Building to Code is a monthly column about how we live among cities and each other. It regards cities as what they’ve always been: not systems of capitalist resource management, but the stages that society plays out on.
The most-watched show on the Travel Channel does not enchant its viewers with sunny beaches, idyllic villages, or even treacherous mountain ranges. It opts instead for abandoned prisons, nondescript houses, and the occasional roadside bar. Ghost Adventures, now in its 19th season, has a very successful formula: three or four men dressed like come-to-life Hot Topic mannequins visit locations said to be haunted. They get “locked down” overnight and use electronic devices and their spiritually attuned bodies to find evidence of the paranormal. They also yell in the dark a lot. Narrative is thin but broad, relying on familiar tropes and uncomplicated stories of violence and occult ritual. One of the show’s more endearing features is its ability to flit between camp and earnestness: One host rhapsodizes about the hopes and dreams of the gold prospectors who died in a cave-in while another yells, “Is this where you died?! How did that make you feel?!”
The hosts — Zak Bagans, Aaron Goodwin, and Nick Groff — have millions of social media followers, and in 2018 the show ranked as the third most-watched Saturday night cable show behind NASCAR and A&E’s LivePD. It inspired the satirical Grave Encounters movies, defined a genre of hyper-masculine ghost hunter shows, and spawned multiple paranormal spin-off shows of its own. Part of its appeal is, paradoxically, its obscurity: Filling 19 seasons means the show cannot rely solely on well-worn sites like the Amityville horror house or the Bell Witch caves of Tennessee. (It takes up until season four, when they travel to Salem, Massachusetts, that they visit a place with mainstream name recognition.) Instead, the Ghost Adventures crew aim to be, as they say during the opening of their first 10 seasons, “raw, extreme” — visiting Trinway, Ohio to investigate the Prospect Place mansion, or the old mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado.
The suburbs of the mid 20th century were founded on a desire to avoid reckoning with history, and Ghost Adventures poses no threat to this consensus
Several years ago, following the departure of Nick Groff and the arrival of Billy Tolley and Jay Wasley, the show’s opening changed. What was once a direct appeal to authenticity shifts to one of professionalism: “we have worked years to build our credibility, our reputation.” Having built up a brand, the show is now something of a branding agency, bestowing its ruggedness on any venue it visits: Owners of these haunted properties clearly hope to monetize their investments by conjuring spirits and the dark tourism fans that seek them out. The show trades on our desire to live among meaningful places — the idea that anywhere, even the abandoned school at the end of your block, has a unique history worthy of an audience.
Strikingly little has been said about Ghost Adventures despite its unqualified mainstream success. Folklore journals appear to have ignored it completely; the journal Horror Studies has published only two articles on the show, one exploring its gender (the paranormal is a traditionally feminine pursuit, and when men seek it out they tend to rationalize it with technology) and another about its use of technology (the gizmos the crew bring to find ghosts beg for Bruno Latour citations — do these machines actually detect what we call ghosts, or have ghosts always been those things which we make through the devices we say detect them?). The reason for this radio silence is that there’s seemingly little to unpack: the show’s formulaic structure appears to lack the moral ambiguities and elaborate plot twists that TV critics rely on.
The show’s real drama, however, has to do with the hope it’s meant to cultivate in its viewer. Bagans, Goodwin and Groff are more like social media influencers than traditional reality TV hosts, and their show’s appeal works in much the same way. Ghost Adventures pretends to inhabit the same world as its audience, while showing this world to be full of danger and enchantment — providing the illusion that anyone’s life and environment could already be this interesting. And just like Alex Jones’s InfoWars or Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop brand, the show purports to merely reveal meaning that was already there. You already knew there was more to your neighborhood, your health, or yourself than met the eye — here’s a show (and a fanbase) that finally gets it.
Ghost Adventures may be the most popular form to date of Suburban Gothic, a horror subgenre that dwells on lost hopes of a land meant to be safe, open, and affordable; a blank slate on which to build a tight-knit community and raise a family. Instead, characters find themselves alone and alienated in haunted, dangerous, hidden places beset by mindless zombies, hidden-in-plain-sight serial killers, and ghosts risen from wronged and forgotten people. “The most common preoccupations expressed in the Suburban Gothic,“ writes Bernice M. Murphy in The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture, “have to do with issues of personal identity and the paradoxical comforts and perils of conformity.”
Ghost Adventures does not primarily visit suburban homes, but its hosts nearly always visit places of relative economic desperation: rural tourist towns, declining cities, and aging suburbs. These places not only need the money that comes with the attention earned by going on the show, they often suffer from an acute lack of collective definition: A sense of what draws the place together, what makes it a meaningful place. The paranormal confers meaning and collective history because ghosts don’t haunt, and demons don’t stalk, ordinary places. They are attached to something substantive — a murder or an interdimensional portal summoned by devil worshipers. Even if your suburb looks to be on the surface just like every other suburb, there always exists an invisible layer of meaning waiting to be detected.
