spotting them). They’re just… so into it.
It gets even more interesting when you get little flashes into their mindset beyond “we want to film a ghost”, like Zak threatening (in his unique and fascinating manly monotone) a pesky poltergeist that had been harassing women, telling it that he didn’t tolerate bullies. As well as a sense of justice, you also see genuine scientific fascination—the team never looks more amazed and excited than when they have prolonged contact with a spirit’s voice, reacting to the things they ask it and responding quite intelligently. “People don’t believe that you exist,” Zak often says. “But if you do this next thing we might be able to prove that something’s really here!”
I can believe that the ghost’s reactions could be set up. That kind of raw enthusiasm is much harder to fake, though. And look, even if it is somewhat scripted and/or it’s actually a long-suffering intern film student running around making creaking noises and making shadows appear, this kind of falsity is still more rewarding to watch than a husband and wife who hate each other renovate houses. And that is why, against all odds, I’ve come to believe that Ghost Adventures is the best and most entertaining reality TV show I will ever watch.