TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

Ghostbuster!
Written by Denis Faye


WHERE TO LOOK

Unfortunately, according to Chacon, if you want to read the really juicy stuff, you’ll need some serious time – not to mention a passport. “Most of the materials that I access, they’re actually not online interestingly enough,” explains the investigator. “People have kept them very private. I had to actually travel to Europe, to Russia, and to China to be able to look at the materials.” 

Of course, if that’s the route you wish to take, you’ll also require the ability to read the Cyrillic alphabet, as well as a basic understanding of Mandarin, so plan B might be to look online. Chacon suggests the best way to research is to look into the scientific aspects of the paranormal. You don’t need to research the fantastical aspects so much because, well, you’re a writer. You should be able to make that stuff up. 

Your first stop might be the Society of Scientific Exploration’s Web site, where you can access both EdgeScience magazine and the Journal of Scientific Exploration, where you’ll waste untold hours reading articles that would make Dr. Egon Spengler drool, such as “UFOs and NASA”, “A Case of Severe Birth Defects Possibly Due to Cursing” and “Report of an Indian Swami Claiming to Materialize Objects.” 

The American Society for Psychic Research also has a great Web site, although it deals less with UFOs and more with psychic matters. 

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Skeptics Society’s Web site, an amazingly comprehensive site that goes to great lengths to point out how silly this all is. Think less Egon Spengler, more Peter Venkman.  

Finally, it never hurts to think completely outside the paranormal box. Instead of researching something weird and trying to make it normal, research something normal and then try to make it weird. For example, have a look at the many maladies and calamities you’ll find on the CDC’s Web site. You’re bound to find something strange there that you can really twist into something scary. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden urge to watch Ghostbusters. 

As his job title might suggest, Scientific Investigator of Paranormal Phenomena Christopher Chacon lives one mysterious life.

I first learned of Chacon a few months ago, when one of his fans pitched him to Technically Speaking as “the world's top Anomalist and Paranormal Consultant.” How could I resist? I did a perfunctory Google search and discovered that Chacon’s IMDB page lists an impressive series of television shows upon which he appeared as a paranormal expert, including NBC Nightly News, National Geographic Explorer, Hard Copy, Unsolved Mysteries, and Sightings. So I put the wheels in motion. His publicist arranged for a phone meeting, and we had a fascinating hour-long chat.

It was only after I started fact-checking the interview that things got a little, well, mysterious. According to Chacon’s bio, he got his start ghostbusting when, as a theatrical illusionist, he was recruited by the private scientific think tank The Office of Scientific Investigation and Research (O.S.I.R.) as an Investigator and Researcher with the Anomalistics Division. According to the bio, he has since quit the O.S.I.R. and continues to research on his own.

I tried to find more information on the O.S.I.R. – a link to their Web site, perhaps – but nothing existed online, save information about a fictional organization by the same name that was part of a ‘90s Canadian sci-fi television show called PSI Factor which, oddly enough, Chacon happened to have created and produced.

I wrote Chacon about this and got some great answers. “Private scientific think tanks like O.S.I.R. do not derive any of their operations/functions (research or development) via commercial or even academic aspects (at least not that I know of),” he explained, “so the Internet would serve no purpose.”

As for the whole showrunning thing, “PSI Factor is among one of my first forays into the entertainment industry after departing from O.S.I.R.,” he told me. “As the creator/producer, my involvement with that scripted series gave me a great understanding of the pros and cons to applying fact-based content into a scripted dramatic backdrop.”

As for those impressive IMDB credits, I called NBC to verify his appearances, but they did not respond to my queries.*

So is Chacon the real deal or not? Unless he invites me on a paranormal ride-along (which would stoke me out of my mind, for the record) I don’t think I’ll ever know. What I do know, however, is that he gave a great interview filled with amazing information for any screenwriter hoping to embark on a script pertaining to paranormal investigation. Frankly, that’s all I really care about. Furthermore, I’ve always been a bit of a Mulder. I want to believe in guys as cool as this. So the rest of you can have your Santa Claus this holiday season – I have my Christopher Chacon.

