WARNING - make sure you are not alone in the house and have all the lights on when watching Syfy’s Paranormal Witness. Airing Wednesday nights @ 10:00 p.m. EST/PST, this drama-documentary series uses a mix of interviews, actual home video and spine-tingling drama to bring peoples’ real stories of paranormal and other similar unexplainable and frightening experiences to life on the small screen.
Last week, series producer Mark Lewis spoke with me and other journalists about his work on the program. The following is an edited version of our Q & A. Enjoy!
Could you talk a little bit about how the stories for Paranormal Witness were chosen; is there a database somewhere that you went to or was it a friend of a friend telling you the story, etc?
MARK LEWIS: I wish there was a database, but unfortunately there isn’t. We really had to search for these stories. We’re on the hunt for very credible witnesses who tell extraordinary tales and extraordinary tales develop into proper stories. These types of stories are very few and far between, though, so we really have to reach out to all sorts of groups, including sometimes paranormal groups, as well as comb through newspapers and media reports. We do everything possible to try and track down these stories.
So it’s a real journalistic endeavor. Fortunately, they don’t sort of come running to you. You really have to go looking for them, and that’s where the best stories come from. Many of these people aren’t necessarily trying to sell their tales. They’re been through some extraordinary situations and are, in fact, often shell-shocked by their experiences. These individuals are the ones who, in some ways, we have to convince to come on television to tell their remarkable tales.
You mentioned how important it is to have credible witnesses. Is there any kind of vetting or anything else done to ensure that, or is it just kind of done through you?
ML: Absolutely, yes. I mean, first of all we are really only looking for the most credible witnesses, and we do conduct background checks as well as evaluations on all of the witnesses for the series, which is quite an extensive process. We’re very keen that the stories themselves are corroborated. They can be done, for example, through a newspaper report or radio transfer.
One of our stories, the Trumbull UFO Chase, tells how a 911 dispatch office in Ohio was completely inundated with calls from the townspeople seeing bright lights in the sky. A number of police officers then wound up chasing this unidentified flying object around the county. That entire incident was recorded over the Trumbull County police dispatch 911 records offices, so that type of archival, factual basis features very heavily in our show. Likewise, if photographs have been taken of poltergeist activity we make sure that those are cut into the films to give it that extra layer of credibility.
The other thing we’re very insistent upon is that we want these stories to be corroborated by multiple sources. So when we find a contributor for the series, we’re very, very keen to speak with other people involved in the stories, either those they know or other relatives or people who have come into the house and experienced the same thing. Some of them appear in the episodes, but some don’t. So we seek out paranormal witnesses in order to verify or at least corroborate a story in order to put together the most credible stories that we possibly can.
The trend with a number of these paranormal-themed shows is the documentary style and investigations. Why did you go more in the direction of reenactments instead of going to the actual locations and trying to investigate and collect your own evidence?
ML: As you say, there are a lot of these shows that exist already, especially the ghost hunter-types, We didn’t want to tread on their toes, partly because they do it so well already, and partly because we wanted to do something new and original.
I’m British and come from a British television production company where we produce many of these drama documentaries - the sort of fusion of dramatization and a documentary component, which are the interviews. We’ve made this type of program before for networks such as National Geographic and Discovery. We call them testimony driven shows and we’ve found them to be extremely effective.
So we’ve got the pure, unadulterated testimony of the witness, and we then dramatize that quite literally, as you’ll see with the episodes, often to the very word, where somebody says, you know, “I stood up and I saw the statue had been broken on the floor.” Again, it’s extremely effective, I think, as a documentary form because the drama reflects very specifically the testimony of the real people.
As you said you’re British and there’s a rich history of paranormal TV shows in the UK, some of which are pretty theatrical. At any point so far with Paranormal Witness have you decided not to go down a particular road with a story because it’s just too ridiculous and people won’t buy it?
ML: That’s a very good question. Definitely when we come across stories we look at some of them and wonder if they’re too fantastical or difficult for an audience to process or to believe. That’s another reason why we’ve gravitated towards the credible witnesses and telling compelling tales.
