Syfy 'Ghost Hunters': Living Normally Within Paranormal Pop Culture
Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of Ghost Hunters have transcended the paranormal entertainment niche, become lasting pop-culture mainstays, and are busiest men in the ghost business.
After dealing with demons, ghosts and poltergeists, you wouldn't think the stars of Syfy's Ghost Hunters would be bested by group of Colorado kids. Still, while investigating the case of a little boy haunted by dead celebrities, Jason Hawes wet his pants -- and Grant Wilson, Hawes' co-star of the supernatural reality-TV show, experienced much, much worse incontinence issues -- before running out of the house screaming, all the way back to their homes in Rhode Island.
Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, meet Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of Comedy Central's South Park. In the Oct. 7 episode, the two co-founders of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) -- the paranormal investigative group around which the Syfy show is based -- were spoofed.
Far from being offended or incensed, Hawes and Wilson say they loved being made fun of alongside Michael Jackson and Billy Mays by a show notorious for taking the pulse of a zeitgeist before giving it a shot of adrenaline. Although the ghost hunters weren't involved with the making of the episode and didn't lend voices to their animated counterparts, they helped promote it through their very active Twitter feeds and TAPS fans responded by pushing "#ghosthunters" to a popular "trending topic" of the day.
For two guys with day jobs as Roto-Rooter plumbers who spent more than 20 years of free time in the company of scared homeowners with spectral squatters, this not-insignificant spoof by South Park is another indication that Hawes and Wilson, and the show that premiered in 2004 (on the erstwhile SCI FI Channel), have transcended the paranormal entertainment niche, become lasting pop-culture mainstays -- and are busiest men in the ghost business.
The show, which received 3.1 million total viewers for the fifth season's Oct. 22 episode, is touted by Syfy as the top paranormal investigative series on TV due to the fact that it more than doubled the audience totals for last week's new episodes of the competing paranormal series Ghost Lab on Discovery and Extreme Paranormal on A&E. Numbers aside, the success of the Ghost Hunters franchise also includes: two series spin-offs, Ghost Hunters International and the new Ghost Hunters Academy, premiering Nov. 11; he flagship show's one-hundredth episode, which is filming in November; live speaking engagements and ticketed investigations that draw upwards of two hundred fans; upcoming appearances on Oct. 30 installments of The Today Show and Larry King Live; a second book, Seeking Spirits: The Lost Cases of the Atlantic Paranormal Society, the follow-up to the 2007 New York Times bestselling Ghost Hunting: True Stories of Unexplained Phenomena from the Atlantic Paranormal Society.
As far as how they manage to fit so much into a production schedule of 27 episodes a year, Hawes just jokes, "It's a balancing act... but isn't there like 28 hours in every day?"
"We never thought we'd make it this far," he adds, speaking over the phone from his home in Rhode Island.
"We're living the paranormal investigator's dream," agrees Wilson, also speaking from his Rhode Island home. "We're investigating these great places and you don't necessarily have to foot the bill all the time."
These comments set the tone for much of the interview. Like brothers from another mother, Hawes and Wilson typically agree with, harass, and finish one another's sentences and both maintain a gee-whiz awareness of the long strange trip it's been from plumbing to ghost hunting on a major cable network. But there is still plumbing to be done.
"We still plumb. It's just when production goes on hiatus, we go back to our normal lives," say Hawes.
Those normal lives include wives and a combined ghost-hunting brood of eight kids. And the duo both says those families is what all the work is for.
"That's what happens when they're requesting 27 episodes a year, it's nonstop. It looks like we're at a place for six hours, we're there numerous days."
While neither is complaining, the grueling schedule takes a toll on how and when they can be with their kids. That's the background to the decision to not take part in a live Halloween night investigation this year. Instead of six hours of watching the TAPS team investigate, beginning at 7 p.m. on Oct. 31, EST, Syfy is airing a five-episode "interactive best-of" -- as Wilson describes it -- with members of Academy, hosted by Josh Gates of Destination Truth and supplemented by pre-recorded segments of Hawes and Wilson.
"We've been asking for four years to be able to stay home with our families," says Hawes. "Finally we're going to be able to. So I'm super-psyched about this."
Adds Wilson, "I'm so tired of telling my son, when he asks, 'What are you going to be for Halloween, Dad?' and I say, 'Gone.' Not cool."
These problems of dealing with cable networks and live investigations are definitely different than what their TAPS group experienced in its infancy. In Seeking Spirits, Hawes and Wilson, along with co-author Michael Jan Friedman, paint a picture of a young investigative group that travel long distances through blizzards to assist clients in need. Along the way, Hawes and Wilson developed theories, tested new equipment and grew into the televised group millions of viewers now know.
But they never became experts in the paranormal field.
"There's really no experts in this field. How can we be," says Hawes, who takes great pains to explain that the word "paranormal" means outside the ordinary, and currently beyond scientific definition. Besides, says Wilson, what they do is not just about interacting with spirits.
