Ghost Adventures in the New Wild West

Gender and performance in the world of American ghost hunting reality shows.

In the late nineteenth-century three sisters formulated one of the greatest scams of the era. Through implementing a series of knocks and subtle movements and noises in a room they managed to convince a wide audience of their ability to communicate with the dead. This, coupled with several famous hauntings and the left overs of transcendentalism and romanticism, along with religious revival of the ‘Burned Over’ district in New York, gave birth to the early spiritualist movement of the American Gilded Age. This was the time of Manifest Destiny, continued expansion, recording and controlling of land, of making meaning out of perceived wilderness with the eternally iconic cowboy and frontier explorer as the prime figure. Thus, as the American control of the west became a reality so too the American control of the paranormal.

Fox Sisters.

In response to this there formed skeptical communities and societies dedicated to researching the possibility of communicating with those who have died. Some societies were more thorough and rigorous in their methods than others, although there were many that fell for charlatans and frauds such as the Fox sisters. Within the spiritualist movement, there continued the long trend of positioning women as mediums, communicators and, in some cases, as spiritual guides while men were the authenticators, managers and ones who led credibility, or infamy, to the female practitioners.

This gender division is not wholly confined to the Victorian period where the persevering belief was that the natural role for a woman was as nurturer, provider of comfort, and facilitator of emotional and communicative needs for men. Within the ‘West’ there is a long tradition of female mystics and spiritual guides. Nuns reporting ecstatic visions of Christ and angels is not unheard of and the role of female mystic accompanied by a male guide or protector is a well-known trope. Some better known mystics and spiritual guides: Julian of Norwich, Joan of Arc (perhaps one of the most famous), Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Margery Kempe, Elizabeth Barton (for better or worse we may consider her in this category) and so on.

A major difference between these mystics of the early modern period and our spiritual guides of the Victorian era is that the mystics were seen as mouthpieces of God. Delivering divine messages and visions to us, unworthy mortals. The spiritualists of the Victorian era were delivering messages from the dead, usually to bereaved family. However, the underlying relationship between the known and the unknown, that uncertain line between holy and unholy, the heavenly and the earthly, the sacred and the profane has always held resonance as feminine. Just as women walked the line between Madonna and Magdalene so too did they, and do they, walk the line between delivering messages of a holy nature or being deceived by devils; communicating with the dead or deceiving the hurt and lost for profit. The feminine is usually liminal in its existence. It sits upon a threshold. In the case of spiritualism it is between worlds of the living and dead, the saintly and the demonic, the legitimate and the fraudulent with men, as always, being the arbiters of fate and the deciders of which category it is that a woman and her experience and voice fall into.

In recent decades the return of all things paranormal and supernatural has been on the rise. Where this is born from is a conversation for another time, although it is safe to say that, as with most rises and falls of Awakenings and Spiritual movements of any kind, they tend to come with periods of great uncertainty and/or loss. The Victorian period was a time of great social, economic and technological change. Telegraphs made the world suddenly much smaller than it had been before. If we can communicate with people thousands of miles away with telegraphs, why not with the dead? In the 1920s and 30s the loss of a generation of men to the Great War followed by economic depression and uncertainty led to another rise both in spiritualism of the ghost-speaking sort as well as a rise in evangelical faiths. The same again after the Second World War.

History, by nature, is cyclical. While we in the west usually view time in a linear fashion with point A being The Beginning and the arrow jutting forward through space and time in a straight fashion it is perhaps misleading to approach human history in such a manner. We regularly double back, loop around, perform the same actions in different times and with different names but the outcome is the same. Parallels can be drawn between people, actions, events, consequences. Perhaps the best way to view time is as a spiral. We move forward to move back.

In the late-1990s there began another resurgence of interest in the paranormal (the oft’ quoted Gallup poll from 2002 showing that 32% of Americans believe in the paranormal). And, like our Victorian predecessors, we looked to modern technology to help us contact the dead and explore all things paranormal. This played out in television shows such as Ghostwriter, Supernatural (which has been on air long enough to become almost sentient in its hyper-awareness of itself and fellow genre shows, best witnessed in the meta-episodes which regularly spoofs itself, its fans [in a loving way], and reality shows such as Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures), and X-Files as well as witnessed in the birth of the aforementioned reality television shows such as America’s Most Haunted, Haunted Canada, Ghost Hunters, and Ghost Adventures.

