It is perhaps unfair of me to write a review of Hellier because I actually gave up on the series out of sheer boredom, sometime into the second season. Maybe this kettle eventually boils if you watch it for long enough, though I had personally reached the conclusion that it wasn’t ever plugged into anything. Yet if my “YouTube Review” series is meant to be scouting for the latest developments in post-television, then it should be probably keeping a file on Hellier. Whilst this show might not contribute anything of lasting value to our civilisation, it remains worthy of study due to its originality and what it comes to communicate, or to concede, through the choices that it has made.
Greg Newkirk and Dana Matthews are the husband-and-wife team of “paranormal adventurers” behind the online magazine and YouTube channel Planet Weird. In Hellier, they are joined by Karl Pfeiffer, who directs the show, and the musician and researcher Connor J Randall. Hellier was released free of charge on YouTube last year, although, demonstrating the curious lack of urgency in its postproduction, its primary investigation had been actually conducted in 2017.
There is an entrepreneurial restlessness to Planet Weird that is characteristic of all the most distinguished ghost-hunters, from Harry Price onwards. This innovation does not merely comprise the coining of new modes of mediumship such as “the Estes Method” or gimmickry such as their “Travelling Museum of the Paranormal and the Occult.” Planet Weird prove to be conceptually inventive as well. This can be seen firstly with the unusual emphasis that they place upon the interconnectedness of paranormal phenomena; and secondly with the ultra-modern technique of collecting and scrutinising “synchronicities” that they employ throughout their investigation.
If the study of the paranormal was somehow a university, then there would be normally individual professorial chairs allocated to ghosts, and to UFOs, and so on. Hellier, however, tries to disrupt this compartmentalisation. It builds upon what the sceptic and podcaster Jeb J. Card has called “the Paranormal Unified Field Theory.” This mind-set encourages the possibility that the Loch Ness Monster might be the ghost of a dinosaur, or that fairies and extra-terrestrials might be the same interdimensional creatures that have been apprehended in different contexts. But such a liberation from categories often paradoxically culminates in a sharp narrowing of outlook. It becomes easy to view the paranormal as an ectoplasm or a single, flexible substance from which anything can be made. This is largely what Hellier proceeds to do.
The risk that the show incurs here is of alienating the viewer. It never commits for very long to any of the temporary forms that the paranormal has supposedly taken. The investigators visit the remote Kentucky townstead of Hellier to hunt for “goblins,” but next they are chasing a mysterious man-in-black named Terry Wriste and then they are leaping sideways into more conventional spiritualism. Eventually we can no longer tell what it is that they are investigating, other than the paranormal as an indiscriminate, frustratingly featureless essence.
Viewers are also likely to become alienated from the investigators’ model of “synchronicities,” which represents a startling new modus operandi for ghost-hunters. I am hesitant to adopt Planet Weird’s definition of synchronicities since I am not sure how accurate it is. The concept was apparently devised by Carl Jung and developed by Arthur Koestler, respected intellectuals who one cannot quite imagine putting their names to any practice as silly as that which the Hellier team end up using. According to the team, “a synchronicity is a meaningful coincidence.” It turns out that the team are totally bedevilled by coincidences and that they find all of them to be meaningful.
It is hard to illustrate what a synchronicity is and to continue to sound coherent but let us cautiously attempt to do this. There are in fact two distinct types of the phenomenon. To start with the first, one day in 2016, Pfeiffer and Newkirk had crossed paths on Twitter, where they had exchanged some tweets about the Kentucky goblins. At that precise moment, Planet Weird’s Twitter account had randomly auto-posted a link to an article on the same subject. Pfeiffer found this coincidence to be so “pointed” that it would inspire him to ultimately join forces with Newkirk. This is an example of a synchronicity major. The masters of the universe have fired off a coincidence to signal that they wish for something to be done, namely for Pfeiffer to begin his investigation.
Later the team are using their Estes kit to hook up with the spirit world. Cocooned in the sensory void, Randall suddenly envisages “a tin can.” At a climactic point in the subsequent investigation, he will encounter the self-same item, disguised as a piece of ordinary litter. This is an example of a synchronicity minor. The masters of the universe have planted this coincidence to signal their approval of the team’s actions and to confirm to the team that they have been on the right track.
