Fear, Shmear!
(?) September 22nd, 2000
Last night, MTV aired what is promised to be the first in many installments of their new reality based show, Fear.  In it, we get to watch near-adults scream, yell, cry, run and vomit in dark, scary places that a computerized voice assures them are haunted.  The format is a kind of Double Dare for Blair Witch Fans, in which the contestants work together, accomplishing various scary goals, in order to win a large amount of cash.  

Our first episode takes place at the defunct West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia.  The way MTV depicts the former prison is integral to the scare factor, since the six contestants are locked inside it for an entire weekend.  The show suggests that the prison is long-abandoned and devoid of any human contact, and that the place is rife with ghosts.

The Penitentiary

It is a skeptical bit of luck that this first show took place in northern West Virginia.  Since I have grown up and currently live in the area, I have a unique position from which to examine the events in the show.  I will use this knowledge to bring Fear down to a reasonable, skeptical  context.    

It is true; there are lots of ghosts in the Pen.  It was in operation for many years, and housed West Virginia's most dangerous criminals.  A good friend of mine grew up in Moundsville, and fondly remembers his father locking the doors, closing the curtains, turning off the lights and loading his shotgun in the rare instance of an inmate escaping from the Penitentiary.  But these ghosts are hardly the spooky, haunting kind.  Simply knowing that the place was a maximum security prison and home to rapists, murderers and child molesters, is quite enough to make the place an undesirable camping site.  

Abandoned?  Only if you don't count the people in it all the time. 

The Penitentiary is not abandoned.  There are no prisoners there, naturally, but it is in current use as a museum.  There are guided tours through the prison on a daily basis.  There are even billboards all over the area advertising The Pen as a potential sight-seeing stop.  

Haunted, Shmaunted 

Also, I've spoken to some of the local high-school students who take part in a yearly Haunted House that is staged in the Pen by John Marshall High School.  To quote one local, "There are people who spend hours waiting in the dark and they never see ghosts."  

In over twenty years of living in the area, I never once heard tell of spooky ghosts haunting the Pen.  That's not to say that the facility doesn't have legends about its alleged spookiness, but I've never heard of them.  But if you watch the show, the ghosts hardly seem to matter.

The Ghosts

The contestants are given a computerized briefing before venturing (usually alone) into the dark, poorly-lit prison.  This briefing is intended to be as scary as possible, telling the contestants that the place they'll be exploring is said to be haunted.  In a few of the later missions, the explorers are even given "ghost detection equipment," like "EMF detectors" and "infrared goggles."  They are instructed to watch the areas for ghosts through this detection equipment, and to make note of any "paranormal" activity they encounter.

Not once, throughout this entire show, is any of this evidence discussed.  The contestant goes into places like the Sugar Shack and the Hole, armed only with cameras, lights and an EMF detector, under the aegis of ghost research.  They are told to listen to their EMF detector, which will make lots of funny noises when ghosts are around.  In the 30 minutes of Fear, I don't recall any of the contestants caring about what readings they're supposed to record or what evidence they're supposed to find.  

In all likelihood, that's precisely the point.  The ghost stories are either made up completely or embellished from local legends (I couldn't tell which), and are intended only to add an extra layer of fear to the contestants' journey through the darkened cells and corridors.  The editors of the show make no attempt to cover the ghostly readings, probably because there never were any.     


But the contestants did claim to encounter ghosts in a couple of instances.  One woman swore that she felt something "evil," something she couldn't see or hear, but that filled her with enough anxiety to run away from the area.  One of the men claimed to hear loud, reverberating footsteps on the floor above him, and was naturally certain that none of the other contestants had been anywhere near there.  Another contestant, told to stand alone in the Sugar Shack for fifteen minutes, watching with "infrared goggles,"  saw lots of apparently moving shadows and was convinced that he was in the presence of otherworldly beings.  Numerous times, a couple of the contestants claim that they are not used to dealing with "negative spiritual energy."

Evil Vibes

The feeling of something evil sweeping over you is a legitimate response to intense fear and foreboding.  That's not to say she actually had some kind of ghost contact her physically, but that her animal instincts were telling her that being alone in a dark, scary, abandoned place was something to be avoided.

Evil Soles  

Hearing phantom footsteps is a common ingredient in contacts with ghosts.  It happens a lot in old buildings, where the structures of the walls and ceilings are prone to making strange noises.  Far more often than not, ghostly noises are easily explained by buildings settling in the cold temperatures of night.

Infrared Nonsense

The contestants are given infrared goggles with which to watch for ghosts, who apparently show up better in the infrared spectrum.  The only problem with this is that the point of view shot we're given of the contestant wearing the allegedly infrared goggles does not depict infrared at all.  

Light intensification goggles and hardware make everything look green, as ambient light is intensified.  Infrared, on the other hand, makes everything either look black and white (as the legitimate infrared cameras that MTV installed throughout the facility) or red.  These POV shots are obviously made with light amplification equipment, since the area is bathed in green light.  

The conclusion: either the contestants actually were wearing infrared, and the POV shots used light intensification (for reasons unknown), or the contestants were also looking through light amplification goggles.  In the case of the latter (which is most likely), then the contestants had no hope of seeing ghostly activity in the first place.

The Conclusion

I don't think MTV ever intended for actual ghost research to take place there by a bunch of college-age cry babies.  They all seem to believe in ghosts, and that belief obviously influences their level of fright.  They think it could be haunted, and so the possibility of running into a ghost elevates their fear.  The audience is never treated to any hint of ghosts, if you don't count the computerized briefings that say such things as "psychics believe the Hole is the most haunted location in the Pen."  

But the show is very interesting to watch.  There are very realistic depictions of people at the ends of their respective ropes, and every single one of the contestants loses their mind at least once.  

I enjoyed the show as a skeptic, because, while it was intended to be a smorgasbord of all manner of paranormal nonsense, it actually helps the skeptical, rational side of the ghost argument.  

Fear does an excellent job of showing the viewer exactly what skeptics have been saying for years: ghosts are simply an instinctual reaction to darkness, mystery and anxiety.  One hears strange noises, feels evil "energy," and sees scary shadows, and the mind struggles for a rationalized explanation.  That this rationalization is unsupported by empirical data is the very reason why stories of ghosts and the investigators thereof will be with us for a very long time.  

Thank you, MTV, for giving American youth a perfect depiction of why fear itself is much scarier than ghosts and goblins. 



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