The most interesting aspect of the reality shows is how they engage with medium-ship, communication with the dead and the gender performativity. In particular, the over acted and seemingly un-self-aware Ghost Adventures (and its subsequent spin off shows such as Ghost Adventures: Deadly Possessions and Ghost Adventures: Aftershocks) is one of the clearest representations of performing masculinity and how it is engaged with in a tradition that has been, until recently, female dominated.

The Ghost Adventures crew originally consisted of three men: Zak Bagans, Nick Groff, and Aaron Goodwin who ‘with no big camera crews following us around’ seek to find answers about life after death. In later seasons Nick Groff leaves the show and two new crew members are added: Billy Tolley and Jay Wasley. The show has also grown considerably from its inception and the line from the opening dialogue about ‘no big camera crews’ has been dropped.

While none of the main crew members claim to be mediums or psychics or anything in that category they still inhabit the role of communicator. A role long traditionally deemed the domain of women. The friction between this traditionally ‘feminine’ role and the crew member’s masculinity creates a tension within their performance. For the most part, Ghost Adventures presents itself as a cowboy-esque Wild West show where the crew put themselves in danger in order to ascertain the truth about spirits in a supposedly haunted location. The masculine overtones of adventurer, hunter, and ‘scientist’ (for a given value of ‘science’) is a means through which they override the more emotive, and therefore, feminine aspects of the job.

Masculinity in the ‘West’ has been constructed in a particular way in recent decades where eschewing emotions and emotive communication is part of ‘being a man’. There is the classic ‘boys don’t cry’ approach to teaching men to internalize and suppress their emotions. Also, the focusing on action over words in all aspects of life provides us with the framework in which men react to situations violently since action is all they know. Within Ghost Adventures the masculine roll taps into that the idealized caricature of the cowboy and lone explorer in a new frontier. Manifest Destiny but of the paranormal world.

Nick, Zak and Aaron (left to right).

Early seasons of Ghost Adventures could be written as a modern western. Tough men who go into lawless places to tame and control them. In this case, haunted buildings where spirits are harming the living. Zak regularly called them out using phrases such as ‘there’s a new man in town’ or others as appropriate to the situation (in one of the many penitentiaries they have visited his line was ‘there’s a new superintendent on the block’).

While there is the expression of more traditionally feminine modes of experience, such as feeling the emotions of the dead and expressing their experiences in words such as ‘feel,’ ‘believe,’ ‘just knowing,’ the overarching focus of Zak and his crew is on proving through ‘scientific’ (and therefore masculine) methods the veracity of their experience.

Traditional cowboys express their masculinity through the previously mentioned silence and action over words whereas Zak and the others of the GA crew often rely on the expression of feelings and emotions and sensory experiences to provide evidence of a haunting. Throughout every season Zak et al regularly note how their bodies and emotions are impacted by a situation turning the camera to show raised hairs and goose bumps and expressing their feelings. This reliance comes from the belief that ghosts and spirits can impact the emotions of the living. So, although Zak and the others are not mediums in the traditional sense, they do rely on similar experiences and cues as mediums do to signal connection and communication with the Other Side despite such cues being coded feminine.

Cowboy tropes themselves evolved out of age old European tropes of adventuring and soldiering. As Kent Monkman explores in his art on Indigenous peoples and the colonization process, the view of the ‘west’ and those of the people within it — both First Nation, Native American and European — is often portrayed as something out of a Jacque-Louis David painting. Lone men on horses with expressive weather in the background. They are the new Napoleon, the new frontier breaking force and, at the same time, exotic, unreal, untouchable, masculine. An evoked image.

The frontier in this case being that between living and dead and the liminality of the experience expressed in a physical sense by the act of the lock down. Each show has Zak and crew physically separated from rest of the world in a location with a barrier between them, the cowboys in the wild west of the paranormal, and us the viewer.

But why the cowboy in particular? Zak Bagans often lauds the cowboy as a heroic figure and on multiple occasions expresses his fascination and interest in the cowboy as an ideal. It is most strikingly demonstrated in the episodes focusing on ghost towns and the south western states. Zak regularly wears hats and accessories that are modern homages to the cowboy. However, in one episode the crew goes so far as to dress up as cowboys and re-enact a gun fight.

