While audiences turn to the reality genre to be pulled away from their own day-to-day existences, a sub-genre that is downright otherworldly has been quietly thrilling viewers for almost a decade. Now, more prodcos and networks are looking for things that go bump in the night, in the hopes of a bump in the ratings.
There is a new generation of production companies jockeying to find a new twist on paranormal reality, as networks such as Syfy, Destination America and A&E in the U.S. tap into audiences’ love of the unexplained.
The paranormal reality sub-genre, which spans all things that go bump in the night, as well as mythical creatures, and haunted objects and places, saw its first big hit in Pilgrim Studios’ Ghost Hunters on Syfy in 2004. The series that launched a reality sub-genre was actually borne out of a desire to capitalize on the “blue collar” space that Pilgrim and Original Productions were at the forefront of.
Pilgrim Studios founder Craig Piligian says the idea for Ghost Hunters came after reading a New York Times article about plumbers. “At the time I was doing American Choppers and American Hot Rod and it was all blue collar work,” he explains.
“There was a set of plumbers [out there] and on the weekend as a hobby, they ghost hunted.” The series focused on Roto-Rooter plumbers Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, who headed up The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) and, with their crew, investigated allegedly haunted locations, using electronic equipment to identify paranormal activity.
Since its launch, the godfather of paranormal reality shows has aired more than 100 episodes, and spawned live event programming and spinoffs including Ghost Academy and Ghost Hunters International. With its ninth season launching on June 12, there are no signs of slowing down for Ghost Hunters, which averaged more than two million total viewers per week for its eighth season.
“The cast has changed, we’ve been to bigger places, so we sort of branched out from what they were doing [and] we grew the brand out a little bit,” offers Piligian. “But because the audience still wants to see the basic ghost hunting experience, the show at its core has remained the same since the first pilot.”
“One of the reasons that Ghost Hunters proved to be such a big hit was that it really stripped out any of the sense of artifice or contrivance. These are real guys that are really doing this,” says Mark Stern, president of original content at Syfy. “They’re not easy believers and I think people come to these shows because they want to get underneath what’s going on, to the truth. They want to really find out if there is something there and they want to experience that scary process of investigation.”
Syfy’s paranormal programming slate has grown in size since 2004, with the summer line-up for the network including Notorious Hauntings, also from Pilgrim Studios; Raw TV’s Paranormal Witness; BASE Productions’ Haunted Highway; Gurney Productions’ Haunted Collector and Ping Pong Productions’ Destination Truth.
Stern believes paranormal reality continues to fit comfortably into Syfy’s remit of celebrating the imagination, and calls it a “very vibrant genre for us.”
The key ingredients in making it work for the network, according to Stern, are conducting investigations in places with genuine reports of haunting, and a credible and somewhat scientific methodology.
“Paranormal shows are approached by nature with skepticism,” says BASE Productions’ owner John Brenkus. “You want to make sure that you’re coming across as a credible storyteller in an interesting way. That’s harder than it sounds.”
Part of the challenge is keeping the content believable while also presenting it in a way that won’t immediately call to mind other shows.
Stern believes paranormal programming went through a “theatrical and breathless” phase. “There were some shows that didn’t feel believable, they felt produced. I think we’re turning to a pared down and realistic approach.
“I’m really excited about this idea of stripping it down even further in terms of its [production] trappings,” he adds, citing BASE’s Haunted Highway and Stranded, from Ping Pong Productions (Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot) and Blumhouse Productions (the Paranormal Activity film franchise), as examples.
Stranded drops people off in haunted locations for five days and has them filming themselves and their experiences, while in Haunted Highway, featuring Jack Osbourne, teams of two conduct first-person investigations of ghostly activity.
“Ten years ago, the genre wasn’t experiential. Now audiences want to feel what the investigators are feeling,” says Brenkus. “The audience is so savvy that it really wants to see the investigators out there shooting their own footage, and what that footage looks like.”
“I think there’s more tolerance from an audience to get to the bottom of things, even if it means lower production value, and those kinds of first-person shows tap a chord more than ever,” Stern says. “YouTube has made self-documentation a very legitimate form of entertainment.”
However, with the genre maturing and audiences growing, Gurney Productions president Scott Gurney says production requirements are more intense.
“Initially, when the earlier ghost shows came out, you could get away with the Handycam feel of The Blair Witch Project, but now [audiences] expect it to look like a feature film,” he says. “Everything needs to be beautifully shot and sound great, so your crews have to be really strong and your cases have to be defined clearly so that when you go out and investigate them, you don’t end up with dead ends.”
But while not everyone feels that the look has to be elevated in the new paranormal, networks and producers both want to breathe life into the genre by fusing sub-genres or looking for just the right twist to apply.
Syfy’s Ghost Mine, which launches a second season in September, is produced by 51 Minds, and follows a group of miners who re-open an abandoned Oregon mine, rumored to be haunted.
“There hasn’t really been a show yet where it’s character-driven,” maintains executive producer David Caplan. “Usually it’s a self-contained episodic type of show, and we felt [Ghost Mine] was an original idea that hadn’t really been done before.
“I feel like paranormal is going away from the classic, ‘Here’s a haunted location, let’s do an investigation,’” he adds. “After multiple seasons of a show like Ghost Hunters, people are yearning for something new, groundbreaking and original.”
Gurney Productions, meanwhile, opted to fuse the “artifactual” sub-genre, as seen in Pawn Stars and American Pickers, with the paranormal world, which resulted in Haunted Collector.
“We had met with a lot of people who claimed they helped people [get rid of] some form of entity in their house,” says Scott Gurney. “There was already Ghost Hunters and we didn’t want to be derivative in that space, but when we met with John Zaffis, the host of Haunted Collector, he had a really interesting twist.”
Zaffis investigates paranormal objects, and Gurney says his show has the added value of the history behind the items. Twists are necessary for a sub-genre that is only getting more crowded, as more networks explore the space.
Discovery Communications’ Destination America features programming spotlighting the people, places and stories of the U.S, and its general manager Marc Etkind says that paranormal has a place on its schedule.
Its paranormal programming encompasses ghost stories with A Haunting (pictured, top of the page); UFO stories with Alien Mysteries; and legendary creatures, or “cryptids,” with Monsters and Mysteries in America. All feature a uniquely American spin, says Etkind.
“When you think about the early history of America, it’s full of legends: the Salem Witch Trials, Ichabod Crane, vampire legends in New England in the 19th century, Area 51 and The Amityville Horror,” explains Etkind. “All these stories go from the founding of America to today. It’s in our DNA; the legend, the mysteries and the monsters.
“In the end, these shows are about belief, that the world is more mysterious and there are things that we don’t understand, and things may exist that we haven’t found yet,” he says. Many of the producers and network execs realscreen spoke to envision a long and healthy life for this sub-genre, claiming it’ll last as long as there are mysteries and humans are curious.
“It’s been around for 10 years at least in cable, and it’s held stable and found a place in the ratings scale,” says Gurney. “I think it’s going to keep evolving into unique and challenging areas that nobody’s been able to crack yet.”
“Like a lot of television, we see paranormal going towards more filmic storytelling on the one hand, and more character-based on another,” sums up Etkind. “The one place it’s not going… is away.”