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The Side-Show Grows Up

by Mark Edward, Nov 07 2013
Georges Seurat's "The Side Show" 1888

Georges Seurat’s “The Side Show” 1888

The days of the two-headed chicken and Lola the Dog-Faced Girl have been for the most part cleaned -up in our world of political correctness and ADA accessibility. Freaks of nature are not what they used to be. Conjoined twins and those unfortunate people who have birth defects or stand out in society are now the stuff of reality television. The shock value is gone and we have grown accustomed to Siamese twins shopping at the local mall. Now prepare for the new wave on the modern midway… 

Real Men Chase Ghosts

Real Men Chase Ghosts

The hordes of self-styled “Paranormal Investigators” have now reached a new level of confident superiority.

While working at L.A.’s Haunted Hayride last month amidst hourly witch hangings and continual chain-saw scares, I spent quite a few hours sitting next to a disturbing new trend in ticket selling that skeptics may not have seen coming. I certainly didn’t. 

Meet the stand-up ghost investigator phenomena.  This interactive “lecture” attraction is leaving a lot of naive spectators terrified and bewildered, proving once again that Barnum’s expression “There’s a sucker born every minute” has never been more appropriate.

 The “Real Fear” platform show features two twenty something guys standing on stage with a screen and a lap top on a barrel. A tag team presentation at the top of every hour is presented in the style of what once used to be a space reserved for knife throwers, the Fat Lady and sword swallowers. The premise with “Real Fear” is that we as the unsuspecting but ever-so willing passersby will sit through their speil on the truth behind demonology, possession, haunted houses and every other spooky-ooky thing they can stir-up; all told through the gritty filter of their their own personal anecdotal experiences as trained “scientific investigators.”  The phrase “based on actual events ” has never been stretched so far for a buck. New life was breathed into every conceivable cliche, old wives’ tale and sundry superstition, all delivered with sincere conviction and accompanied by pre-recorded (and highly edited) EVPs and electronic blasts of questionable noise.

sideshow14This makes for an interesting interlude on a haunted hayride, but for my rational friends who had moseyed by to enjoy some harmless Halloween tricking and treating; they were distressed by not only the “factual” demeanor, but the effect such stupefying bullshit was having on the audience, which BTW numbered in the sold-out thousands on several nights. This is “Ghost Hunters” gone to the grass roots midway; a glossy con brought down to the sawdust and greasepaint of the old side-show ballyhoo. As long as you can keep a straight face and show some semblance of “physical evidence” like a shovel or a muddy footprint on your powerpoint screen, you’ve got it made on today’s carnival midway.

Roll up! Roll up!

In this world of streamlined superstitious claptrap, there’s no need for credentials of any kind or dressing up in tweeds and a pipe. It’s totally casual man. One of the speakers looked alarmingly like Michael Moore, complete with sweats and rumpled baseball cap looking like his golden retriever had slept on it all night. Just regular guys with night vision goggles and a deep need to seek out Satan.  How can you argue with that? They must be real. Frankly, I couldn’t tell whether these two guys were “with it” (as they say in the carny business to delineate those “in the know” from the “shut-eyes” or believers) or just incredibly delusional. My guess is the former. Like any good comedian or psychic scammer, what at first appears to be off-the-cuff  banter is in fact a carefully practised, scripted pitch. I know because I listened night after night to these two guys. By night #16, they were starting to sound like a broken record.

Favorite line: “You may not believe in demons, but remember this, …they believe in you!”

What is a person supposed to do with stuff like that hurled at them?

There are several problems that arrise for those of us who have already had enough of the constant barrage of paranormal programming that has reached a sickening level in places it never had any business occupying like The History Channel, Dr. Phil and prime time news media. The most unsettling aspect for this viewer was watching how easy it was for many people to buy into the demonic “Get Out!” spirit bamboozle. Audience members lapped it up and knowing nods were seen bobbing in agreement at the most outrageous comments. Now and then one of the Fear team would bark out a question like, “… How many of you have heard footsteps on an empty stairway, heard a door slam shut or the phone ring and just knew who it was on the other end of the line?”  This kind of silliness is usually saved for marshmallow roasts on dark nights around a campfire. Now that it is becoming economically clear that Halloween is more popular than Christmas, it’s not too much to expect we will see much more of this kind of “instructional” performance in the future.  

Yes, …I know this rant may sound a tad hypocritical coming from the guy in the psychic tent next door. We were all there to sell a Halloween scare.  But please remember I will be packing up my spooky bag after Oct. 31. Just like in the often ambiguous world of  “psychic entertainment,”  the Real Fear guys never offer any disclaimers of any sort or let the audience know they are merely overpaid storytellers playing their parts to the hilt. Their act is confident, science and cock sure. They know the truth is out there because they have flashlights.

