Showing posts with label Uncanny. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Uncanny. Show all posts

The Stereo Uncanny

The two photos below were discovered inside the sleeve of Here Come the Hits, a 1974 record by Ronnie Aldrich and His Two Pianos, recently purchased at a Chicago thrift store.  Aldrich recorded for London records during the 1960s and 70s on their Phase4 Stereo Imprint.  Sound geeks will recall that Phase4 records were promoted as the most advanced "stereo" recordings of the era.  The records were done at a special studio outfitted with a "10-Channel console mixer, which permitted a sense of motion and an uncanny illusion of spatial realism unapproached by conventional disc methods" (sayeth the liner notes).  Ronnie Aldrich was an ideal artist for Phase 4 because he had not one, but TWO pianos, instruments that could be pitted against one another in a pan-pot orgy of left-right counterpoint. 

Given this context, I believe the fundamental uncanniness of these images speaks for itself.







Exploded Fortress of Solitude

If you plan on being in London anytime in the next couple of months, I recommend you check out the new exhibit by American artist, Mike Kelley, at the Gagosian Gallery (6-24 Britannia Street). Exploded Fortress of Solitude bookends an earlier show at the Gagosian in Los Angeles (Kandor 10 / Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #34, Kandor 12 / Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #35)--both exhibitions staging an momentary point of exchange between Kelley's series of Kandor sculptures and his ongoing 365-part EAPR project.  In the interests of self-promotional full disclosure, I should say up front that I wrote the essay for the exhibit catalog (forthcoming from Rizzoli), so I am a particularly enthusiastic supporter of the show.

For those who don't know Kelley's work, the Kandor series is an ongoing sculptural project based on the "shrunken city" of Kandor featured in the silver-age Superman comics.  The capital of Krypton, Kandor was miniaturized and stolen by the evil Brainiac moments before the destruction of Superman's home planet.  At some point, Superman himself came into possession of the tiny city and its citizens, securing them beneath a large bell jar in his fabled Fortress of Solitude until he could find a way to return the Kandorians to their normal size (a task that took some 20 years of comic book time).  Fascinated by the fact that Kandor, as inked in the comic book, seemed to mutate into different forms with each new appearance, Kelley has over the past decade translated several of the comic panels into large sculptural form (Kandor 14 is to the left).  Like much of Kelley's work, the Kandor series plays with Freudian exchanges between the popular unconscious and the unconscious popularized, presenting Kandor as an insistent and quite literalized symptom of Superman's boyhood trauma.  In many ways, the sculptural pieces expand upon a reading of the Superman mythos that Kelley first introduced in 1999 with Superman Recites Selections from The Bell Jar and Other Works by Sylvia Plath, a video that
presents exactly what the title suggests--Superman reading The Bell Jar to the bell jar that hangs over Kandor.  If you find that as hilarious and as poignant as I do, I highly recommend taking a look at the catalog from the 2007 Kandors exhibition in Berlin. At the current London exhibit, the Kandors range in size from small table-top studies to the immense installation, Exploded Fortress of Solitude (at top), which requires the viewer to step inside to view a hidden Kandor 10B.  And even if you have little to no interest in Superman and/or Freud, the Kandors are well worth seeing if only for the beautiful play with color and texture that runs through the series.  Each is, in its own way, a truly remarkable object.


The EAPR series, meanwhile, is an ongoing video/sculptural project based on Kelley's 1995 piece, Educational Complex.  Below is a description of this project taken from the catalog,  Mike Kelley Educational Complex Onwards: 1995-2008 (2010, JRP Ringier).

In 1995, Mike Kelley devised the Educational Complex, an amalgam of every school he attended and of the house he grew up in, "with all the parts I couldn't remember left out"--a total environment, "sort of like the model of a Modernist community college." The blind spots in this model represent forgotten ("repressed") zones, and so are reconceived by Kelley as sites of institutional abuse, for which specific traumas were devised (each having their own video and sculptural component). For Kelley, this work marks the beginning of a series of projects in which pseudo-autobiography, repressed-memory syndrome and the reinterpretation of previous pieces become the tools for a poetic deconstruction of such complexes and the way we interact with and narrate them.

The Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction project (EAPR) is to be a 365-part video/sculptural series addressing the "repressed" blank zones of Educational Complex.  Each EAPR is a promiscuous mix of personal memories, pop culture, and standardized "recovered memory" scenarios.  The London show debuts #36 in the series, "Vice Anglais," which imagines the life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti staged as a Hammer horror film.  Rossetti, displaced here as "M'Lord," leads a gang of perverts on a subterranean tour of debauchery, loosely organized around Rossetti's own famously salacious biography. Particularly stunning is the sudden appearance of M'Lord's muse, Golden Rod, an ambulatory yet mute corn cob creature apparently visible only to M'Lord.  At another point in the video, M'Lord wanders alone into a cavernous chamber and encounters--without explanation--the seemingly abandoned Kandor 10B. 


The London show also features a number of sculptural works independent of either the Kandor or EAPR series. Topo Gigio Topographical Model (detail at left) is a particular favorite of mine in its odd mixing of the whimsical and the creepy, a difficult tone that Kelley is particularly adept at achieving, here and elsewhere.

So if you're in the vicinity of Kings Cross, stop by and take a look. The exhibit runs through October 22 and the catalog should be available shortly thereafter. 





Signs Portending Your Participation in a Devil Movie






You attend a candlelit party with many elderly eccentrics and large brandy snifters.



  






It's 1972, and your host is a man wearing black velvet with a lace collar.










You find yourself making eye-line match cuts with angry dogs.












Later, that same dog attends a costume party wearing a human mask.








Your host wears a lion's head while playing Liszt.












You see your host French-kissing his daughter.









Sinister looking drugged weirdos are on the staircase.


 








 Transvestites are also on the staircase, reaching out to you in a "fish-eye" POV shot.









You find yourself underlit in a blood-red room full of weird objects.








You see a stuffed bat on a bookcase.












A woman in a black turtleneck who makes terrifying sculptures wants to cast your face in plaster.










BINGO!






All shots from The Mephisto Waltz (1971)

Homicidal Cactus Fodder

Few would dispute that the worker-drones in the contemporary entertainment industry have become exceedingly lazy.  In the old Hollywood factory system, the movie studios cranked out hundreds of titles a year, fare that ranged from ornate costume epics to one-reelers featuring schnauzers in pie fights.  If a shoot was behind schedule, all concerned simply grabbed a handful of Benzedrine from the big Benzedrine jar by the front gate and made sure they didn’t sleep until the premiere.  Now we are supposed to be impressed that it took ten years to create the wonder of Avatar, or grateful that Jennifer Aniston descends from her Malibu compound each solstice to unveil that year’s romantic-like approximation of comedy.  

The situation is equally bad in television.  The standard order for a season used to be 32 episodes.  At some point this got whittled down to 28, then 26, then 22.  In the time it takes a current TV writer to wake-up, walk over to Starbucks, call his agent, pick through some melons and kale at Whole Foods, and then finally sit down at his computer, Rod Serling would have churned out a half-season of The Twilight Zone. Sure, he dropped dead at 51, but his legacy is The Twilight Zone, not 2 or 3 episodes of CSI: Doesitevenmatteranymore, but the entirety of a world beyond time and space.

Still, one might ask, isn’t it better to focus on a few high-quality projects each year rather than simply strip the gears on a conveyor belt of crap?  Isn’t it better to have 10 episodes of John Adams or Treme rather than 32 episodes of Alf?

No…it isn’t.  And here’s why.

One of the few benefits afforded by the mass production of culture is the opportunity for odd, bizarre, and otherwise demented “filler.”   If a production company must by contract cough up 32 hours of television each year—even if one hour involves little more than all the characters sitting around remembering clips from the previous 31 hours—there is almost an iron-clad guarantee that at least one or two of the episodes will go off the rails in some interesting fashion.  Remember when Beaver Cleaver made friends with the son of the garbage-man, causing June to freak out about class-mixing and the possibility of junkyard rat bites?  Or when Kramer accidentally mocked the Puerto Rican Pride parade on Seinfeld?  Or when Danny Bonaduce joined the Black Panthers on The Partridge Family?  None of these jaw-dropping moments in our televisual heritage would have been possible without the crushing demands of sheer volume.  Each required a harried producer or show runner to look at his watch and say, “To hell with it….I have Dodgers tickets for tonight. Just get it in the can by next week.”

