WTD: Hellier

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.

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WTD: Merrily Watkins

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.

As of 2021, Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series runs to fifteen books, a short story, and a photobook describing some of the locations to feature in the series. The books are set in rural Herefordshire and revolve around a female vicar, her friends, and their tendency to run into a variety of occult menaces including ghosts, demons, and satanic cults.

I decided to begin the Watching the Detectives strand by writing about the Merrily Watkins books as they are quite unlike any other paranormal investigation story. If this were an elevator and you were a cigar-chomping Hollywood producer, I would pitch the series by asking you to imagine what it would be like if Miss Marple joined the cast of the Archers as village exorcist.

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REVIEW: Occult London by Merlin Coverley

One of the nice things about returning to an old hobby is discovering the way that time and emotional detachment translate into critical distance.

When Lockdown gave me the excuse/opportunity to start a regular RPG campaign, my first instinct was to approach writing a game in the way that RPG publishers suggest. In other words, I chose a game, then some setting books, and then I tried to find a story I wanted to tell using that game and that setting. However, the second I sat down and started reading, I remembered why I tended not to make much use of setting books…

I was always happy to spend money on RPG supplements but when the time came to actually sit down and prepare a session, I always wound up looking elsewhere for my inspiration. At the time, I assumed that this was down to my being either lazy or inattentive but revisiting these kinds of books as a mature adult has really brought home the profound mediocrity of your average RPG: Poorly written, poorly organised, under-imagined, and almost completely devoid of useful information, your average RPG supplement promises to save you time but inevitably turns out to be little more than a waste of money.

However, rather than turning myself into a purveyor of hatchet jobs, I thought it might be useful to cast the net a little wider and take a look at books which, though not written with games in mind, could be used as inspiration for your campaigns. Who knows… reading more abstract source material might even help me work out what I actually want from RPG supplements in future.

Merlin Coverley is a British author best known for his book on psychogeography, a literary tradition best described as producing essays about place that draw as much upon first-person experience of these places as they do from conceptual frameworks dreamt up by critical theorists. If this sounds rather like using a sledgehammer to crack an egg then you are already most of the way towards grasping the aesthetics of the form as psychogeography is all about bringing together the visceral, the mundane, and the impossibly high-minded.

What this means in practice is that psychogeographers often wind up writing about the present in terms of abandoned pasts and potential futures, and this is where the connection with RPG setting books becomes most obvious as it turns out that there is a long tradition of writing about London in terms of its occult history. Coverley’s Occult London offers an entertaining, accessible, and fascinating overview of London’s occult history that could easily inspire any number of RPG supplements let alone sessions.

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