Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.
Streaming services may have been sold to the general public as a means of gaining instant access to the past, present, and future of cinema, but the reality is a good deal more depressing. For example, one of the things that happened when Amazon launched Prime in the UK was that they went and trawled YouTube in search of paranormal investigation channels that could be repackaged and sold as TV shows.
In hindsight, it is fairly obvious why this happened: Paranormal investigation shows are not only insanely cheap to make, they also have an audience that is almost absurdly easy to please as the genre has seen little to no evolution since the launch of Most Haunted in 2002.
The formula is easy to reproduce: Open with a series of to-camera pieces about the location that establish the lore. Then you break out the night-vision cameras and take a selection of excitable personalities into a darkened place and shoot for hours and hours. You then retreat to the safety of the editing suite and comb through the hundreds of hours of footage in search of a few seconds of ambiguity that can be presented as evidence of some form of paranormal happening. Some shows go long on the lore, other shows go long on the personality of the people in front of the camera, and some go to the trouble of hiring skilled film-makers who can evoke a particular mood without the need for ambiguous footage shot on consumer-grade cameras.
Some shows are better than others, but the overwhelming majority of paranormal investigation shows remain wedded to a playbook laid down during the early years of the Most Haunted phenomenon.
Even setting aside the genre’s refusal to show us anything that we haven’t seen before, it is interesting to note how little development there has been at the level of lore. Taking its cues from National Trust properties and rural pubs, the paranormal investigation genre is still struggling to move beyond its limited bestiary of white ladies, sad children, and ghostly misogynists. Even when the genre jumped the Atlantic and in so doing severely restricted its access to buildings that were more than 150 years-old, shows found themselves returning again and again to the same limited range of ideas flowing from the same narrow set of fears.
In order to understand the paranormal investigation genre, you first need to recognise that the genre did not proliferate across platforms devoted to SFF and Horror, but across platforms devoted to lifestyle and reality TV. Most paranormal investigation shows go out after home makeover shows and not horror films. This means that there is both a hard ceiling on the complexity of the lore that a show can have, and a limit on the range of themes that a show can address. In truth, most paranormal investigation shows are less about the afterlife than they are about the weird psychological backwaters of home ownership.
Aside from being the historical means through which middle-class liberals are transformed into conservatives, home ownership involves making a huge financial and psychological commitment to an object whose past is largely inaccessible to present-day owners. The ghosts dug up by paranormal investigation shows are simple because they reflect the simple fears that accompany home ownership: Is it possible to live in this house and be happy? If I die in this house, will all trace of my existence be erased by the people who move in once the house is sold? The Amityville Horror and The Money Pit are the same exact story told through the lens of different genres and it is no surprise that one of the few recent innovations in the genre came in the form of a show that splits the investigation into two parts: First comes the medium, and then the building inspector.
Watching Hellier is like watching someone blow up a dam. After decades of shows sticking to the same limited range of themes, ideas, and modes of visual expression, Hellier unleashes the full power of 21st Century prosumer film-making technology as well as seemingly every weird idea to have emerged from Fortean culture in the last half century. The result is a show which, though not entirely successful, is certainly fascinating when viewed through the lens of RPGs.
Before filming had even started on the first season of Hellier, executive producer Greg Newkirk appeared on an episode of the podcast Euphomet to talk about his recent experiences. Despite being profoundly sceptical about claims of paranormal activity, listening to that episode caused all of the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up.
Newkirk tells of receiving an email from a man living in rural Kentucky who claims that his house and family are being besieged by a group of small, grey humanoid creatures with large unblinking eyes. According to the emails, the siege started out quite modestly with the email writer’s children claiming to have seen bald children wandering around the back garden in the middle of the night. From there, the situation gets steadily worse as the bald children start tapping on windows, breaking security lights, and trying to break into the house while everyone is asleep. The email writer calls the police only to be fobbed off by talk of wild animals and the need to contact the local game and wildlife commission in order to get someone to put down some traps. Puzzled by the fact that the email came to him via a ghost-hunting website he set up as a teenager, Newkirk writes back requesting details only for the man to respond with pictures of three-toed footprints and blurred images of figures standing in shadows and on the other side of frosted glass.
Now living in Canada, Newkirk tries to extract yet more information from his correspondent only for a final email to come back claiming that the attacks had reached a level of intensity that had caused the family to flee their home. Upon moving within striking distance of Tennessee, Newkirk and his wife travel to Hellier in the hope of making contact with the mysterious email writer, their first point of call is a local restaurant-cum-petrol station and within a few minutes of asking questions about strange goings-on, the couple are swarmed by locals desperate to share their stories. Convinced that they have hit the paranormal motherlode, the Newkirks return home and start assembling a team of investigators and film-makers.
Setting aside the series that Hellier turned out to be, this set-up is about as promising as anything to have emerged from TV horror in the last decade: Aside from the strong thematic and geographic ties to the iconic case of the Hopkinsville Goblins, the besieged rural home, the alien creatures, and the email correspondence make the story feel rather like a 21st Century retelling of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in the Darkness”. It is easy to see why the Newkirks decided to make a documentary about their return to Hellier and why Hellier was able to break out and find an audience that few paranormal investigation shows manage to reach.
The team that travels back to Hellier feels eerily like a group of Call of Cthulhu adventurers: There’s a hedge witch, a pair of film-makers, a paranormal investigator who has pioneered new approaches to mediumship, and an amiable silver fox who serves as the group’s frontman and general conceptual clearing house.