The Beatles’ White Album is another great example.  The White Album is at once 100% genius and 50% crap.  How can that be?  The 50% crap—"Rocky Raccoon," "Honey Pie," "Wild Honey Pie," "Bungalow Bill," etc.—helps put the genius of "Prudence," "Long Long Long," "Cry Baby Cry," and "Helter Skelter" into relief, serving as a type of sonic compost that allows the brighter flowers to flourish.  If you simply edited the record down to one disc—excising this “filler”—it would be a great elpee, but lost in the surgery would be the fascinating documentation of an increasingly dysfunctional band commiting every half-assed idea to tape and hoping no one would be too embarrassed in the end.  How else would that creepy song about McCartney’s dog ever have seen the light of day?

And so it is with comic books as well.  Imagine you are a young man living in the greater New York City area in the late sixties.  As a staff writer/artist for Eerie publications, you are charged with the responsibility of generating monthly content—not only for Eerie Comics—but also for all the other jewels in the Eerie crown: Terror Tales, Weird, Tales of Voodoo, etc.  Thirteen-year old boys across the nation are depending on you, waiting eagerly at the Five and Dime with their bubblegum money in the hopes you will shock and/or spook them for an hour or two. 

A year into your job, you’ve plagiarized just about everything you can remember from Poe, Lovecraft, and assorted Victorian ghost stories.  There are few bloody folktales, urban legends, or B-movie monsters that have yet to appear in the magazine.  But the July 1969 issue of Witches’ Tales is fast approaching deadline and you need five more pages, only five more pages.  “The Telltale Spleen?”  Nope, did that a couple issues back with a pair of blood-soaked eyeballs that appear to stare through the guilty killer's lead safe.  Perhaps a “July 4th” version of A Christmas Carol with the ghosts of Uncle Sam past, present and…no, even 13-year-old boys will think that’s super-retarded. 

Then you think back to your last vacation.  Driving home at twilight through the Sonora desert.  Your wife sees a saguaro cactus and says aloud, “Why, they almost look human.”  And thus is born, “Green Horror,” Witches' Tales (July 1969): 19-23: a truly inspired example of demented filler, the odd brilliance that comes from running out of ideas, time, and patience. 

We open with a young couple driving across the desert.  Martha wants to stop and take a cutting from one of the saguaros for the garden back home.  Her husband thinks she’s nuts, but does nothing to stop her. 

Months later the cactus flourishes in the garden, but the husband harbors only loathing and suspicion.  “Filthy thing!...I simply hate that obscene plant!”  Strange invective to hurl at a cactus, but as we will see later, this is indeed an “obscene” succulent.  Oddly, the husband doesn’t seem to notice that this cactus appears to have sprouted eyes and a fearsome scowl; still, he is unnerved enough by the plant to attack it with his garden hoe.  But Martha emerges from the house just in time to stop him.

More time passes and the husband cannot get the creepy cactus out of his mind.  “It’s like some strange force in me, driving me!  Somehow I know that either the cactus goes or something terrible is going to happen!"  Even though he realizes it might mean divorce, he sneaks out one night when Martha is asleep and begins wailing on the cactus with an ax.  I’ll chop you up and burn the pieces! he screams. 

There follows a most extraordinary high-wire act of exquisite bullshittery wherein the cactus seizes the ax and exacts its revenge.
Ax in head, hubbie is dead.  Story over, right?  But no.  There are still two more pages to kill, and so our hard-working and hard-pressed writer must forge ahead and find some way to add more resonance and nuance to this tale.  

Confronted with the husband's head cleved in two, the police hypothesize that a prowler must have overpowered him and attacked him with his own axe.  Certainly, no one suspects the saguaro.  Time passes and Martha meets a new man.  Standing in the garden one night directly in front of the homicidal cactus, he implores Martha to marry him.  At first she hesitates, but with a little persuasion, finally agrees.  But, observes our narrator, “How can either one of them see the evil leer on the ‘face’ of the cactus?”  Martha goes inside to make some celebratory cocktails, and before you know it, the cactus sucker-punches her fiancĂ© right in the kisser.  “With a horrible screeching sound of living roots being torn from the ground, the cactus pounces on the amazed man…”

Two important bits of narrative information are now in place: (1) the cactus is motivated by lust for Martha and jealousy over other suitors; (2) in addition to having mastered carnival-style ax throwing, the cactus is now no longer bound by the ordinary rules of roots and irrigation. 

