In terms of the fortean, the paranormal, and the just plain weird, 2011 has been a doozy of a year. We’ve had multiple failed doomsdays, a boatload of new paranormal television shows, the usual run of new cash grab inventions, public outbursts by pillars of the fringe community, and at least one unbelievable news story every day of the year. Divvy those up in between a few monumental shifts in the fringe community, and you’ve got one of the best years for fans of the unexplained in recent memory.
We figured that since it was such an impressive year for weirdness, we should take a look back and highlight the trends, the changes, and list our favorite (and not so favorite) of 2011′s paranormal offerings. This week, part one of a two part piece with more interesting links than wikipedia, we tackle the year’s best TV, podcasts, books, websites, rebounds, and even throw downs.
Let’s start with a recap of of last year’s biggest themes..
“Either you’re with us, or you’re against us.” That seems to be the mantra for those invested in the fringe these days, as 2011 saw the erosion of the already small patch of paranormal middle ground empty out faster than a house on Haunted Collector. For fence-sitters like us, it’s a total bummer. Instead of being able to say “maybe” or “could be”, we’ve now got a prominent line in the sand, pitting those who would believe everything against those who would believe nothing. It’s the gullible versus the nihilist in a battle for the wits, and both sides are recruiting.
What a lot of people are forgetting is that a combination of imagination and skepticism are both good things to incorporate into a healthy whole. Contrary to popular opinion, it is possible to believe in ghosts without assuming they’re your dead grandmother, just like it’s possible to believe that alternative medicine only works as a placebo (an effect which curiously appears to be getting stronger). Extremism in any form is never a good thing, and in most cases, there can exist a happy medium.
This fleeing from neutral territory, fuelled in part by the ever-expanding paranormal entertainment industry, has seen the rise of the “demon” as the new supernatural entity of choice and the upper-case God as the weapon to defeat it, and what better way to polarize the ghost hunting community than to inject religion into it? Likewise, the recent growth and popularity of a booming skeptical movement has only helped to diminish the middle ground with pundits claiming things like “if you aren’t an atheist, you’re a bad skeptic”. Combine these two and you’ve got the recipe for the next big trend of 2011..
It may not have started this year, in fact the change has been a fairly gradual progression since around 2008, but this last year was when the shift really came to a head. We’ve seen friends, celebrities, bloggers, and plenty of other folks who were previously obsessed with the idea of ghost hunting and/or cryptozoology join the ranks of hard-line skepticism. What caused this gradual change? Here goes nothing:
Paranormal investigation, ghost hunting in particular, has reached critical mass. Whether it’s in televisions, magazine stands, radio, or your local “creepy building”, paranormal research teams are inescapable. We’d even wager that your area has at least one group that consider themselves ghost hunters. We’d even go so far as to say they’re either TAPS Family or GAC related.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, while the idea of a ghost hunting team is nothing new, the incredible popularity of the concept has grown exponentially in the last decade. Where there used to be a few very serious parapsychological societies situated around the country, there now exist thousands of amateur spook chasers using gimmicks they’ve been taught from Ghost Adventures, Paranormal State, etc.
So what’s the problem? Shouldn’t everyone be excited at the prospect of an expanded field of research into the unexplained? Not exactly.
You know that feeling that you get when you hear your favorite band in a car commercial? It’s a lot like that. To many of the grizzled veterans of the paranormal, the field has “sold out” to the entertainment industry, and rather than be associated with people like the Twisted Dixie ghost hunters, they’ve decided to help “kill” the cancer, often by abandoning the field entirely. On the flip side, you have a sea of five year old ghost hunting teams that, having imitated a bunch of Regular Joe’s chasing spectres on tv, are suddenly realizing that they’re never going to get the kind of publicity, money, or respect that they set out to achieve.
These realizations have created a perfect storm of resentment that has compelled a whole lot of people to very publicly, and ungracefully, hop onto the skeptic bandwagon, a movement that they obviously didn’t understand very well before deciding to make the change. Instead of helping prevent hucksters, frauds, and bad science, these faux-thinkers have joined up in an attempt to mask their disappointment with the paranormal field as “critical thinking”, and seriously, guys, it’s all too obvious. Let’s face it, everyone would rather appear intelligent instead of butthurt.
It’s an unfortunate development for the genuinely well-intentioned skeptic community, who already have plenty of PR problems to deal with, but as the past has shown, these kinds of shifts happen in cycles, and once the growing popularity of skepticism tapers off and the talking heads have established themselves, the disenfranchised will again look elsewhere.
But until then, they’re your problem, suckers!
