It took me a while to understand why I take such rapt, unalloyed delight in Ghost Adventures. At first, I thought I was liking it ironically or in the mode of camp — cousin species of so-bad-it’s-good enjoyment that exalts flaws, fails, and excesses. That would make sense. The show is not, by any conventional standard, good. Ghost Adventures is a long-running program on the Travel Channel in which Zak Bagans (owner of The Haunted Museum in Downtown) and his crew investigate haunted sites around the U.S. To be sure, there’s enough of a gap between what it wants to be and what it actually is to enjoy Ghost Adventures ironically. It purports to conduct scientific paranormal investigations, pursued with gobbledygook technology (video ovilus, inductive probes, electromagnetic voice phenomenon recorders) and a posture of clinical gravity so ludicrously magisterial it approaches satire. But basically, it’s four bros bumbling around in spooky places in some slapdash hybrid reality-TV homage to Ghostbusters, The Goonies, The Blair Witch Project, and Scooby-Doo. If you’re looking for ANSWERS (Bagans intones the word with such grim, leaden, yearning emphasis in the intro voice-over!), look elsewhere. Out of either brazen indolence or brilliant ellipsis, rarely do their investigations offer a unifying theory to tie together historical facts, legends, and all the milky green apparitions into any semblance of a coherent story.
Which is a hint to its true appeal. Ghost Adventures isn’t about truth, facts, or answers. Rather, Ghost Adventures is performative nostalgia that re-enacts the emotional rituals of a universal experience: banding together with your friends to explore that creepy house on the corner, the dark tunnel in the wash, the forbidden patch of desert strewn with animal bones. Ghost Adventures is 45 minutes of grown men freaking themselves out, and it’s startlingly satisfying to watch.
The show’s motto should be “What was THAT?!” At the climax of each episode, Bagans and his crew are practically barking that phrase in a chorus of bewilderment. But there’s a precision to the apparent chaos. All the childhood rites are here: the egging on, the psyching up, the delirious collaborative fabulating that synthesizes into consensual delusion (“Did you just touch me? Something touched me!” “Something touched me too!”), even the timeless ceremony of the big kids sending the little kid alone into the dank basement to bait a phantom. The Ghost Adventures crew doesn’t need, nor should it want, to discover the truth, whatever that is. The pleasure of Ghost Adventures is watching it feverishly manufacture its own lore in real time, using psychic revenants of childhood as its raw material.
I suspect this resonates particularly for men. Daring each other to knock on the door of the legendary neighborhood murder house or dragging each other into a dark cave wasn’t ever just about adventure. It was always about introspection as much as exploration. Such adventures proposed conditions for sanctioned emotional vulnerability, and sought provisional places where it was okay to hesitate, shiver, yelp, scream, cry, maybe even pee your pants. Each episode of Ghost Adventures has an almost formulaic reversal that echoes this: In the cthonic depths of the haunted mansion, the tables are turned on the investigators with their probing antennae and invasive cameras, and they themselves are touched, probed, attacked, sometimes even “possessed” by restless spirits (cringey improv in which Bagans musters his best diabolical smile that’s more like a twitchy, dyspeptic leer). If there was some Ghostbusters gear that measured zoinks! levels in these high, delicious moments, the needle would be pulsing in the red. The feels gush forth from the men — I’m scared! I’m so confused. I feel nauseous. I feel so cold! I’m dizzy. I feel this anxiety. My skin feels like it’s burning. What’s happening! What was that? What was THAAAT?! — and, ultimately, they undergo their own transformation that defies matter and sense: The men will be boys.