"It's not so much about learning about ghosts as much as it's more learning about the human psyche and how to debunk. I mean, ghosts are a big unknown."
In that statement, Wilson explains the now prevalent mantra among paranormal investigative groups that explains if you go into a supposedly haunted location looking for evidence of a ghost, everything will lead to believe just that. However, if you try to debunk and prove there is no ghost, what's left unexplained just might lead to proof of the supernatural.
In that regard, Seeking Spirits sums up the parallels between ghost hunting and fishing, where you cast a line, wait and eventually try different lures to get something to bite.
"It's not all a waiting game because you're trying different techniques," says Hawes. "If you're in a house that has a child or somebody who believes they're being attacked, scratched, whatever, a lot of times you need to change your investigation methods. At that point, you're trying to instigate, you're trying to provoke something to at least prove to you that it's there so you can give validation to the family and also figure out your next step.
"That's such an important part of investigating that people always seem to forget," agrees Wilson. "They think it's all about the catching. Once you have that, you still have that worried mother or worried family on the other side of the table. You can't just be like, 'Yeah, I caught a fish. Here.' You have to then console them."
Although they've the fanciest equipment a ghost hunter could hope for, like FLIR thermal cameras that detect heat signatures, Hawes and Wilson admit that they still find themselves on perplexing and frustrating cases like the demonic, elemental (nature spirits) and even perhaps alien cases mentioned in the new book. As such, TAPS frequently has to re-define a paranormal theory they've come to rely on for a long time.
Hawes discusses a recent case referred to them by a church that wasn't filmed for television. Apparently, a family believed they were plagued by an inhuman entity -- meaning not an earthbound, deceased human still sticking around.
"We went in believing that, 'Alright, the family believes it's an inhuman entity,' and during the entire investigation it led to our belief that it was human entities, but they were moving much larger objects than we had always thought possible."
"At one point," he adds, "they were sliding the kitchen table across part of the floor or things like this which really changes our belief system."
"We'd been under the impression for the last 20 years that a human entity can move an object 10 pounds and under. What gave this human entity the ability to move much larger objects is still unknown. Everything you do is based on theory and you hope to get evidence to solidify that theory... well, this kind of threw what we believed that last 20 years out."
While the experience was a new one for Hawes and Wilson, the interaction with clergy is not. Not featured prominently on the show, but mentioned often in the book, is the fact that TAPS works with churches and religions to assist people. Wilson also says that sometimes helping to rid a home of an entity can be directly related to a client's belief system.
Says Wilson, "We work with a lot of clergy. We work with many different religions and many different churches. We have a whole abundance of cases that fall under a confidentiality agreement."
Hawes adds that, on the show as opposed to in a book, names and faces are harder to change.
"We've done cases of so-called possession since our show has been on, but we've never wanted to put that on television for the mere fact that we want to protect that person... the minute we'd do that, everyone online is either going to embrace them and understand them or destroy them."
Within the book, however, Hawes says he and Wilson worked with Friedman to tell compelling stories that all took place prior to the show's premiere. They also wanted to pass along practical investigative tips while being true to themselves and TAPS.
"We sat outside in my camper, went over a lot of old case files -- the ones that were prior to the show -- and decided which ones would be best suited for the book. We went over the entire cases with Mike as he wrote them. So we were right there."
"We helped shape it. It's really a collective process," says Wilson. "Mike's got the talent and we've got the stories."
"Yeah, because Grant and I can't write for crap," jokes Hawes.
Still, there might be more writing in their future. Hawes and Wilson have been speaking with Jane Stine, wife of Goosebumps author R.L. Stine, about working together on a series of children's books. Additionally, they were pitched the idea of a Saturday morning TAPS cartoon. The idea never came to fruition, but Hawes and Wilson say they'd "love to do something like that."
In the meantime, Hawes and Wilson say they're happy for the moments when hang out with their family and friends, watch Dexter on Showtime and play with iPhone apps. And like two brothers who can be so similar, yet completely different, Hawes digs Sons of Anarchy on FX and relaxes to Ozzy Osbourne, Otep and Black Label Society whereas Wilson is more of a Iron & Wine, Jack Johnson and classical music guy who watches the Japanese manga Death Note.
They both agree on the point that while the South Park spoof was cool, being lampooned on fellow Rhode Islander Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy would be more appropriate.
It looks like MacFarlane has time, though, because Hawes and Wilson will be continuing their ghost hunting on Syfy for the moment. But they add that they do see an end in sight where they can tend to The Spalding Inn, the joint venture in New Hampshire.
"Jay and I talk about that all the time," says Wilson. "Sitting in the rocking chairs on the front porch of the Spalding... look at the views and then once in a while, go do an appearance or something." He adds that "the plumbing days are there for a reason. I'm sure the show is not going to last forever, so we'll go back to that and be happy to go back to that."
Hawes agrees and says, "I don't think I ever want to retire. The thing is, I enjoy getting out of the house, working, doing stuff like that. There's so much to do… I could be 70 and still working."
"But I'd like to try it for a week or two."