When you're walking down the street, and you see a little ghost, what you gonna do about Judge Adam Arseneau?
Our reviews of Paranormal State: Season Five (published September 10th, 2011), Paranormal State: Demonic Investigations (published October 24th, 2009), Paranormal State: Season Four (published October 3rd, 2010), and Paranormal State: Season Two (published January 30th, 2009) are also available.
It's not your imagination.
But oh, how I wish that it was. For all its eerie inspections on the subject of ghost hunting and the paranormal, Paranormal State: The Complete Season One will make viewers scream out in frustration far more than fright. This show hurts healthy brains worse than a night of binge drinking and sledge hammering.
Facts of the Case
Founded at Penn State University by Ryan Buell, the Paranormal Research Society (PRS) tasks itself to investigate the paranormal throughout the country, using a combination of detective work, research, high-tech equipment and spirituality to help explain reported paranormal activity. Paranormal State: The Complete Season One contains all twenty episodes from the debut season spread across three discs:
"The Devil in Syracuse"
"Man Of The House"
"Beer, Wine & Spirits"
"School House Haunting"
"The Haunted Piano"
"The Woman in the Window"
"The Boy and the Barn"
Rarely has such an interesting subject matter been made as laughably stupid as with Paranormal State, a docu-drama investigation into the paranormal. With subject matter this inherently cool—send a bunch of experienced college kids with access to top-notch equipment into reputed locations of paranormal activity and record what happens—that it seems almost inconceivable one could muck it up. When you see how fast everything goes bad, it stuns like a bad case of whiplash. This is total structural failure of a dramatic narrative, an utter collapse of delivery, a full-on meltdown of television.
Edited together like a cheap horror film, the narrative grates upon viewers like the fabric of a cheap suit, tearing and catching upon logical fallacies and sharp edges of common sense, leaving large gutting holes in all directions. Every investigation, regardless of its inherent supernatural content is pumped up, spooked, made artificially eerie and manipulated from the onset, tainting whatever claim Paranormal State has to authentic reporting. Call it high levels of suggestibility, call it pure gullibility, call it stupidity—whatever it may be, week after week, these poor kids travel to locations of paranormal interest and scare the living tar out of poor sad people who volunteer their homes up for shooting locations, persuading their clients and themselves there are ghosts and demons and all manner of evil floating around. Luckily, they have a Bible with them, so after a few chants and tosses of holy water feel "confident" they have cleansed the place of its evil, leaving the hapless homeowners happy and relaxed and to their own devices.
Even the most skeptical would be willing to concede that a troop of paranormal investigators could stumble upon one or two genuine sites of investigative interest during a season of shooting, a place where conventional science and logic fail to explain the events experienced by onlookers. If they had a good stretch of luck, maybe even three times. That being said, the notion that mere college kids—episode after episode—strike conclusive paranormal gold every time they strap a camera to their backs and head out to some trailer home in upstate New York is utterly absurd. Ghosts cannot, nay, must not work this way; else, we'd all have ghosts all the time every where we look and freaky demons chasing us across state lines.
Traveling from site of interest to site of interest, the PRS interview local subjects and get involved in the lives of the affected, trying to get a sense of the problem presenting them. Of course, ghosts are always "sensed" by the cast, especially at the "dead time" of 3AM, but all the high-tech equipment fails to capture any detectable record of anything out of the ordinary. The subjects, drilled endlessly about demonic spirits and vengeful spirits ultimately experience "chills" down their spine, which the PRS take as irrefutable proof of paranormal activity present. If no chills are forthcoming, an inevitable stroll through dark woodlands is usually in order. Some local researching always uncovers past murders in the house, or an Indian burial ground nearby, or a defaced cemetery, which of course are gravitating towards the team looking for trouble. The phrase "something knows we're here" is repeated ad nausea, episode after episode.
Perhaps the best (or most laughable) moment comes in the wrap-up, with every episode ending on some chillingly ludicrous proclamation, like "We feel confident the house is now purged from evil…for now…but the war continues…" Continues what? What the hell does that mean? Who says stuff like that? Did I get confused, bump my head, and somehow transport from my couch watching this DVD and end up on a haunted roller coaster ride at a carnival, being narrated at by some guy in a striped suit and bamboo cane with a curly moustache? If so…nice trick, A&E…I did not see that one coming.
The letterbox transfer is entirely reasonable, with a solid all-around technical performance. Shot on site interlaced with archive footage and stock photography, the transfer has balanced colors, solid black levels and an acceptably clean transfer. The audio is a simple stereo presentation, which presents dialogue clearly and is overloaded with a horror-tinged dread soundtrack of pulsing strings, ambient noise, clicking sounds sweeping from left channels to right all designed to make viewers jump in alarm.
Criticisms of the show's retardation aside, A&E did a surprisingly solid job coming up with supplements for this set. Three episodes ("The Name", "Beer, Wine & Spirits" and "Mothman!") feature cast commentaries. We also get an eleven minute behind-the-scenes reel, a twelve minute "Getting to Know the Members of PRS" featurette, a seven minute reel on the guest experts featured, and some fifteen minutes of additional footage, outtake reels and gags. Not a terrible offering, all things considered.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Paranormal State may be a flaming crap cauldron of foolish logical fallacy after logical fallacy, but it is undeniably creepy, which is clearly the show's intent above all else. The editing might obscuring any possible shred of authenticity and proof in favor of dramatic storytelling, but it does bring a strong air of mystery and implicit dread, with viewers waiting for every commercial break for some gigantic horned monster to jump out and tear the spleen out of a ghost hunter. Sadly, this does not happen in Season One, but who knows what waits in Season Two?
Of particular note are the episodes dealing with electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) recordings, a particularly eerie kind of quackery that can scare the tar out of even the most sensible and pragmatic individuals. On the flipside, the two worst episodes that deserve special mention are "The Sensitive" and "Pet Cemetery." Take a moment to scroll back up this review and read the episode summations of each of these choice winners, then come back down and join me for some hard liquor. You will need it.
For all those paranormal-loving folk out there itching to send me angry emails about how we here at DVD Verdict just "don't get it", please consider: there is a fine line between bashing the conceptual idea behind a television show and bashing a specific television show itself for being manipulative, melodramatic, over-edited and preposterous. The first one would be a bad thing to do; the second one is the thing I am doing right now.
It would be plain ignorant to rule out the existence of that which cannot be easily and readily explained by the science of the day, and far be it from me to dispute the validity of the paranormal. This is, after all merely a DVD review. Within the context of said DVD review, however, Paranormal State is a laughably absurd argument in favor anything even remotely paranormal.
With the air and credibility of a flea market psychic, Paranormal State: The Complete Season One panders endlessly upon bad horror film mythology with Blair Witch-style shenanigans, all at the expense of a viewing experience even remotely investigative, journalistic, dramatic or scientific. Poor Occam just slit his wrists with his own razor.
Suspension of disbelief is all well and good, but I draw the line at its surgical removal. This one is found guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Cast Commentaries on three episodes
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