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Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010

A More Ethical Kind of Ghost Hunter

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Grant Wilson is the first to admit that “paranormal investigator” historically hasn’t been considered one of the most honorable professions. The field was so disreputable, Wilson says, that he and fellow one-time plumber Jason Hawes at first resisted offers to create their Syfy network show “Ghost Hunters” because they feared the stigma.

“Especially before we began our show in 2004, the state of the field was rough,” Wilson says. “A lot of investigators would charge for investigations, and there were a lot of charlatans who were too eager to substantiate their evidence and would jump to conclusions too quickly. There were people who would go into an old lady’s house, see a nice vase and an Oriental carpet, then tell her, ‘You’ve got five ghosts; we’ll charge you a thousand bucks each to get rid of them.’”

Wilson says “Ghost Hunters” advocates a more ethical, measured form of paranormal investigation. “We promote the mentality of, ‘Be honest,’” Wilson says. “That means you don’t charge for investigations, and you want to go into each investigation to disprove the haunting, trying to find out if there’s some other explanation for the phenomenon.”

Whether Wilson and Hawes live up to that last criteria, of course, is open for debate. Though the “Ghost Hunters” investigators have ruled out supernatural activity in many of the locations they’ve filmed, they also end each episode by reviewing their taped, night-vision footage, searching for the smallest shadow movements or audio anomalies that they say could be signs of the paranormal.

Critics accuse Wilson and Hawes of staging the show’s creepiest footage, but perhaps the most compelling argument that these ghost hunters aren’t faking their evidence is just how little of it they’ve amassed. After six seasons and more than 100 episodes, the show’s highlight reel contains little more than a falling chair, a tugged bedsheet and a tossed coat hanger. The typical episode is primarily just members of the investigations team exploring dark buildings at night, freaking themselves out as they ask “Are you there?” to spirits that don’t seem to be, and “Did you see that?” to teammates who usually did not.

That may read like a tedious formula for a show, but “Ghost Hunters” is the Syfy network’s biggest hit, spawning three spin-offs (including “Ghost Hunters International” and “Ghost Hunters Academy”) and a slew of knockoffs.The A&E network has “Paranormal State”; the Discovery Channel continues its divorce from science with “Ghost Lab”; and the Travel Channel claims the most exploitative (and probably the most entertaining) of all the “Ghost Hunter” copies: “Ghost Adventures.” That show replaces the mostly levelheaded “Ghost Hunter” investigators with a trio of macho yet easily frightened meatheads seemingly from a Mountain Dew commercial, who antagonize and belittle invisible spirits as well as each other. It’s like “Jackass” with ghosts—or without them, as the case may be.

Asked about these competing ghost-hunting shows, Wilson judiciously says he hasn’t seen most of them, but stresses that he disagrees with the methodology of paranormal investigators who exploit the fears of clients or are aggressive toward spirits. He firmly believes that ghosts are not dangerous.

“They’re just dead people,” he says. “You can’t go in there and just push them around. Typically, I like to go into situations nonaggressive, as a diplomat. Dealing with ghosts is just like dealing with anybody else. It’s like if somebody crashes into your car: You don’t get out of your car and just start yelling at them right away. You approach the situation calmly at first.”

Grant Wilson and Jason Hawes of “Ghost Hunters” appear at the Pabst Theater to discuss their investigation methods and take audience questions on Saturday, Oct. 16, at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.