Words: Ryan Waring

“Can you imagine what kinds of emotions have played out on these grounds?” – Zak Bagans

And so begins another installment of the Travel Channel’s best rated program. And so, fittingly, kicks off the next incarnation of the Inflatable Ferret. They say a cat has nine lives. They don’t say anything about ferrets, but all it takes is a second gust of wind and a deftly corked plastic plug to prop up our assumedly nylon-skinned cousin of a weasel for a comeback.

The inaugural feature is an analysis of last Friday’s season seven premiere of a personal favorite and an oft overlooked relic of the modern Golden Age of Television’s tail end, Ghost Adventures. The show follows a triumvirate of paranormal investigators (technician Aaron Goodwin certainly deserves the promotion after six seasons) as they set out on a quest to some of the world’s most highly active paranormal locations to capture irrefutable evidence of the afterlife. I’m sure you see where this is going. Ahab didn’t just hunt Moby Dick, Dorothy reached other destinations than Oz, Tony Soprano wasn’t just a ruthless gangster (or was he?), and Kevin Costner carved more than a baseball diamond.  Much as the crew (GAC) ostensibly seeks proof of ghosts, like all compelling works of narrative, Ghost Adventures tackles larger questions of social and human consciousness as its characters drive deeper into the recesses of Earth’s most ghastly hearts of darkness.

This week’s chapter takes us to Sugarland, Texas, where the GAC have targeted the Central Unit Prison, a correctional facility recently closed by a maelstrom of forces: budget shortfall, a dwindling convict population, and pressure from the suburban sprawl of Sugarland itself. Metafictionally, viewers may certainly draw parallels to the fickle nature of the medium, as combinations of financial cuts, derivative territory, and viewer backlash might certainly ring the death knell for even the most eminent of television programs. It’s a valid reading and certainly holds credence, but there’s a lot of forces at play in this episode. As Ghost Adventures regulars have probably noted already, one of the larger themes showrunner Zak Bagans has fleshed out over the course of the series’ run is the convergence of person and place, here displayed in the images and interviews in one of the starkest walkthroughs over the series’ span.

Deep in the Lone Star State, the abandoned Central Unit Prison is defined by isolation. Isolated physically by the chain-link fences that press up against the burgeoning suburban community. Isolated temporally with its impending demolition, set to damn it from Sugarland memory, a tear in the rain as Blade Runner’s Rutger Hauer once poignantly put it. Isolated emotionally by the omerta surrounding its checkered existence, particularly in regard to a recent suicide by a prisoner in (where else) solitary confinement. “No one’s allowed to talk,”  Zak relates in a voice filled with equal parts frustration and disappointment. The GAC inspect the prison without a guard’s welcome tour or an historian’s insight, instead receiving anonymous tips from the father of a former inmate and former employee. The prison stands an inscrutable, impenetrable fortress of mystery. “We don’t know who died here.” The only paranormal group that has ever and will ever investigate its desolate premises is burdened with the ponderous task of uncovering the story of a slighted and reticent “blind location,” as Zak dubs it.

The suicide’s spirit is ironically our most substantial embodiment of the prison’s culture of ignorance. According to the father of the inmate, the departed’s family had informed the major of their late son’s suicidal tendencies, information sadly overlooked by the proper authorities. To capture the ignominy of the prison in a succinct, appropriate prison movie quote that admittedly understates Central Unit’s shame, “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”

Communication breakdown: it’s always the same. And its stain on Central Unit feeds a growing, dreadful sense of isolation that likewise creeps upon the GAC in the lockdown. Early on during the walkthrough, Zak is most pointedly paralleled to the suicide victim, and Central Unit by extension, to foreshadow the powder keg of abandonment that the GAC experiences in the lockdown as the result of communicative failures. Ghost Adventures narrative is no stranger to utilizing numerology for characterizations, and the figurative recurrence of the number seven as it oscillates from a shot of Zak to the suicide’s solitary cell and back to Zak in the form of the SB-7 spirit box model he uses while investigating Ol’ Sparky makes the association complete. What more, think of how the gas mask Zak wears during the lockdown for his asthma symbolizes the suffocation of the prisoner.

Zak and the lucky number seven.

And it’s Zak whose message is first lost in translation by the spirits. “Get away from me!” he demands of the icy sensation. But the memo falls on deaf ears as the spirit only more strongly manifests itself in a staggeringly steep 3.8 EMF spike from what was a 0.0 milliGauss baseline. Ironically, it is Nick who will heed the order unintended for him, as his possession drives him past his breaking point and compels him to desist investigating the location. “It was the agony of someone who wanted to tell the world how he felt but couldn’t,” Nick would later describe of his experience, an inability to convey a pain that transcended life and flesh. Likewise would Aaron have his attempt at a connection rebuffed with a swift “Goodbye” as mediated by the Ovilus II (though the scene would elicit a classic Aaron Face of Fear).

A classic rendering of the Aaron Face of Fear.

Language is the mark of civility. Ever more than opposable thumbs, it’s what separates humanity from beasts. The Central Unit lockdown illustrates the self-fulfilling ruin of ignorant codes of silence, that by eschewing our social sensibilities we engender a bewilderment that sits precariously atop a slippery slope to irrevocable abandonment. It’ll be interesting to see how this experience in silence and isolation will factor into the GAC as the season progresses, but from this weighty premiere it looks to offer a fascinating exploration into one of history’s most haunting settings: the human psyche.

You can catch the next all new episode of Ghost Adventures (“Excalibur Nightclub and Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery”) this Friday September 21 at 9/8c on the Travel Channel. Look forward to the review Monday.

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