BY RON AIKEN
If you havenâ€™t heard of or seen A&E televisionâ€™s Paranormal State and its star Ryan Buell, youâ€™ve either been living under a rock in the woods, are a Mennonite (or an effete TV eschewer; thereâ€™s not much difference), or canâ€™t afford cable. In any case, youâ€™re in the vast minority, because Buell, founder of the Penn State Paranormal Research Society, is a national celebrity thanks to his popular ghost-hunting show launched in 2007 in which his team of college-age students (theyâ€™ve since graduated) investigate claims of paranormal activity across the country.
Ryan Buell, a 2000 Sumter High graduate, is the star of A&Eâ€™s Paranormal State.
Photo by Karolina Wojtasik
What you might not know about Buell, however â€” even if youâ€™re one of the millions of fans of the show â€” is that Buell grew up just up the road in Sumter, where he had his first encounters with the paranormal and graduated from Sumter High in 2000; considers South Carolina his home (his parents still reside there); and seriously considered attending the University of South Carolina before fatefully deciding on Penn State.
With Halloween upon us, Free Times reporter Ron Aiken took the opportunity to speak with Buell about life in the Palmetto State, the massive success of Paranormal State and the ensuing ghost-hunting phenomenon and why neither he, A&E producers nor the rest of America can understand anything coming out of team member Eilfie Musicâ€™s mouth.
FT: First off, you began PRS as a college club, but obviously everyone on the show has graduated since the TV show began and has taken off. Do you intend to keep living in State College, Pa., do you have plans to move on?
Ryan Buell: Thatâ€™s something Iâ€™ve been thinking a lot about lately. I donâ€™t think weâ€™ll move PRS, but for myself, Iâ€™m probably going to move somewhere else to do some work and coming back and forth. Iâ€™m looking at L.A. right now and coming back and forth whenever I have some down time.
FT: On the show, you talk about how your first encounters with the paranormal as a child influenced your desire to investigate the paranormal once you got to Penn State. I take it those were in Sumter?
RB: Yeah, those were in Sumter, where I was pretty much raised and grew up. It was in two houses. My step-dad was in the Air Force at Shaw Air Force Base, and when we first came there we rented a house for about a year until we knew weâ€™d be there more permanently. I had some experiences there, and then we moved a few miles away to the house that we still have and I had experiences there for a couple of years. The experiences were pretty much similar; it was something that kind of followed me.
FT: Youâ€™ve talked about being followed by entities before on the show. How do you go about classifying and differentiating among different kinds of hauntings?
RB: Essentially what PRS does is we take a lot of theory; itâ€™s something that a lot of serious scientists and psychologists used to do from the 19th century up until the 1970s, they try to apply the scientific and psychological method to try to document the phenomenon, and what we really pay attention to is to understand the theory and psychology of the paranormal, theories like a spirit following you or a malicious force. Thereâ€™s nothing scientific to back it up, thereâ€™s nothing scientific to prove that ghosts exist, though there is some strong evidence out there.
We really apply theory. There are spirits, and judging from testimony of the clients and the hauntings theyâ€™re experiencing, if you look at the psychological makeup you may find that there is an angry spirit. Then we find out that a woman was murdered and that the murder was never solved, and how interesting is it that the client never knew she was living in a house where a woman was murdered was actually describing the woman who died.
FT: My own personal experiences came after my uncle committed suicide in our house growing up and most of my family had experiences after that. Do you find that traumatic events cause hauntings?
RB: Sure. Thatâ€™s really a common thing. For someone who dies traumatically like a suicide, to take your own life is something especially traumatic, right up there with a violent murder. Weâ€™ve dealt with quite a few cases where the culprit or suspect was a suicide victim.
FT: How did you go from starting the paranormal club at Penn State to a national TV show?
RB: When I came to Penn State, it was something that was more than a hobby, it was something I wanted to do with my life, something Iâ€™m very passionate about. So, I was looking for like-minded individuals, not a thrill. So I went about it very seriously with a very specific goal. It took a while to find the right people, people who Iâ€™d consider lifelong friends and who have come on this journey with me.
I think the reason we got a show so early, before this big paranormal boom, was because one, it was interesting for people to see college students doing this who also were very serious about it. But also it was about trying to help people who were victims of paranormal experiences. So it started from a couple of local stories in the paper, then larger papers, then documentary shows, then cable shows and it really snowballed.
