Ghosts have always made good television. Back when I was a kid you were lucky enough if you got a spooky ghost special around Halloween, but today there are entire networks dedicated entirely to paranormal content. Many of the longest-running and most popular paranormal shows, Most Haunted, Ghost Hunters, and Ghost Adventures, for instance, have been sleuthing for spooks since the early 2000s, but the world’s first ghost hunting reality show actually popped up decades earlier in the summer of 1977, establishing the format that nearly ever single paranormal television show would follow for half a century.
Most paranormal television follows a format that we’ve become all too familiar with, even if we don’t immediately realize it. Remove the unique spin (urban legends, serial killer ghosts, human bait, etc. – every series has one) and you’ll see a format that goes something like this: history, eyewitness interviews, recreations, paranormal investigation, and client reveal. 95% of paranormal television sticks to this tried and tested formula, and for good reason: it works.
This simple format got me to thinking about the origins of ghostly reality television, and the further back I started to dig, from this weekend’s premiere of Ghosts of Shepherdstown to 2002’s Most Haunted, each and every series followed the formula. Even my 2004 series The Girly Ghosthunters fit the mold. The question is, who exactly pioneered the process that every paranormal show would stick to? With no end to my digging in sight, I sought out help from the human encyclopedia of the weird, John E.L. Tenney.
John E.L. Tenney | Via Karl Pfieffer Photography
Not only is Tenney a renowned lecturer and veteran investigator of anomalous phenomena, he’s been involved in paranormal television for decades. In addition to guest starring on loads of shows like Paranormal Lockdown, he most recently starred in Destination America’s Ghost Stalkers (which also stayed true to “the format”), but perhaps the coolest of all his TV accolades, Tenney was a researcher and writer for one of the all-time paranormal classics, Unsolved Mysteries.
“It all started with Hans Holzer,” Tenney told me as he sent me a YouTube link. “Here, watch this. You won’t even believe how similar it is to what’s on the air today.”
I’d always thought that Most Haunted had been one of the first to perfect the “ghost hunting show”, but it turns out I was off by about two decades. John had sent me an episode of In Search Of which first aired back in the summer of 1977, and as I expected, he was right. Within minutes it was obvious that I was watching the episode of television that single-handedly pioneered “the format” 25-years before everyone else caught on. In the episode, famed ghost hunter Hans Holzer heads to the East Coast to investigate rumors of an alleged haunting in a small fishing village.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Holzer’s work, for shame, but here’s a quick history lesson anyway. Holzer wrote well over 120 books on the topic of ghosts and the afterlife, and not only taught parapsychology at the New York Institute of Technology, but was also involved in investigating some of the most famous hauntings of all time, like The Amityville Horror, for instance. Oh yeah, and he also coined the term “The Other Side” and possibly even “Ghost Hunter”. Holzer’s regular use of psychics during his investigations made him a renegade of sorts in the community, and despite the criticism from his peers, he continued to bring mediums along with him to haunted locations.
Vintage ad for Hans Holzer’s American Society for the Occult Sciences | Via Weird Lectures
Sure enough, his episode of In Search Of followed “the format” perfectly, but what struck me as I watched was how effective the format was even without all the fancy gadgets and night vision cameras. In fact, the only “tool” Hans ever uses during his investigation (aside from a psychic) is a microphone. As a 1977 ghost hunter, the focus is put on corroboration between the eyewitness testimony and the historical facts, and in the process, “the reveal” of evidence is the moment the town historian is able to validate all of the psychic’s impressions. Sure, there’s less scares, but it’s easily just as fun to watch.
Throughout the episode we get to see Hans chasing down clues and piecing them together to build a case for the haunting by interviewing witnesses, historians, and anyone else who might lend him that extra piece of information that will help validate not just his psychic, but the clients themselves. He might not have captured anything strange on camera, but the information acting as evidence is equally as, if not more, convincing.
While watching the episode yourself (and you should), you might wonder what a ghost hunting reality show might look like today if they stripped the format way back to the simple detective-meets-psychic premise of the episode that started it all. Well, don’t wonder, just flip over to the Travel Channel.
The closest a series has come to the exact format established by Hanz Holzer’s episode of In Search Of is the Travel Channel’s excellent Dead Files, which steers clear of the night vision investigations and focuses on pairing Amy Allen’s abilities as a physical medium with Steve DiSchiavi’s detective chops in order to help the haunted. Considering Dead Files is currently on its 8th season, it’s safe to say the format is still working even in it’s purest form.
There’s something undeniably compelling about paranormal television. We love watching supernatural sleuths interviewing scared eyewitnesses, creeping through the night in search of phantoms, and presenting the evidence that they’ve collected during their adventures. Over the years there have been many paranormal television series that have added to the format by pioneering new ways of investigating, but it was Hans Holzer’s episode of In Search Of that was the seed that grew Ghost Hunters, Paranormal Lockdown, and everything in between.
The format might be the same as it’s always been, but regardless of how each series has decided to tweak the details, paranormal television has continued to engage our curiosity, get us thinking differently about the world around us, and inspire us to seek out the truth wherever it might be.