I’m writing this a while ago, now. Like, this is October 2021, while I write these words down and I write them knowing that they’re not going up for a good long time. The joy of having my schedule more or less down now. But I am writing this because this is the only time that this has seized me to write and, well, the topic is perfect for Dread Month.
CONTENT WARNING: This is going to talk about some real bummer stuff, as it relates to child abuse.
If you’re not aware, Buzzfeed Unsolved was a feature over on Youtube that started out as a video series on Buzzfeed’s main youtube channel that got forked off as it grew in popularity and started being a good track for other, you know, hash tag content. The hosts, Ryan Bergara and Shane Medej are, you know, they’re nice, they’re seemingly well-intentioned people. The format is pretty simple: Ryan presents a report on an unsolved mystery to his friend Shane, who reacts to the story. The problem that showed itself early in the series was that Shane had two very different kinds of reactions to two very different kinds of content. When looking at True Crime content, Shane was a lovable dumbass who could be easily led to each theory that went on in front of him.
When looking at supernatural mysteries, ghosts and haunting and demon theories, though, Shane is an absolutely fearless rock of unshakeable no.
They split the content they started doing, then. True Crime got one track, which was largely about sitting at a desk and discussing things like police reports and detective work done after the fact, which is perfectly solid stuff. True crime is… complicated as a genre, but they largely don’t spend their time focusing on the lurid spaces of the classics of “Shes, Gays, and Theys,” but instead things like mobsters’ murders, famous authors, JFK’s Assassination and the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. They did a video on Princess Diana, but they also noted up front that that wasn’t an unsolved mystery, they were just addressing it because the demand was there.
Supernatural is where things get a little more fun and a little more weird. They like going to ‘haunted locations,’ and we get to watch Ryan, who believes in ghosts, struggle with trying to handle bumps in the night or the boundaries of his own perceptions and things like ‘a door swings open,’ while Shane stands nearby and fails to be impressed.
I like this series. I like what they’ve done. I like, broadly, the idea behind it. It’s probably literally the best and most successful ghost-hunting series on the internet, because it has at least one actual sensible person in the mix who isn’t going to be swayed by the needs of the series.
Ghosts aren’t real, by the way.
Largely, the true crime episodes are, well, a big ole bunch of whatever. They’re largely unsatisfying stories because almost always, the answer is pretty obvious: Someone committed a random crime and we don’t have a solution as to why because police are completely useless. Numerous times, the true crime stories will present evidence that it seems with only modest followup, it could have been solved by someone in the right space at the right time. Police incompetence or corruption or apathy was almost always directly a factor.
The thing that makes this series hard to watch in hindsight is basically four parts.
4. True Crime Mysteries Are Reruns Of Sucky Reality
Sometimes the mysteries are just kinda dumb, like, who killed Jimmy Hoffa? Probably the organised criminals he pissed off repeatedly and who threatened to kill him, and then were driving the car that he got into the last time he was seen alive. I mean, you could imagine some unlikely options, but that one doesn’t seem like there’s a compelling ‘what if?’ to it.
But a lot of the time, historical crimes are only really bewitching and bewildering because of those excluded categories of people, those who weren’t really afforded the protection of a state. Why were these two men meeting in a hotel late at night, with sketchy names and identities? Well, maybe they were gay, and had good reason to keep themselves secret. These kind of things aren’t shocking twists, it’s just reiterating the fundamental unfairness of our society. If you know about the history of marginalised people, whether it be people’s orientations or genders, or people who the existing system wasn’t bothering to protect, the idea of ‘wow, look at how long this criminal operated uncaught and we’ll never know who did it’ is just ‘yep, we know.’
There is another genre of them, which is a little fun but also a bit more depressing which is ‘clearly organised crime or spy shit.’
3. They Don’t Know Anything About Aliens
Shane believes in aliens, which, you know, you can easily have a conversation with me where I will concede that aliens exist, and that’s mostly how Ryan structures it. You know, concede that aliens may exist, and then suddenly the gap between ‘this is possible’ and ‘this definitely happened’ is being small enough for Ryan’s sense of validation.
