In November 2019, the second season of Planet Weird original series Hellier was released through Amazon Prime, and then later free on YouTube. The crew comprises Dana and Greg Newkirk of the Travelling Museum of the Paranormal and Week in Weird, Karl Pfeiffer and Connor Randall of the Spirits of the Stanley series, and, joining the team as a regular investigator after an appearance in Season One, occult adventurer and researcher Tyler Strand. Their investigation runs the gamut of paranormal phenomena, starting with strange emails from a man seeing goblins outside of his house at night, to the Mothman sightings and Fortean phenomena of Point Pleasant, to a cipher that decodes the names of ultraterrestrials, to spooky caves deep in the country. Season 2 brings us connections to the ostensible clustering of the paranormal along the 37th parallel, rumours of rural cult activity, experiments in hypnosis and psi, meetings with occultists, and the evocation of the great god Pan in an eerie cave. 1
One aspect of the team’s investigation that deserves close attention is their attempt at communication with the unseen forces that appear to be orchestrating their initiation into the wider occult world, if the signs and synchronicities are to be believed. Throughout their investigation, the Hellier team appear to be in contact with something – the essence of which is so slippery and difficult to grasp that they simply refer to it as “the phenomena”. This phenomena appears to manifest through their sessions with spirit boxes and in charting synchronicities – but there is ample scope to consider it as being in some way tied to the narrative of Hellier itself, the way the crew talk about that narrative, and how the phenomena crosses the dividing lines between the team’s experiences, the show, and its audience.
In particular, language, narrative and metatextuality are recurrent themes throughout the series, most often literally in the sense of delving into various esoteric books, cryptic emails and ciphers, or attempting spirit communication through diverse means; there’s a more subtle current in the fact that many of the group’s paranormal experiences – and the production of the show itself – sidle up against the vagaries of communication, textual processes, and storytelling, some of which we’ll discuss below.
Note that there are spoilers for both seasons of Hellier in the discussion ahead!
Words and Signs in Goblin Language
During Season 2, Episode 3, “Borderlands”, team members Dana and Connor undertake a dual experiment, with Dana wearing the Koren helmet (also known as the “God Helmet“), and Connor employing the Estes Method, while inside one of the domes of Point Pleasant’s TNT Area. The Koren helmet is designed to simulate or induce religious experiences, but the team deploy it for psi experimentation, effectively helping Dana “tune in” to the Phenomena. The Estes Method, developed by team members Karl and Connor along with Michelle Tate, has the experiencer don a set of noise-cancelling headphones plugged in to a Spirit Box, effectively a radio that constantly scans through channels continuously. Connor’s role in this experiment is to pick out the fragments of words and sentences spoken on the channels they hop through on the Spirit Box. The idea is that these fragments are in some way a form of communication from the entity being contacted, whether through the spirit manipulating the words by some electromagnetic force, through synchronicity, or some other mechanism.
Initially the experiment has Greg asking questions to the entity and the group interpreting mental and emotional impressions from Dana (who can hear the questions), and the fragmentary Spirit Box audio heard and then repeated aloud by Connor (who can’t hear the questions). Partway through the experiment, however, the team decide to switch to Dana asking the questions, and have Connor (who, again, cannot hear them) to continue to respond. When this is done, the ostensible “communication” between Dana, Connor and the Phenomena seems to become more conversational, with Dana and Connor appearing to talk and respond to one another – and during this sequence, Dana seems to understand and recognise an impression being given by the Phenomena. She describes the following 2:
Connor said “database” at one point, and that word was what made me realize, what they were trying to explain to me was that there was a database of English words, or potentially other languages, that they were trying to use to communicate with us, but the word meant more than just the word. And it was their way of sort of saying the way that we communicate with each other as people, there’s a lot in there that doesn’t need to be in there, and that each one of these words were sort of this condensed, concentrated thing, that was really about communicating emotionally, rather than verbally, or through language.
Later, Dana further describes this mode of communication:
Connor and I began to communicate that way, using this database of words, and each one of these words meant a thousand times more than just the word itself. There were … emotions, and colors, and all sorts of expressive like, symbols that were attached to them.
Through this lens, the language spoken by the entity (The Phenomena? Indrid Cold? A goblin?) has words both dense with layers of meaning and yet is also somehow transcendent of the words themselves.