Color us surprised about this last one, but more than anything, 2011 was probably the best year for the big hairy guy since 1967. It seemed like every day brought another piece of news about everyone’s favorite cryptid. Whether he was poking his head into a community college track meet, smearing his face on Sanger Paranormal’s windows, having his DNA tested by the BBC, or not being found by Finding Bigfoot, the Sasquatch has had a busy twelve months. Heck, even we weren’t immune to Squatch-fever; we screened our own documentary about Bigfoot Hunters to two sold out crowds in November.
With a second season of Animal Planet’s hit show, rumored involvement by the infamous Tom Biscardi in an upcoming BBC documentary (Louis Theroux, is that you?), and a blue collar boost from Larry the Cable Guy, you can be sure that 2012 will prove another profitable year for Sasquatch hunters.
Plus, it gives Cryptomundo a reason to figure out how to cram even more banner ads into their website.
2011 saw plenty of new, if not particularly fresh, additions to the genre of paranormal reality, but the show that caught our attention the most was a six episode mini-series out of Australia called Unbelievable. The series, hosted by comedian Lawrence Leung, took an affectionately critical eye to the subject of the unexplained, something that you rarely see on North American television screens.
With merely six half an hour episodes, Unbelievable is unfortunately short, yet manages to cover the topics of psychic phenomena, UFOlogy, ghost hunting, and misdirection very well in that time. It’s one of the few examples of how paranormal reality television can be entertaining without pandering to the steadfast clichés of the genre, and beyond that, it demonstrates the ability to critique commonly held paranormal beliefs without being cruel or exploitive.
Whether Leung is telling fortunes by way of karaoke lyrics, ghost hunting with a pottery wheel, or sky watching with anal-probe obsessed ufologists, Unbelievable is just as creative as it is enlightening, which is why it earns our vote for the best paranormal reality show of last year.
We realize that it isn’t readily available to American audiences, but those with initiative can readily find it on the ‘net. This should get you started.
Of all the hilarious professional psychic gaffes that occur each and every year across the world, there’s always one that strikes a particular chord and results in a big response. It might not be the funniest, it might not be the sloppiest, but for some reason, it resonates. 2011’s most resonate psychic screw-up happened to take place in jolly old England at a performance by British stage psychic Sally Morgan.
Morgan, who proclaims herself “Britians best-loved psychic” and boasts an impressive list of clients including Princess Diana and Uma Thurman, found herself the subject of some critical review after a particularly interesting show in Dublin last October.
During the second half of Morgan’s performance, one of the audience members found that she heard a soft-speaking man’s voice emanating from the window of a projection box. Finding the voice fairly distracting, this theater-goer, “Sue”, began to listen in through the window and found that every time the man spoke a phrase, Morgan would seem to repeat the same phrase ten seconds later. As more and more of the audience began to notice this voice, and called attention to the fact that Morgan was apparently being fed information via her headset, Sally’s staff promptly freaked out, slammed the window (which undoubtedly was left open by mistake), and issued a whole bunch of statements about her being the “real deal”. Ironically enough, Morgan was scheduled to have her powers scientifically tested immediately after the show, which she unsurprisingly backed out of.
The scandal, very reminiscent of James Randi’s expose of televangelist Peter Popoff in 1986, was quickly picked up by newspapers like The Guardian, blogged relentlessly by skeptic activists, and even launched Project Barnum, a campaign to persuade theaters not to book stage psychics without clear “entertainment only” warnings to guests. Alas, Morgan’s public flogging was brief, and now, only three months later, her shows continue to sell out and her books fly off the shelves. It just goes to show that no matter how many times you’re caught red handed, there’s just some people who want to believe.. and will pay a lot of money to continue doing so.
You don’t have to look very far for a paranormal podcast these days, in fact, a quick and dirty google search brings up over eight million results. If you’ve ever listened to a sampling of the different shows available, you’d know that’s a whole lot of bandwidth spent on in-jokes and “shout outs” to almost empty chat rooms. Fortunately, there are a few gems out there that offer up something more than the usual podcast fare, and Mysterious Universe is one of the best examples.
Benjamin Grundy and Aaron Wright are the hosts of the Australian show (we’re sensing a trend here..) that began poking into all corners of the odd back in 2008. Not only do they host one of the very best podcasts on the unexplained, but they also feature weekly articles about the fringe on the MU website from notable guest authors such as Nick Redfern and Micah Hanks. The pieces are always great, but merely serve to supplement the fantastic regular round-ups of weird news and intriguing guests (including yours truly, in what many have called their funniest episode to date..).
Their website puts it best:
“We give our audience a unique collection of content that is challenging to old views and conventional wisdom. Our open minded approach allows us to view all possibilities without being confined by the limits of preconceived ideas.”
It’s that challenging attitude, not to mention a stellar sense of humor (sorry, humour), that squarely situates Mysterious Universe at the top of our favorite paranormal podcasts of 2011.
