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Ghost hunters and God chasers

The paranormal extremes of reality TV
By JAMES PARKER  |  November 7, 2006

LOST CATS: Celebrity Paranormal Project is the anti–Blair Witch.

How quaintly reverent it now seems, The Blair Witch Project. Remember those poor kids reeling in circles in their hiking gear, howling “Fuuuck! This is America!” into the wet trees, refusing to believe that the woods had not been purged of their mystery? Hand-held mikes, no script, situational claustrophobia, the Cyclopean blunderings of one Hi8 camera — the 1999 movie was a foundation text for reality TV. But it was also a wicked little ghost story: three smart-assed film students disappear into cold and trackless rural Maryland to research a bit of folklore and the folklore eats them alive. Chomp, chomp. The clever-cleverness of these young snots, their humor, and their rote sophistications are all dismantled, and the bad old world of leaf mold and stone asserts its claim. Fuck with the woods, pal, and the woods will have you.

Or maybe they won’t. VH1’s Celebrity Paranormal Project (Sundays) is the triumph of reality TV over the Beyond, the anti–Blair Witch, in which it is not just proposed but proved that you can waltz into a place thronged by the shades of the damned, taunt them all night long with thermal gizmos and “channeling scrolls,” and make it home for breakfast without a mark on you. In episode one, Donna D’Errico from Baywatch, the great soul warrior Gary Busey, and various other B-listers penetrated the Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville, where 63,000 people died of TB, in search of “shadow people” and a ghost called “The Man in the White Lab Coat.” They found a room supposed to be frequented by spectral children and rolled rubber balls around in there, calling, “Timmy! . . . Timmy! . . . ,” as if to a lost cat. Busey even went into the derelict operating theater and sawed an old rib in half, in the hope of triggering psychic after-images from deceased former patients. Nothing. “This is a very strange silence that I’m living in right now,” he said, hacksaw in hand.

Episode two found Survivor winner Ethan Zohn deep in a disused asylum for the criminally insane, re-enacting the lobotomy that legendarily released the malign spirit “Pearl” from the brain chambers of her schizophrenic host. He had a mallet, an icepick, and a human skull: “Okay, we crushed the other eye socket, now what?” But the crowning blasphemy came last week, when Michael Bergin — another Baywatch alumnus — sat in the ancient electric chair of a haunted penitentiary and blah’d his way through Psalm 23: “ . . . Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anoints — anointens — anointest my head with oil.” (“Is that my voice?’ he wondered later, listening to the recording. “I sound like God!’) Again — nothing. Some panting and a bit of pipe clank. There’s Bergin, in total darkness, a psalm on his lips, settling into the corrosion, vibes, and gnawed leather of the mercy seat, and not one of the souls who fried there can bestir himself to so much as cough in this dude’s ear? The dark side has gone soft.

Chase God, on the other hand, and it would seem that you get punctually zapped. Over at TLC’s The Monastery (Sunday nights), things got tougher still this week for the five “guests” at New Mexico’s Monastery of Christ in the Desert. Silence, the shaving of heads, bell-ringing at loony hours . . . all too much for 24-year-old ex-Marine Alex, who refused to get his head shaved, raided the community’s larder for beer (again), stole a truck so that he could go drinking 40 miles down the road, and finally quit, 17 days from the end of his 40-day term. Huge bummer for the monks, who had tried hard to make room for this young renegade: Brother Bernard, who took Alex fishing on his birthday, had even ventured the opinion that he was “an angel sent to put our feet on the ground in some way.” It was a War of the Grins: the Iraq veteran’s gap-toothed, jack-o’-lantern chuckle against the treblier and more cosmic mirth of Abbot Philip Lawrence. “God made me a crazy bastard so I could go over there and do his dirty work,” grinned Alex as he said his goodbyes. “Oh, he made you for more than that,” grinned the abbot, delivering one of his spiritual karate chops. Alex’s face momentarily registered the blow, but it was too late. He was out of there.

Okay, a brief round-up of the week’s other action. On CMT’s Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team it was curtains, at last, for bewildered rookie Meaghan Flaherty, as DCC director Kelli Finglass and choreographer Judy Trammell — those two Botox’d cutthroats in the office — gave her her walking papers. A classic reality stooge, Meaghan had been surviving only at the sadistic whim of the show’s producers: the poor girl dances like two cucumbers rolling down a flight of steps. On UFC 4: The Comeback (Spike) the Ultimate Fighters were squabbling over the contents of their shared fridge. Charles “Chainsaw” McCarthy, in particular, appeared to be gorging to kill the pain of being on reality TV, and he was stealing everybody else’s cold cuts. “It’s hard to be happy in a situation like this if you have a lot of depth to your character,” he confided to the camera.

I find I have neglected to update you on the bloody goings-on at Animal Planet’s Meerkat Manor. I will remedy this situation next week. Stay tuned.

Related: Houses of pain, Ready to rumble!, Touched by God, More more >
  Topics: Television , Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, Entertainment, Gary Busey,  More more >
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