A similar idea is described in Grant Morrison’s 1997-2000 comic series The Invisibles, following a cell of underground occultists as they fight against the forces of the oppressive forces of the Outer Church. The Invisibles already has a great many resonances with Hellier: Morrison, himself a practising occultist, folds a plethora of stories and imagery ranging from the occult to magick to conspiracy theory to Gnosticism, all rooted in some way with real-world occulture – there’s a lot that will be familiar to many readers on the connections between the above topics. 3
In particular though, there’s a sequence where Mason Lang, a billionaire philanthropist the Invisibles have recruited to their side, describes the “alien abduction” he experienced, which for him served as an initiation into the occult, in much the way that the narrative of Hellier can also be seen. 4
Morrison refers to the same concept in a later issue of The Invisibles, “The Sound of the Atom Splitting”, where the Harlequinade (a trickster entity/entities) watch two of the Invisibles (Dane and Fanny) dance together to prove themselves worthy of a transtemporal magical artifact. The Harlequinade clarifies that what they appear to do is akin to communication, more specifically speech; as they watch the two Invisibles, they specifically quote another speaker in saying, “They talk in emotional aggregates”.
In Our Sentence is Up: Seeing Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, author Patrick Meaney delves further into these “emotional aggregates”:
Mason might understand the aggregates as words or sounds, but Dane and Fanny are able to express them through the nonverbal, non-symbolic, expressive medium of dance. As a shaman, Fanny is also capable of summoning the shimmering liquid substance known as “magic mirror” or “logoplasm” – literally “word-liquid” or “living word substance,” a name that suggests a considerable overlap with the meta-language. Dane describes the mirror as looking “like pictures and feelings”; Fanny, preparing to release the mirror, insists she speaks through feelings, not words; and Mason first encounters the meta-language after drinking a “liquid software” from what he believes is the Holy Grail. Whether it is expressed through speech, dance, or logoplasm, the meta-language of emotional aggregates does not introduce any symbolic mediation; pictures and feelings are communicated to the witness or listener without any need for words.
In effect, the phenomenon Dana describes as “communicating emotionally, rather than verbally,” is very similar to the type of communication described as “emotional aggregates” in The Invisibles: a mode of communication that ostensibly uses words, but those words are condensations of a plurality of different effects. This is obviously true of words generally – words are polysemic depending on their context – but it’s understood that this mode of communication operates in some way beyond the ordinary understanding.
Meaney suggests that the magic mirror/language in The Invisibles functions “without any need for words”; elsewhere in The Invisibles we encounter “the full 64-letter alphabet”, which may function as a means of “wording” the experience of the magic mirror/language; it’s understood however that even this full alphabet is only capable of condensing (and thereby reducing) so much of the experience, which is, because of its polysemic, subjective and transcendental forms, is in some way ineffable. Nonetheless, by comparison, one might consider the Secret Cipher of the UFOnauts as a way of “wording” the emotions, colours and symbols of the goblin-language of Hellier.
Similarly, the ethnobotanist and psychonaut Terence McKenna frequently discussed the idea of modes of using language in visionary and psychedelic ways; in particular, he describes Philo of Alexandria’s’ “more perfect Logos” and visually-beheld language in New and Old Maps of Hyperspace:
He says a more perfect Logos would be beheld, rather than heard. In other words, the formulation you get in the Gospel of John, “In principio erat verbum et verbum caro factum est”, “In the beginning was the Word”: yes, it was the Word in the beginning, but this is a strange kind of word. It is a word that is visually beheld, and the language in which the gnosis communicates is a language of visual forms, such that there is no ambiguity about meaning, because there is no recourse to a dictionary of agreed-upon signification. It is purely beheld. This is why it’s very hard – one of the main problems of psychedelic drugs is to bring back information, because it is hard to “English” it, and the reason it’s hard to “English” it is because it’s like trying to make a three-dimensional rendering of a fourth dimensional object. Only through the medium of sight can the true modality of this Logos be perceived, that’s why it’s so interesting […] that psilocybin and ayahuasca […] there’s a telepathic component, which is, there is a shared state of mind, because the unfolding hallucination is shared in complete silence.
