Ghost-hunting is all in a normal day's work for Penn State researcher
December 9, 2007 10:00 AM
Rebecca Droke, Post-Gazette
John Ford, curator at the Heinz History Center and Underground Railroad expert, examines the basement of the Jacob Witzel House on Evergreen Road during a taping of an episode of A&E's "Paranormal U" series on Saturday, December 9, 2006.
Ryan Buell directs Penn State's Paranormal Research Society in "Paranormal State."
Rebecca Droke, Post-Gazette
John Ford, curator at the Heinz History Center and Underground Railroad expert, examines a newspaper scrap found in a crawl space of the basement of the Jacob Witzel House on Evergreen Road to determine if the home was used as a safehouse for escaping slaves.
By Rob Owen Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On a cold Saturday night last December, a psychic wandered through the Jacob Witzel House in Ross. C.J. Sellers was not alone, but it wasn't the red-haired ghost, spotted by two visitors to the home, that accompanied the medium.
Sellers walked through the house with Ryan Buell, founder and director of Pennsylvania State University's Paranormal Research Society. Their conversation was recorded by digital video cameras for airing in an upcoming episode of A&E's "Paranormal State," which premieres with back-to-back episodes at 10 p.m. Monday.
The series follows Buell and his team as they investigate reported hauntings, including this one in the Witzel house (circa 1820), home to Peter and Kim Sokolowski and their family.
"All the time we hear people walking up and down the steps when no one is there," Peter said.
Larry Jones, the boyfriend of Kim's daughter, Ali, saw an older, red-haired woman in a window and thought she was a family member (redheads are not in short supply in the home), but the woman was not a Sokolowski.
When presented with a series of old pictures, both Larry and psychic Sellers independently picked out a woman in one photo as the ghost of the house. The photo was among artifacts found in the home.
When: 10 and 10:30 p.m. Monday, A&E.
Starring: Ryan Buell
"That's a good day," said "Paranormal State" co-executive producer Alan LeGarde. "They could have just as easily picked different pictures and been wrong, but both picked the picture from the house."
While the PRS investigators did their work, a crew of about 10 from Go Go Lucky Productions, the company making "Paranormal State" for A&E, followed their movements.
During her tour of the house with Buell, Sellers said she sensed that the ghosts disapprove of Larry visiting Ali.
She also said the ghosts "want to be respected and treated as part of the household and remembered." Running up and down the stairs might be a way to ensure they're not forgotten.
Later, in a conversation with Larry and Ali, Sellers was more blunt: The ghost does not approve of "people sleeping together out of wedlock. She does get upset and will let people know she's around. I don't think she'll do any harm. She's just an old-fashioned-type."
After A&E initially ordered 13 half-hour episodes of "Paranormal State," another batch was produced this fall, bringing the total to 20 half-hours, a vote of confidence in a program that has yet to air.
Making the show is a job for PRS investigators, who are paid for appearing in "Paranormal State." (PRS does not charge homeowners for their ghost hunting.)
PRS tech specialist Sergey Poberezhny, who graduated from Penn State in August, played a Red Hot Chili Peppers song on his laptop between filming scenes at the Jacob Witzel House last year. PRS trainee Heather Taddy, each of her fingernails painted a different color, yawned even as she paid close attention to the pictures from four cameras placed around the house to conduct surveillance during "dead time," a period when everything in the house is quiet, many electronics are shut off and the spirits are given an opportunity to communicate.
Buell's interest in the paranormal began at age 9 or 10 when he encountered something scary that he won't discuss but often alludes to tantalizingly in "Paranormal State."
"I think it is very hypocritical in some ways that I come into peoples' homes and people tell me intimate details of what happened to them and I won't share my story of what I experienced," Buell, 25, acknowledged. "I'm still digesting it, still trying to comprehend it and what is going on.
"When I first started investigating [the paranormal], it was all about what happened to me. I wanted to catch it. Later on, I realized I could ... deal with families, children, people going through the same thing I went through."
Buell, who grew up in Sumter, S.C., moved at age 19 to begin college at the Penn State campus in McKeesport. During that time he lived with his aunt and uncle, Nicole and Mauricio Jimenez of Penn Hills.
"Pittsburgh is where I started to realize I wanted to do paranormal investigation seriously," he said. It was on a ghost hunt with a local group that he started to recognize what his contribution could be. "It got really personal with the owner of the inn [the group was investigating]. She started crying and being emotional and I thought, we have to help her out. That was a different part of the puzzle I didn't realize before: Helping people."
Buell began PRS once he moved to State College. His approach is down-to-earth enough to trump some skeptics. PRS has a 200-page manual, Buell says, that offers operating guidelines and criteria for selecting cases.
"We're a research society. We do research," Buell insists. "It's like, 'UFO' doesn't mean 'aliens,' it means unidentified flying object."
Co-executive producer LaGarde said, "He's not one of these people where everywhere he goes there's a ghost. Last week we shot an episode and there was definitely no ghost."
Buell received his undergraduate degree in journalism in May 2006. Although he's now pursuing a second bachelor's degree in biological anthropology, someday he plans to leave Penn State and take PRS with him while also maintaining a campus chapter.
"Journalism will help me more than [biological anthropology]," Buell said. "People stare and say, 'What kind of equipment do you use?' and I say, 'A pen and paper.' The mystery is talking to people, asking them questions and trying to solve the case. It's about getting the facts straight.
"If you're tackling a story on global warming, you have to learn something about global warming," Buell said. "If you're dealing with demonic forces, you have to learn something about demonic forces."
In a carriage house beside the Sokolowski home, Buell recorded notes of what the investigation uncovered, punctuating his speech into a digital audio recorder with more than a few "ums" and "uhs."
"This case is really all about the history," Buell said. "I'm really proud of my researchers and their skills."
After he finished, director Bradley Beesley ("Rollergirls") asked the two cameramen to record Buell pacing with the recorder from other angles. These shots are called "coverage" in the TV business and give editors more options when cutting a scene together.
Co-executive producer Tina Gazzerro, who worked on the first season of MTV's "Laguna Beach" and was a producer on one season of "Project Greenlight," said "Paranormal State" is loosely outlined before filming of an episode begins.
"We try to identify where we get our discovery moments, our 'Ah-ha!' moments," she said. "We may have information we don't give to [the PRS team], but we need to make sure it's produceable."
Gazzerro said while each episode is close-ended, there will be character arcs in the series. The reactions of several skeptical PRS newcomers are tracked to see if their beliefs change over time. She also hoped to see changes in Buell.
"He's very James Dean. He's the leader of this group and a lone hero in that way. Over the course of the season we hope one of the new girls will get closer to him. Let him find a second, a Scully," Gazzerro said, referencing the relationship between fictional paranormal investigators Fox Mulder and Dana Scully on "The X-Files."
Gazzerro may not have gotten her wish. When told of this hope in a phone interview last month, Buell was surprised.
"I guess it would make for good TV, but they didn't try to push me to do anything," he said. "None of us [in PRS] are dating one another."
As for the Sokolowski family, they enjoyed their visit from PRS and the "Paranormal State" crew, and Kim Sokolowski said the ghost, who can still be heard on occasion, doesn't seem to have minded the investigation.
"I'm glad she didn't get ticked off," Kim Sokolowski said.