THAT’S the Spirit! Destination Truth’s “Live from Ireland: The Search for the Banshee Ghost” illustrated what real-time televised paranormal investigations can—and should—be
I write ghost stories. I write a number of ghost stories. Yet every year what I hope will be the ultimate ghost story—the live televised paranormal investigation—falls flat. The evening deteriorates until its highlight is knocking back a shot of Jack every time a green-faced investigator says “Did you hear that?”
But during Destination Truth’s four-hour “Live from Ireland: The Search for the Banshee Ghost,” which aired on St. Patrick’s Day, I didn’t have to go that far. And I don’t think anyone else did, either: Twitter was noisy. Facebook was frenetic. People were riveted. Why?
The show tapped into some of the elements of good ghost stories. Here’s what DT did right—and what every one of these shows should study up on before its next live televised paranormal investigation.
Well-written creepy back story revealed like water torture. In ghost stories—as with real haunted places—in-depth, tragic histories are key. This info needs to be administered between the action, getting scarier each time (just when you think the history of the place can’t get any darker, here comes something scarier). The pre-recorded historical and prior investigation sections of DT weren’t only well-researched and -written, they romanced the ghost story’s “campfire element”: people telling tales. They were also staggered well, placed just after an investigation segment’s denouement (in ghost stories, history’s often presented after the falling action of scarier scenes). King’s The Shining is an excellent example of this technique.
Complex, distinct personalities and chemistry. Ghost stories are really about drama between people—how they’re victims of or conquer their personalities; how they fail or don’t fail each other. In fact, in most stories the ghost isn’t the point; the ghost’s a vehicle, and the actual scary moments act as triggers for the characters to clash within themselves or with each other. If the characters are cardboard and indistinct, this doesn’t work: no conflict, no drama. Fortunately, this DT investigation got that. Josh is driven and daring—but sometimes makes reckless decisions. Ryder’s uptight and bitches on a dime—but is sensitive underneath. Barry’s level-headed and rational—but is startled easily. Jael’s always nervous—but can’t say no. These four in a high-pressure situation was like watching fireworks. Who cared if a ghost showed up—the threat of one showing up was enough. Characters, not plot.
Properly ratcheted tension. Tension’s critical in ghost stories, and creating it’s an art in itself. There are several ways to do it, and DT took advantage of a few. Skillful revelation of back story and internal/external conflicts (mentioned above) heighten tension. A twist resulting in danger in the middle of the story—such as the discovery of the hair comb—is another. There’s also manipulation of characters—put the most vulnerable in the roughest spots. An excruciating play in DT was Josh’s selecting Jael to handle the tower alone—and everything that ensued. Whether or not the decision to send her was made on scene or prior to filming doesn’t matter: she was the obvious choice because of her personality. Even if she hadn’t experienced anything, she was so jumpy we felt it. And how about when Josh told her he’d spied moving shadows beneath her? He could’ve kept his mouth shut so as not to make her worse. But he didn’t—he goaded her, and our eyes grew wide along with hers. Had Josh selected someone fearless, the tension would’ve been greatly reduced.
Engagement of all five senses. Good ghost stories engage all five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. DT’s unhurried establishing shots of dead trees, endless moss-covered corridors and burnt timbers served the same purpose as a well-crafted descriptive paragraph (think the opening of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”), creating tone and mood. The sound of Jael’s furiously throbbing heart during her tower ordeal rattled the floorboards if you happened to be listening in surround-sound (“The Tell-Tale Heart,” anyone?), and the distant wails and screams—whether from sheep, whales or something supernatural—were chilling. Even though television viewers couldn’t directly experience smell, taste, and touch, team members were generous with their remarks about, among them, a dead bird’s odor, the taste of fish breakfast vomit, and the temperature of the air to ensure that these senses—with some imagination—were included.
Humor. Gates is a genuinely funny guy (when examining a live scorpion to eat: “Um, do you have anything more…dead?”). In ghost stories, there is, at least, one strategically-placed humorous moment or line of dialogue. There has to be. It breaks the tension so the reader can catch his breath—and experience a contrasting emotion, necessary so the next tension-infused section is that much more intense. In DT, every funny line or moment was situational, brief—and in just the right place.
At the show’s sunset, they shared the evidence they’d found thus far—and while it certainly was stunning, I wouldn’t have cared if they’d gotten nothing. Four hours had passed like fourteen minutes. I’d been scared, shocked, entertained, amused, informed, and on the edge of my seat. It had been, finally, the ride I’d always wanted a live paranormal investigation to be: like Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” or Lurie’s “The Pool People.”
Destination Truth’s “Live from Ireland: The Search for the Banshee Ghost” has obliterated the frequently-piped excuse that “a live ghost hunt is boring.” If other shows take its cue, I think we can thankfully say that the days of sleep-inducing live paranormal investigations are a thing of the past—and I can put away my bottle of Jack.