Though McKenna specifically describes the “more perfect Logos” as being visual, it may be worth considering whether “visionary” might be a better descriptor in the context of the “telepathic” quality to both McKenna’s description and to Dana’s description of how the phenomena appears to communicate. He specifically calls to a similar idea in The Definitive UFO Tape, with Kat Harrison.
We’ve ascertained by questionnaire that, uh, this is a very frequent motif, perhaps the most frequently mentioned motif ev- um, by people who take psilocybin recreationally is that it’s about outer space and flying saucers and aliens, little green men. And these are people who are taking, you know, 15 milligram type doses. Sufficient doses to elicit the full spectrum of the compound. DMT is similar, I mean it conveys you into an elf-infested space where, uh, you know, wild and zany things are going on. It’s as thought there are continuum- a reality that is beyond this reality, a linguistically as well as spatio-dimentionally so that you have to turn to a different language channel, and then with this language pouring through your head you observe the other place, the alternate reality.
The “telepathic” component to this type of communication is brought up in a very similar context on the Six of Cups podcast: the hosts discuss5 The Encounter: Amazon Beaming, a book by Petru Popescu about National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre who accompanies an indigenous and hitherto-uncontacted group of people (the Mayoruna, or Matsés) in the Amazon. They briefly describe a passage where McIntyre seems to have a kind of telepathic communication with a member of the group, with whom he otherwise shares no common language:
At some point, he starts having these telepathic conversations with the head shaman of the tribe, and the way that he describes it […] He’s like “I know I’m describing it as if I was hearing his words in my head, but that’s not how it worked”. He said, “It was more like, I understand — I felt the feelings that I would have felt if he had said a specific thing to me”. He said “My mind was filling in the gaps there with the words, but what was really being transferred was these emotions, or emotional states”.
Beyond emotions, colours and symbols, it might be possible to consider the anomalous and synchronistic events that the group experience as another signifier or type of word this language. If the goblin language/Secret Cipherspeak is encoded not only in condensed words, bringing with it dense associations with colour and emotional states, might it also be encoded into the strange connections and meaningful coincidences the team encounter? Karl suggests as much in Season 1, Episode 4, “Slivers of the Future”:
One of the weird things about synchronicities was told to me by John Tenney … He actually called my attention to the fact that these might be manifestations of the phenomena. The same way that a spirit can appear or speak or touch you on the shoulder – synchronicity might be a way that these goblin-like entities manifest to us. So in some ways they could be almost a way of communication…
Occultist and author Allen Greenfield suggests a similar interpretation of the phenomena in Season 2, Episode 7, “The Trickster”, that “every synchronicity says you’re on the path”: only the emphasis here in particular is on the word says. Participation in the phenomena, then, can be understood as a form of (spirit) communication, bringing with it issues of both interpretation (of symbol and meaning) and translation (of symbols and meanings between two or more symbol systems). The group are, after all, often left wondering what certain synchronicities “mean”, or, effectively, what the Phenomena is saying to them – and how to talk back.
Magical languages – or the magic of languages – are common in esoterica. In The Mystery of the Cathedrals, the enigmatic alchemist Fulcanelli speaks of an argot of rhyming assonance called “the green language”; there may be something similar to be found with the “Adamic language” described in the Midrash; the Enochian of John Dee’s angelic communications; or the common language spoken before the Tower of Babel led to the confusion of tongues. In tantric traditions (as described by Western writers), the term “twilight language” is ostensibly understood as a kind of poetic and symbolic communication (although the term “twilight language” itself is was later contested — “esoteric language” or “secret language” may be a more accurate and ironically more straightforward translation of the Sanskrit phrase). “Twilight Language” later became popular in the field of synchromysticism, there interpreted as the strange coincidences around words, imagery and meaning used and deployed in media (especially mass media): investigator Loren Coleman even took the phrase for his own blog on synchromystic news and writings. There’s fertile ground for considering the Secret Cipher and the language of colours, emotions, symbols – and possibly synchronicities – in light of this strange cluster of branches on the language tree.
Namebreaking the UFOnauts and Other Onomancies
One branch of Twilight Language is what Coleman and others dub “the Name Game”6. In fact, the Name Game is brought up during the series itself, where Greg reads through a segment of Jim Brandon’s Rebirth of Pan. In the book, Brandon lists a number of what he calls “power names” that he alleges crop up frequently during incidents of High Strangeness:
Bell, Beall and variants, Crowley, Francis, Grafton, Grubb, Magee/McGee, Mason, McKinney, Montpelier, Parsons, Pike, Shelby, Vernon, Watson/Watt, Williams/Williamson.
