Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Paranormal State: 1 , Bulldog Tours: 0
FULL DISCLOSURE: This is the first episode of A & E's Paranormal State I have ever watched. I am also an eighth generation native South Carolinian. I have been a Charleston tour guide for ten years and the author of four books about Charleston and South Carolina history. Until 2006 I worked for John Laverne and Bulldog Tours and regularly gave the tour in the Old City Jail. One of the main reasons I left Bulldog Tours was Mr. Laverne's business model and philosophy - quantity over quality, more tours & more people versus less tours & higher standards.

The cast of the A&E TV show PARANORMAL STATE was in Charleston during August 2010 to film an episode titled "Spirits in the Slave Dungeon." If this is an indication of a typical episode, then I am perplexed with the show's popularity. It was filled with historical inaccuracies and the entire show was built upon several of those inaccuracies. During my research before watching the episode (yes, I research things beforehand ... it's called being prepared, maybe the PS guys should try it) I came across dozens of stories that called into question the ethical standards of the show. Claims of staged scenes, and faked paranormal effects seem to be a common theme. So, I watched ...

First Impressions: I almost never watch TV; I do not have cable or a satellite dish at home so I watched the episode on YouTube. I am also always skeptical of the accuracy of anything done on TV for entertainment. My first clue that this show was going to be bad was the title of the episode, "Spirits in the Slave Dungeon."

First of all, the Old City Jail was not a "dungeon" and was not the location for the imprisonment of slaves, despite what Dr. Powers later says on camera. The slave "Sugar House" location was next door to the jail - more about that later.

Second clue that this show was going to stretch credibility: Michelle Belanger is part of the show's cast - the self-proclaimed so-called psychic vampire, hermaphrodite, goth vocalist, erotic novelist and attention whore. My confidence level was not leaping into the stratosphere.

I was first struck by how staged the entire show was. As the group is walking up the stairs into the jail one of the cast members asks: "Why did you bring us here?" Ryan answers: "We're here to investigate this place," and they all look surprised.

Hello! Aren't you guys doing a television show about paranormal activity? Don't you see the cameras filming you? Don't you travel across America and do this EVERY week? At that moment I knew the entire show was going to be very bad. I wasn't disappointed.

Unfortunately, no one can go to the jail without hearing some version of the story of Lavinia Fisher. Yes, she and her husband were imprisoned in the Charleston city jail, and they may have been guilty of murder (probably 3 victims, not 15) and she was executed in Charleston, but not in her wedding dress. However, she was never held in that small jail cell they showed on camera, mainly because that cell didn't exist until two years ago. So I'm not sure how a disembodied arm covered in lace can appear in a cell that was built as a tour effect.

However, I did love the fact that Ryan asks Bulldog Tour owner, John Laverne, about the ethical and moral dilemma of using the jail for entertainment purposes. Hey Ryan! What are you doing? You do a TV show that uses haunted locations for entertainment purposes. It's like Keith Olbermann asking Joy Behar, "How does it feel to be a pompous blowhard?"

However, Mr. Laverne's answer is the most illuminating, and factually accurate part of the show. In response to being asked if he thinks about the ethics of his company using the building for entertainment he answers, "Not so much. Honestly, I'm not a sensitive person when it comes to the spirit world ... if I've ticked off the ghosts in this building, I apologize," and he laughs.

Ryan then asks Laverne that if all ghosts of this building were able to be freed, how would Laverne feel about that. Laverne answers: "That's right up there with we're going to instill peace on Earth and we're all going to get along. If the ghosts don't want to be here, sure, let them move on, and we'll go to the next haunted location in town."

Good to know what Laverne's priorities are for his company ... not accuracy, not heritage, not respect for a historic location. Money.

The PS team then sits in the courtyard of the restaurant 82 Queen to discuss the first night's investigation. And they immediately begin to complain that the tour guide only talked about white prisoners. They didn't talk about the slaves. Michelle Belanger, so-called psychic, claims she got an image of a black man being whipped and screaming "I'm innocent!" At this point it became clear that they had decided focus on the slave history of the jail, even though they had yet to hear any evidence that there is slave history in the building.

Hey guys, maybe the tour guide didn't talk about slave history at the jail because there isn't very much of it documented. Not at that location. That's the pesky thing about history. Most slaves could never read or write, but whites could and most whites of the 18th and 19th century wrote very little about slaves.

Michelle Belanger then goes to interview Dr. Bernard Powers of the College of Charleston history department. That's like sending Lady GaGa to interview George Gershwin. Dr. Powers then says: "that jail was sometimes referred to as the Sugar House, where slaves were sent to be punished to sweeten them up."