What does Hollywood get right about paranormal investigations?  

The first one that comes to mind of course is Poltergeist [Screenplay by Steven Speilberg & Michael Grais & Mark Victor], and they actually did do a really good job of depicting the exploration of it. There used to be kind of a lab at UCLA – it was sort of like a parapsychology lab, and it almost looked like they inspired some of the writing of that. Poltergeist is one of the films they approach using some basis of science to see if they can document things. They did that really well and isolated things. In traditional parapsychology a lot of times, they bring in psychics just like they did in Poltergeist.

Supernatural is a great series that takes you head first into the lure of the supernatural and their investigating really has to do more with getting to the bottom of whatever the myth or the legend or lure is and sort of unraveling it that way. That’s kind of “getting it right” too. When we are dealing with some kind of phenomenon, the first thing you want to do is try to ascertain what you are dealing with, and in both of those cases, Poltergeist and in that series, you want to try to rule out rational explanations first and then whatever you are left with, if it is still anomalous or paranormal then the question that comes in is, “Okay, what are you dealing with as far as belief systems are concerned?”

For example, several of the cases or situations that I have assisted with or consulted on deal with exorcism and, of course, different religions have their own method of exorcism. But a really fascinating problem for these situations, when we ruled out that it is psychological and there is definitely a phenomenon which defies the laws of nature and physics, is that quite often they bring in their own belief systems. It’s called “confirmation bias” where they reached the result of their conclusion based on their belief system, and it is really important that you separate yourself from that and open yourself up to other possibilities.

I have a hybrid approach where if I am dealing with a phenomenon I take into account all the belief systems because there are situations where they are doing an exorcism, and they are at it for days, and it is just not working then, ironically enough, they use some other belief system which predates Christianity, for example, Australian aboriginal or something, and it works immediately. You have to interpret what the phenomenon is before you dive into it, and if you try and deal with it you have to diagnose it, for lack of a better of word, or at least understand it.

In Supernatural they have a procedural approach in their own way to try and figure out what it is so they can deal with it, although a lot of the mythology lure they put in there is obviously way off. They really run with some of the ideas, which is exactly what a writer is supposed to do for a series like that.

Fringe deals with more pseudo-science and doesn’t really deal per se with definitions of paranormal supernatural although I guess the time parallel dimensions between two worlds is a paranormal belief concept. The belief is that there are parallel worlds, and it explains why there are alien close encounters or things like the Bermuda Triangle, but of course, the series is really more about their procedural method of doing it overlaid an arch of a story.

Going back, X-Files was probably the Holy Grail of procedural elements trying to unravel the phenomena. The Scully/Mulder skeptic/believer element really blanketed an assessment of what the phenomena is while one was trying to rule out rational explanations, the other one was suggesting other anomalous possibilities.

Are you a Scully or a Mulder?  

That’s a good question. I’ll go back to that word “hybrid” in my way of looking at it. “Observer affect” is when your own predisposition can affect the environment because you bring into it your belief system or your expectation. So therefore if you’re a skeptic you taint what you’re assessing, if you’re a believer you taint what you’re assessing, you have to go in as an unbiased observer, as much as you can. I’m kind of an infusion of both Mulder and Scully.

You’re Sculder.  

Yeah, I’m going to have to use that at some point.

What does Hollywood get wrong about paranormal investigation?  

Well, if I have to say that they get something wrong – and I can understand why they do it – it’s the same things they get wrong when you’re watching CSI or House. They take the science and just run with it and in no direction. But it’s a TV show so you have to accept that.

The thing that they get wrong, which would probably be the dullest thing to the viewer, is the process when you are ruling out, first of all, scientific explanations, rational explanations, psychological explanations, physiological, environmental, circumstantial, these all make up how phenomenon can be misperceived, 70 to 80 percent of ongoing phenomenon falls into those categories. Some of them are really extraordinary events like a situation I encountered where someone thought they were being possessed, and it turned out these people had been petting a cat, a stray cat, which had a back injury so it couldn’t clean itself, but the stray cat kept on wandering to a house down the street which they were making raw LSD, so the LSD was getting on the cat straying to people’s houses, they would pet it and, of course, the LSD would enter their system and being very right wing Christians, their fear is of these devils and demons.

