The fingers of late capitalism have always sought out the throbbing pulse of American fear, and if a dollar can be made on an old enemy, it will. The Satanic Panic of the 80s wasn't just a call for good, wholesome Christians to be vigilant during a time of heavy metal degeneracy and bullet belts, it was a profitable subject of a number of documentaries and TV specials by the likes of Geraldo and Frontline. When you mix up a cocktail of morally loose goth types with allegations of widespread child abuse, and display it on television sets all across the shivering United States, you're guaranteed big ratings and mouths agape.
The Satanic Panic went from a god-fearing public response to heavy metal, horror movies, and tabletop gaming to a massive piece of bait on the end of a television executive's fishing rod, and in the end, Satanism, or at least the facade of, became fashionable. Big money had essentially turned an irrational fear into something so tangible that it was capable of burning churches in Norway, for example.
That's the out of control effect that fear and excitement can have when played with by money. It's almost an American tradition to wear your fears on your sleeve and to buy it up like hotcake, and in most cases, this is actually a great thing. Even though the Panic was mostly shameless marketing, it popularized and allowed for further reading and participation in a lot of the fringe literature and art we enjoy today. This is especially true in the case of, and forgive the undetailed/undefined term, the occult.
TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files weren't real enough for casual interests, people wanted to witness the paranormal unfolding before their eyes. They wanted to literally sit in a TV studio and speak to the dead themselves.
Reality television was, if you ask me, the turd that took too long to flush. Its momentous rise began around the same time I became wise to the adult channels. I grew up with it and grew out of it and grew angry with it. Though despite the perseverance of audio/visual baby vomit like Survivor or Paradise Hotel, I will admit that I could hardly tear my young eyes from the complete sensory terror (I was 12) of Most Haunted.
This isn't about disputing the authenticity of these shows, after all.
The Unexplained began airing in January of 1996 on the Arts & Entertainment network in the US and lasted four seasons before kicking the bucket in May of 2000. The show may have been the first to thoroughly explore the paranormal and occult without the lens of religious bias. The show began at a time when the Satanic Panic had fulfilled its purpose; Marilyn Manson's Smells like Children Tour had ended and Antichrist Superstar was about to debut at no.3 on the Billboard 200. Geraldo Rivera's talk show had begun to change its tune. Teenagers were openly defying their Christian parents with ridiculous sock gloves. It can be fairly guessed that, at this point, curiosity had replaced fear in the Average Joe, and The Unexplained was there to satisfy that demographic with the morbid tales they'd once shuddered through.
Eventually, case studies just weren't inspiring the spooky-wookies anymore, and this is where the "reality" in reality television began to gain weight.
MTV, or ground zero of "reality entertainment", began airing Fear in September 2000. This was a show with a now recognizable but at the time totally cutting-edge format; put cameras on people, send them into a paranormal site. The House on Haunted Hill (1959) starring Vincent Price had now become a "reality", regular people were now being sent to spend the night in real haunted sites for a cash sum, and in its brief two seasons of existence, it became the second most popular show of MTV's regular programming.
The success but sudden withdrawal of MTV's Fear gave space for FOX's Scariest Places on Earth and Living TV's Most Haunted and Most Haunted Live! While the former was based mostly on the format put forward by MTV, Most Haunted went in a different and more occult direction; the stars of the show would actively attempt to communicate with the dead.
With the occasional and frantic "possession" of medium Derek Acorah, unsettling production effects, and sudden fearful jolts of its stars, Most Haunted courted both ratings and controversy for over a decade and succeeded in blending action with the occult and paranormal, and then delivering it to television screens all over the UK. Soon, shows like Ghost Hunters, Ghostly Encounters, and many, many more, began to spring up and capture audiences all over the west. It may have seemed like this was the post-honeymoon in the relationship between reality TV and the hidden arts, it should have been, but unfortunately it wasn't.
Medium John Edward began filming Crossing Over with John Edward in 1999, and he would go on to ride television's new found niche in occult practice until he had well and truly worn it into the ground.
Where the haunted house shows had dealt with a mixture of reality and folk tale, John Edward would invite live audiences to experience, and even take part in, psychic phenomena. The voyeurism had been taken out of the experience, real people were putting their hope and trust in Edward's medium powers, and whether you are a skeptic or believer, the turning of profit on human relationships, especially to those of the deceased, was the very spittle on the tongue of talk show exploitation.
John Edward would go on to become a very controversial and hated figure on American television, and his legacy would open up space for new shows of a similar vein. Perhaps his final moment of relevancy came when Kim Kardashian decided to consult him during the filming of Kourtney and Kim Take New York. That moment of television history can perhaps be seen as the death bed wheezing of paranormal "reality."
Despite Halloween specials and the odd sensationalist tactic, reality TV and the paranormal would never hold an audience quite as they could in the mid-00s. And while all the hoaxes and "possessions" played as much a part in its demise as that of John Edward, reality television brought the occult to a much larger audience who are now either readers, practitioners, or both. Countless websites supply free occult texts, there are Reddit pages dedicated to numerous disciplines, and paranormal vacations (and vacation packages) are now very real. Just as the Panic made vogue the fears of a Satanic planet, reality television played a part in growing our fascination with the frightful unknown.