Inside, Martha continues to mix the drinks unaware that her new love has been pummeled into hamburger helper.  A knock on the door.  It’s the cactus—enraged enough to murder, and yet polite enough to knock before entering.  The final confrontation unfolds:

The cactus pulls her into a jealous embrace, crushing her against its sharp spines!  And at the last moment Martha realizes the truth!  It wants her…

I’m not exactly sure what “It wants her…” would mean to a 13-year old boy in 1969, especially as an index of cactus-on-woman desire.  Undoubtedly there is some perverse and highly overdetermined Oedipal anxiety at work here.  Martha, after all, gave “birth” to the cactus by harvesting and planting him as a young cutting, and it is Martha that protects him from castrating ax-husband #1. 

At any rate, the story should be over with this fatal embrace.  But something, guilt perhaps, forces our desperate scribe to add one more panel. The police arrive on scene to find Martha and her fiancĂ© dead.  Interestingly, while the cops were wholly unable to decipher the previous scene of cactile horror, this time everything makes perfect sense to them.  “Figure this one Mike!  A cactus plant rips out its roots and walks and grabs the woman and crushes her to death!  It can’t be…,” says Cop #1.  “Can’t be is right, only it is!” offers his partner.  “And the man dead too!  Brother, how are we ever going to explain this one to the commissioner?”

This final frame, I imagine, is actually a displacement of the conversation the writer imagined having with his editor once the ink dried on this prickly masterpiece.  Brother, how am I ever going to explain this piece of crap to the boss?  Four years at Brown and the best I can come up with is a horny cactus on a murderous rampage. Another year like this and I'll be living on the streets.

In a perfect world, all “above-the-line” personnel in the entertainment industry--comic book writers and otherwise-- would be compelled, by federal law if necessary, to work to the point of absolute exhaustion, to struggle against deadlines and consequences so unforgiving that they would be forced to move beyond a certain comfort zone, ushered into the hallucinatory panic of free-form improvisation. There would be no “sleeping on it,” no month-after-month of careful franchise-honing, only the raw crisis of compulsory creativity--in the moment, by midnight, before anyone in this room can go home tonight.  I want to see a Law and Order episode or Final Destination sequel written by someone in just under two hours with absolutely no rewrites. I want to see an entire season of Mad Men outlined on a napkin and faxed without revision from a strung-out story editor in Cancun who forgot principle photography begins on Monday.  It might not achieve genius, but I’m sure it would at least avoid the predictable mediocrity of measured competence. 

That Was That


There’s something heartening in the fact that the two top grossing movies last week were Michael Jackson in This is It and that incredibly cheap movie about ghosts attacking people with their own bed sheets (surely this must be an homage to the only other known paranormal bed clothing attack in the cinema, H.G. Lewis’ Something Weird [1968]).   As most people know, This Is It consists primarily of rather cursory rehearsal footage probably intended for a DVD bonus feature, so its “budget” was minimal (if we exclude it from the overall budget of MJ’s doomed gig at the O2 arena).  Meanwhile, if you check the box office stats, you can have the thrill of seeing Paranormal Activity’s budget presented as “$0.015” (expressed in millions).  Surrogates, meanwhile, is sucking wind at 30 million—so all and all it was a good week for those hoping to see a different cost to suckitude ratio emerge in Hollywood.

Beyond the miniscule budgets, This is It and Paranormal are also thematically related in that each purports to be a documentary about a ghost.  Paranormal does this Blair-Witch style through a low-res home video look, demonstrating that the mise-en-scene of the domestic haunting has finally completed its transition from Victorian shadow to suburban night-vision.  This is It, meanwhile, produces its uncanny by focusing on Jackson as a living dead man, or as the inevitable headline reads in several reviews: “Dead man Moonwalking.”

