‘Paranormal Reality Television: Audience Engagement with Mediums and Spirit Communication’

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Reality television is a term that describes a mixture of fact and drama. We cannot understand reality television in isolation, but part of wider social and cultural phenomena, including production practices, communicative modes, and audience practices. As an inter-generic space reality television occupies the world space of observable phenomena, the dramatic space of entertainment, and the entertainment space of constructed studios and locations (Corner 2014 in Hill 2015). Reality television also plays with the spaces in between information and entertainment, authenticity and performance, truth claims and deception. As such, reality television makes visible its own mediation process; it can offer reflections on reality in late modern society.

This argument about reality television as an inter-generic space is explored through a critical analysis of empirical qualitative research on audiences of reality television based on mediums and spirit communication. Paranormal reality television continues a long tradition of representations of the extraordinary in popular culture. In Paranormal Media (Hill 2011), previous work on this genre highlights the connections between new communication technologies and spirit communication; mediums have long been associated with the performance of spirit communication through their participation in and through the telegraph, photograph, film, radio, telephone, television, and digital media. Mediums represent charismatic religious figures who claim they can communicate with the spirits of the dead, offering messages to the living, and signifying spiritual belief in an afterlife. Mediums are mainly associated with spiritualism, an alternative religious movement established in the nineteenth century in Britain and America that draws on an eclectic range of Eastern and Western religious and philosophical writings. Paranormal reality television borrows from earlier historical examples in alternative and mainstream culture, such as Victorian magic lantern shows, or public demonstrations of mediums. For this chapter, the representation of mediums in paranormal reality television offers a useful site of analysis for the performance of spirit communication and audience engagement with unorthodox religious beliefs.

The audience research is drawn from a wider study (Hill 2011), using focus groups, interviews and participant observations with over 250 participants, ranging from sceptics to believers. The approach is a popular cultural ethnography, and the research extends beyond texts or genres to offer empirical data regarding audience responses to the representation of mediums in a range of reality television, and their personal experiences of mediums and psychics in tourism, live events, and public demonstrations. One participant said: ‘If you want to be a medium in media you’ve got to be extra, extra special’ (34 year old female nurse). Her comment was rare, as the majority of participants in the study claimed the opposite - mediums in the media were not special at all. There was a high degree of scepticism from audiences towards the profession of mediums and the issue of trust and authenticity within the psychic industry (see Koven 2007 for example). This position of distrust was heightened by appearances of mediums and psychics in reality television, programmes that often mixed the world space of ghost hunting with the entertainment space of artificially constructed locations and studios. Here, then, reality television as an inter-generic space for fact and entertainment invites audiences to think through concepts of authenticity and deception in paranormal reality television, in the profession of mediums and spirit communication, and people’s spiritual experiences in their everyday lives.

For critics such as Tresize (2008), the performance of mediums is an example of a neo-Foucauldian approach to reality television, where the political ideology of late capitalism and neoliberalism is represented in the genre; audiences who watch these programmes, or participate as members of the public, are complicit in the commercialisation of television and paranormal beliefs. However, when speaking with viewers of these kinds of programmes assumptions that audiences are naively trusting of mediums, and their religious and political economic messages, is challenged by audiences themselves. Audience research offers another interpretation of paranormal reality television, where viewers are intensely critical of the commercial framing of mediums in reality television, and sceptical of claims to authentic spirit communication in the shows. Such critical engagement is also extended beyond the moment of reception to the everyday lives of audiences, who use paranormal reality television as a resource to reflect on their own experiences of mediums and psychics and their hopes and uncertainties about alternative spiritual beliefs.

In the inter-genric space of reality television the ambiguous nature of fact and entertainment opens up a reflexive space for audiences to question the value of their spiritual experiences in late modern society. The argument put forward here is that critical engagement with paranormal claims in popular culture is a pathway to understanding the cultural meanings that shape contemporary spiritual experiences. Similar to Ammerman’s research on spirituality in everyday life (2013), and Winston’s discussion of television drama and religious speculation (2009), this research avoids polarisation between religion and spirituality by analysing the personal and collective cultural experiences of audiences. It argues for research that addresses the intersections across spirituality, popular culture and personal and social experiences (see Mazur and McCarthy 2010). The ambiguity of what is real within reality television connects with a sense of uncertainty with regard to alternative religious beliefs and what this means to audiences in their search for spiritual experiences that they understand as proof of life after death.


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Titel på värdpublikationReligion and Reality TV: Faith in Late Capitalism
RedaktörerMara Einstein, Katherine Madden, Diane Winston
UtgivningsortNew York
Antal sidor16
ISBN (elektroniskt)9781315545950
ISBN (tryckt)9781138681286
StatusPublished - 2018 apr 17
Peer review utfördJa