Dr. Powers, let me correct your statement. The jail sat at 21 Magazine Street and the Slave Workhouse was located at 15 Magazine (according to the "1739 Iconography.") The Work House was a converted sugar warehouse. It was a common expression for a white slave owner to threaten a slave by saying, "Don't make me send you to Charleston for a little sugar."

Two slaves, Dolly and Liverpoole, were "burnt on the Work-house Greene" in 1769 for "poisoning an infant." In 1826, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach described the Work House as "having 40 inmates of both sexes." The Work House was torn down after extensive damage from the 1886 Charleston earthquake.

Then Michelle tells the group that she thinks the history of the jail has been "whitewashed." You think, Michelle? Of course it's whitewashed. Bulldog doesn't give history tours in the jail, they give ghost tours. The public doesn't want a history tour, they want a haunted house atmosphere, and Mr. Laverne is more than happy to provide it. Why do you think the jail tour schedule runs every half hour, every night? So 200 people per night can be pushed through that building @ $18 per person, seven nights a week. Most tourists will not purchase a ticket for the Historic Jail Tour, but the Haunted Jail Tour is always an easy sell. As Mr. Laverne said, "I'm not sensitive to the spirit world." If he could no longer market the jail to the public he would happily "go to the next haunted location in town." And this is a man who operates that somehow was voted the BEST TOUR COMPANY IN CHARLESTON in 2010, even though they have the worst reviews of any Charleston tour company.

Given Michelle's concern over the use of this building for entertainment, I wonder how she would feel about Laverne's annual spring party he throws for the hospitality industry of Charleston at the jail - complete with strippers, food, booze, fire-eaters and other entertainment on this "hallowed" ground.

However, at this point in the show, the decision had obviously been made to focus exclusively on the slave history in the jail. And then we have the odd, wacky appearance of Dr. O. (Cultural Anthropologist) who claims that he woke up and the spirits told him to come to the jail.

What no one mentions is - Dr. O hangs around the jail often. It's not some mystical event when he shows up. He probably saw the TV cameras the day before. But Dr. O goes on to school the PS folks on how to cleanse the site from the slave spirits by leaving fruit and lighting candles. That is all well and good but again ... and this is beginning to sound like a broken record ... do it next door at the site of the Work House!

After Dr. O leaves, a thunder storm arrives! Amazing, a thunderstorm in the south on a hot summer August night! That can't be coincidence, right? After all, Charleston never has pop-up thunderstorms during the summer that last 30-40 minutes and suddenly go away, right? (Sarcasm) So, the team sets out the candles and fruit and after the offering, the storm subsides! Will miracles never cease? I guess the spirits were soothed so the storm suddenly ended.

The last segment features John Laverne and Dr. O in a strained meeting facilitated by Ryan, discussing Bulldog's use of the location for entertainment versus respecting the history and legacy of the site. Laverne claims that he wants to be a good "steward of the building." And Bill Clinton did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky, either. Being a good steward means more than just paying tens of thousands of dollars to have access to a location to give tours on the site.

According to the information presented during the credits scroll, we learn that Dr. O has been offered a "consulting position with Bulldog Tours."

Conclusion: Paranormal State is a very lame show, filled with sketchy information and wild leaps of logic. One of the main investigators has a proven track record of deception and the show itself has been accused of unethical behavior. If this is an indication of the quality of the glut of paranormal reality shows on TV, then I certainly haven't missed a single thing by never watching them.

Did anyone on the show do any research to validate Dr. O's claims? Did anyone on the show do any advance research of the jail before they arrived? If so, they would have known the difference between the jail and the Work House. There are at least 200 Charleston tour guides who could have told them the difference.

It's ironic that even though PARANORMAL STATE made little attempt at getting to the truth of City Jail, it did manage to illuminate the reality of Charleston's largest walking tour company - MONEY TRUMPS EVERYTHING.

So, all-in-all. Grade D.


Anonymous said...

haha..I knew something seemed fishy!, glad I found your site! Whenever I get down to SC, I am gonna come and get a real tour from you;-)

AngelaRN said...

Just visited Charleston this last week and did the jail/ghost tour. Our tour guide seemed very knowledgeable and so if the info wasn't true, at least the jail itself had a lot of character. That kind of stuff fascinates me (the building and its current physical conditions), so what's a little folklore gonna hurt?? I'm sure the heat down there didn't make matters any better. Overall, I thought it was really cool and interesting, as is the entire history of the city of Charleston and South Carolina. Can't wait to go back!