By Jeff Pfeiffer
I screened the first episode of Syfy’s new docu-drama series Paranormal Witness (premiering tonight at 10pm ET/PT) yesterday afternoon, and while I felt some thrills and chills as I watched it, I didn’t think much about it afterward.
This morning, however, I found myself awake at about 4:30 for some reason. As I lay in bed trying to get back to sleep, my mind suddenly went back to the screener I had watched, and the two (supposedly real-life) ghost stories contained within it. My brain is sometimes prone to do this after I watch a show or movie about ghosts, and this morning, in the early-morning darkness, sure enough I began thinking about this particular episode, which was obviously crafted effectively enough to keep me awake for another half-hour — imagining the ghostly face staring in the little girl’s window from the show’s first segment, and the phantom girl on the side of the road in the second segment, listening to every little creak in the house and checking to see if my dog was on the floor next to my bed for comfort.
If a program meant to creep viewers out can achieve such an effective delayed fright reaction — my favorite kind, the ones that get under your skin and have you thinking for a while — then I suppose that program can be considered a success, regardless of its technical and acting proficiencies, or lack thereof. Paranormal Witness doesn’t bring anything entirely new to the increasingly crowded genre of series about ghosts, UFOs and the like, but it does a workmanlike job of setting up and delivering scares that — no matter how many times you’ve seen them before, or know they are coming — can still get to you, especially when watching alone at night (although in the first segment the director seems to try a bit too hard in creating a mood with spooky camera angles). Perhaps borrowing from the hit Paranormal Activity films, the series — at least the episode that I saw — focuses more on frights, and doesn’t make too much of an effort to try proving or disproving the accounts of the people featured in the stories, who personally narrate their experiences (although those experiences are portrayed by actors). It probably doesn’t even matter if they are true, and it probably doesn’t matter if the presentation has been seen and done before, for the most part. Ghost stories have been around for thousands of years, and while it is hard to present them in a new way, people still love them.
An example of this is in the second, shorter segment of tonight’s episode, called “The Lost Girl,” in which a mother and daughter encounter a sad-looking girl on a lonely Florida highway at night. When they go back to see if she needs help, the girl turns, and — to the women’s horror — reveals …. Well, I can’t tell you! (I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to ruin the scare; the visual effects shot in the screener I had was incomplete, but the payoff was still effective.) Most of us have probably heard some variation of this long-running “phantom hitchhiker” story before, and likely know how it ends, but darn it if it doesn’t still have the ability to freak us out.
The brunt of tonight’s premiere consists of the segment called “Emily the Imaginary Friend,” in which a young couple and their 5-year-old daughter move into a house after seeing a guy quickly putting up a “For Sale By Owner” sign in front of it (still buying it even after finding out he was only in the house a year, and was willing to take considerably less money for it than what the house was worth, but whatever). Before long, the little girl begins talking to a “friend” named Emily, who only she can see. And then things start getting more horrific and violent.
This first segment is where Paranormal Witness displays some of its faults the most, with some over-ambitious efforts to scare viewers by using some of the cliches we might expect in such a story — a creepy child’s voice singing a nursery rhyme, an eerie-sounding music box playing in the background, a rocking horse moving by itself, and even a staticky television a la Poltergeist. Whether or not all of this actually happened to the people featured in the tale, it still made it hard for me to initially suspend disbelief while thinking the crew was trying too hard.
But, as I mentioned earlier, the proof is in the pudding if the stories were able to come back to me later that night. If you have an active imagination and desire to be scared (or kept awake at 4:30am), you will probably enjoy Paranormal Witness. Most of the upcoming episode titles I’ve seen seem to deal with ghosts, although there will be some covering other weird goings-on, like UFOs. It wasn’t evident in this first episode, but the series will, in addition to first-person narration from the people involved in the events, sometimes include photos and videos taken during the events.
Paranormal Witness is a decent start to the increasingly dark and cool fall/Halloween season, when you might want to feel a nice chill up your spine. While the series may ultimately be forgettable, those of you in the right frame of mind will at least remember some of the segments for a little while — most likely when they suddenly jump into your thoughts in the dead of night.
Paranormal Witness airs Wednesdays on Syfy at 10pm ET/PT, beginning tonight.
Credit: J.P. Moczulski/Syfy