Things start to go sideways as the group arrives in Hellier only to be roundly ignored by the locals. While the Newkirks’ first visit to the town had people lining up to talk about strange beings rampaging through the blue hills of Kentucky, the second visit receives nothing but a lot of embarrassed claims to have never heard about anything like that. Indeed, the town’s lack of interest in the filmmakers is so profound that even attempts to reach out to local papers and talk radio shows are met with a gale of indifference. Not to be deterred, the group start investigating the facts that they have at their disposal only to find that there is no legal trace of Newkirk’s email correspondent and no way of tracking down either his home or the abandoned mine that he claimed was home to goblin-like creatures.
Back when Trail of Cthulhu first launched, its authors claimed the system was designed to deal with the problem of plot bottlenecks whereby a failed ‘spot hidden’ or ‘library use’ roll could result in the session grinding to an absolute halt. I have always been rather sceptical of this phenomenon as I have never played with either a GM or a group of players who lacked the ability to think their way around a failed dice roll. This being said, what happens to the cast of Hellier once they arrive in town is a perfect example of a plot bottleneck: The group arrives with half a dozen clues but they fuck up every single one of their dice rolls and so they fail to persuade any of the locals into opening up about weird goings-on, they fail to find any trace of the email correspondent in the local library, and they fail to spot anything that might allow them to find the mysterious cave or generally advance the plot under their own steam. However, having now committed significant time and resources to making a film about alien cave bases, the group refuses to give up and uses first a spirit box and then a magical ritual to try and find some sort of way forward.
It is here that director Carl Pfeiffer and cinematographer Rashad Sisemore really demonstrate their value as the way the rituals are shot gives them a sense of power and meaning that simply would not have been available to a production reliant upon night vision cameras and cherry-picked footage of people getting a bit scared in a cave. On the one hand, these rituals do undermine the Hellier project as they signal the abandonment of the narrative established in the initial emails. On the other hand, allowing the series to evolve from a search for literal goblins to a search for metaphysical connection transforms the project into something that is significantly weirder than a documentary about hunting monsters.
Series two of Hellier begins a year after the ritual in the cave and has the group coming together to try and find the next step on the journey they appear to have been lured into undertaking. Each member of the group signed on to the project with a different area of expertise and the meeting has them comparing notes after they each went off and researched a particular set of ideas or clues. So one member of the group drew lines through things on a map in an effort to find connections while another went off and researched correspondences between the things they found and various bodies of Fortean, Magickal and mythological lore.
The group’s attempt to extract a coherent plan of action from a series of deflating dead ends is absolutely fascinating as it recalls not only Bill Waterson’s fictional game of Calvinball, but also Tracy Lett’s play Bug in which two brutalised and marginal people come together and forge a connection only for their assorted odd ideas and paranoid delusions to begin feeding off of each other until both of the characters are sucked down into outright psychosis.
Thinking about the difference between the narrow conceptual framework at play in most paranormal investigation shows compares to the sprawling metaphysical epic deployed by Hellier, it is interesting to note quite how much of our ‘understanding’ of the paranormal comes from its depictions in the media. Most paranormal investigation shows stick to the language of white ladies and sad children because those are the kinds of ghosts that are most familiar to the general public. Having been alive in the 1990s and been somewhat over-invested in the ideas the inspired the X-Files, I considered myself reasonably clued-up when it comes to UFO lore but Hellier revealed me to be nothing more than a tiny baby…
One of the key differences between contemporary paranormal culture and the paranormal culture that emerged in the 1990s is that while the 1990s saw battle-lines drawn between sceptics and believers, contemporary paranormal culture tends to divide more easily into materialists and those of a more metaphysical bent. Materialists believe that Bigfoot is an ape in the woods or that aliens are literally intelligent inhabitants of other worlds who have discovered a means of faster-than-light travel. The metaphysically-inclined tend to subscribe to ideas and modes of thought that are an order of magnitude weirder than anything touched on in stuff like the X-Files. It’s not just that they believe in weird things, it’s that they think and reason in ways that seem utterly baffling even to people who believe that there’s a giant ape living in the woods of North America.
Many viewers expressed frustration with the second series of Hellier as the show progresses from a materialist monster hunt to a sort of spiritual journey that has the group doing weird stuff like getting freaked out by balloons, shouting ‘bong’ in a cave, and wandering around a small damp town in search of a two-bedroom house that was once supposed to be home to an intergalactic traveller. When the group receives another email claiming to be from someone with knowledge of child sacrifices being conducted in secretive government compounds, you can almost feel the group’s delight at being dragged back to a more materialistic register but this proves somewhat short-lived as the sender of the second email turns out to be in jail and so the group gets sucked further and further into a metaphysical register in which everything is significant as long as you choose to pay it some attention.
Hellier reminds me of one of those indie games in which everyone at the table gets to contribute to the world-building.
Having started with a narrative that was both clear and exciting, the show loses focus for the simple reason that if everything is significant then nothing actually matters. I can understand why these modes of thought might be attractive to people undergoing a spiritual journey but as with people who do a lot of mushrooms and insist upon sharing their views on the nature of the cosmos, what seems important and exciting to you just seems silly and dull the second you abandon the idea of a shared frame of reference. If nothing else, Hellier is a reminder that the best stories are those that retain their focus.