The tin can actually saves the entire investigation, because the team’s labours have otherwise achieved and established nothing. The narrative that leads them to Kentucky turns out to be forged, the goblins never get going, the haunted farmhouse is lost in the hills, but just as things are looking disheartening, here is that trusty tin can, to reassure the team that their efforts have been appreciated after all. The tin can indeed furnishes an almost therapeutic sense of closure. In the absence of any resolution to the mystery – or even, to be blunt, of any discernible mystery – the team can instead rejoice in the certainty that a trail of clues and titbits has been benevolently left for them. There might not be any destination to speak of but the journey in itself constitutes proof of progress.
With “synchronicity,” it sounds rather like somebody has translated the much more beautiful word “serendipity” into jargon. The problem is not merely that there are no available means of telling a synchronicity from a coincidence (and in any case, the Hellier crew err as a rigid policy on the side of identifying the former). It is more that there is a perversion of what one feels that the concept of synchronicities should rightfully entail.
This concept should be surely rather like Marcel Proust’s “mémoire involontaire,” a powerful, instinctive knowledge that strikes like lightning and paralyses cerebral consciousness. Proust had himself reported that, when sipping tea that a madeleine cake had been nostalgically dipped in, “an exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.” Many people will have experienced haunting coincidences that appear to them to be inarguably significant. To think for no reason of an old flame moments before you receive a Whatsapp message from them is a stock example of this. To the victim of such a synchronicity, it will seem impossible that it could have been accidental.
Hellier’s crew, on the other hand, are always actively hunting for synchronicities and trying to force the process. In doing this, they lose the very spontaneity that should make these otherwise meaningless coincidences appear marvellous and magical. There is a broader drawback with grounding an investigation in purely instinctive knowledge. A bonus is that it makes for more intimate viewing and Hellier succeeds here by virtue of the special intimacy of YouTube. A bunch of bank robbers will appear sympathetic if you spend long enough in their company, and a lot of Hellier involves just hanging out with the team and forging this necessary connection with them. Unfortunately, though, I am not sure that the viewer manages to be borne very far on the resultant tide of sympathy.
Instead, Hellier grows ever more calamitously embarrassing. In fact, it becomes so forlorn that the team end up resembling some small children who are playing inconsequentially in a garden. Any adult onlooker who is recruited to such a game will be unable to understand why this teddy bear has to wear that hat, and why it generates such scandal if this doll is moved to that chair. The viewer of Hellier is soon reduced to an equivalent bemusement.
For example, when Randall is brandishing his enchanted tin can, it never occurs to him that the viewer might be struggling to follow the thought-process that has bestowed such value upon it. Viewers might not be able to grasp why exactly the universe needs to flaunt its power in this way, or why it is using something as unhelpfully commonplace as a tin can to do so. To Randall, of course, it remains obvious. Still, this self-evident knowledge comes to be fortified by his strenuous lack of empathy with the more naturally commonsensical perspectives of outsiders.
The true significance of Planet Weird’s synchronicities is that they reveal just how depleted the study of the paranormal currently is. Viewers are evidently tired of the clichés of televisual ghost-hunting and the absence of tangible evidence that these ghost-hunts now reliably deliver. In a world where smartphones are ubiquitous, the traditional blurred footage of apparitions is no longer a viable currency. Where this footage ventures beyond being blurred, it is in peril of being debunked by the YouTuber Captain Disillusion and all of those internet citizens who he has so devastatingly educated about computer-generated fakery. A fresh approach is thus needed. And here is where Hellier submits itself, with its richly cinematic camerawork, its trendy music, its veneer of an arthouse film production, its sparse usage of the familiar table-tapping and poltergeist projectiles, and its modish jargon about synchronicities.
I should confess that I never read up on things that I want to review before I watch them. During the first few episodes of Hellier, the product had felt so well-crafted that I had unthinkingly drifted into assuming that it was fictional or an alternate-reality game or a satire along the lines of the theatre play “Father of Lies.” At times I caught sight of comments below the videos that were sharing in this assumption – one, for example, claimed that Hellier’s suggestive title (i.e. He-Liar) was a giveaway. Only once it had become apparent that the story was unfocused, and disappointment had stolen over me, did I decide that its investigators must be indisputably real people.
Hellier’s dependence upon synchronicities to author its story represents a concession that the paranormal is in dire need of a reboot. That the synchronicities never light a trail to any Kentucky goblins or to the family of the extra-terrestrial diplomat Indrid Cold or to the goat god Pan might indicate that a world-saving experiment has fallen flat. Can there be any going back though, to the clichés of Most Haunted and its friends, or is it now agreed that these formats are obsolete?
[In the edition of the Spooktator podcast that is devoted to Hellier, Hayley Stevens and her guests look in particular at the show’s dubious ethics.]