Dean MacCannell, writing in the American Journal of Sociology in 1973, argued that our modern anxieties about the “shallowness” of our lives compel us to seek out the palliative of authentic experience. This pilgrimage “parallels concerns for the sacred in primitive society.” The overly simplistic functionalist categories of ’70s sociology notwithstanding, MacCannell is right that “the search for authenticity of experience … is everywhere manifest in our society” and we have developed a litany of tools and procedures to conjure up rapturous authentic experiences. We perform rituals and seek out relics of consequence that will deliver us from our fallen, mass-produced lives into the sacred light of the authentic.
It doesn’t take a top-ranked basic cable show to perform such rituals. Legend tripping — visiting sites believed to have supernatural qualities and interacting with whatever is said to haunt the space — is performed by ordinary people all the time. The practice, writes Stephanie Monohan, “creates a sense of the ‘enduring ephemeral,’ a rupture in time — that history is both in the past and constantly on your heels.” Ghost Adventures invokes the enduring ephemeral at scale: each episode is an exercise in intermixing history, geography, and myth to create a single meaningful place. Contra Walter Benjamin’s thesis that art’s reproducibility is a threat to its singular meaning — its aura — Bagans’ crew leverages their authority as seasoned paranormal investigators to anoint each place they visit as having its own unique and authentic significance. They never claim to have created anything, they have merely discovered evidence of what was already there.
You already knew there was more to your neighborhood, your health, or yourself than met the eye — here’s a show that finally gets it
There are, according to tourism scholar Ning Wang, at least three kinds of authenticity: objective, constructed, and existential. Most writing about authenticity and social media is focused on existential authenticity which, according to Wang, “denotes a special state of Being in which one is true to oneself, and acts as a counterdose to the loss of ‘true self’ in public roles and public spheres in modern Western society.” If your ordinary life is experienced as repressively mundane, then the ordinary is “not the real you,” and it is only the exceptional and the expertly curated that feels authentic. It is only when we are vacationing in a Tuscan villa or identifying with an expertly put-together YouTube influencer that, in Wang’s words, “the authentic self emerges as an ideal that acts to resist or invert the dominant rational order.”
Ghost Adventures trades primarily on its ability to imbue places with existential authenticity. An old hotel in South Dakota is turned into a haunted hotel with a unique backstory, the perfect backdrop for your real, dark and brooding self to be revealed. In the 10th episode of their eighth season, Zak opens with a monologue delivered at the side of the road with early summer cornfields behind him: “We have been to the darkest gothic castles, the most violent, disturbing prisons — we’ve been to the scariest places on Earth — but the places that are truly dark are the ones that are isolated. The ones hidden within America’s farmlands.” This is how he sells “Thornhaven Manor” an abandoned house in New Castle, Indiana. Isolated is an exaggeration: just down the block are a smattering of McMansions, and a four-minute drive will get you to a Buffalo Wild Wings. All the better for the show, though, as it reinforces the idea that anyone is just down the road from a place that matters. By the end of the episode, after mist-like apparitions have been caught on camera and the name of a small child documented to have died there is heard coming over the static of a device they call a “spirit box,” Zak tells the homeowner: “Your house is a special place. Please protect it.” A five-star Google review from Annie Schott suggests the owner has done just that: “Been there three or four times for ghost hunts I [sic] loved it had a great time.”
Ghost Adventures retains its credibility by constantly undermining its own ability to be a definitive source of paranormal truths. Or as Rob Horning puts it, the show demonstrates “a form of work that makes visible and irrepressible contradictions cohere. Authenticity work makes something that is both marketable and outside markets, both planned and spontaneous, both disinterested and calculated.” Occasionally, the ghost hunters will “debunk” something they originally thought to be paranormal: A cold spot on a thermal imaging camera is revealed to be a drafty window, or a screeching voice is a loose floor plank. Confusingly, they use the same term to refer to things originally thought to be mundane, as in, “we debunk the idea that this is dust in front of the camera lens.” By occasionally making mistakes that they quickly correct, Ghost Adventures maintains the sense that its hosts are discovering and interpreting what is already there, not manufacturing a media product.