Any time the episode is about aliens, Shane, because he believes aliens exist, doesn’t really push back on anything Ryan has to say. Which means Ryan gets to run his mouth presenting evidence, which, inevitably is ‘evidence’ that has been easily debunked in the past, or involves repeating the claims of Ufologists, aka, liars. They’re the worst episodes because they rely on Ryan already believing in alien abduction theories and the men in black to paper over the obvious cracks.
Like, you don’t need aliens or bullshit magic to explain Area 51 or Roswell. The US Government was really secretive about spy shit they were doing because it could spark an international nuclear war if they didn’t. It’s wild how this whole mindset requires you to believe the US government is capable of hiding aliens extremely well but also not at all interested in hiding spy bullshit.
2. A Lot Of Supernatural Stories Are Just About Mentally Unwell People
This is the one that really broke my ability to enjoy a whole category of these episodes.
They did an episode about the death of Elisa Lam, where a woman having an episode where she was detached from reality committed suicide by trying to swim in a tank. This was framed as an elaborate mystery about ghosts that haunted this building because there was no way someone like her could open a door and open a tank. The door that she was supposedly unable to open was later found to be unlocked, but this is the kind of detail that ruins the story and means that this ghoulish narrative is just treating a woman who lived and died alone and afraid as if her end was an avenue to talk about Ryan’s supernatural bullshit, including footage of her doing things that look weird and alien to people who’ve never dealt with an episode, but completely standard if you have.
It is a testament to a whole category of privileges if you can look at the Elisa Lam footage and think ‘the most likely explanation to this is aliens.’
The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel is a story about a little girl having a variety of episodes and seizures, and her parents interpreting this as a demonc possession. Their methods of treatment turned violent and the child died. This was framed as a mystery where it was impossible for a child to do things like ‘destroy an apple’ where the witnesses are incredibly untrustworthy (since, you know, they killed their daughter).
Obviously, I have a beef with exorcism narratives, especially those that occasion death of children. Because if you don’t privilege Christianity and the Catholic church as being somehow beyond criticism, they’re always obviously fantastically stupid, evil examples of child abuse.
1. Ryan Needs Shane To Be Wrong
This is the thing that bothers me the most when I watch the otherwise pretty fun and weird videos of them going to some old location where Ryan can get scared shitless by a bag falling over. Ryan believes in ghosts. Shane does not. And Ryan wants Shane to believe in ghosts too.
This isn’t just a banter thing. I mean it is a banter thing but it’s also, seemingly, motivation for his frustration with Shane in various locations. Shane is a fairly supportive and kind friend most of the time, especially when they’re out on location – he’s not bothered by the exploration of things, he’s game to put himself in the places Ryan thinks of as scary, and he’s just not bothered by it, because… what? it’s dark?
Their microphones will pick up some ambient noise or the spirit box will ratchet over absolute nonsense and Ryan will demand that Shane agree with him and accept that what Ryan heard. And it’s grating because over seven years, Ryan will try and crow and strut about what they’ve ‘successfully’ done when they haven’t ever been to a haunted place, and Ryan playing with a broken radio that generates ‘EVP,’ is his idea of proof. A door swung, a window creaked, someone saw something reflected through two layers of glass.
And whether it’s the character or the real person, Ryan isn’t content with presenting his case to the audience. He has to present it to Shane. He has to present it to a person who was there, who was in the same space as him, who has every reason to agree if the evidence is compelling, and Shane doesn’t.
And it frustrates him.
It upsets him.
This is something that I find really bothers me. Because it creates this feeling that, if Ryan sincerely believes these things and he is upset that Shane doesn’t, then what does that tell him about Shane? Is Shane lying? The idea that he might have a reasonable and rational explanation for what he observes, the facts that it doesn’t need to be ghosts for a fucking bag to fall over, it paints the image that he sees the world he lives in as very much controlled and sensible, and any deviation from that is therefore, by necessity, the work of the living goddamn dead, and he needs to convince his friend of that.
And that’s exhausting and it’s sad.