I go back to my day job, but the Real Fear guys will go on spreading their particular form of woo year round at any audience that will listen to them. We all know those audiences are everywhere. Watch for this new attraction on radio and television and in your face at not only paranormal cons, but state fairs, rock concerts and maybe even the odd NASCAR event.

Theres’ another critical difference between side-show thrills and this sort of “informational” con:

With the “Real Fear” experience, there is no side-show “blow off.”  In the old days when you paid that extra “one thin dime” to finally see what what was “behind the curtain;” such as being taken backstage to view the lady in the flowing white gown first described as “…horribly dis-figured for life by her jealous husband,” one soon found out you had been conned when you saw she was merely tattooed from head to toe. With the Real Fear show, there is no let down or explanation at the end – other than more scary hype. With this show, (like their television counterparts) each spectator is left believing what they had seen and heard was the real truth – from scientist guys too.  And like the afterglow from a solid mentalism performance, there was always a gaggle of fascinated people standing around asking questions and wanting even more encouragement from the Real Fear guys after each show.

So it looks like the carnys of the Peter Pan Generation Y world have finally come home to roost. We shouldn’t be at all surprised. I will admit this new show-biz slant is a clever twist on the classic side-show gambit. Real Fear & Co. have successfully glommed onto a lucrative entrepreneurial niche that is probably netting them a handsome income.

So be it. We as a consumer a society created a need and somebody is filling that need. Thank you again Drs. Phil and Oz, Learning Channel, History Channel, National Geographic Channel, and on and on.

The other side of the coin:  Like when several of us in the IIG  showed up at Sylvia Browne’s psychic show in Las Vegas at TAM 12, we happily discovered that a solid 60% of the people we confronted on the street before going in to her casino room told us:

1) They already knew Browne was a fraud and hated her.

or,

2) They had never heard of her.

Sometimes we as skeptics have to take a step back and remember that as skeptical thinkers we place ourselves in a position to be constantly surrounded by so much fraud and deception, we see the very worst of things from a skewed viewpoint that few people have. Thankfully, most sane people could care less about demonology or haunted houes and know intuitively that  ghost hunting is all a bunch of crap. Average intelligent people walk by, have a candy apple and go back to work at the coat-hanger factory the next morning. Remember that 60-70%.

It’s the in-betweeners and the fence sitters we worry about, right?

So what can we do?

Challenge the bastards.

Independent_Investigations_Group-logoIn case the Real Fear boys might have actually entertained any thoughts they might have captured something worthy of further inquiry, I made sure they were well aware of the IIG $100,000 Challenge. They can’t argue with that kind of cash deal (not in public anyway) and my challenge given in front of a nice after-show group stopped them in their tracks. They were genuinely amazed that someone was calling their bluff. I saw the deer in the headlights on one of their faces.

I won’t hold my breath for their reply.

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8 Responses to “The Side-Show Grows Up”

  1. Max says:

    Ghost stories for grownups.

  2. Scott the Aussie (in Devon!) says:

    It sells Max, it sells.

  3. Jonathan Jarry (CrackedScience) says:

    In moments like these, it must be difficult to be confident that belief in nonsense will ever be successfully restricted to an oft-ignored minority of people.

  4. Eric Berendt says:

    They know the truth is out there because they have flashlights.

    A classic line, I can’t wait to use it, thanks,

  5. Max says:

    Never heard of the “side-show blow off,” but one can experience that let-down feeling any time by clicking on a hyped up headline. Let’s see what’s on the menu today.
    “New Laser Tech Could Detect and Destroy Brain Diseases”
    *click*

    Currently, the laser technique has been tested only in free-floating proteins, not in living animals — that’s the next step, Hanczyc told LiveScience. Later, pharmaceutical companies could investigate the technology’s potential as a method for detecting and treating brain diseases, but that could take 15 years or more.

    Aww :-(

  6. Ed Graham says:

    When I was a little kid, I had a great fear of the dark. Mostly because of all the crap I was taught by my parents, school, church, peers, media – – everything.

    Now I have a great grandson and see everyone and everything in his life programming his fears. It’s hard to convince him that these things are not true because grownups seem to enjoy perpetuating this bull.

  7. Kermit says:

    A baby boomer, I remember my Southern Baptist preacher grandpa running tent revivals, gathering lost souls and tithes, warning of spirits and witches, sin and science. It had very much the same feel as these shows, but without the cotton candy.