The Freaks Come Out at Night

Ghostface killah: Leave it to Gary Busey to wear cammo pants into a completely dark building

Celebrity Paranormal Project
new episodes 9:00 p.m. Sundays

Recently, I was fortunate enough to catch a random airing of Mommie Dearest. (The Oxygen Network: Because unflattering caricatures of women make real women feel less loathsome!) Faye Dunaway's ghoulishly peaked eyebrows and Razzie-bait flailing are always a joy to behold, but during this particular viewing, I was most struck by the scenes in which Faye-as-Joan, her face a rictus of forced merriment, interacts with the adoring press. You see, Golden Era celebrities were actually concerned with how they were perceived by the public! Personal milestones were staged and relationships were forged and dissolved discreetly. No starlet would be photographed without her lipstick, her stockings, or her rented gay husband. Even Joan Crawford managed to look sweet as Pepsi when the cameras were trained on her brood. (The Ajax came out later—oh yes, there would be Ajax.)

These days, of course, we have a bereaved Anna Nicole Smith selling her graphic C-section birth video to Entertainment Tonight. This is a stark contrast to the days when stars were "expectant" rather than pregnant and were loathe to expose a glimpse of belly, let alone a glimpse of small intestine. In fact, a subgenre of celeb-centric reality television has emerged that seems to rejoice in exposing celebrities' every fear, foible, and flaw. Let's call this nascent genre "Realitorture." (The title could be snappier, yes, but I'm no Fall Out Boy.)

Anyway, the Realitorture genre goes beyond the candid documentary approach of shows like The Osbournes and Newlyweds. In fact, those chestnuts seem downright quaint and restrained by comparison. These days, it's not enough to watch a famous person eat breakfast or even—shudder—dislodge a "dootie bubble" from his spouse's colon. (Thank you, Bobby and Whitney!) No, we want to see them suffer. We want to see Joe Piscopo being chased by a vengeful ghost. We want to see Danny Bonaduce trudging off to rehab while his children sob in the driveway. We want to see Carnie Wilson being weighed like a Cornish game hen on a giant Scale of Humiliation. Even cautious participants aren't spared. If, say, a contestant on an innocuous celebrity dancing show files for divorce, the scandal must somehow be incorporated into the proceedings to generate maximum embarrassment for the parties involved.

It's no coincidence that the celebrities being subjected to this torture are always C-list or lower. (I can't imagine Tom Cruise consenting to any of these degrading shenanigans, though he would have been awesome on Little People, Big World.) Obviously, low-rent stars are cheaper to book and hungrier for employment, but I suspect that there are deeper implications to the Realitorture caste system. These shows enable us—the bloodthirsty masses—to punish our struggling former idols; it's the equivalent of firing a gun at someone's feet to watch them "dance." We want to see how far they'll go for a fix, how much they'll endure for our love. It's like watching a crack whore grovel on prime time!

Best of all, these harrowing experiments have a way of bringing out all kinds of squicky primal emotions in their subjects. VH1 recently premiered a show called Celebrity Paranormal Project, in which extremely low-grade celebs are locked overnight in places that are "documented to be haunted." What makes this show especially interesting is that there are said to be no producers, sound technicians, or cameramen on the premises (the production costs for a season of this must be lower than a single Wayne Knight residual check from Seinfeld). The participants do all the filming themselves and wear shoulder-mounted night-vision cameras. The celebrities do receive (prerecorded) prompting as to what areas of the haunting site they must explore, but other than that, they're genuinely alone.

Now, as someone who gets the heebie-jeebies driving past a cemetery in broad daylight, spending the night in an abandoned sanitarium would be enough to make me soak my Sevens. However, the torture doesn't stop there: The celebrities have to reenact deaths that took place on the site, in near-total darkness, in order to "agitate the spirits." Oh hell naw!

Ladies and gentlemen, the amount of hysteria on this show surpasses anything you've seen on The Surreal Life, House of Carters, heck, even the Anna Nicole Smith Uterus-Slashing Spectacular. ("I wanna see MAH BAY-BEEEE!") If you want to see raw, uncensored footage of Hal Sparks running from what appears to be a child-sized spectre, look no further. Other episodes have featured former Olympian Picabo Street claiming to be possessed by the spirit of an evil prison warden, Traci Bingham tearfully reenacting a lobotomy, and Mariel Hemingway...well, seeing Mariel Hemingway hanging out with The Real World's Tonya Cooley is bizarre enough in itself.

The overall tone of the show is one of reluctance and dread. Most of the celebrities are less than eager to commune with the supernatural, especially on the sadistic "solo missions." The real tortured souls here aren't the ghosts, which frankly makes for compelling TV.

It's ironic that in less-voyeuristic eras, fading celebrities like Joan Crawford were so eager to project a sunny invincibility. If anything, time has proved that the best way to stay in the limelight is to expose every fracture, every weakness. Admitting defeat is one of the best tactics an out-of-work personality can employ these days.

I bet if Joan had lived in our era instead of hers, she could have easily attracted a cult following being her own manic self, not an artificially sweetened version thereof. (While I'm theorizing, I'm sure this hypothetical Joan Crawford reality show would be on Bravo; it would be a good lead-in for Top Chef.) There's a new celebrity mantra for 2006: Always let 'em see you sweat.

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