Because of all that â€” and a very good web presence â€” we got a call from an Emmy-nominated producer. I was down in Sumter for spring break and talked to her for about four hours one night talking about what we do and sent her some tape, and she sent some people to film us a month or two later, and next thing we knew weâ€™re getting pitched TV projects. We had offers to do TLC, FOX, UPN, MTV, they were all talking to us. For what we wanted to do, A&E worked out best for us because they basically stood back and watched the process. That was very important to us.
The first ideas were that we were college students who chased ghosts, so they thought theyâ€™d follow us to parties and document our social lives and ghost hunting, so itâ€™d be like a spooky mix with comedy. The problem, though, was that we werenâ€™t your typical college students and our cases werenâ€™t what they were expecting, either. So, the show progressed after season one to focusing on the cases themselves.
FT: Being a fan of the show, I canâ€™t talk to you and not ask this: Team member [and chronic mumbler] Eilfie Music is the first person I can think of who is a native English speaker and yet has subtitles for all her dialogue. When I first saw that, I wondered if she knew ahead of time that A&E was going to do that. Did she? Is she cool with it?
RB: Ha, no, she didnâ€™t. We actually asked about that. She does have a peculiar accent. Sheâ€™s Pennsylvania-born all the way, her father is German and sheâ€™s a big fan of the Victorian era. She has a very particular way of speaking, and I think the first couple of episodes it was kind of hard to hear her. All of us were a little unnerved about the camera crews, but according to one of the producers, it became a running joke that they would subtitle her and they actually did.
Nowadays, most everyone understands her but they subtitle her anyway as kind of keeping the joke going. I think itâ€™s kind of funny that they think she needs subtitles, and it adds that flair that itâ€™s a unique flair for her. I can understand her perfectly, but she talks very low sometimes, and there are times when I canâ€™t understand what the hell sheâ€™s saying.
FT: The team you have seems to have worked out well. With everyone graduated, are you going to lose anyone or is everyone committed to staying with you on your journey?
RB: To be honest, right now weâ€™re kind of at a crossroads. Itâ€™s hard. People have this assumption that weâ€™re raking in millions of dollars from doing the show. It does grow over time, but for my part-time crew, itâ€™s not a full-time job for them even though it feels like it. And, they have other passions and interests.
When they signed up for the show they were doing it as students, and now years have passed and things in your 20s can change drastically. I wouldnâ€™t be surprised if the team changes hands and we add some new members. Itâ€™s hard to expect people to keep doing this year after year, especially when they have so many other interests to pursue.
To be honest, when you do the show, itâ€™s all you can do. You shoot three or four days a week and you have to work on preparing for cases. We donâ€™t just show up. So essentially, we might work for eight or nine days straight, have two or three days off then work another 10 days straight.
FT: How has the celebrity aspect changed your life? Any surreal celebrity moments?
RB: I remember my first fan freakout. A couple weeks after the show came out I walked into a restaurant here in State College and as Iâ€™m walking in this teenage girl who was with her teenage friends sees me and starts screaming. I didnâ€™t know what to do, and the entire restaurant stopped and stared at me and I just kind of sat down and felt strange.
Then a couple weeks later I was getting some stuff at Wal-Mart for the Super Bowl, some snacks and stuff, and I remember turning around and there are some people smiling and giggling at me, and as Iâ€™m walking around, five minutes later I look and the crowd kept getting bigger and bigger following me. That was very weird.
The last thing that was surreal was going to Sundance Film Festival. Celebrities are walking down the street everywhere. Everyone there is an actor, producer, director or journalist of some sort. Several celebrities came up and told me what big fans of the show they were, which was a weird feeling.
FT: Your show takes a very respectful approach to the paranormal whereas other shows like Ghost Adventures are all about the thrills and about provoking activity. Do you get to see any of the other shows?
RB: Iâ€™ve never watched an episode of Ghost Adventures. To be honest, I work non-stop doing this. When I come home and turn on the TV, the last thing I want to see is a ghost on my TV. Iâ€™m more of a comedy, drama or action guy. I watch The Office, Fringe, Mad Men, shows like that. I do like a good paranormal movie, but on TV, itâ€™s the last thing I feel like watching.
FT: How often do you get back to Sumter?
RB: About twice a year, at Christmas and a couple weeks during the summer. We have a lake house at Lake Santee, so I like going there and I do miss South Carolina. When I left South Carolina, I was dying to get out. I was looking at USC and the College of Charleston, and I wouldnâ€™t have minded going to USC-Columbia. But part of me wanted to have a complete change of scenery geographically. Iâ€™ve always been that guy who wants to disappear and go somewhere new.
But in truth, I miss South Carolina. I miss the weather, I miss the culture. There really is a difference between the South and the North, and Iâ€™ll always come back.