Say you enjoy keeping up to speed on weird news. Where has the latest close encounter occurred? Who reported the most recent Bigfoot sighting? Maybe you just want to know what’s new in the subject of “maverick science”? Look no further than The Anomalist, who since 1995, have been compiling all the best news pieces on the bizarre this side of Charles Fort.
Each day, barring some holidays, the editors at The Anomalist painstaking put together the best collection of the latest fringe news pieces, many of which we’d be at a loss to categorize. They’re always new, always relevant, and consistently better than any other automatic RSS feed you’re bound to find anywhere on the internet. We have no idea how they do it, but we’re glad that they do.
You’ll seldom find any opinions at The Anomalist, and with the writers rather going for straight news briefs stitched together by a loose commentary, they allow the reader to come to their own conclusions on the subjects. That’s good news for anyone who wants to keep abreast on the bizarre without feeling like they’re being preached at.
If you’re a fan of the weird and you aren’t already a regular reader, do yourself a favor and go, immediately, and add The Anomalist to your bookmarks. You won’t regret it.
Since we like to consider ourselves just left of center when it comes to the paranormal, it only makes sense that we should highlight the yang to The Anomalist‘s ying. Now, let’s say you want to get your daily dosage of fringe news fed to you throughout the day, except you want to know why most of that news is probably bunk, Doubtful News is right up your alley.
Started earlier this year by skeptics Sharon Hill (full disclosure, an occasional WF contributor) and Torkel Ødegård, Doubtful News is the critical thinker’s answer to a paranormal news feed, something that the skeptic scene was lacking until now. While DN focuses mostly on rounding up and linking to original news articles on cryptozoology, psychic phenomena, hauntings, bad science, and other questionable topics, Hill and Ødegård (whose name is an absolute bitch to type on a US keyboard) take the time to provide insightful commentary on each subject, encouraging the reader to seek out sources and most importantly, to question everything.
Aside from promoting a positive skeptical attitude toward the supernatural, one of Doubtful News‘ stand out features are their exclusive articles, pieces written for the site that generally appear once or twice a month, and often provide a kind of “state of the union” on recent developments in the fringe. The latest as of this writing, a piece on prominent Bigfoot bloggers, was one of the most insightful things we’ve read about those involved in online Bigfootery. If only all those involved in the skeptical community were as interested and approachable as the DN team, they might not get such a bad wrap from the true believers.
Sure, it might be a website tailor-made for the skeptics, but anyone with an interest in the paranormal would do well to add Doubtful News to their daily reads, and that makes it one of the best of 2011, not to mention a website to keep your eyes on in 2012.
It’s been a long time coming, but last month, the reality show rivals from Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters shared a few fighting words. Well, it was mostly Zak Bagans spewing poorly typed twitter rants at no one in particular, but my god was it amusing to watch.
One might ask how it never happened sooner, after all, both shows courting fan bases that are both huge and wildly different; Ghost Adventures sporting a shit ton of fake-tanned bimbos and macho meat-head douchebags who are collectively referred to as the GAC, and Ghost Hunters catering to the TAPS Family: overweight rednecks and the kind of people who actually buy tickets to the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. It seems like they’d have clashed sooner, but these two groups have done a bang up job of staying separate for years.
That was until last month, when Ghost Hunters‘ Jason Hawes made a crack about their investigation at Bobby Mackey’s Music World, a dive bar with a history that Hawes explained was “greatly exaggerated”. You see, Ghost Adventures had previously declared the location as a veritable portal to Hell.
Before the episode had even finished airing, the GAC had already riled Bagans into a roid rage, and after making sure that everyone knew he didn’t watch any shows but his own, Zak mocked Hawes for not having the balls to say it to his face, and pretty much declared war on the entire Ghost Hunters fan base. We almost wet ourselves with excitement.
Unfortunately, the epic battle of skank vs. hillbilly never quite panned out, with Jason and Grant defaulting to their usual policy of simply not addressing controversy, and instead sending in Amy Bruni to generally be sweet and kind and assure Bagans that no harm was intended. This didn’t stop Zak from ranting on twitter all evening, blaming the Ghost Hunters’ lack of evidence on the cast’s sub-par techniques (perhaps they didn’t yell enough), to downright threatening anyone who had anything to say. It might not have been the battle royale we wanted, but it was definitely the most entertaining of the year.
Hey, everyone! Look! No, seriously, look! Someone managed to write a paranormal book this year that isn’t a memoir from a third-tier cable host, isn’t a how-to book, and isn’t a book about why your beliefs are all wrong. No, it’s not self-published either!
