Scare Tactics

During an argument with her boyfriend, Susan
Lewis watched as he flung a beloved cat figurine out into the yard.
Seconds after the two turned and went back into the house, the
figurine was back — and virtually untouched — on the same
counter where Susan had initially put it.

“It was one of those times where you just can’t believe what
you see before your eyes,” a perplexed and stunned Lewis said.
“I know it landed in the field — I saw it!”

Lewis’ recounting of her supernatural experience was documented in Syfy’s new series
Paranormal Witness, one of more than a dozen paranormal-themed reality series that are scaring
up big ratings for cable networks.

From series like Syfy’s Ghost Hunters,
which takes a scientific and investigative
approach to paranormal phenomena,
to Bio’s Celebrity Ghost Stories,
which titillates viewers with dramatic
first-person retellings of confrontations
with things that go bump in the night,
the paranormal reality-series genre
has found an audience on cable, driven
mostly by women.

Skeptical viewers who click past the
new wave of TV ghost stories consider
them a mindless pastime for the superstitious.
But with more than 70%
of Americans believing in ghosts, angels
or the dead returning to haunt us,
the series’ creators said such shows are
an affirmation of sorts for those on the
fence, making belief in paranormal
more popular.


“There’s a validation that maybe I’m not the only one who believes, and if enough people believe
in this, people won’t think that I’m crazy,” Rick Holzman, senior vice president for programming
and scheduling at Animal Planet, said. His network dabbled in the paranormal
space last year with The Haunted, which chronicles animals and their owners who are visited
by paranormal spirits. In one episode, a young girl’s fun ghost-hunt with friends at an abandoned
hospital turns dark when, after she returns home, her tranquil dogs suddenly turn violent
while hearing strange noises emanating from the basement.

“People have always needed a boogey man, and in order to believe in good you need to believe
in evil or have things that make you question safety,” Holzman said.

Paranormal programming is as old as television itself.
Shows like The Twilight Zone (1959-64) and In Search of …
(1976-82) depicted stories of haunted houses, ghost sightings
and spirits living among us.

The genre has also had some recent success on the big
screen, due for the most part to Paramount Pictures’ Paranormal
franchise. Two Activity
films, which are based on often
scary “home-video footage” of a
supernatural presence in a family’s
home, have raked in more
than $256 million at the box office, and industry observers have
high revenue expectations for the
third installment which debuted
this past weekend.

Paranormal-themed scripted
series, such as CBS’s The Mentalist
or FX’s freshman drama American Horror Story
— which drew a respectable 3.2 million viewers for its
Oct. 5 premiere — have also brought attention to the
genre on the small screen.

Paranormal shows moved into the
cable reality space around the year
2000, with the debut of MTV’s Fear,
which challenged contestants to live
in a haunted house. In 2004 came
Syfy’s Ghost Hunters, in which
plumbers by day Jason Hawes and
Grant Wilson investigate alleged
haunted houses at night.

Series like Ghost Hunters — now
in its seventh season — tack the existence
of ghosts and kindred spirits
onto the traditional on-the-job reality
show. Surprisingly, the subject of spirits
is steeped more in reality than fiction
for many viewers, Syfy president
of original content Mark Stern said.

A 2006 Gallup News Service poll
determined that 73% of Americans
believe in at least one of several paranormal-
related phenomena, including
haunted houses, visits from
ghosts and spirits of dead people in
certain situations, telepathic communication
or temporary spiritual
possession of a body.

Women in particular gravitate to
paranormal-themed shows: Stern
said that females make up about 60%
of the audience for its paranormalthemed
shows, which also include
Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files, in
which a team of experts look to prove
or debunk various Web-disseminated
stories of paranormal activities.


“These shows tend to be emotional
stories — you’re dealing with the
afterlife, and ghosts that have or have
not moved on — that are also very visceral
and emotionally scary as well,”
Stern said. “Women love horror movies
— they like to be scared, as well as
emotionally stimulated, and these
shows certainly do that.”

Ghost Hunters
, arguably the most
well-known of cable’s paranormal reality-series
franchises, averaged nearly 2 million viewers for Syfy
during the August premiere of the second half of its
seventh season.

Bio’s Celebrity Ghost Stories remains the most
popular series in the network’s history, topping the
long-running Biography.
The three-year-old series,
which features firstperson
narrative about
paranormal experiences
from such actors and
musicians as Regis Philbin,
Brett Michaels and
Charles Dutton, averaged
356,000 total viewers in its freshman
season. That’s more than than
double the network’s primetime
viewership average, according to network officials.

Season three of the series, which ended this past summer,
outdrew Bio’s typical audience of adults 25-54 in primetime
by 124%, and was up 118% over the
typical primetime 18-49 audience.

Paranormal programs provide
a harmless escape from reality
for many people struggling in today’s
socioeconomic climate, David
McKillop, A&E’s executive vice
president of programming, said.

“A lot of times, when we go
through societal changes, people
want pure escapism, so
what better thing to escape
to than a good paranormal
story?” he said.
“But in the end, I really
believe there’s an enduring,
long-term human
interest in this space —
I think it just gets highlighted
during periods of
economic instability or
social change.”

For others, shows like
Bio’s Celebrity Ghost Stories
and A&E’s long-running
Paranormal State,
which tracks the Paranormal Research
Society, go beyond escapist
fare, serving as an affirmation of
their own beliefs in the supernatural
— or justifying their disbelief in
ghosts and spirits.

“If you believe, [the shows] are
distinctly human-interest … What
can be more real to anybody than
a true paranormal experience?” he
said. “It’s something that you never
forget — it’s visceral.”

Travel Channel senior vice president
of programming production
and development Andy Singer added:
“We know people are very curious
about the possibility of whether
ghosts exist.”

Travel looks to feed into that curiosity
with several genre-based
shows, including Ghost Adventures,
which investigates the most haunted
places in the world, and Paranormal Challenge, in which
two teams of ghost hunters look for evidence of paranormal activity
in haunted locations around the world. The two shows’
hosts are actual believers in ghosts and spirits, helping give the
shows a more authentic feel with viewers, said Singer.

“Our stable of talent is authentic true believers, and, like
any good tour guides, they’re able to take our viewers through
very engaging and highly exhilarating journeys and iconic
places,” he said. “They’re not there to debunk a theory, but
to take it head on, because they’re true believers — it’s very
real to them and therefore viewers stay along for the ride.”


As with most genres with a glut of programs, cable executives
expressed concern about an oversaturation of paranormalthemed
series. Some shows have already faded to black: A&E
has stopped production on
Paranormal State after a
six-season run.

A&E’s McKillop said
the network remains
committed to the genre,
despite the cancellation,
and he hopes to unveil
several new paranormalthemed
projects next year,
although he would not
disclose specifics.

In December, the network
will take a stab at producing
a scripted drama in
the space when it debuts
Steven Spielberg’s Bag of Bones, an anthology series featuring
the legendary film producer/writer’s scary short stories.

“It is space that we claim as one of the genre pillars of the
A&E brand,” McKillop said.

Animal Planet earlier this year shelved The Haunted for
the time being after deciding that the series, with re-enactments
at its core, was starting to wane in popularity. The
paranormal category is still of interest to the network’s viewers,
though, according to Holzman.

“We are still investigating more in the ghost-story space,”
he said. “We wanted to dip our toes in the water in another
way — all indications are that there’s still a huge demand for
the paranormal — and we’re still intrigued by the notion of,
‘Let me tell you a story that will make your skin crawl.’ ”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.