These names, along with the coindences around the name “Fayette” and variants dubbed “The Fayette Factor”, are said to recur with unusual frequency in those domains seemingly crossed by the supernormal, and Hellier is no exception: as Greg points out in reading from Rebirth of Pan, “Parsons” and “Pike” have already crossed their investigation. 7
The magickal doctrine of an entity’s true name is well-known even outside of occulture. In paranormal TV dramas, knowing a demon’s name often confers some measure of power over them; the mere speaking or writing of the names of God (or Gods) is powerful and significant in various religions and spiritual movements (of which Thelema, covered in Hellier, is one); and there’s the folk-etymological polka that conspiracy theorists dance around the old staples of Ishtar/Astarte, or Sirius/Osiris (both of whom are briefly referred to during Hellier). Names are understood, then, as providing, mirroring, channelling or containing power in some way.
Proper names are also words and texts within themselves – and, as the team of Hellier discover, they may also be forms of code, and as such are open to being decoded and deconstructed in much the same as any other encoded word or text they find. 8
In Season 1, the team discover Allen Greenfield’s Secret Cipher of the UFOnauts, where the author outlines “a secret cipher that exists within the Book of Law (Liber AL vel Legis), and which has been found to make some sense of the mysterious and often ridiculous utterances of trance channels and those who have been contacted by the ultra-terrestrials”. He demonstrates what “the technique of applying the New Aeon English Qabala cipher does in decoding the ‘funny’ names that show up throughout the history of UFOlogy” – in short, it allows an investigator to use the names given by various entities to either establish links with other entities or phenomena, or to extrapolate further information about the named entity, by “codebreaking” the name itself.
In an interview in the book’s appendix, Greenfield’s interviewee – Terry Wriste, who may be the same Wriste that sent the email that began the Hellier investigation – demonstrates this by namebreaking Indrid Cold, an entity that introduced itself first to a contactee named Woodrow Derenberger in the 1960s, to arrive at multiple clues or hints that Wriste alleges allowed him to find Cold’s house. In Season 2, the team use the clues provided by Wriste in Greenfield’s book in order to find where Wriste met Cold, seeming to land at an intersection of streets in Ashland, Kentucky.
This is interesting in light of the fact that Indrid Cold initially named himself to Derenberger in West Virginia, but it was only later that the cipher itself was cracked, and later still that Wriste would have tracked down Indrid Cold’s later location, apparently in Kentucky. Unless Indrid Cold’s house in Kentucky had existed since the Point Pleasant flap in 1966, this information would not be true or relevant until several years later when Wriste tracked him to that state – which would seem to imply there’s some element of temporal strangeness occurring even within Indrid Cold’s name itself.
Applying the New Aeon English Qabala to words to provide possible inferences and clues is time-consuming and difficult when done manually – fortunately, Wren Collier’s online naeq.io tool allows anyone to plug in text and matches it to fragments of text from the Book of the Law, allowing for some off-the-cuff onomancy for anyone curious.
The Great God Indrid Cold is Dead
Hellier’s production itself necessarily plays with narrative: the investigation is, after all, ongoing, and the “characters” of the story – the crew – are both authors in the telling of their story (the show itself) and are also themselves unaware of the development and direction of the story they’re caught up in as they experience it. Authorial intent, agency and intention become complex topics in the case of an ongoing real-life documentary series such as this one, the usual concerns about how “real-life” paranormal shows actually are notwithstanding.
In Season 2, Episode 9, “The Center of Your Mind,” the team conducts an Estes session using “Frank’s Box”, a rare piece of parapsychological equipment similar to the Spirit Box, this time with Tyler donning the headphones and tuning in to the spirit radio. During the session, he seems to take on a haughty persona – one of the sentences he repeats from Frank’s Box is “My name is Michael”, which the team connect to the archangel of the same name – and also appears to deliver some information pertinent in the consideration of how narrative and metatextuality work in Hellier:
Greg: We’re a little confused because we keep feeling like this thread with Indrid Cold and his crew and his family —
Tyler: — This is just a blip.