There is this great situation where they were testing the new F17 Stealth fighter, and it was still top secret at the time, and they changed their take off strategy so they took off right over a house. The entire house would rumble and shake in the middle of the night, and they had no explanation for what it was. It was an elderly couple, and they thought that demons were basically infiltrating the house because they knew there was no earthquake.

So there is that 70 to 80 percent and those are the ones they have to rule out using the scientific method to try to understand what these explanations are, and ruling those out, now when you’re left with 20 to 30 percent, and the phenomenon is still recurring. Then, of course, you have to try to assess it, understand it, and I don’t see Hollywood really doing that because it’s dull, not every exciting, not very visual. So the thing that Hollywood gets wrong is actually one of the driving forces why the shows work: they pump drama into it in certain places. It would be great if someone would be able to figure out a way of pumping drama into it yet maintaining those procedural things so that we do get to investigate the phenomenon in that enticing way. X-files was able to pull it off very well for quite a while.

You led me to my next question, which is, what would you like to see in a show or a movie just once? Is that the answer?  

I think so. Kolchak, The Night Stalker did it, but I don’t think it would obviously work now in today’s audience. Kolchak’s journey was tongue in cheek a little bit, and he would stumble into the situation, and at the end of the night, no one would believe him really. I’d like to see more of that, that journey.

The same thing goes there where there is an air of mystery. Personally, one of the big things I would love to see is a show where we don’t know the answers at the end of it, we don’t tie up things at the end to know the way things are. Some of my favorite movies have been The Exorcist [Written by William Peter Blatty], Jaws [Screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb], The Birds [Screenplay by Evan Hunter]. At the end of all three of those, we have no idea why the demon, the shark, and the bird did what they did. It’s kind of like they did this, it was a horrible event, and then it stopped, and it left everyone more disturbed. Everyone wants the movie to end where everyone understands why it came here, what it did and why it did what it did. But when no one knows why, that’s one of the big disturbing aspects that has a huge impact.

Because when the audience invents reasons why it happened, oftentimes that’s way more scary than any a screenwriter can come up with.  

Oh, definitely. Big time.

What advice would you have for a writer starting on a project about paranormal investigation?  

I was doing a promotional thing recently to talk about [the upcoming film] Paranormal Activity. I got the same question for people who want to go out and become investigators. You have to find your approach. Look at yourself in the mirror and say, “What’s my approach?” You have to come to terms with “Am I a skeptic, am I a believer, what am I?” Then they can channel their mind’s eye into what’s the next level.

So for a writer – although I do know there have been some people who have written stuff who are complete skeptics, and they have a great mind’s eye and ability to create stuff – I still go back to discovering what your approach is in taking the journey.

Also, there are times when, if you’re watching a movie and/or TV series and the phenomenon is happening and halfway through the story, something happens whereby the phenomenon does something that it’s not supposed to be able to do, and it’s almost like they’re tweaking the laws of the phenomenon to adapt to the story, I think they kind of cheat the audience a little bit. If you’re dealing with a specific type of phenomenon, before you journey into the story, you should come to the understanding of what the phenomenon is.

When you maintain the integrity of what the phenomenon is through the story, that is another way of keeping it as grounded as possible. That’s one of the reasons why fact-based stories, whether inspired by or based on some kind of actual event, just have so much more weight. Even if they completely change the story around it, if the phenomenon has that integrity of it you know that it’s going to work a certain way, and it makes it more real for the audience.

*NOTE: After this article posted, Chacon's people sent me a DVD featuring fragments of some of his television appearances as a paranormal expert, including a segment from The Tom Snyder Show on CNBC. Sadly, there was no invitation for a ride-along with the DVD.