Ryan Buell wants to believe.
Paranormal State was not a “reality documentary” show that he says it is, but a paean to his will to believe and the producers’ efforts to convince the viewer to believe too. I want to believe in cool, spooky stuff too but I guess I have higher standards for evidence than what his Paranormal Research Society(PRS) team (and all other ghost seeking groups) collects.
I had only watched a few episodes of the TV show before. While I was not impressed, I didn’t have a deep disgust of the show like some people I know (ahem, WF? editors). These folks make this funny noise when I mention Ryan and his crack team of young investigators (Weird! I can hear that noise even when the communication is online.). But, as one who begins squarely on the fence, ready to examine things from multiple sides, I really wanted to know what Ryan is about and what his ideas about the paranormal are. I read Buell’s book Paranormal State: My Journey Into the Unknown all the way through with open-minded interest. It was not awful. Well, it wasn’t Dianetics-grade awful or some goofball celebrity NewAge (pronounced like “sewage” with an ‘N’) claptrap. It had some interesting bits.
The book covers the beginning of the PRS – the student club that Buell began at Penn State University. I will claim a particular interest here. PSU is my alma mater. I was gone (we won’t say how many) years before Ryan was a student. Every student has heard about what became PRS’s famous first case, the murder in the Pattee library. I’ve had several occasions to be alone in the dark and quiet old sections of “the stacks” where the ceiling is oppressively low and there is a disturbing sense of loneliness. I’m at peace surrounded by old books. I never had any questionable experiences there even though I knew the story of the girl’s murder and its approximate location. Oh, man, I’m getting the Ghostbusters vibe here… But, nope, no floating books.
The book relates the founding of the PRS in 2002. Ryan had trouble finding advisors for the club at the University. (I wonder why?) Here’s a bit that interested me… Ryan notes “I’d talked to producers for years,” particularly mentioning the SyFy and MTV networks (p. 37) A&E Networks shot the pilot episode in 2006. So, was he fishing around for a producer all that time? I’m unclear. But it is suggestive of a marketing motive beyond his stated motive of “helping people”.
There are glimpses of Ryan revealing his TV producer role in the book. He talks of visiting a house in a stereotypically spooky location and having a “gut instinct” that it was a “great investigation” (p 49). What does the location have to do with the investigation and ultimate cause? Nothing, unless your goal is to make a dramatic show.
The book goes into more detail about the cases than what you see on TV. When I went back and viewed some of the episodes described in the book, I was astonished at how chopped, condensed and overproduced they were. The evidence gathered was pathetic but even more so crammed into a half hour show.
I will give Ryan the benefit of my doubt on a few items. The book includes some good information on hypnogogic hallucinations. He hints (p. 90) that his clients project their issues into interpretations of a haunting. He admits EVPs aren’t always what they seem, they could be paradolia. And, he says he doesn’t trust psychics because of known cold reading skills and tricks. (OK. OK. The last are two stretching since EVPs are still used as evidence and he brings in psychic Chip Coffey who only adds clownishness and manufactured drama to the investigation.)
The gutsy parts of the book are the personal stuff.
Ryan considered becoming a priest. He believes in demons – they know him and are targeting him (pp 186 and 220). Alrighty. That’s odd and a bit egotistical. His personal Catholic beliefs contaminate the group’s methods and interpretation of the investigation results. Let’s be crystal clear: demons are utter superstition without a shred of substantial evidence to support their existence. It’s laughable to rational people. But, it isn’t funny if you believe it. Ryan is serious and portrays demons as real threats. Lots of scary drama, but no evidence.
If playing occult games and saying the names of demons bring them in, I say let’s roll – that’s a testable claim. Portals to hell? Demons most active at 3AM “dead time”? Come on, this is silly. I have a REAL problem with his devout faith interfering with part of their motto “To trust, honor and always seek the truth”. It clearly colors the interpretation of whatever evidence they collect for the case. And, it makes the show hokey for me, but pee-your-pants scary for little kids. Not cool.
He’s admitted to being bisexual, which is actually a very interesting part of the book and the part that got the most press. He gets that the Catholic Church is wrong on this, and we sympathize. I hope someday he can critically evaluate the rest of the hurtful and nonsensical dogma the church promotes. Then again, maybe he’ll just spinoff his own religion.
I’m willing to concede that Ryan’s heart might be in the right place, that he wants to help people. He certainly profited from his paranormal popularity. Yet, I’m not convinced that he got into it for the money. I think it really was to assuage a curiosity that eats at many who have had unexplained experiences. He was not helped in his time of need so he wants to help others. I’ve seen personal experience cited many times from individuals who participate in paranormal investigation.
