Ghost Mine

More inexplicable than anything uncovered in the pilot of SyFy’s new ghost-huntin’ reality series Ghost Mine is the show’s complete inability to produce the minutest trace of unease from what should be a can’t-miss environment for spookiness. Abandoned places are inherently evocative, their silent decrepitude a haunting invitation for the viewer to fill their crumbling spaces with the specters of what once was. And the Old Crescent Mine, an isolated Oregon gold mine left vacant for 80 years, should be Ghost Mine’s chief asset, its innately scary and dangerous caverns and inevitably violent and storied history doing most of the work. Unfortunately, a combination of fraudulent and inept filmmaking, uninteresting ghost hunters, and the fact that, um, nothing remotely scary happens within makes for an impossibly dull experience.

The show kicks off with a bland announcer explaining that Old Crescent is being reopened by its new owner, who, it’s claimed, is putting everything he owns behind this new venture, and who has had to hire a whole new crew since his first workers all abandoned their picks and fled. We don’t hear from any of these purported scaredy-cat miners, but the owner assures us they left because they became convinced that the mine was haunted. Enter our new crew, all of whom, helpfully, sport Top Gun-style nicknames (“Duck,” “Greybeard,” “Papa Smurf,” “Buckett,” “Fast Eddie,” and, rather unfortunately, “Dingus”), and the pair of paranormal investigators (Kristen Luman and Patrick Doyle) the owner has enlisted to check out the mine beforehand.

The scene where Ghost Mine sets up its premise to the players involved is the first portent of the real horrors in store for the viewer. The introductions of the miners to each other, the mine owner, and the paranormal investigators are awkwardly and obviously staged. As with most reality shows, asking non-actors to feign surprise and naturalistic reactions lends the whole enterprise a quality of flatness and fraudulence that undermines whatever tension the show is going for. (In contrast, when the experienced miners are explaining the ins and outs of the actual business of mining, they sound competent, engaged, and natural.) Not being as versed in the world of “reality” as many others here at The A.V. Club, I must ask: Is this level of fakery so de rigueur as to merit ignoring? I recognize it’s a cliche that the “reality” of reality shows is often staged, reshot, or otherwise jiggered-with in order to ratchet up the sort of tidy drama and conflict that actual reality so stubbornly refuses to provide, but as a relative novice to “reality,” this patently phony opening is jarring, and a little insulting.

As the ghost hunters set up their equipment and the miners theirs, a curious bifurcation takes place. The miners, cool nicknames and all, emerge as, by far, the more interesting group, their professionalism and hard work as they prepare to re-enter the long-dormant mine consistently interesting. (Although the fact that the show gets two of them to well up with tears as they tell their hard-luck backstories seems a bit much.) I found myself getting irritated whenever the show switched back from foreman Papa Smurf’s explanation of the techniques and hidden dangers of mining to our paranormal investigators doing their thing.

As for those investigators, and the whole stated premise of the show itself, Ghost Mine is both unlucky in its choice of protagonists and undermined by the laziness of the presentation of their investigations. Whatever your opinion of whether there’s anything supernatural to investigate in the first place (there isn’t), any such search would certainly be lent credibility if those doing the searching followed something resembling the scientific method. As presented here however, Luman and Doyle’s approach is slapdash. For example, on their very first recon of the mine, the investigators hit pay dirt—in the sense that they splash their way down a few tunnels, Kristen asks “Did you hear that?” and then Patrick asks, “Did you hear that?” and then they splash around and leave. This pattern is repeated at intervals for the rest of the show. Oh sure, occasionally the questions change to “Did you see that?” or “What was that?” or, in one theoretically tense scene “What the hell is that?” but, as presented by the show, these are not the most methodical researchers ever put in the field. (And, apologies to Luman, who appears to have some actual credentials in psychology, but her affect throughout seems as authentically scientific as did Denise Richards’ nuclear scientist in The World Is Not Enough.) As the pair continues their efforts, eventually a few gadgets are trotted out, with minimal explanation as to their purpose, but the methodology remains pretty consistent as: walk into a tunnel, have Kristen immediately ask, “Is there anybody there?” and then stare at a gizmo and claim you saw the needle move (at one point, Doyle exclaims, “It’s all the way to orange!”) The show’s attempt to build some tension via the miners’ superstition that a woman underground is bad luck is weakened by both the fact that no one here’s very good at faking emotion and that the miners have a genuine gripe that these two amateurs are walking around in an active, unstable mine and putting everyone’s lives at risk.

I demur to those better acquainted with the supernatural reality sub-genre, but the fact that no one ever acknowledges the presence of a cameraman is a fatal flaw in the filmmaking, right? The supposedly spontaneous conversation between Kristen and the woman who runs the local historical society is, inexplicably, shot multi-camera, complete with over-the-shoulder reaction shots. (Is there a ghost working a second camera? Because that would be cool.) This sloppy filmmaking technique recurs throughout the show, with no one ever acknowledging that there’s a camera crew following them around: Without even an Office-esque nod to the fact that, even in the “scariest” scenes where Kristen and Peter are supposedly being stalked by otherworldlies in a deep, dark corner of the mine, there’s clearly got to be a cameraguy filming them (probably a sound guy as well.) It’s the sort of fraudulent style that, once you notice it, deflates even the modest tension the situation may have built up.

Finally, as the show hits its wrap-up point, the investigators gather the miners together and wow them with the three instances of easily explainable and unconvincing “proof” they’ve uncovered-and we’ve already watched. The miners are especially impressed (as we are supposed to be) with the fuzzy, inaudible “answers” they recorded to Luman’s persistent questions, claiming, with some prompting, to have heard what can only be ghost voices and not, I repeat not, the utterly explicable natural sounds of an old, abandoned mine shaft and/or some mass suggestion on the part of filmmakers desperate to justify their show’s existence.

Stray observations:

  • Kristen’s claim that her background is in “psychology, focusing on paranormal psychology” had me wishing for someone a little more Peter Venkman-esque.
  • “So you’re saying this whiskey bottle was a common item in the mines?”
  • The mumbly, fast-talking Buckett is subtitled and, somewhat patronizingly, his occasional ungrammatical utterances are put in quotes, which just seems mean, frankly.
  • The way the bowl of Greybeard’s lit pipe settles right into his nest of dry whiskers makes me more nervous than anything the investigators turned up.
  • Duck gets spooked and leaves after hearing something knocking in the mine. You know, knocking sounds. In a mine. Being worked by miners.
  • Why a haunted mine? Patrick explains: “There’s a theory that quartz absorbs energy and if they start blasting that could release the energy and lead to a haunting.” Gotcha.
  • Kristen’s hollered ghost-question “Does it make you mad that I’m a woman. And that I have red hair in a mine?” might be the single funniest line I’ve heard on TV all year.

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