For anyone interested in folkloric ostension (like me), there is plenty of pseudo-ostension going on in Gaten Matarazzo’s new 2019 Netflix show Prank Encounters, revealing the effects of mass-mediated ostension behind it, necessary for the show to work.
The show is kinda daft fun but pretty dark for a candid camera show – it’s interesting that the ‘Prank Encounters’ draw on societal (mass-mediated) assumptions and beliefs about the supernatural and the tropes used in horror film and TV. Contemporary legends like Bigfoot and hauntings/possession are the subjects of the first two episodes. The prankees currently held or absorbed beliefs in such things are what seem to me the vital ingredient to how successful the pranks are. In one episode a woman, presented with a blurry video of a car crash, apparently caused by a shadowy figure *instantly* jumps to the conclusion the woods must be haunted; this is the MOST obvious explanation of goings-on to her. Later on, prankees quickly buy into potential supernatural and/or buying into a truth about contemporary legends, for example, that Bigfoot certainly exists.
Although problematic and ethically-dubious in some respects (prank victims are led to believe a child has been murdered, and that they have just witnessed two further killings – albeit carried out by a possessed giant teddy bear), the workings of this programme are certainly of interest to me with my folklorist hat on. The subjects of the pranks are clearly aware of supernatural TV shows, as one instantly recognises host Gaten when the prank is revealed: “Is that the kid from Stranger Things?!” Therefore, it is safe to assume prankees’ understanding and knowledge of folkloric legends has been, and continues to be affected by the media in at least some small way. The potential for belief; the pseudo-ostension carried out by the programme makers, and the sometime misinterpretation of hoaxes by subjects (quasi-ostension) – for example when one woman interprets what is supposed to convey ‘Bigfoot’ for a ‘ghost’ – is multi-layered. UFOs, maniacal slasher-killers and more joyful subjects await, I’m looking forward to watching the rest.
As one online article remarks, there is a “great super-meta moment in the second episode when one subject asks, “Is this real?” only to be reassured by the equally unknowing other, “Yes, this is real.” Although the pranks are known to be fake to us, the television audience throughout, we are able to witness it through the eyes of those who believe it to be real. And, of course, the pranks are revealed as fake to the subjects at the end but, for a few moments at least to them, and to us through their eyes, it is real.