Greg: — it feels like that thread is done. And we don’t know what to make of all this information, about Indrid, and Karl, and Coner. Coner and Conard… What are we supposed to do with that information?
Tyler: Leave it alone! Trust it. You point to the story. Try not to ruin the story.
Connor: I guess we’re tearing apart the old contactee stuff? Not really tearing it apart, I think we’re doing it a justice…
Tyler: About me.
Greg: Who are you? If we’re gonna tell your story, properly, we need to know whose story we’re telling.
“You point to the story. Try not to ruin the story.” Tyler/Michael almost seems to be providing a metacommentary on the show itself; the entity draws attention the fact that the team aren’t sure what to do with the Indrid Cold “thread” 9. Connor makes an apropos associative link to the idea of the “contactee narrative” – possibly either meaning the idea of contact with extraterrestrials being possible in a general sense, or more specifically that there appears to be a similarity in the narratives described by people who allege to have contact with non-human entities of an extraterrestrial or ultraterrestrial bent. However, there is another possible reading of Tyler/Michael’s statement. The entity Michael appears to suggest leaving this “thread” alone, and trusting it – effectively, not trying to force the narrative (of the show, but also of the team’s initiation) to artificially hit a particular story beat. Michael says this is “just a blip”, after all.
This subtle theme of metanarrativity, of stories, of plot and of threads to follow is alluded to throughout the show, present even in the earlier episodes. In particular, Karl makes mention of the story of investigator John Keel, and his research into the Point Pleasant phenomenon, in Season 1, Episode 2, “Ink and Black”:
It’s a story that I’ve always kind of held close to me. Like, it’s such a bizarre case that I think anyone who’s fascinated by this High Strangeness would read that book and say like, “Where’s my Point Pleasant?”
In a sense, Hellier can be seen as the crew writing themselves into the mythos of paranormal investigation (and those readers familiar with The Invisibles will notice an interesting correspondence with Kay/Ragged Robin writing herself into the multiply-metafictional in-universe The Invisibles series). This isn’t to say the Hellier story is necessarily fabricated, or that the intent to write oneself into a narrative is suspect – in fact, it might be considered a fundamental act of magick, both the purpose and method of initiation.
In another instance where the “thread” of Hellier’s story threatens to unravel in “Ink and Black”, Dana decides to do a Tarot reading for the team’s investigation. In many ways, Tarot can be seen as an exercise in building a narrative – the cards can be interpreted in such a way as to make a story, in this case, the story of where the group has been, and where they’re going. Their frustration with a lack of leads seems like an intuition that an anticipated story beat hasn’t been met, and the Tarot provides a useful way of weaving the thread of narrative back together: “it forces you to approach a situation differently”, Greg explains. We could also consider it a way of adopting a different “reading” of the narrative of the team’s investigation itself.
Tarot cards, like any words and signs, can be interpreted in multiple ways: but one curious interpretation only becomes available after Season 2. One of the three cards in the reading is the Devil, with the Zodiacal sign of the half-goat Capricorn, a card depicting the satyr-like figure of Satan himself. In Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, The Devil “represents Pan Pangenetor, the All-Begetter” — and Pan is, of course, who the team attempt to evoke in the season 2 finale. In a scripted television show, this would easily be categorisable as foreshadowing the Big Reveal; in the context of Hellier, it’s a little harder to pin down, considering we know this sequence may well have been included in Season One during editing and production, if the team had made the connection between the Devil Tarot card in the reading and the emergence of Pan in their research (this connection is shown explicitly in Season 2, Episode 8, “The Secret Commonwealth”, but it’s difficult to determine if the connection was established prior to Season 2, Episode 6, “The Altar”, which covers the time period where Season 1 is released). If the connection had been made, the fact that subtle foreshadowing is already being incorporated into the show is interesting in terms of the aforementioned attempts at controlling the narrative; if the connection hadn’t been made before then, it’s a satisfying authorial flourish on the part of whatever force seems to be enscribing the Hellier phenomenon. In an interview on Binnall of America, Greg invokes another way of phrasing the latter perspective:
We joke all the time about how the real executive producer of the show is the phenomena.