Whether he really helps them is debatable. He says he doesn’t like it when he has to tell the client the source of their trouble is not paranormal. But, he is “helping” when he can reinforce their paranormal belief and give them validation. That’s maddening! An investigator OUGHT to be looking for the truth or at least the best answer. Instead, Ryan becomes overly sympathetic, skewing the interpretation to fit into a good story based on his framework of belief. PRS uses the standard ghost hunting ploys: sciencey equipment to look objective while spouting “theory”, providing convenience excuses for why said equipment doesn’t work all the time, wax psychological and all “meta” about emotion and dysfunction in families, throw in the “I’m skeptical” debunker act every now and then for false balance, give the clients a powerful placebo (holy water, medals, ceremonies, mumbo-jumbo words of explanation) before they leave. What have they really accomplished? Not an investigation, I would argue.
Worse than that, they are doing what I feel is possibly the most awful thing a paranormal investigator can do. He actively feeds into their fears by supporting or enhancing the idea that there may be supernatural forces or evil entities among us, affecting us, actively seeking us. This is reprehensible. I suspect that his take on paranormal events has influenced other groups to pursue demonology as part of their methods and use overtly religious paraphernalia with clients. Descent into magical belief is obviously not the path forward. It’s the 21st century. If we haven’t found demons in the past 2000 years, the logical conclusion is, they don’t exist. That cheap talisman isn’t what’s keeping Belial away – it’s your belief it does that makes you feel better.
There are lots of zingers in the book that will make any rational examiner groan – spirits pull from electrical currents to manifest, spiritual attachments drain a person’s energy, life troubles allow spirits in, and a high amount of energy in a household is like a battery to spirits. What? That’s some fancy scientifical bullshit. I’m NOT clear if Ryan wants a scientific methodology for PRS at all. Their techniques are so spiritually-based that using any science is like trying to make garbage presentable by spraying it with perfume. One TOTALLY bogus habit that Ryan had was exhibited when he called interviewees for the show. He said he was from “Penn State University – Paranormal Research Society”. What a ploy! Make people think the club’s activities were associated with the highly regarded research at the university. Slimey.
The book filled in some of the real world events that got warped to make a good TV show and reminds us that artistic effects and crafty editing are used to portray a story they want you to see. For instance, in one episode, “Requiem”, the viewer is led to believe that Chip hit on and led them to new information that helps to explain the case. But in the book, Ryan reveals Chip was way off on some things (not seen on the show) and he never picked up on the main suspected source of the problems, the suicide of a previous owner. Fail. Essentially, the viewers are lied to.
That makes me cross my arms and grrrr. Whatever good intentions the PRS might have had, they have been spoiled by TV treatment.
Even with each case expanded in the book, the evidence was far from convincing. Too much drama, not enough tempered thought. But, I sort of expect that from a bunch of college-aged kids.
What to make of Ryan, PRS and the Paranormal State show? Well, the show sucks. It ought to be a crime to call it “reality” TV. The more I watched, the more I disliked it. I’m not going to hold as much against Ryan because he’s still finding his way and just starting on a long path to (hopefully) some wisdom in the world. He’s already been influenced by some pretty ridiculous characters so, I’m not convinced he’ll end up in a good place.
Back in October of 2009, Ryan and Sergey gave a presentation at our local PSU campus and I went (a report about it is here). I was not impressed then when I noticed some comments he made were mistaken, poorly addressed or misleading (to be generous). I think the same now but more so. The show and the book has reinforced my conclusion that instead of some excellent adventure, Ryan and friends are off on some bogus journey they make up as they go along. The stories play out in terms of their personal belief systems and entertainment value. A sad consequence is that they just influenced a whole slew of college kids that should be learning critical thought in university instead of how to effectively market a brand and be famous.
[Cue electronic voice] “Bloggers Log: This book review is complete. After examining the evidence presented in the documentation and comparing it to the television product, I have concluded that Ryan and his team were very confused kids, making stuff up that sounded good at the time. I would advise this group to stop hanging out with drama llama psychics and spooky ladies with beehive hairdos who call you “Honey” and tell you that demons from hell are tracking you down. That can’t be good for your psychological well-being. I’m concerned they have already lost their grip on the real world and have fallen into the paranormal cult of personality, or worse…Hollywood.
The only saving grace is that they have moved past this terrible TV show. I hope they quit acting like “ghost geeks walking in and asking for the spirit to do parlor tricks for their amusement” (Quote from Ryan on page 142 of the book). Oh, wait. Who was he talking about? I’m confused. The hypocrisy is hurting my brain…”