I did not enjoy myself last night. You probably did. You were probably doing something amusing, like watching television or having sex. I was not. Much to my chagrin, noted sadist and Mercury arts editor Alison Hallet thought it would be funny if I went on a tour of the “Shanghai Tunnels” hosted by Zak Bagans of the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures. I did. It was terrible. Share my pain, after the jump.
The whole evening stood upon twin pedestals of steaming, awful bullshit.
Bullshittery the First: The Shanghai Tunnels are an urban myth
The “tunnels” are actually the basement of a building originally called the Merchant Hotel, now home to Hobo’s, the Boiler Room, and Old Town Pizza. The organization that puts on the Shanghai Tunnels tours claims that that basement (along with many others) previously connected to the waterfront via a series of passages. I’ve long been intrigued by the idea that Portland had a big, sinister dungeon beneath it, but several experts on the matter have told me that probably was not the case. Portland did have dual-level wharves on the Waterfront up until Harbor Drive was built, and such wharves would have allowed for basement access directly from the docks. However, heavy rail on the streets and frequent flooding of basements would have precluded anything like underground dungeons or torture chambers from being practical in early Portland- they would have either caved in or been waterlogged.
(Full disclosure: I work for Portland Walking Tours, and I routinely tell tourists that the Shanghai Tunnels are an urban myth. Quite often I’m in the basement of Old Town Pizza informing folks that yes, it is a basement, and yes, the distinctly non-tunnel underside of the Merchant Hotel is what gets routinely passed off as Portland’s notorious Shanghai Tunnels, supposedly one of the most haunted places in America. Lots of people are disappointed by this information. I find their sadness enjoyable.)
Shanghaiing did happen in Portland. Lots of it. However, the guys furnishing captains with unwilling maritime labor didn’t actually need a big, elaborate S&M dungeon to do their thing. For the most part, shanghaiers got away with shady business the old fashioned way: By fixing the cops. For a good run-down of the basics of Shanghaiing and why the tunnels are basically a steaming pile of barnyard excrement, check out Kick-Ass Oregon History’s two part podcast on the matter.
Bullshittery the Second: Ghosts aren’t real
I like horror movies, haunted houses, and even a ghost tour now and then. (I’m very disappointed that Lone Fir Cemetery isn’t offering their Untimely Departures tour this year.) I am, however, also an intelligent human being who can tell reality from fantasy. Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures does not appear to be one of those humans.
Bagans’ persona is one of an amiable side of meat. He’s stocky, deep-voiced, and seems like the kind of guy who would call you “bro” without any sense of self-consciousness or, for that matter, self-awareness. In his introductory remarks, Bagans talked about how didn’t believe in ghosts until he had a paranormal experience himself, which inspired him to become, as he calls himself “a professional paranormal investigator.”
Most of that "investigation" consisted of Bagans yelling at the air, asking if any specific ghosts were around, and pointing various gadgets at nooks and crannies. The gadgets would go "BRAPPBRAPPBRAPP!" after which Bagans would say "Yes? Hello?" or something to that effect. This continued for some time. Static. Yelling. More static. More yelling. Speculation on the part of the audience that they'd heard something. Static. Boredom.
The consensus was that the ghosts just weren't out that night, but Bagans claimed that the last time he was in the "Shanghai Tunnels" a ghost asked him to get naked. (Presumably, so he could reenact that one scene from Ghostbusters where Dan Aykroyd gets a blow-jay from beyond the grave.) The whole thing was terrible. As historical tour, it failed because, you know, it was trying to pass off a basement as a super-secret underground that was built to steal dudes. More importantly, as a creepy ghost experience, it also failed.
If Bagans does believe in ghosts, he's a credulous doofus, and if he doesn’t, he’s a charlatan. That’s sort of beside the point, though. What’s more important is that he was completely charmless as a tour guide and a performer. The audience (all fans of the show who'd won a contest) milled around aimlessly, unengaged. There weren't any cool ghost stories or spine-tingling tales of suspense. There were no ghoulish yarns of the unfortunate dead. There was nothing like the kind of tale you'd tell at camp to scare yourself when you were a kid. There was only Bagans yelling at his screeching ghost hunting equipment, ignoring the people whom he presumably was there to entertain. For someone who’s been judged a competent enough performer to be on television on a regular basis, Bagans was a dead fish. He is, quite simply, not any good at putting on a show. On my way out I talked to two fans of the Ghost Adventures and asked them if they really believed the space we were in was haunted. "Oh yeah," one of them said, "but not tonight."