Speaking of striking resonances, it’s worth noting the similarities between one particular narrative about Pan: as Greg points out, Pan is considered (by some) to be the only Greek god that truly died. Pivotally in the context of this writing, according to Plutarch, Pan is specifically declared to be dead, by the sailor Thamus. Not only that, but Thamus is given this information by a “divine voice” and instructed to spread the information himself. And, in much the same way the death of Pan is declared by the proxy of Thamus at the behest of a “divine voice”, Taunia Derenberger (and by extension the Hellier team) declares the death of Indrid Cold, at the behest of a non-human entity (in this case, Coner and Conard, Indrid Cold’s sons).
As we discover later in the series, the deaths of both Indrid Cold and Pan may not be as final as they are declared to be; after all, announcing the death of a major character prematurely might just “ruin the story”.
Another Egyptian “Thamus”, this time a god and Pharaoh, makes an appearance in the writings of the philosopher Phaedrus, recounted by Socrates (metatextually complicated as characters in Greek philosophical writings often are). In the conversation, Thamus discusses a number of concepts, but in particular draws attention to a concept relevant to the current discussion of Hellier: specifically, the problems of oratory and writing in conveying certain ideas, which is very much an issue of words and signs. The figure to whom he is talking is, incidentally, the Egyptian god Thoth; Crowley in particular had a strong connection with this deity, and even himself wrote on “The Ape of Thoth”, a concept embodying (among other things) the difficulty of communicating complex ideas. From The Book of Thoth, discussing the Magus Tarot card:
He [Thoth] is the messenger of the gods; he transmits their will by hieroglyphs intelligible to the initiate, and records their acts; but it was seen from very early times that the use of speech, or writing, meant the introduction of ambiguity at best, and falsehood at the worst; they therefore represented Thoth as followed by an ape, the cynocephalus, whose business was to distort the Word of the god; to mock, to simulate, and to deceive. In philosophical language one may say: Manifestation implies illusion.
Considering this tricksterish quality to the Ape of Thoth, and to the Hellier phenomenon, it may also be worthwhile considering what Crowley wrote of Mercury (a god he considered analogous to Thoth in many ways) only a few paragraphs earlier in The Book of Thoth.
… [b]eing the Word, he is the law of reason or of necessity or chance, which is the secret meaning of the Word, which is the essence of the Word, and the condition of its utterance. This being so, and especially because he is duality, he represents both truth and falsehood, wisdom and folly. Being the unexpected, he unsettles any established idea, and therefore appears tricky.
Utterance and trickster/charlatan motifs we’ve already covered, and truth/falsehood are interesting in the context of Hellier’s narrative – or, perhaps more accurately, its metanarrative.
The Sacred Metatexts of the Hellier Mystery School
Throughout Hellier, there are nods to the participatory nature of the show: one could interpret the series itself not just documenting the crew being initiated, like celebrants of the Mystery Schools of Ancient Greece and Rome, but also the audience, too, by virtue of watching and engaging. Episode 6, “The Altar”, depicts this literally, by showing blog posts, articles and tweets posted during Hellier’s first season release (concurrent with the events depicted in Episode 6), and Hellier’s fanbase discussing and dissecting the phenomenon at the center of the show.
In Season 2, Episode 7, “The Trickster”, author and occultist Allen Greenfield is asked about the idea of the events of the show being a form of initiation:
I had not thought of the term initiation, but I think it is a magical process. Again, the [Joseph] Campbell thing. The hero’s return. The hero goes, encounters the numinous, and the frightful, and then returns the better being at some point. […] Who? Who is behind it? Probably “what?” is a better question to ask. And I think that whatever the source of these phenomena is or are – I’m not sure if it’s multiple or singular – it’s designed I think to bring people who are involved in it to a higher understanding of the nature of reality.
Karl echoes this statement later, during an interview segment in Episode 10, “Night of Pan”, where he discusses the ritual undertaken in the season 2 finale:
As Greg said, it felt like something happened, but it seems to me like that ‘something’ was part of a larger process, and maybe that why we haven’t seen results yet. It’s because we’re still in the middle of the ritual. It might be bigger than us. Bigger than just that cave that night. It might be this project itself. The results of the ritual might not even happen to us. I keep thinking about this idea of, they might happen to the audience at home in watching this, as part of a ritual.