Birdcage Theatre in Tombstone, Arizona.

‘This town ain’t big enough for the two of us’ is exemplified, too, in his early ghost hunting techniques. Famed for his controversial ‘calling out’ of ghosts and spirits who harm the living he played the card of the tough man bringing law and order to the disorderly spirit world. In his own words from a 2009 interview, ‘I don’t want the public perceiving us as the taunting, provocative ghost hunters. We do that only to the bad spirits who we know are attacking the living.’ The two episodes at Bobby Mackie’s Music World have him calling out ghosts for scratching and harming people. Other examples include his visit to the Edinburgh caves, multiple prison lock-downs, Old Town San Diego, the Shanghai tunnels and so on. If these examples seem limited it is only because of the sheer multitude of moments to choose from. If a viewer turns on any episode from the first nine to ten seasons there will be a moment where either Zak, Nick or Aaron (or all three) become aggressively confrontational with the spirits.

That the shows are taken seriously (by some) and given prime air time on television and now viewed as legitimate (ish, and for a given value of “legitimate”) comes both from the (re)monetisation of the paranormal as well as the fact that it is men running the show. As with most professions that were traditionally feminine, when they become dominated by men their perceived validity increases (same with interest in TV shows, see the Gilmore Girls, or in the case of professions, brewing is a classic example). And vice-versa when a profession becomes increasingly female dominated the perceived value of the work goes down (teaching, nursing). So, while medium-ship is still practiced predominantly by women ghost hunting and the commercialised ‘serious’ and ‘legitimate’ communing with spirits is a field dominated by men. The added addition of (pseudo)science to the mix, with the classic trope of science being treated as a masculine study, helps solidify ghost hunting as more legitimate than what has been, and still is practiced, by many women. Again, the mold of men verifying and being the ones to legitimate claims has not changed.

None of this is particularly new or shocking. What does become interesting is the shift of masculinity within the show. This began before Nick’s departure from the show in 2014 and has continued. As the seasons continue, we’re up to number twelve as of writing this, Zak and his crew develop a ‘softer’ side, a more emotional side, that is often seen as out of step with the traditional iconography of the Cowboy. No direct reason is ever given for this beyond Zak’s claims that the change was precipitated by one too many supernatural backfires in response to their initial controversial and confrontational approaches to ghost hunting. The change is especially addressed in Ghost Adventures: Aftershocks.

And it is in these two most recent spin-off shows, Ghost Adventures: Aftershocks and Ghost Adventures: Deadly Possessions that viewers are able to see a much softer, gentler Zak than witnessed in the main show. Partially, it is due to the intimate nature of these shows versus Ghost Adventures. Aftershocks, dealing with how peoples’ lives have changed since the show, or their house/location has changed, is by its very nature a conversational, intimate and emotional environment. In this role Zak becomes a comforter, a therapist, a guide. Very much akin to the same role played by Victorian and post-war mediums who, in some ways, were used (and performed) as make-shift therapists.

While Zak does not (appear) to have the same, sometimes long term, relationship between medium and client that was often developed, the basic structure remains the same. In the latest seasons of Ghost Adventures Zak’s approach becomes one of attempting to help both property owners and spirits find rest and, although it is not as detailed or in depth conversationally as Aftershocks, their relationship still echoes more closely that of his Victorian forebearers.

So, why the shift? Beyond, of course, Zak’s explanation of one too many run-ins with demonic oppression and possession causing him to cool his heels in calling out ghosts. Age, perhaps? He is older than when he first began over ten years ago and people sometimes mellow with age and experience. There is also the noted shift in popular culture of discussing and engaging with toxic masculinity and the problems around hyper-masculinity which is necessarily reflected in what people are willing to watch on television. Regardless of the reason, the genre is shifting as it is not only Zak who has reduced the amount of calling out and screaming ‘bro’ every three seconds (well…they still do scream ‘bro’ and ‘dude’ with vigour and regularity). The same has occurred on Ghost Hunters and Nick Groff’s post-Ghost Adventures shows. There is even talk of finally having an entirely female crew be given a show of their own. If that happens it will be interesting to see how they, as is always the case with female firsts, walk the line between masculine and feminine in the pursuit of ghostly communication.