W. Scott Poole’s Monsters In America takes a startling look into the America psyche, exploring the United States’ obsession with the terrifying. As Poole examines our views on race, gender, class, and religion, it becomes quite clear that the horrors we fear don’t reside in the decrepit houses on the outskirts of town, but rather in the dark corners of our own minds.
Monsters dives into the fears of our forefathers, attempting to rationalize the witches, wild-men, and water monsters of yesteryear before tackling our, ugh, latest preoccupation with sparkling vampires. As it turns out, we’re just terrified of other races, sexual preferences, and, well, everyone that’s a little bit different than we are. Sure, a book like this is bound to be a bit subjective, (not everyone bothers to mask their hatred in monsters.. just look at the Republican party), but Poole does a great job of rationalizing his conclusions, particularly in the early portions of the book.
What really sets Monsters in America apart from the other books released in 2011 is it’s ability to be digested easily by both those who believe and monsters and those who don’t. After all, everyone is afraid of something, the question is.. why? Monsters helps answer that question.
Talk abut having a horse-shoe up your ass. Britt Griffith is one of the luckiest bastards we’ve ever seen. If he had a super-power it would the human non-stick frying pan, because he always seems to find himself in the hot seat, but nothing ever sticks.
You might recall that a few years back, we brought to light a much ballyhooed video that featured the Ghost Hunters cast member brandishing a monster-sized dildo. The particular video was quickly deleted from YouTube, but the screencaps were reposted all over the internet, landing Griffith in a bit of hot water with the management. To Britt’s credit, instead of running around and threatening to sue everyone, he calmly wrote us an email and explained what was up the video. He was very cool about the whole ordeal, it said a lot about the guy, and dangit, we liked him because of it. As they often do, the story eventually faded away.
Then, a little over a year later, Britt made a now-infamous appearance on Rain City Paranormal’s internet radio show “Home Brew”. During a tirade in which he called the viewing public “stupid” and described himself as an f-bomb dropping, R-rated, blue collar ghost hunter, he pissed off a whole lot of people who watched Ghost Hunters. Specifically, the gay fans.
“You get on the east coast, the west coast, and they’re all anti-gun pussy faggots.”
As you can imagine, the backlash was fast and furious, and before you can say homophobia, Britt Griffith found himself booted from the series at the behest of, well, everyone. Britt spent the next six months slapping the NOH8 logo on every image he uploaded to the internet, apologising to anyone who would listen, and talking about how much he actually loved “the gays” (yes, he actually referred to them as “the gays”). He even went so far as to say that he had literally never spoken the word “faggot” once before that fateful interview. Riiight.
Well, lo and behold, the 2011 season of Ghost Hunters hits and who pops back on the roster? None other than Britt Griffith himself, thanks in part to a rigorous, year-long PR campaign and a whole lot of charity work, no doubt. Was he a bit patronizing in his recovery process? Yeah, for sure, but maybe he needed to be. Did he learn a valuable lesson? It’s a safe bet that he did. After a snafu like that, most people in the entertainment industry don’t get a second chance. This guy is on his third. Sure, he might have to offer himself up to Jason and Grant as a plaything to be tortured and and degraded, but hey, he’s back on television, traversing the country, and signing autographs ($20?! Seriously?!), and that, friends, is some of the most ridiculous luck we’ve ever seen.
So, good going, Griffith. Now, try and keep it together this time, eh?
A best-of list is not an easy thing to compile, particularly for people who’ve been invested in the paranormal community before you were contractually obliged to cross your arms or grow a goatee in order to hunt ghosts. More often than not, it can be a pretty disheartening experience to look around and see all the mass marketing, blatant fraud, close-mindedness, and the excessive competition that currently overwhelms the world of the fringe. These are things that exist in every field, hobby, or community, and the paranormal is no different, even if it is a little worse for the wear right now.
What matters is that people are talking, conversing, and actively trying to progress their community, regardless of what their motivation is. It might not always look like there’s an upward swing (and certainly, sometimes there isn’t one), but as long as people like Lawrence Leung come along and surprise us with thoughtful, intelligent shows like Unbelievable, or websites like The Anomalist and Doubtful News make the effort to continue collecting and compiling actual (at least those reported as such) accounts of the bizarre and the unexplained, the true spirit of paranormal investigation is alive and well.
After all, for every bad book, television show, or podcast that is produced, who can say how many individuals were led to become interested in the odd? If just a handful of those people are influenced enough, they might even create something that ends up at the top of your own “best-of” in the next decade. It’s always the worst that makes you appreciate the best.
NEXT WEEK: Weird Year In Review: The Worst of 2011! PLUS: The “Other” Awards
So what did you make of the list? Did we hit the mark or not? Are there any stories we missed? Categories we should have included? By all means, let us know what would be included on your “best-of” list!