If more proof were actually needed, This is It demonstrates just how impossible it is to distinguish “text” and “context.”  If MJ were still alive, the film would be an insult.  With MJ dead, it becomes “haunting” in various senses of the word.  Much is being made about the film’s ability to reveal the “real” MJ as the consummate professional dedicated to his craft.  There is some of that in the movie, to be sure.  We get to see MJ coaching his dancers on their routines, debating the music director about tempo, and telling his guitarist (“with love”) that his read on Billy Jean isn’t quite funky enough yet.  We also get to see a seriously miffed Jackson complaining about his monitor mix (although there is the suspicion that he’s simply tired of having to make the obligatory run through the old Jackson 5 medley).   Of course it’s impossible to watch the film and not keep thinking that MJ would be dead in just a matter of weeks, or that he was going home after these rehearsals to visit the sweet oblivion provided by Propofol on tap.

This is It is certainly worth seeing if you have any interest in the whole MJ saga, or if you are curious to witness perhaps the most extraordinary talent ever to commit himself so completely to a life of kitsch (at one point he emerges from a giant mechanical spider…I kid you not).  But the film pales in comparison to an earlier take on “dead” MJ by artist Slater Bradley.  In his Doppelganger Trilogy (2005), Bradley staged three extraordinarily convincing “fake” performances: Ian Curtis leading Joy Division in what looks to be a crowded underground club; Kurt Cobain and Nirvana at an outdoor music festival; and Michael Jackson rehearsing alone and in silence on a dimly lit stage (all three icons played by Bradley’s own “doppelganger,” Benjamin Brock).  Each is impressive in capturing, not just the material look of the performer and his era, but also the variants of doom, tragedy, and melancholy that have become so central to the cultural memory of these fallen pop stars.  There is a sick joke here as well: two of the performers are already dead, while Jackson (circa 2005) might as well be.  One might call Bradley’s piece “prescient,” but then again, who actually thought MJ could or would live much longer?  This is what makes Bradley’s portrait of him so spooky.  Displayed alongside the dead Curtis and Cobain, MJ’s distant pantomime of his characteristic dance moves on a deserted stage is a reminder that the King of Pop checked out long, long ago. 

I See Dead People...F#¢king.

News from Germany: copulating corpses are coming soon to a museum near you.  Created by anatomists Gunther von Hagens and Angelina Whalley, the frisky dead are part of their latest installment in the Body Worlds exhibitions, PG-versions of which have already toured the globe extensively.  You've probably seen these figures before--real cadavers that von Hagens and Whalley skin, dehydrate, and then coat with plasticine, no doubt with The Cure playing in the background and clove cigarette smoke aloft in the air.  The current exhibit is called "Cycle of Life," charting  human anatomy from conception to old age to ending up in a Museum of Natural History contemplating your own skin.  It's been to Berlin (surprise!) and now a more "explicit" version dedicated to human sexuality is making its way to Zurich.

Where to start?  Well, first of all, the show in Berlin apparently met with some resistance, which seems incredible as Berlin long ago cornered the market on being the most paraphilic-friendly city in the western hemisphere.  It's difficult to imagine anything shocking anyone there--but apparently a few locals have deemed the sight of cadavers "doin' it" to be "revolting" and "unacceptable."  Perhaps sensing Berlin is losing its edge (and Paris too, which banned the exhibit outright), Zurich has moved in and upped the ante.  Below is a direct quote from a Reuters story about the copulating corpse controversy:

The way a plastinate is exhibited can vary from country to country to reflect local sensibilities. A vote of local employees decided that one of the copulating female cadavers should wear fewer clothes in Zurich than was the case in Berlin.

This should make us all stop and think for a moment.

(Note of genuine despair: writing now at 10:35pm CST on 9/15 and Colbert has just led with this same goddamn story...must wait momentarily to see where it goes...okay, just a few jokes about how these exhibits make being dead look like so much fun...let us resume)

A vote of local employees decided that one of the copulating female cadavers should wear fewer clothes in Zurich than was the case in Berlin.

As a raving hypochondriac, I have never seen a Body Worlds exhibit in person--I already know my body is a rotting sack of meat and certainly do not need to have an acute panic attack in front a 7th grade biology class field trip.  But from the pictures I've seen of these "plastinates," I have never known one to be wearing clothes.  Tennis-playing cadaver might sport a jaunty headband as a joke, but the whole point of this exhibit (allegedly) is to witness the symphony of musculature beneath the skin as it engages in common human activities, be that wailing on "Freebird," playing cards, or doing the hanging parallel ring exercise that no one cares about in the Olympics.

