While cable television has plenty of short documentaries about the paranormal, filmmakers Andy and Tonya Keyser took a different tack in their new documentary film The Other Side: Giving Up the Ghost. The film provides a balanced look at ghost tourism and ghost hunters in modern America. Skeptical Briefs editor Benjamin Radford interviewed the Keysers about their film.
How did you get the idea for this documentary?
After moving from Philadelphia to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, we were astounded by the growing number of ghost tour companies and by their popularity with tourists. Thousands of people flock to the town each weekend during the summer specifically to go on the ghost tours. In addition, the battlefield itself has become one of the most popular places for ghost hunters in America to visit. . . . [W]e wanted to explore this fascination with ghosts.
What in your backgrounds drew you to the subject?
Andy teaches college history and has been interested for many years in the relationship between history, ghost stories, and paranormal investigation. As a teacher with a degree in psychology, I am interested in how ghost stories and folklore can be used in the classroom, the media’s sensationalism of the topic, and the relationship between research in the field of psychology and paranormal investigation. We gathered research over the course of six years with the intent of writing a book, but the project evolved into a documentary.
How long did it take to make?
We completed the bulk of the filming over the course of a summer, taking advantage of our careers as teachers to work on the film full-time. Editing was completed in the fall and early winter, with an average of forty to fifty hours per week. Producing a film is more labor-intensive than we realized, but most of it did not seem like work since it was so enjoyable to delve into such a fascinating topic.
What insights into ghost hunters/investigators did you get from making this film?
Ghost hunters are not “one size fits all.” There are many different approaches to the topic, and groups vary widely in terms of their goals and objectives. We were pleasantly surprised to find a number of groups and individuals who do a very good job of employing a more professional, serious, skeptical, scientific approach. There is a large misconception among the skeptical community that ghost hunters always use equipment (such as EMF meters) to find ghosts. There are a number of researchers who use this equipment to rule out natural causes, such as large electromagnetic fields, to explain the phenomena that homeowners have experienced. These more serious investigators also recognize that most of the things that traditionally have been associated with hauntings can be explained by scientific means. It is also widely understood among this group of researchers that the small percentage of events that remain unexplained do not confirm the existence of ghosts. The largest problem that exists among this part of the community, however, is the lack of a peer-review process and an organized method of sharing data and research.
Do you think that ghosts exist?
Tonya: “Ghosts” are the product of folklore, the convenience of attributing the unexplained to the paranormal, and the innate desire of human beings to believe that part of us lives beyond the grave. I doubt that scientific proof will come in our lifetime and doubt even more wholeheartedly that belief in ghosts will ever go away.
Andy: I believe that things occur that are unexplainable within the current scientific paradigm. I would not be willing to say that these events are definitely caused by ghosts as we culturally define them, although I would not say that this is an impossibility either. I believe it is possible that the “paranormal” might be the result of some natural phenomena that we will eventually understand as our knowledge of science and the universe grows.
What do you plan to do with the film now?
The film has been submitted to a variety of film festivals. However, we recognize that the documentary appeals to a small segment of the population. By not appealing to the more sensational aspects of the topic, we have limited our potential audience. We are selling the film on DVD ourselves and through Amazon.com.
What were the most difficult and interesting aspects of making the film?
We are not filmmakers by trade, so we had to learn a lot of technical information quickly! While filming, we faced unforeseen obstacles and unexpected circumstances, such as conducting interviews in a location with no electricity in complete darkness. When we finished filming, we had close to one hundred hours of tape. Finding the story among all of those hours was an arduous task. The most interesting part of making the documentary was undoubtedly meeting and talking with some of the most thought-provoking, personable, and intelligent people we have ever met.
What has been the reaction by ghost hunters to the film? Did they feel they were portrayed fairly?
We have had the opportunity to privately screen the film several times. More serious researchers have praised the film and its message. Others have criticized its skeptical viewpoint, some of them with a great deal of emotion. We are pleased that reactions to the film have been strong, whether the viewers agree or disagree. When we began the process of planning the documentary, our primary objective was to show a variety of perspectives on the topic. There are plenty of television shows and films that sensationalize the topic. We wanted to begin to demystify ghost hunting.
Did you try to interview the TAPS crew from the TV show Ghost Hunters?
We recognize that their involvement would have undoubtedly helped us to sell the film. However, we didn’t attempt to contact members of TAPS. Most people interested in this topic are very familiar with TAPS and their work. We wanted to expose viewers to additional viewpoints.
What do you think you did or captured with your film that previous documentaries didn’t?
The Other Side: Giving Up the Ghost is the only film we are aware of that attempts to treat the topic in a balanced manner. We felt that the general public should have the opportunity to hear information different from what they typically see on television and in the movies. We have captured the continuum of our society’s fascination with ghosts—from ghost tours and folklore to serious researchers and skeptics. Through the documentary, we also hope to open dialogue among serious researchers to support the improvement of methodology in the field.