Halloween may be behind us but things are still more than a little spooky over at A&E as the new season of its reality hit "Paranormal State" returns to the air tonight. As always, Penn State's Ryan Buell and his Paranormal Research Society (PRS) are investigating unexplained phenomena as well as, in the season premiere anyway, exorcising a few demons along the way. While this new crop of episodes is sure to delve deep into some haunted houses and ghostly appearances, the blogs and discussion boards for the series often bring up the desire to see Ryan and some of his female crew perhaps cross the line from mere co-workers to, well, more than co-workers. Our Jim Halterman talked with A&E Executive Producer Elaine Frontain Bryant about why the show has taken off with audiences, why emotions sometimes ride high in the investigations and how she'd feel if the show suddenly had elements of cast romance thrown into the mix.
Jim Halterman: When "Paranormal State" first hit the air, there were already a few other shows in the same genre. Did you expect it to take off like it did?
Elaine Frontain Bryant: Of course I did! [Laughs.] "Paranormal State" was brought to us and the producers were thinking about developing it as a scripted show. I'd read about Ryan and this group he started in college and his back-story has this mythical experience that he had as a child and he just wants to help people because he wasn't helped. I thought, "This sounds like a great non-fiction show!" Lucky for us, Ryan is a character that is just compelling to watch as he's helping other people. "Ghost Hunters" had certainly been out there and had done well for a couple of seasons by the time we launched but we have such a different take on the paranormal. I think Ryan is really there to help people and that's why it resonates with our audiences.
JH: Is there something to the fact that Ryan and his crew are younger than who we usually see in these shows?
EFB: I think it is really the approach. They aren't doing it and just saying, "Oh, something's haunted! Let's go look!" They are there to listen to these people and, right or wrong, they are there to help these people. Certainly it's an amazing hook that they started as this bunch of kids and they're now pretty much all out of college but Ryan started this not to do a TV show but because he didn't have anyone like himself to go to when he had his experience so he wanted to offer that to other people. As a young person and also the fact that he has that kind of wherewithal to help other people says a lot.
JH: There are a lot of naysayers out there regarding what you do on "Paranormal State" including a website (www.ParanormalStateIllustrated.com) designed to challenge and critique the work the group is doing. What do you say to the criticism?
EFB: Anybody talking is good. That's what we want. It's a thing that is debatable. Not everyone believes. We are truly a fly-on-the-wall film crew following Ryan with what [he and the crew] are doing. It's Ryan's opinion if something is right or not and every time he disagrees with evidence that they find, we air that. I think it's great that people have healthy debate and it's fascinating. I think why paranormal programming is reaching such an interesting level of availability is who doesn't want to believe that our spirit goes on after we're gone? There's a little spooky in that but there's also a spiritual side to that, too.
JH: I wasn't expecting to see an exorcism in the season premiere but does religion often play a part in the investigation?
EFB: It really depends on the situation. They'll go with whatever religion the client has to make them feel better or to have a kind of blessing. But in the season premiere, I think, the man says if you believe in God you have to believe in the devil. It's two side of the coin, right? Often religion comes in. Ryan is a Catholic and exorcisms, or deliverances, as we know from "The Exorcist" on down are Catholic events and they take them very seriously. There's no fun being played at all. The reality is very real and the stakes are very high. Why not have a priest or someone be there to help them with backup?
JH: How much research do you do on each case before the cameras role?
EFB: Ryan investigates with his team on every case. What is a litmus test for him is if he offers someone, "Oh, gee, we won't come out for the show but let me just send somebody to you," and they then have less interest in the help without being on the show, he doesn't believe them anymore. If somebody would be open to help whether they are on the TV show or not, that's when he realizes these people are really experiencing something and they're not doing it for their 15 minutes of fame. I like that he has that skepticism and he pokes through it and it makes our cases feel very genuine.
JH: It seems like a lot of the fans would like to see some romance brew between Ryan and some of his crew. What would you think if that became a part of the show?
EFB: Honestly, if it happened naturally and it happened with someone on his crew, we would be happy to let it be known. That's something that we don't get involved in but I'd like to see it, too!
JH: So there's no chance that show could morph into "The Hills?"
EFB: No, no, nothing like that. In the beginning we realized that there were a couple of different ways we could go and we decided that the cleanest most satisfying way was to certainly know and love the characters at PRS but it's really about the client and PRS is really trying to help that client. I think we made the right choice.
JH: In the season opener, there are some pretty big emotions that come from some of the clients involved. Do you usually know when things might go that way or is it usually unexpected?
EFB: It's certainly more satisfying when it happens but when the people who are really being effected are being effected, nine times out of ten there are real emotions there and most often they've had to hide it from people because they don't want to sound crazy. So here comes someone like Ryan, who really wants to listen and believe and try to help and it tends to really open people up. I think especially when he starts talking to people and their past starts coming up you're just peeling back the layers of the onion of their life and you can't help but be emotional.
JH: One thing I've noticed is that things often don't have a clear-cut answer at the end of the episode.
EFB: Honestly, I think that's the beauty of the show that we don't try to wrap up everything in a bow. A lot of times Ryan just says, "Look, people feel better that they were validated and a group of people came in and felt the same thing." Or they'll do a blessing so it might help alleviate some of it. He gives them answers and I think a lot of times when you've been given some answers it's less scary. A lot of the houses and a lot of the people still have experiences after we leave but they're less unsettling because Ryan has been there and tried to help them. Certainly blessings, sage cleanings, things like that really do change the energy of the room and they feel better after that.
JH: In general, why do you think reality television has exploded over the last 10-15 years?
EFB: Truth can be stranger than fiction and there's nothing more interesting than seeing something that is in a unique environment with unique characters. Obviously, the genesis was that they were cheaper to make but now I think it's the audience that's asking for them more and more. Certainly from the A&E perspective - the fly-on-the-wall perspective - I think it's just so compelling to think that people like this exist out there.
The season premiere of "Paranormal State" airs tonight on A&E at 10:00/9:00c.