The set of “people who are involved in it” has expanded to include the show’s viewers, underlined by the fact that, at the moment where Karl states that the ritual’s results “might happen to the audience at home,” he turns to the camera and locks eyes with those watching, explicitly casting us into the magic circle of Hellier.
The concept of mass ritual through television has been raised before 10, even within the field of paranormal television, and then particularly vividly in the BBC mockumentary Ghostwatch (1992), which itself could easily be considered a strong influence on (if not progenitor of) paranormal reality shows like Hellier. In the (fictional) film, a team of various British media personalities who would be familiar to the audience appear as themselves, under the guise that the show is a real broadcast, investigating the strange goings-on at a house in England, concurrently with a team at a BBC television studio appearing to take calls from viewers and interviewing authorities on the paranormal. At the show’s climax, a parapsychologist remarks that, by capturing the otherworldly phenomena at the house and broadcasting it “live” through television, with millions of viewers across the nation, the showrunners had effectively created a “mass séance” across Britain – leading to the malevolent entity at the heart of the haunting being unleashed into homes through the television network.
In terms of metatextuality, it’s also interesting to consider this connection between Ghostwatch and Hellier in light of the fact that, while Ghostwatch was fictional, paranormal reality television very similar in style to it would appear a decade later in the form of shows like Most Haunted (2002) and Ghost Hunters (2004) – and from there the genre would expand and grow to include shows such as Hellier itself. This genre often occupies a liminal zone between fiction and reality – and, as we’ve just seen, its roots partly grew from fiction; it’s interesting then to consider that Karl is aware of this tension, as he describes his approach to the series’ cinematography on the Hellier panel at Michigan Paracon, 2019:
The fun twist on that comes – I’ve always been kind of like a meta… I’ve always like to play with the lines between reality and fiction in writing, I used to be a writer about ten years ago when I got out of college, I put out like a book or two. And I loved kind of that space between like, making something that was fiction feel very visceral and real, and blending that for some artistic experience. And the paranormal has always had an interesting dance with that, because what’s real, and what’s fiction is always kind of the big question mark at the end of anybody’s favourite or least favourite ghost-hunting shows. And I thought that that space, where everything on-screen is 100% real, but has this cinematic flavour that almost doesn’t feel real, is an in-between headspace that I think immediately challenges and makes the viewer think really quickly as they watch it, they’re already questioning, they’re already engaging, they’re already thinking about the possibilities of it. And, at the end of the day, I can sit up here and tell you that it’s 100% real, with no guilt or doubt in my mind, because the thing that feels unreal is not the content, but the presentation. And that’s a really fun space to work with that I’ve never seen before in paranormal reality TV.
The interplay of authenticity and unreliable narration is even baked into Hellier’s narrative; after all, the email from “David M. Christie” has its authenticity called into question multiple times. And, as the team point out, it almost doesn’t matter at that stage whether the investigation was initiated by an unreliable narrator, or a hoax – because the phenomena the team experience afterwards feels all too real to them.
Wyrd Planet Rising
A show like Hellier feels very much like a flagship for a new wave of paranormal television. With the rise of urban wyrd and the folk horror revival in media, Hellier’s boots-on-the-ground investigation of rural locales, combined with decades of magick and saucerian lore is perfectly pitched, especially with its hosts’ willingness to adopt a more interdisciplinary and holistic approach towards the paranormal.
One particular moment that’s demonstrative of all this – and the metatextual analysis that I think the show lends itself to – is that of the Koren helmet/Estes method session mentioned at the start of this writing. In one scene we have the hauntological nostalgia for the Golden Age of Fortean investigation, the modern fascination with exploring abandoned wayward locations, the uncanny joy of psi combined with science – even with just this, it’s a far cry from the kinds of experiments that we see in other paranormal media.
During this session, Connor asks, “Who’s quoting this?” The statement seems somewhat incongruous in terms of its content, but resonant in terms of its context: it’s in response specifically to Dana saying “I like your language”, ostensibly talking to the entity about the very method they’re using to speak to one another – the language of emotions and colours.
It feels appropriate, then, to end this discussion with the consideration of a suitably metatextual response for such a metatextual question. That is to say, “Who’s quoting this?”, in the context of this writing, suggests a very strange answer.
This feature was originally published on Patreon in December 2019.