The participants are cast members, just like cast members of any other show. They have rolls they play and their rolls are partially scripted, which is most obvious at the beginning and end of the shows, and some places in the middle, too. Make no mistake, there's a lot of direction going on. You can still enjoy the shows, but don't have to believe everything they say is true, like Donna has done all this great research . . . right, Donna went out and "found" this stuff all on her own, NOT! The research is done by the production staff before they ever decide to film the episode, and whoever is wearing the researcher hat that week gets to take credit for it on the show. (P.S. I really like Donna Lacroix. She's on Ghost Hunters International where the only problem is she's once again being bossed around by the men who always seem get to be the leaders . . . Hmm, I sense a blog on sexism in ghost hunting. MUAH, Donna!)
This shouldn't stop you from enjoying the actual ghost hunting segments, during which the cast sometimes have freaky experiences, collect video or EVP evidence, or not. It's still the next best thing to being there. My only complaint, you can't always tell what is actually going on with the spooky music and sound effects added to the footage later. Latest personal peeve? The fake heartbeat added by Ghost Hunters. Cut it out!
The first of these shows I was exposed to was Most Haunted, the British show, but I quickly found the star, Yvette Fielding, to be extremely irritating. That and the obvious fakeness of the medium, Derek Acorah, provided a quick turn-off for me. There have also been accusations of fakery, such as Yvette sighing and then saying, "Did you hear that?" DUH! Yvette and her husband are the producers of the show.
Ghost Hunters is a very popular show, starring the very likable Grant Wilson and Jason Hawes, who supposedly work as plumbers during the day and hunt ghosts at night. They are also the producers of the show, which is built around The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), which they founded, but is now a marketing bonanza with a spinoff series, Ghost Hunters International and other certified TAPS teams. They have built a huge following in large part due to the fact that they act from a skeptical position, trying to determine what is actually causing observed phenomenon and looking for natural causes that will rule out the paranormal. They only accept a paranormal explanation if they are able to gather physical evidence to support the observed phenomenon. They also come across as very sincere with their clients and as very comfortable in their relationship with each other. Trustworthy is the word for these guys.
That said, the show is still highly scripted and stiff during the segments that set up the beginning, the ride to the site, and the end. If they are sitting at a table or riding in a vehicle, you can almost see the cue cards. There's a lot of repetitiveness here, the same kind of information given over and over and over again ad nauseum show after show about what they do and what an EVP is. It eats up air time, but doesn't provide any new information for old viewers. My most unfavorite thing they do is compliment someone on how well they did during an EVP session, as though it is hard to learn to say, "Is there anyone here who would like to talk to us?" or "Could you please do something to prove to us you are here?" How hard is that? Can I have my diploma now? The tech stuff . . . that takes some knowhow, but still, we aren't talking rocket science here.
You also need to be aware that there is a great deal of editing being done and it isn't being done by the cast, but by the production staff, who decide what it is that you and I, the audience, will get to see. It includes highlighting personality quirks of the cast members or whose wife is having a baby, who is scared of spiders, etc. Connecting the viewers to the cast members is key to maintaining interest in the show, since you can't always count on the ghosts to manifest themselves. Sometimes these machinations are so obvious that I can't imagine the audience doesn't know what is going on, such as when Kris Williams, the pretty one who is often used as "bait," was supposedly trapped inside a room she'd had to use a chair to get into and couldn't get herself out of. She called on the walkie talkie for Jason and Grant to come help her . . . only she was being filmed by a cameraman who was clearly in the same room with her. He couldn't give her a leg up? Grant "had" to crawl in and lift her up and then was filmed by the same cameraman jumping up and squirming out. So, who helped the cameraman out? They are never truly alone. There is always a sound guy and a cameraman, who seem remarkably calm. I wonder where they find these guys?
The final show that I have watched is a new one, Paranormal State. At first, I wasn't sure I was going to like this show, because right off the bat they were talking about demons and exorcisms. They also threw around a lot of holy water. It's basically a one-man show, built around student, Ryan Buell, with a couple of doe-eyed coeds, one Wiccan, and a tech guy. But, the focus is on Ryan (who comes across as steady, mature and experienced) and whichever medium they decide to call in. But, it's almost laughable when Ryan says something like, "I decided to call in so-and-so" to come help us and POOF they appear. It's all been planned ahead of time. Nobody's too busy to come, and even if they live across the country, they are there johnny-on-the-spot shortly after he declares they are needed.
I'm not knocking this little series. Remember, they are all scripted to some extent and the story line has been determined by the producers ahead of time. But, what the producers cannot script on any of these shows, and what keeps the viewers coming back again and again is the actual experiences they have . . . the unscripted parts of the show. You cannot fake the emotions of a scared teenager who is seeing the ghost of a murdered girl in her room, or the reluctance of a dog to enter a room, or how one of the investigators squeals like a girl and runs when touched by something that isn't there. They also occasionally capture a video or EVP that is compelling and some sounds that are unexplained may be heard audibly by the audience, as well as the investigators.
What I like about Paranormal State, assuming that it is true, is that Ryan claims on several occasions that he and his team are there to help the family with whatever the problem is. That may include counseling and medical interventions. They stick around a site for a whole weekend, not just one night, and don't leave until they have determined whether it is safe for the family. Whether you or I believe that holy water, rosary beads or saint's medals will keep a bad spirit away is probably irrelevant. I think it is the energy generated by the people present and their belief that matters. The rituals probably help them focus that energy.
To sum up, each of these shows has a hook, a gimmick, which the viewers can expect.
Ghost Hunters is science-based. Their goal is to look for proof (period). Their gimmicks are to go "Lights Out" and spend exactly one night at the site, which more and more seem to be famous historical sites, and have "The Reveal" at the end (sitting around a table, of course). Whether they find anything or not, they leave. Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am. We had a good time. Good luck with your situation. They say they can be called on again, but we have no idea if anyone actually goes to them for more help with their problems. There's no follow-up.
Paranormal State is medium-based. They set up some instruments to gather evidence, and use them to verify paranormal activity, but their focus is on communicating with whatever spirits linger and helping them either to pass on or live harmoniously with the current residents of the home. Their gimmicks are "Dead Time" and the "Director's Log" which narratively carries us from scene to scene. They seek to resolve the problem of the haunting at the end. They stay for at least a couple of days, a couple of nights, and include psychological assessment of the people involved, as well as research including interviewing former residents of property. The places they investigate are often the homes of regular people. And the help they provide seeks to heal the whole family and provide some resolution to the problems they are having. They provide some follow-up information at the end of the show.
As long as they can keep their sincerity intact and be honest with their audiences, both of these shows may continue to experience success. I know I'll be watching.