Zak Bagans is an evangelist for the paranormal. Unlike his TV ghost-hunting peers (the Ghost Hunters team and Josh Gates of Destination Truth, for example), Bagans does not subscribe to a credo of skepticism. The star and driving force behind Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures is unabashedly on a mission to ram proof of the paranormal -- of ghosts -- down the gullet of a disbelieving world. And TV is his ramrod.
Almost a decade ago in his hometown of Trenton, Michigan, the proud and testosterone-infused Bagans was "taunted" by a ghost. His fearful reaction to that seminal incident -- a Saul-to-Paul conversion moment -- drove him to confront his fears and dive headlong into paranormal investigation in pursuit of knowledge, illumination, and edification.
Now it's a way of life.
Buoyed by the success of Ghost Adventures, now completing its fourth season, Travel Channel has turned over the keys of the shop to Bagans for another show, Paranormal Challenge, debuting on Friday, June 17 at 9pm. Blending the investigation and competition formats, Challenge pits two teams of spirit-sleuths against each other to gather evidence in iconic paranormal settings. Bagans created, exec produces, and hosts the show, which is scheduled for 12 episodes in season one.
Dawn Olsen and I recently caught up with Bagans on the set of Paranormal Challenge as it was shooting an episode at Mansfield Reformatory, the notoriously haunted former maximum security prison in Mansfield, Ohio.
We met Zak at a side door of the imposing stone edifice and followed him through shadowy, tight passageways of concrete and steel, massive electrical cables snaking along the way, until we reached the makeshift "nerve center" of the show in a large room with a high ceiling and windows.
What goes on here?
Here's a little look behind the scenes of the nerve center. When the contestants are investigating, the two guest judges I invite from the paranormal community, along with my chief judge Dave Schrader of Darkness Radio, and myself, sit down at the nerve center and watch the proceedings. From here we can see every single thing the contestants do -- every single move, every single breath -- while they investigate.
The two teams investigate simultaneously. They are competing, and while they are competing to find great evidence, they are also being judged on teamwork, technology, and the history that is so important in any paranormal investigation. You're interviewing me right now - if you want better answers from me you're going to dig up some history about me. Same scenario when you do an EVP [electronic voice phenomena] session and you want to talk to spirits: you go in there, you learn the history, you find out what deaths occurred here and use those names - if those spirits are in here lingering, you start calling them out by name and you use the same emotional energy present when they died -- rage, sadness -- and that will bring them to you.
So, we remind our contestants that the history is so important and they get a walk-through of the location before they begin investigating and that blends into the judging categories. There are five: technology - how well they use the equipment that was given to them...
You give them the equipment?
Yes, each team is given the same pieces of equipment: two night vision camcorders, one thermal imaging camera, one full-spectrum camera, one full-spectrum camcorder, two digital audio recorders, a mel meter that measures electromagnetic energy, lights and accessories. That's it - we test them on how well they use that equipment.
As to the other judging categories in addition to how well they use the equipment: it's how well they work together as a team, how well they use the history, the quality of the evidence they gather, and evidence presentation.
Today is the final day [of this episode taping], last night were the investigations. Today is evidence presentation. Today they will present here in the nerve center to the other three judges and myself the evidence they were able to capture.
This is the fourth episode we have filmed. From the previous three episodes it is absolutely amazing to see what these people have been capturing. People want to see what the "average ghost hunters," those not in the spotlight, can do. This is why I created the show, to give those people the opportunity to be in the spotlight, for the world to see that you at home can capture the same kind of evidence we capture on Ghost Adventures.
This stuff is real and it's really happening.
We are talking about TV, so the evidence is critical. What makes your show [Ghost Adventures] different, though, is how strong you guys are as personalities. You are serious investigators, you use the latest equipment -- you even develop your own equipment -- and you're gathering amazing evidence, but you're also strong personalities.
It's exciting, and a lot of people at home who haven't done this can be opinionated. But when you're out here communicating with something that most people don't even believe exists, it will make you react in ways you've never imagined before. Sometimes you're body doesn't even know how to react to coming into contact with an energy that it thinks is dead.
