Words: Ryan Waring
“Questions, questions, questions, questions. That’s what we want to try and answer somehow, someway. That’s the edge. That’s the mystery. That’s the suspense of these types of investigations, because these stories are cool. We want answers. We wanna figure it out.” – Zak Bagans
Maybe you caught the Emmys last night. If you didn’t, you missed Tom Bergeron take home the award for “Outstanding Host for a Reality Television Show,” some Aaron not named Goodwin nab “Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series,” Damien Lewis pull off an upset to capture the Lead Actor crown, and Homeland come away with the Best Drama blue ribbon. Conspicuously absent among the nominees in these and other categories, Ghost Adventures appears to have received the same cold shoulder treatment that the television industry has shown a number of other overlooked and underappreciated classics. But as we’ve seen from Van Gogh to Poe to the forerunner most relevant to this predicament, The Wire, a snub from a meat party of middle-of-the-road mediocrity may serve but a speed bump on the road to immortality, and with another masterpiece in “Excalibur Nightclub/Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery” to boot, Ghost Adventures continues to primp its brilliant calligraphy before inevitably etching itself in the enduring annals of artistic consciousness.
On last week’s season premiere, the GAC explored the intersection of misinformation and isolation at Central Unit Prison. Here at the onset of this week’s follow up, Zak and the boys find themselves on the reverse side of the coin, trapped in the middle of a suffocating mass of people and noise at a NATO summit protest in Downtown Chicago. It’s a surreal sight, the proletariat blowing the whistle on the capitalist war machine and wealth disparity through Occupy rhetoric, Guy Fawkes faces, and Venetian plague doctor masks, which should instantly cue familiar fans to recall season three’s Poveglia Island investigation. And as that episode largely focused on Zak’s spiritual confrontation with his inner demons through literal demonic possession, so too does Zak face another critical juncture in asserting his identity here.
As I acknowledged in the last writeup, Ghost Adventures has quickly become the Travel Channel’s highest rated program. It’s an impressive and well-deserved milestone for a trio of hard-working and skilled investigators. But as any of the aggrieved protesters would certainly caution, sometimes in finding commercial success we lose sight of who we are and from where we came. Greed clouds our judgment and obscure our values, ambitions, and roots.
What is Ghost Adventures anymore? Is it the selfless vocation of three individuals intent on providing credible evidence of paranormal activity and thereby vindicating the “experiences” of masses oppressed by a status quo that would label them as loonies? Or is it a reality television program fallen victim to the machinations of the Frankfurt School’s “culture industry,” given to dazzle and entertain its viewers with higher production values, sensationalized reenactments, and celebrity? Highly suggestive that it might be trending toward the latter, last season’s finale at the Riviera Hotel, giving perhaps the defining moment in 21st century television when Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil asked the ghost of Frank Sinatra if Ol’ Blue Eyes had remembered copping a feel of Neil’s wife’s breasts, seemed overly fixated on glamorous details and market-interested sideshows rather than its ghost-exposing heart and soul.
But more, who is Zak Bagans? Is he the humble wedding DJ, the people’s champion, a visionary striving nobly to make possible the impossible, to explain the unexplainable? Or is he the entrepreneurial emcee of the Travel Channel’s highest rated program, a guest vocal track, and pawn of the profit-absorbed electronic music industry? An early scene at the NATO demonstration, in which Zak escapes a fight with a protestor backed by a hundred bandana-clad supporters, poses the question in its blunt, numerical Occupy imagery: Is Zak Bagans the 1%?
And so, befuddled betwixt two incongruous identities, Bagans revisits his hometown of Glen Ellyn, Illinois to investigate two old haunts, each encapsulating one of the two Zaks. Upon one shoulder sits The Excalibur, a sleek and trendy nightclub standing irreverently in lieu of the former Historical Society, a site that served as the final resting place of the Windy City’s first murder victim Jean La Lime along with 300 others tragically killed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A bastion of intemperance and extravagance, the Excalibur impetuously drowns out the distresses of its past in bass drops and Jagerbombs. It’s a location devoid of tribute and remembrance, bathed in wasted forgetfulness and ignorance. “It was 1991,” Chicago Hauntings founder Ursula Bielski began. “23 years ago,” Bagans mistakenly interjects.
On the other shoulder sits Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery, the nightclub’s antithesis. While the nouveau Excalibur bastardizes its history, it is the history of Bachelor’s Grove that is violated by modern environs: vandalism, mob body dumping, and satanic cult rituals. Photographic evidence, like the 1991 snapshot of a translucent sitting woman, substantiate its claims, rather than shaky anecdotes from publicity-interested club managers or tendentious founders of floundering paranormal societies. Bachelor’s Grove may see its fair share of 21st century trespassers, but apparitions of Victorian houses and antique automobiles reportedly trespass against them and paint some spectral landscape like a cemetery preserved in time.
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