With the greatest respect to the late and much loved Lou Gentile, who has contributed more to the field of the paranormal than I probably ever will, the Derren Brown Investigates documentary - Pt III, The Ghost Hunter - while being in some ways a memoriam to the life and work of Mr Gentile, highlights the dangers of (i) approaching paranormal investigation from a position of belief, and (ii) making claims that the evidence you have collected is definite proof of paranormal phenomena. The reason for writing this post about a three-year-old TV documentary is that I feel we, as paranormal investigators, can take some valuable lessons from what was presented in it.
Derren Brown, being a famed arch-skeptic of the paranormal, went pretty easy on Lou Gentile. I wonder if this was out of respect and politeness (he seemed to quite like Lou); or was it more just showing Lou as he found him, using the technique of 'give em' enough rope'. Also, it is most probable Brown knew at the time of shooting the TV doco that his subject was terminally ill. (Tragically, Lou Gentile passed away due to cancer a few months after the documentary was filmed.)
I thought it was sad that Lou held up photos and EVPs as his life's work in the paranormal field that were, at best, highly questionable as to their paranormal content. As photos were projected, Lou showed us the faces in them, claiming the images as indisputable proof that ghosts and demons exist. The same claim was made in regard to some fairly iffy EVP recordings; they could maybe have been paranormal, but once the supposed content of the paranormal message in the EVP was suggested (in this case, also subtitled onscreen) the chance for viewers to regard it objectively was lost. (I would also question the documentary's producers for this fault. The recordings could perhaps have been presented neutrally, at least before screening Lou's opinion.)
Lou Gentile approached the paranormal from the perspective of a believer, and when it comes to presenting evidence, this approach is fundamentally flawed. It inevitably polarises viewers into one of two positions: 'I believe it', or 'It is total nonsense'. There is little room left for middle ground analysis, as a Yes or No response is effectively demanded. Any strongly subjective viewpoint (like Gentile's) polarises opinion, and that is ultimately counterproductive.
Also, and perhaps more crucially, the process of investigating and gathering the evidence from the paranormal believers' subjective viewpoint raises even more difficult questions regarding the validity of that evidence. What we are being presented with may not be the entire document; we will tend to think it has been edited to strengthen it, to make a case, ignoring other parts that lessen its value. What are we not being shown? Most paranormal TV shows that are designed to be entertainment also work in this way and suffer from the same fault. Brown's documentary is more objective, but we are still not allowed to consider any evidence or claim very thoroughly. In the TV-world interests of story telling and brevity, there is little depth to it.
I would suggest that as paranormal investigators, we should avoid these traps and do our best to be objective. We should concentrate on trying to establish what is occurring without jumping to the conclusion that it is paranormal - it probably is not - and we should present all of the relevant evidence without making inevitably unsustainable claims as to its meaning and interpretation.
Taking this path will help immensely on the credibility front.
There is nothing wrong with a bit of speculation in summarising the evidence found in an investigation, as long as it is presented as speculation; but making strong claims that photographs, sound recordings and other documents represent proof of the paranormal does no good. Rather, it invites ridicule and casts the paranormal investigator/s concerned, and the whole field, to a degree, in a poor light.
I don't know enough about Lou Gentile's work as a Demonologist to discuss it here (and it is not the subject of this essay), but it has to be said that, in general, the practice of exorcising supposed demons is highly dangerous. It may be that if the 'victim' of the possession is suffering some kind of delusion and/or hysteria, a successful exorcism will relieve them of the belief that they are possessed and thereby cure them. But how can someone who is not a qualified medical practitioner be sure that they are not dealing with an epileptic seizure or some other kind of mental illness manifesting itself? Early in the documentary, the man on the bed is clearly having a seizure of some kind - be it self induced though hysteria, or otherwise - and I sincerely doubt there's a demon at the bottom of it.
I thought it sad, watching Brown's Lou Gentile documentary for the second time, that this man's life's work, his dedication to the field of the paranormal, and his unswerving need to help others was reduced to a few pretty iffy claims of proof of the paranormal. The documentary was, while at some level respectful and a just memoriam, at the last rather belittling.
Note: another lengthy treatment of the life and work of Lou Gentile can be found in the book Will Storr vs the Supernatural. It is an excellent read. Will Storr's approach is akin to Derren Brown's - he presents people and situations as he finds them, steering clear of cynicism. There is underlying humour, but reader or viewer is invited to draw their own conclusions.
14th Oct. 2016: Author comment: this is not a debate about homosexuality or Christianity.
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is a blog by James Gilberd - leader and co-founder of Strange Occurrences. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Strange Occurrences team.
James Gilberd is an amateur paranormalist, writer and musician, and a professional photographer, living in Wellington, New Zealand.