It's supernatural in itself, the way that you react to the ghosts.
Right, and a lot of people in this fast paced day and age of iPhones, iPods, and computers that we forget to peek in that other world to see if there is something else after this life.
How are the teams selected for the show?
We have a casting director who reaches out to the teams [in the paranormal community]. In order to qualify, the teams need to be experienced, with real investigations under their belts. Each team has at least three members including a lead investigator and an equipment tech.
This is your opportunity: if you have a team and you are proud of it and you think you can do this - you can win the ultimate bragging rights for a paranormal competition. This has never been done before. This is the ultimate for honor, for credibility, for respect in such a "sensitive" community.
What do you see as the next generation of the technology?
I think we're already there. What I always wanted to do is communicate with spirits and hear their voices in real time. And now with real-time digital recorders we can. We just did an investigation [on Ghost Adventures] at Loretta Lynn's plantation home [airing June 10], and at that time [fellow investigators] Nick [Groff], Aaron [Goodwin] and I were using a parabolic dish with a unidirectional microphone attached to a real-time digital recorder.
I could hear spirits communicating amongst themselves. I was eavesdropping on them talking about us.
So, when it comes to the next generation, it's here. I would like at some point to see goggles like in the movie 13 Ghosts, where you put them on and you can see the ghosts standing right next to you. We're still trying to find them in the light spectrum and we're having trouble seeing them. I'm very comfortable with where we are now on the audible part - we can communicate very easily with them. But I want to see them more. That might be in the process [of development].
When I think about Top 10 visual evidence, the flying brick in your pilot film is right up there.
You never know when that stuff is going to happen. You would think that when you walk into a place where there are ghosts everywhere that for their own enjoyment and entertainment they would screw with us all the time. You know, throw a frigging block at my head while I'm talking to you. But that doesn't happen often.
I always say their world and our world are like two pieces of Swiss cheese put together - they are constantly moving and those holes hardly ever line up. But when they do and the conditions in the environment are right -- the humidity, the moon phase, the temperature... everything -- that's when we can see them. It's like a lightning storm in the desert: when it happens you need to be there.
Is there different energy at night?
There are a lot things different about night versus day. We've collected Class A EVPs in the day, I saw a full-bodied apparition at Sloss Furnaces when it was still light out. But, night is a mysterious time, not only the "witching hour" supernatural aspect, but a lot of our equipment only works at night. We can only "see" the infrared spectrum in the dark, and infrared is very beneficial to paranormal research: we see ectoplasm, balls of energy.
It's weird to say, but at night you can see more.
And a lot of things happen at night. A lot of the murders and the dark history that we learn about happened at night.
What is your guess on what kind of energy we are talking about with spirits?
It's not a lie that we are made up of energy, and we're like balloons: when we die, we pop. That energy goes back into the atmosphere. The emotional energy that we have when we die has something to do with the imprint that's left on the environment. There's residual energy and there's intelligent energy. Residual, you can walk around here and hear jail doors slamming, you can hear screams - those are all residual. Those hauntings don't know we are here - that's just a record replaying.
But intelligence equals life. We had an event here a few days ago with 300 people, and I was walking around with EVP expert Mark Constantino, who is one of our guest judges for this episode, and one of the only two Class A EVPs that I got at the event said, "Wanna see Mark." You could hear it just as loud as that. Once it said, "Wanna see Mark," there was a huge gash that formed on Mark's head with blood coming down.
Do you see yourself as a budding media mogul? That second show is a big step.
I'm just doing what I love to do. If things come as a result of that, whatever. I never set out to be in television. It's a crazy story - I just love what I do and I love being involved with the paranormal. I'll be involved with it until I die, then after I die.
It's sort of an eternal job!
I'm going to be one famous ghost.
What's the first thing you're going to do as a ghost? I hope it's a long time, by the way.
Visit some of these places I've investigated - probably get my ass beat by spirits I've pissed off.
Selected video from the interview:
View gallery: Paranormal Challenge Episode 4: Mansfield Reformatory