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Lights, Camera … Apparition!

Aug 22, 2005  •  Post A Comment

TelevisionWeek Senior Reporter James Hibberd wrote this account after he tagged along on a couple of tapings for the second-season finale of Sci Fi’s “Ghost Hunters.”

Winchester Mystery House

San Jose, Calif.

It’s tough to be truly scared when you’re accompanied by a camera crew.

Even tougher when you’re with three camera crews.

Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, co-founders of The Atlantic Paranormal Society, stalked the eerily quiet pitch-black maze of 166 rooms in the Winchester Mystery House, armed with high-tech digital recording equipment to document paranormal activity.

Hovering right behind them was the production crew for their Sci Fi Channel show, “Ghost Hunters.” An “Access Hollywood” crew shooting a segment about the Sci Fi show followed them. “Minders,” imposed by the mansion owners to ensure the investigators behave themselves, followed the “Access” group. At the end of the line was a TelevisionWeek reporter-me.

“This is not a typical investigation at all,” Mr. Hawes said of all the cameras and observers. “It’s like standing between two mirrors and you see endless reflections of yourself.”

The occasion was the July 22 taping of the second-season finale of “Ghost Hunters.” I was invited to go on a ride-along while TAPS investigated the Winchester House and, four days later, the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif.

“Ghost Hunters” has sparked debates among online fans and skeptics trying to determine whether the show is a Sci Fi Channel hoax or genuine documentation of paranormal activity Though the professed goal of TAPS is to debunk haunted claims, the team regularly finds what it calls evidence to support the premise that ghosts exist.

As a ghost agnostic, my hope was to witness some sort of conclusive event-maybe a first-person encounter with a ghostly apparition, or perhaps catch a producer with a sheet over his head running down the hall.

Five hours into my visit, though, Winchester was not looking good for catching paranormal-or cagey producer-activity. “It doesn’t feel haunted,” said on-site executive producer Rob Katz, whose impression was shared by the TAPS team.

The mansion was designed by a disturbed Winchester rifle heiress and is a sprawling testament to her descent into insanity. There are windows on the floor, staircases that abruptly cease and tiny rooms with no apparent purpose. The design was meant to confuse the spirits of Winchester rifle victims that the heiress thought were out for revenge.

The mansion’s haunted street credibility is, however, tenuous at best. No on-site gruesome deaths, very few independent reports of paranormal activity and enough theme park accoutrements-gift shop, arcade, cafe-to discourage even fervent believers in the supernatural.

“Usually, if a place has a gift shop,” Mr. Wilson said, “it’s not haunted.”

The TAPS gang set up night-vision cameras and digital audio recorders in various “hot spots,” areas of the mansion considered most likely to have paranormal activity. The cameras were wired to a bank of monitors and DVRs at a command post. The team arrived on the site at 6 p.m., but after midnight the bulk of the TAPS investigation had yet to begin.

One reason for the delay was the presence of “Access Hollywood,” which was shooting a segment about the series as part of a cross-promotion dreamed up by Sci Fi and “Access” parent company NBC Universal. Correspondent Tony Potts, having donned a TAPS hat and jacket, stood beside investigators in scene after scene. “Ghost Hunters” crew members, unable to get shots without Mr. Potts in the way, stifled their laughter.

Executive producer Rob Katz walked out of the mansion in frustration. “I can’t ask them to leave; we need the press,” Mr. Katz said.

“You gotta figure this out,” Mr. Hawes told the “Access” producer. “We can’t have somebody hanging over our heads on this. It isn’t going to work.”

By 1 a.m. “Access” had cleared out and the investigation finally began in earnest. Mr. Hawes and Mr. Wilson walked the insanely designed corridors with a thermal camera, while TAPS members Steve Gonsalves and Donna Lacroix staked out a pitch-black ballroom.

“Can you give us a sign of your presence?” Mr. Gonsalves asked the empty room, but he didn’t seem to expect an answer. Mr. Katz was right-whatever “haunted” feels like, this wasn’t it.

Afterward, Mr. Hawes shook his head.

“That was a fiasco,” he said. “If we knew all that was going to happen, we would have never come out there.”

Worst thing: No ghosts.

RMS Queen Mary

Long Beach, Calif.

The TAPS team reassembled July 26 in the bowels of the Queen Mary, docked in Long Beach, to finish shooting the season finale. (Most episodes contain explorations of two potentially haunted locations.)

The ship is a massive 1,000-foot-long floating city that was built in 1931. One section is open to the public and used as a hotel and restaurant. The bulk of the ship, however, is an art deco relic open for ghost tours and paranormal investigators.

“I can’t wait to [debunk] the Queen Mary,” Mr. Wilson said. “The first thing I’m going to ask is if they have ever faked or staged anything.”

Executive producer Mr. Katz, on the other hand, hoped the ship’s reputation was true.

“They got nothing at Winchester,” Mr. Katz said of the TAPS team. “They need to get something for the season finale. It needs an anchor.”

Once out of earshot, crew members groused about the request for on-demand haunting.

“`Need to get something,”‘ one crew member repeated. “What are we supposed to do? Open up some kind of interdimensional vortex?”

What to do indeed. The demands of a paranormal reality show are mystery and drama. But TAPS is adamant the team has never faked footage. “We will not sit and worry about the entertainment aspect,” Mr. Hawes said. “We’ll let the producers worry about that.”

This season, however, Mr. Hawes and Mr. Wilson have producer credits too. And as on most reality shows, certain aspects are staged. Before and after the actual investigation, the crew plans and cues up various scenes touring the facility and discussing the case. No scripts are used, but sometimes several takes are required to get a discussion “right.” The actual investigation part of the evening is more fluid, with camera operators chasing TAPS members as they go about their ghost-hunting business.

Among the crew, attitudes about the paranormal were mixed.

Mr. Katz, who worked production positions on “BattleBots” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos” before joining the show, said he used to dismiss paranormal investigation as “Scooby-Doo stuff,” but since joining the show he has seen “too many things” and become a convert. A cameraman recounted a time when an apparition sent him running down a hall in an abandoned prison. “I was staring off … everything was black, but then I saw something even blacker streak by,” he said. But a sound man indicated his disbelief with a shrug: “It’s pretty dull; `Give us a sign of your presence; is there anybody here’; same stuff.”

After midnight, the TAPS team went “dark”-turning off the lights for the investigation. Illumination in some areas is required for navigation but, as Mr. Hawes put it, “the ghosts don’t care whether the lights are on or not.”

Mr. Hawes and Mr. Wilson walked the cramped engine room corridors with a thermal monitor.

Other team members sat in darkness by a dilapidated, drained indoor swimming pool, illuminated only by the red eyes from the recorders.

Still no ghosts.

Mr. Hawes, who has a wife and five kids waiting for him back in Rhode Island, told a story: There was a man who watched “Ghost Hunters” and started sending him e-mails. The e-mails were signed “The Antichrist.” The man threatened to do some horrific things to Mr. Hawes’ wife and children.

Mr. Hawes called the FBI. Then the man e-mailed death threats to President Bush, but signed the name “Jason Hawes,” so the Secret Service joined the hunt. Last May the FBI staked out a library in Pennsylvania and arrested a suspect.

“Guy was 51 years old. He said he was my biggest fan.” Mr. Hawes sa
id.

I checked Mr. Hawes’ story. It’s true. No ghosts manifested at Winchester or the Queen Mary, but it seems the team did connect with at least one verifiable monster just the same.