The addition of clothing--apparently only to the female cadaver in this coitus scenario--seems the most perverse confirmation ever of Roland Barthes famous observation that "the naked body is less erotic than the spot where the garment leaves gaps."  But where does that leave the "skinless naked body?"  Incredibly, von Hagens and Whalley appear to have felt a need to add clothing to an already hyper-nekkid woman so as to....well, what exactly?  Make it more "tasteful?" Hotter?  More legible as a sexual scenario?  Obviously there is no "good" answer to this question, only a strangely unexamined set of assumptions about representing sexuality itself.  Contrary to the famous credo of anti-porn feminism in the '70s, the ultimate ambition of the male gaze is apparently not "women without skin," females objectified to the point that clothes, identity, and the epidermal layer all melt away into supreme obscenity, but is instead a skinless "frenzy of the visible" (google it, perv) tastefully framed by an appropriately seductive outfit.

Even more incredibly, there is apparently a group of "local employees" in Zurich with a union so strong that they get to vote on appropriate attire for copulating female cadavers.  And even more disturbingly, once enfranchised with this awesome responsibility, these employees decided this particular copulating female cadaver should wear even less clothing than in Berlin.  I guess this is either a perverse compliment to the woman who donated her body to this project or a subtle dig at Berlin for becoming the Kansas of Europe.  Berlin!  In Germany!  A country that only twenty years ago gave the world Nekromantic, a film in which a a guy wakes up one morning to discover his girlfriend has broken off their menage-a-macabre by running away with the corpse!

Like all freakshow carney routines, Body Worlds bills itself as educational.  Seems to be the same lesson every time--hey, you look like a bacon blue-plate special underneath your precious, precious epidermis, meatbag.  But perhaps something more useful is going on here.  Maybe the "Let's Get It On" edition of Body Worlds is an elaborate scheme to smoke out a few necrophiles, much like those Sheriffs who post offers for a free speedboat to lure boneheads with outstanding warrants into coming down to the courthouse for easy cuffing.  Or, perhaps, it's a cogent reminder that you should leave incredibly specific instructions for your body after death--lest you end up working a pole in the Kitty Korpse Klub with Teamsters voting on whether or not you get to wear a G-string.




Whistling Past Social Services

Someday parapsychologists will finally come to an agreement that behind every great ghost there is a screwed up family.  Many outside the world of ghost theory already know that poltergeists have typically centered on pubescent teenage girls (this is where Spielberg’s half-great/half-crappy movie gets it so wrong—all those special effects would have been following the older daughter around, not sweet little Carol Anne).  That younger teenage daughters can be the locus of intense emotional disruption and familial trauma is a well-known fact, not only to psychics, but to social workers and Disney’s marketing division as well. 
Parapsychologists also place charged emotional energy at the center of hauntings  (a ghost or ghosts associated with a specific location, as opposed to the poltergeist’s attachment to a specific individual).  The current theory is that moments of intense emotional trauma (like being decapitated in a lonely dungeon or drowning on your way to the prom) leave behind a psychic trace that “sensitives” are capable of perceiving.  In fact, your house could be haunted right now and you don’t even know it because, well, you might be a little slow on the psi-uptake.  
Even if ghosts don’t actually exist, the idea of the “sensitive” may not be too far from whatever “truth” can be extracted from the long tortured history of parapsychology.   Not “sensitive” as in actually seeing into another dimensional reality, but “sensitive” as in pathologically attuned to the emotional dynamics of family tensions.  In this respect, perhaps psychoanalysis and parapsychology will one day merge (as Freud seemingly thought they might) and the ghost can take its rightful place as the roving ambassador of the unconscious. 

One television series that gets this, I think, is the Discovery Channel’s program, A Haunting.  I don’t know when this show started or how far it is into its run, but I do know that it features some of the best family melodrama currently on television.  Each hour-long episode dramatizes the purportedly “true story” of a recent haunting, mixing an America's Most Wanted quality re-enactment with talking-head interviews featuring the original “hauntees.”
For the most part the show delivers the promised paranormal goods—strange footsteps are heard, ectoplasm slathers about, table settings come to a mysterious end.  Every so often, for good measure, a demon pops up to appease the Christian demographic.  And yet at the same time, each episode seems to invite the audience to speculate that the real problem is less a supernatural entity than a super-crazy member of the family.  It is difficult to say with any certainty if this internal critique is a subtle trick of style and narration, or if instead it is a function of the social milieu that typically generates good ghost material.  If the former, kudos to the Discovery Channel for such a surprisingly nuanced production.  If the latter, ghosts appear to be most common in homes teetering on the brink of a restraining order.

