Ghost Hunters 5.12: "Essex County Penitentiary"

My review for the previous episode seemed to get a great deal of passionate response. Some appeared to get the gist of the commentary: that the presentation of the episode was such that it fed into the impression that the show was calculated and staged. Others took my comments as yet another attack on the integrity of TAPS, even so far as to suggest that I was claiming that there was outright fabrication taking place.

I’ll say it again, especially in context of this particular case: I do not believe that there is definitive proof that TAPS has faked any of the pertinent “evidence” on “Ghost Hunters”. Some will no doubt scoff at such an opinion, but I consider it to be the only fair assessment of our common source of evaluation: footage that is chopped up and edited for the express purposes of entertainment.

Just as that makes any “evidence” uncovered impossible to verify, as it has been tampered with after the fact through the editing/post-production process, it also means that apparent evidence of guilt is all in the eye of the beholder. It becomes, unfortunately, a matter of trust. Does one trust TAPS on their word, or does one take a more cynical view? One could ask the very same question for every reality series on the air. What constitutes that “reality”?

Such things are subjective, and they always will be. Only those involved in the filming will ever know the whole story, and even if they are 100% honest, the subjective opinion of the individual viewer will always be that person’s default assumption. In other words, if someone wants to trust TAPS, they will do so in the face of whatever questions or allegations are raised. Similarly, if someone wants to believe TAPS is committing fraud, they will continue to do so regardless of assurances and arguments to the contrary.

I’ve long taken a middle view: that the members of TAPS are human, and as such, they make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are out of technical ignorance; this episode provides an example of how prevalent that can be. Sometimes those mistakes are those of judgment, in cases where they seem to interpret “evidence” as potentially paranormal when common sense explanations are readily apparent. And sometimes those mistakes involve going with the reality television flow, and playing things up as more impressive than they are.

Which was, in fact, my point about the previous episode, especially taken in contrast with this case. The incident with the flashlight in the previous episode seemed overdone and unnatural. This time around, I thought everyone’s reactions were more genuine and realistic. Even the more measured acceptance of “evidence” seemed to be back in place. I thought they were going to include a lot more in the final reveal than they did.

I said I would point out the glaring examples of technical ignorance, and there were a couple. As always, I would think that these basic matters of instrumentation would have been recognized by now, but some errors tend to perpetuate, even in the face of strong arguments to the contrary. For example, even Josh Gates seems to place way too much trust in the FLIR system, and didn’t seem to recognize that the temperature profile of the “strange head shape” meant it was either a human being or a reflection.

Oddly enough, Steve and Tango correctly interpreted the reflection in other FLIR footage, and that example was a lot more complicated. That’s what leaved me somewhat puzzled about their interpretations of the thermal footage. When it’s obviously a live human being, they get it wrong. When it’s a lot harder to identify a figure as a reflection, especially given the environmental conditions, they’re spot on.

The other example involves the handheld EMF meters, and this time, I’m not talking about the K-II. I paid attention when Steve mentioned the unexpectedly high EMF readings in the main building, because of the lack of obvious man-made EM fields on-site. However, I also noticed that he was holding the meter on an angle and waving it around, which could explain the odd readings. I’ve used those meters before, and when the axis changes as a result of movement, there’s a momentary spike.

I would imagine that after years of using the equipment, Steve and the others would be well aware of that instrument’s little quirks. On the other hand, I see plenty of investigators make this mistake all the time, and Steve in particular holds his meter on an angle more often than not, because it makes the display easier to see with a flashlight. Unfortunately, that means he holds it right on the edge of the position that would, logically, lead the meter to switch axes. That doesn’t mean it’s definitely a false positive in this case, but it was what came to mind.

I’m also wary of how contaminated the site might have been. Not in terms of people, but in terms of animals. This site seemed very similar to the conditions of the Overbrook Hospital in the same general part of the state, and that means similar wildlife possibilities. A lot of the personal experiences could have been the result of hearing animal movements.

Of all the strange experiences, I was most intrigued by the odd sounds heard by Josh, Steve, and Tango. Given the possibilities of animal contamination, it could have been something as simple as a woodpecker. They are in the area, and I hear them all the time. The sound is very similar, and if it was a woodpecker, that might explain why the noise stopped when Steve asked.

This particular site is also located right between Route 80 to the north and Route 280 to the south, only a few miles from each. I happen to be on those roads a lot, as I live and investigate in this part of New Jersey. There are currently several annoying overnight road construction projects taking place on both roads. That could explain the odd mechanical sounds and the repetitive hammering.

That said, I find it very hard to imagine that three people would mistake semi-distant road construction for something that was happening in the next room! And for that matter, I would think Tango, coming from this same area, would recognize the sound of the local birdlife. So I’m torn between what seems to be a reasonable and logical explanation and the fact that neither possibility seems to fit the situation.

I must say that I liked the helmet cam approach. If we take the footage shown on its own merits, Kris was quite alone. Besides the production footage of her entering the tunnels, the rest came from either the helmet cam or the handheld camcorder she brought with her. Of course, that begs the question: why would Jason and Grant allow her to investigate on her own, when that goes against one of their cardinal rules?

I also liked what I saw out of Britt. He’s the only one who seemed to bother using more than one instrument at once, and while it didn’t quite pan out this time, it is the best tactic for collecting the most substantial “evidence”. (I would quibble with the idea that any of the devices are innovative, since they’ve all been used by less well-known groups for years, but that’s another matter.)

With so many alternative explanations and the dearth of anything substantial, I think the team got it exactly right when they said they couldn’t back the reported claims. And appropriately, they said that the best next step would be further investigation. That may seem like a cop-out to some, since we’re unlikely to see them return on-screen (since Pilgrim/_television/genres/syfy prefer variety), but it’s what most competent investigators would offer.


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