Well, the still active race for the para-reality show sweeps has washed a new one up on the beach – Travel Channel’s The Dead Files.
The premise is actually quite appealing – a self-professed psychic medium investigates claims of hauntings, while a retired New York detective digs into the location’s background. At the end (I guess commonly referred to now as “the reveal”), they come together (having not communicated during the entire exercise) and trade notes with the proprietor/homeowner.
The psychic in question, Amy Allan (who has been spied a number of times in various roles on ghost hunting/investigation shows – we first saw her on an early episode of A Haunting, playing herself in a re-enactment walkthrough) consistently relies on her “expertise” and “hundreds” of investigations during her walkthroughs and reveal sessions…but somehow, at least in all the episodes we’ve seen so far, seems to continually find something that she’s never seen before, or sensed before, usually playing up the fact that this case has something more evil, more uniquely dark, than all her other experiences. She also grimaces and knots her fingers during her walkthroughs a bit like a middle-schooler unexpectedly called up to recap a previous night’s homework she didn’t bother to study. Gotta give it to the girl – she’s got the body language down.
The cop in question, Steve Di Schiavi, plays his part well, digging into home records and newspaper accounts relating the property in question. Apart from the somewhat needless and over-dramatized shots of him nodding with ominous affirmation at the information he receives during his interviews with historians and medical professionals, he seems straight-up and the real deal.
Inevitably, of course, the research sustains and affirms the impressions Amy gives out during her walkthroughs (filmed by an apparently skeptical camcorderist), and at the end of the reveal, she delivers advice (and sometimes warnings) to the behaunted.
The unspoken theme of the series is that Amy’s gifts can be validated through shoeleather research – something that medium-skeptics often (and rightly) complain is too often lacking in IR-lit ghost investigations. The problem, of course, is that Allan can’t help but over-dramatize pretty much everything, playing up the channeled sensations of violent death or the pure evil of her quarry. Demons, angryangryangry male figures, death, murder, suicide, rage…C’mon, aren’t ghosts ever there by choice, largely indifferent to the affairs of the living, in a good mood one day or a bad mood the next? For us, this is all playing up the sheer terror involved in these alleged hauntings, and that reeks of ratings.
Look…we don’t know if Amy Allan is the real thing or not. And maybe squirming and wincing and playing out channeled physical contortions is merely her way of expressing genuine psychic impressions. But the more she plays up the drama and horror-film creepiness of her investigations, the more the show comes across as a low-cost thrill ride, and the less we believe the alignment of Di Schiavi’s research with her impressions. For all the foibles of Ghost Hunters or GHI (and they ain’t perfect either), they are at least relentlessly in the moment, and the fact that some of their episodes are lethally boring suggests they are largely immune from cheap sensationalism, and merely all about evidence. (It is interesting that Allan always seems to catch the truly sinister, malevolent hauntings, and GH/GHI uniformly counsels their customers that there’s really nothing there to be afraid of. It’s also interesting to note that the Ghost Plumbers actually gather evidence of the paranormal, thin as it may be sometimes - neither Allan nor Di Schiavi ever do that. All we have is the customer’s claims of doors slamming, stuff moving, shadows, etc…and Allan’s validation that something is really there.)
As far as the strength of the Dead File’s premise, it relies on the fact that we are also expected to take it on faith that the whole thing isn’t pre-scripted; but let’s be honest, we can’t hold that against either of the principals. We struggle to imagine a ghost hunting TV show that can fully and completely endorse itself free of cheating or scripted shenanigans. There is always a suspension of disbelief involved for TV shows, there has to be. For our money, The Dead Files strains it needlessly, perhaps merely because they work from a premise of actual validation of mediumship, and then play up the Holloywood.
There’s a decent story and an interview with the principals here, check it out.
We’ll continue to watch, skeptical that our concerns about its honesty can really be dispelled. And hope that Amy Allan can actually find a ghost that’s just…a ghost.