by Jef Burnham
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Paranormal State is a new reality series from A&E that follows Ryan Buell and his fellow members of Penn State University’s Paranormal Research Society (PRS) as the college students attempt to balance investigating reported cases of paranormal phenomenon and their academic lives. The series’ tagline poses the question: “73% of Americans believe… Do you?” I do. I believe that the world is full of a myriad of unexplained phenomena, and the foremost on my mind is the mysterious existence of the reality TV show. I know that this complaint has been registered by millions of other people more eloquently than I could, so I’ll avoid the obvious generalities. In the instance of Paranormal State, the reality aspect of the show serves a specific self-defeating purpose: it prevents you from believing.
The series’ premiere episode details the case of Matthew, a young boy who sees DEAD PEOPLE! No surprises there. Though it seems that Matthew may indeed be clairvoyant, based on a litany of questions the boy answers correctly about one spirit in particular, the reality aspects of the series make the case about as believably real as The Sixth Sense. The only insight we receive on the episode’s events is that of the investigating college students. I was really hoping for some documentary-style commentary on paranormal events from the leading experts in the field, or at least second-hand information from the experts. What we get instead is a group of college students having a séance in the boy’s living room at 3 a.m., attempting to contact evil spirits. At this point, there are several spooky noises, and the team therapist, Adam, sees a shadowy figure in an unlit basement.
I must give the show credit for opening with Adam the therapist clueing the others in on what to look for, should it happen that Matthew is making all of this up. I appreciate the apparent skepticism of the group, but it ultimately felt like they were buttering me up for the Blair Witch Project footage to follow. Furthermore, use of Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP), which is the phenomenon by which sounds inaudible to the human ear are picked up with digital recording and believed to be the voices of spirits, is really only convincing when you hear it first hand. The case files would be substantially more convincing if they were chronicled in some other format, perhaps a touring lecture with accompanying slides, in a book, or in a reenactment-based series like Unexplained Mysteries.
At least Paranormal State is a reality TV about something other than promiscuous rich girls at night clubs, but alas, it is still reality TV. I do hope that Buell (President and Founder of PRS) and his fellow researchers help provide comfort for the troubled families they investigate in this series, but I’m afraid that the series’ format will do nothing in the way of validating their work.
Jef Burnham is a film critic and freelance writer living in Chicago.
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