The premiere of Destination America's Ghost Brothers opens with two pivotal questions: First, are ghosts for real? And second, why is everybody white?
The titular Ghost Brothers—the first-ever team of black paranormal investigators on television—are best friends Dalen Spratt, Juwan Mass, and Marcus Harvey. Dalen and Juwan met in college, at Clark-Atlanta University, where they pledged the same fraternity. Marcus and Dalen met when Harvey, a barber by day, cut Spratt’s hair.
"We always joke around and say that we bring soul back to the afterlife," Dalen told me over the phone.
When we talk about diversity, we don't usually talk about ghost-hunting TV shows. That said, these programs are overwhelmingly white, not just in terms of the paranormal investigators themselves, but also the specific dead people they seek to contact: the lighthouse keeper who may have never left his post, say, or the grandmother who passed away in this very rocking chair.
If you buy even briefly the premise that ghosts exist—and why watch any of these shows if not to let your otherwise ironclad skepticism slide, just for a moment?—then that's a profound, maybe even tragic, oversight. Why should some lost, lonely souls concern us more than others?
This imbalance was on Dalen's mind when he first became interested in pursuing ghost hunting.
"I've always just been a huge fan of the genre, so I used to watch all the ghost adventure shows, paranormal investigation shows, horror movies. And I was watching TV one day and I was just like, 'I don't see a representation of me or anyone like me on any of these shows," Dalen said. "Why is that, when everyone has the same questions about the afterlife? It crosses color lines. Everybody dies!"
Race is foregrounded in the first episode, which drew one million viewers for its April 15 premiere. Ghost Brothers travels to Magnolia Plantation, once home to hundreds of enslaved people. The Louisiana cotton farm has been plagued by strange, inexplicable disturbances ever since an archaeologist dug up "voodoo artifacts" that were buried on the property. It's believed that these objects belonged to Aunt Agnes, a midwife and conjurer, who enchanted them as a means of protecting herself and her fellow slaves from the overseer. "By all accounts," Dalen notes in a voiceover, "dude was a [expletive bleeped]."
As is usually the case on paranormal TV shows, the actual ghost-hunting equipment is by far the least interesting part of the ghost hunting. The Ghost Brothers’ gear—which includes a laser grid pen, IR cameras, and their smartphones—is on the lower-tech side of average. Instead, it's their bedside (or maybe graveside?) manner that's so compelling. The Ghost Brothers approach the dead just as they would the living, with warmth and empathy. “I feel like we're the most polite ghost hunters out there. We go in with a sense of reverence and deference. We have respect for those who came and went before us,” Dalen told me.
This may seem like an obvious strategy, but trust me: It isn't. For example, on the Travel Channel's popular Ghost Adventures, the unapologetically bro-y investigators provoke the (supposed) ghosts in the hopes of inducing spirit activity. In one early episode, set in an abandoned psychiatric hospital, host Zak Bagans—who, with his fondness for hair gel and Ed Hardy-style T-shirts, comes off as the paranormal community's Gaston—attempts to make contact with a long-deceased member of the asylum's staff. He puts on a straitjacket and shouts, "Nurse, did you get killed? …Did some crazy patient kill you?" It's really something to behold.
You'll never see any of that—neither the aggression nor the Ed Hardy—on Ghost Brothers. “We bring a brand new perspective to even how to ghost hunt, how to even speak to our own people,” Marcus told me. “Like, how would I talk to my cousin who passed away a while back ago? I wouldn't antagonize him. I wouldn't come at him sideways. My cousin would probably try to punch my face. You can't fight ghosts! You've got to be nice!"
At Magnolia Plantation, the Ghost Brothers practice their limited French to improve their odds of communicating with the ghosts, as a “sign of respect.” To capture EVPs—short for “electronic voice phenomena,” or recordings of ghostly voices—the investigators reflect on the living conditions the slaves were forced to endure, identifying a tree on the property as a pleasant "hangout spot" where, while still living, they may have gone to relax.
The second episode takes them to an Arkansas home believed to be haunted by a woman named Ladell, who killed herself over her unrequited love for a married man. To paraphrase Marcus, she’s a “side-ghost." The Ghost Brothers decide they might have luck appealing to Ladell’s romantic nature, so Juwan produces a bottle of wine for a one-on-one “date” with the spirit. As his friends giggle, watching the night-vision footage from out on the porch, he tells her, “I’ve been meaning to tell you: You are uncomfortably beautiful.”
This brings us to another important point about Ghost Brothers, which is that it's really funny.
Tonally, paranormal TV shows tend towards self-importance. Shows like Syfy's 10-seasons-running Ghost Hunters can feel almost painfully eager to convince the viewer that ghost-hunting is serious business. But that's not an issue here. The Ghost Brothers have fun. Their chemistry is natural and infectious. Dalen teases Marcus when, feeling short of breath on the plantation, he whips out his inhaler: “You do realize your ancestors worked a little bit harder than that?” After Juwan walks into a spiderweb, he jokes, “This is how a bad horror movie starts, or I’m about to become a superhero.”
In episode two, the Ghost Brothers investigate reports of doppelgänger sightings. As Juwan explains it, a doppelgänger is essentially an evil apparition of a living person. “So it’s kind of like you, as a thug, as a ghost,” he says. “So, a ghost-thug.”
“So my ghost-thug would have a tattoo on his face?” Marcus asks.
If you're looking for rigorous scientific inquiry, this probably isn't the show for you. Unlike some paranormal investigators, who project an almost clinical attitude toward their work, the Ghost Brothers—as you, or me, or just about any reasonable people would—get scared. Really scared. And that's a big part of their charm.
"It blows my mind watching these shows. I don't see how people can go into these situations and not be afraid," Dalen told me. "There may or may not be something in these places that could be potentially trying to harm you."
Juwan emphatically agreed: "It's no joke! It's not for the cameras! There's been times where I had to turn to the side, like, 'Yo, excuse me. Hold on one second. Ms. Producer, I'm not going in here.'"
What's next for the Ghost Brothers? For one thing, they're eager to explore less-traveled haunted locations. Marcus explains: "Haunted properties, haunted theaters, haunted clubs, haunted things. People have died in some very unique places! Somebody died in a car wash."
"We've been trying to push to do a haunted strip club all season," Dalen said. "We can only imagine how many lost souls are in strip clubs," added Marcus.
Watch Ghost Brothers Fridays at 10 p.m./9 p.m. CT on Destination America.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.