The episode that first caught my attention concerned an Ohio family that moved into a home built on the grounds of what used to be a haunted schoolhouse.  When mom finds the headmaster’s gravestone out in the front yard behind some bushes, she decides to learn all she can about the occult. Already the producers signal to us that all the subsequent ghosts in this story could well be the product of her supernatural hypochondria, especially when her husband—in an excellent reversal of Medium—keeps telling her to put away her camera-ready black-leather pentagram book so he can get some sleep!
A few unimpressive mysteries unfold around the house as family tensions rise between mom, son, and step-father.  Then one night, when the boy is about twelve and home alone, he sees a kitchen chair move by itself and a bloody-faced ghoul staring through the front window.  Now, I would submit to you that this is just a normal part of growing up.  Quite frankly, are there any kids who did NOT on occasion see the furniture move around some or a bloody-faced ghoul prowling the back yard? Rather than explain the tricks of fear and imagination to her child, however, Mom sees this as a great chance to show off all the occult knowledge she’s accumulated, so she takes son and husband outside and shows them the headmaster’s gravestone for the first time.
Divorce soon follows, and in the next segment Occulto-Mom takes her son—now in his teens—to live in a small town in Texas.  She doesn’t have much money, so they have to rent the cheapest place she can find.  Walking through their dilapidated house after signing the lease, they pull up the old carpet in the boy’s bedroom to discover---a giant pentagram etched into the floor!  Incredibly, they decide to live there anyway; in fact, Mom takes this as an omen that she should start studying the occult again (as opposed to Texas contract law).
So Mom becomes a witch, a Wiccan to be exact.  Soon she’s taken over the pentagram suite so that she can burn her mystic candles and mumble Latin praise to various nature deities. She's very protective of her son, and devastated when he chooses to enlist in the Air Force to get the hell out of Dodge as soon as he graduates. 
He’s gone for seven years, and when he returns after the commercial break, he finds Mom is even more into witchcraft than ever before.  That night, sleeping in his old bedroom (which is now tastefully adorned with pictures of a frolicking Pan), he awakes to a vengeful attack of “sprites” (little spots of light added in post that dance around the room, creating a sort of Studio 54 of the Damned).  Then his Mom appears to him as a phantasm in a medieval looking robe and points at him menacingly (as people in medieval robes are wont to do).  He decides to leave home again the next day when he discovers that mom has nailed his crucifix on a freshly drawn pentagram…over his bed!

Mom finally learns her lesson during an invocation of Isis when the “sprites” return as the opening act for some much scarier demons.  To her credit, the real Mom (in one of the interview clips) basically admits she didn’t know what the hell she was doing, and that her attempts at a “protective spell” for her son probably opened the doors for something much darker and more terrifying—like sprites, demons, and a 7-year stint in the Air Force.
Every episode I’ve seen has a similar dynamic.Weird things happen, but later, you can’t help but wonder which axis of repressed family trauma is the real engine for all the flying cutlery (is it a coincidence that both poltergeists and enraged wives like to throw frying pans?).
I have to admit I’m enjoying the melodrama of A Haunting more than the scripted adventures of Mad Men.  Like all engaging reality television, A Haunting is fake enough to not get boring, but retains a whiff of the real just strong enough to make you marvel--not over the possibility of the supernatural—but at the endless fungibility of the dysfunctional family.  You tune in for the ghosts, but leave wondering what it would be like to grow up in east Texas with a mom who goes around town clad head-to-toe in black and working a 5-inch pentagram around her neck.  
Sure, Don Draper is all mysterious and brooding, and he’s had some affairs and done a bunch of other stuff I’ve already seen on TV a million times—but he’s no competition for the sexually frustrated woman who, in another episode of A Haunting, buys a photo of a dead Vietnam veteran at a garage sale, hangs it over her bed, and then begins to “feel” his presence in the home—a delusion that later begins to envelop her daughters as well.  That I haven't seen, nor am I likely to ever again no matter how much television I watch.