What set Ghost Adventures apart from the beginning was its hosts’ willingness to do investigations “without any big camera crews following us around.” The idea was that they were doing it all themselves, and just wanted to show you what they found. More recently, as their financial success becomes harder to hide, Zak Bagans has been careful to keep his paranormal properties separate. He makes almost no references on Ghost Adventures to the Haunted Museum attraction he owns in Las Vegas, or the expensive houses and relics he buys with his television fortune. Both pursuits are ostensibly “on brand,” but they run counter to the “extreme, real” ethos of the show. Both debunking mistakes and downplaying their own fame is in line with influencer’s willingness to occasionally let their audience know about a mental illness diagnosis or maintain what Crystal Abidin calls a “calibrated amateurism” through the studious use of finstagrams. By foregrounding their professional status as ghost hunters when their evidence needs conviction, and hiding it when a dash of authenticity is required, they are able to create a fine-tuned mix of polish and grit.
Wang’s other two forms of authenticity, constructed and objective, also contribute to the show’s success. Objective authenticity is the kind of authenticity that museum archivists and art historians care about. Is this wooden box in front of me the actual Dybbuk Box that cursed Post Malone and caused his car to crash, or is it just an old wine cabinet? Ghost Adventures audiences can also vicariously legend trip by viewing the read outs from the digital tools brought to bear on each hunt. When the body of a man is detecting using Digital Dowsing’s Structured Light Sensor (on sale direct from the manufacturer consistently name-dropped on the show for $1,275), in the same place that legend says is the site of a grisly murder, the legend is pronounced verified.
If your ordinary life is repressively mundane then the ordinary is “not the real you,” and only the exceptional feels authentic
Constructed authenticity comes from social consensus: something is authentic because everyone agrees that it is. Constructed authenticity, writes Wang, is “projected onto toured objects by tourists or tourism producers” and can encompass what the thing looks like or how it behaves. Ghost Adventures is rewriting what haunted places look like by declaring boring hotels and even suburban houses sites of paranormal activity. In so doing, the modern suburbs are brought into postmodern hyperreality. The existence of ghosts heralds a suburban geography that was always already rife with gritty histories.
These haunted histories, however, are meant to be picked up and easily put back in an ignorable part of our collective consciousness. This selective memory helps not only retain the semblance of safety the suburbs are meant to provide, but also preserve the ability of these stories to confer a sense of existential authenticity. Just as imagining an authentic life as an olive farmer in Morocco is fun only when you ignore the realities of the global olive oil market, so too are suburban ghosts enjoyable only when they are detachable from the actual ecological and political violence that created them. Rather than come to grips with the racial and class-based traumas of the city, a select group of middle-class whites were permitted the opportunity to opt out of history altogether and take up residence in the professionally managed municipal bureaucracies and expertly engineered streets of the suburbs. The suburbs of the mid 20th century were founded on a desire to avoid a reckoning with history and its meaning, and Ghost Adventures poses no threat to this consensus.
Situating suburbs in history means identifying and sharing the moments when this rupture from history was put in peril: the moment when previous inhabitants or outside invaders try to take over. Retelling these stories helps to make some of the safest parts of the planet seem embattled and tenuous. A review of horror literature suggests that haunted suburbs are always impacted by an exogenous force, not just from that particular suburb but from modern American life itself. In a recent piece for the New Inquiry, Lou Cornum points to audiences of the 1982 horror film Poltergeist who cite
the cemetery that the California housing-development setting is built on as an Indian burial ground. It is in fact pointedly mentioned in the film as not an Indian burial ground but a cemetery of settlers who come to haunt the suburbs. Poltergeist II, however, seems to pick up the public’s latent desire for some Native flair for their horror: It involves a Native American shaman character (played by Will Sampson Jr., famed for his role as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) whose job of course is to help Americans become un-haunted.
Whether it is the daemons attached to the family at the center of the Paranormal Activities franchise or the ancient rites that cause the events in Hereditary, a meaningful place for the American suburbanite is a place under siege; the suburbs can’t be understood without this founding myth. Without the fortress mentality, the physical isolation brought about by suburban homes — to say nothing of the ecological footprint or personal inconvenience of commute times — would be indefensible. Ghost Adventures lets its audience have its devil’s food cake and eat it too: we all live in meaningful places with a history that is close-at-hand and worthy of telling, but we can also walk away from it when it threatens our comfortable, ahistorical lives.
Even if you do want to live within history, warts and all, everyday life has a way of reminding you what that truly entails. On nights where dinner is cooked, the kitchen is clean, and the morning can start late, I like to turn on Ghost Adventures and entertain the idea that my own cemetery-side 19th-century house is haunted. There are even moments where I let myself daydream about running a haunted bed and breakfast, complete with an appropriately spooky backstory and period-appropriate interior decorating. But whenever a column of Corollas and F-150s following a hearse rolls past the house and under the Elmwood Hill Cemetery arch, I am reminded that ignoring not just history, but our own inevitable futures is an essential component of everyday life. Our traipses into the paranormal are safe adventures into other people’s deaths, so that we may imagine a time when people will care about the lives we lived and forgive us our trespasses into the abandoned properties of willfully forgotten memories.