Now, many of the stories we’ve got in the series, I would say still on the surface appear to be quite fantastical. There are stories of, for instance, demonic possession or poltergeists shifting great big pieces of furniture around rooms. On face value they can appear fantastical, and that’s why I say there’s an absolute necessity to search out the most credible witnesses that we possibly can. If you believe those witnesses then you’ll believe the stories, and if that happens, then these stories become even scarier, still. I think there’s tremendous power in that.
With a number of your stories falling under the paranormal umbrella, what is the breakdown of the remaining episodes? Do you have a lot of spooky ones or is there a big mix of stories?
ML: As a series, I’m really proud of the mix that we’ve got, but to be honest, the mix has been quite sort of fortuitous. We have a really broad range of stories. Some are real rollercoaster rides and shock-a-minute like “The Haunting of Mansfield Mansion,” which I think is probably the scariest of all of the stories. Others are supernatural tear jerkers like “Haunted Highway,” and some are really just kind of overwhelmingly fascinating, such as the “Trumbull County UFO Chase.”
So it’s impossible for me to sort of pigeonhole them and say we’re got more of this and more of that because, honestly, each of the stories that are in the six episodes this season are all, in my opinion, incredibly difficult. And that’s what makes it so fascinating. They’re a really rich mixed bag of stories and even all of us who work on the show were surprised at just how different each of the stories are. So I hope an audience will respond in the same way and think, “My goodness, there’s such a mixed bag under the same kind of paranormal umbrella.”
I think what’s really interesting about these films is that they play out like proper stories. If you were to sit someone down and tell them a ghost story in the best way that you possibly could, many of our stories play out like that pretty wonderful, sort of perfect ghost story. You couldn’t engineer them better.
I mean “Emily, the Imaginary Friend,” the first story, the (series) premiere, is a creepy story that develops and has an extraordinary resolution. First of all you think it’s an imaginary friend, but then it turns into a poltergeist, and subsequently it’s a real kick in the teeth when you discover that Emily isn’t Emily at all, but a sort of poltergeist spirit masker - a male spirit masquerading as a little girl.
You couldn’t script something better than that, and I think that’s what we found each time as we researched these stories. And they get more and more frightening. We’ve got some real surprises coming up for the fourth, fifth and sixth episodes.
Episode six, which we’re editing at the moment, is a story of demonic possession and it’s absolutely extraordinary. Again, on the face value you think, “My goodness, this can’t be true,” except in this case it’s corroborated by six people including the chief of police of the town in which it happened. It really is an incredibly creepy, extraordinary story of demonic possession, so you’d better look out for that one.
Have you ever had any paranormal activity manifest itself while you guys have been filming?
ML: No, not so far. I did many of the interviews with the people involved, and for various reasons we didn’t often do them in their homes. I will say, though, that I’d be quite frightened to go to some of these homes when you hear what’s happened to some of the people.
Amy Moore, the owner of the house in Mansfield, Connecticut, had that extraordinary type of haunting. Her stories are so horrific, compelling and convincing. I always throw a question at our interviewees at the end like, “Now, there may be skeptics out here who say, ‘You know, is this really true?’”
I remember Amy pointing her finger at me, wagging her finger at me and saying to me, “All you need to do, Mark, is come to my house.” You stay there for 24 hours and I guarantee that you will be pinched or hit or you’ll see something or you’ll feel something, but you’ll be scared out of your wits.”
I’m sitting there thinking, “My goodness I do not want to step inside your house.” So in answer to your question, no, thank goodness, there has been no sort of paranormal activity present during our interviews. But, again, you need only to hear these people speak about such extraordinary kind of paranormal activity that I, for one, would often be frightened to step over the threshold into their homes.
I’ve seen the trailer for “The Poltergeist,” segment; what’s the story behind the second half of the episode, “Watched in the Wilderness?”
ML: “Watched in the Wilderness” (airing this Wednesday, September 21st) is the story of a Jeff Boiler, an ex-Marine and former acting deputy sheriff in Oregon who, having finished his duties one Friday afternoon, I believe it was, decided to hike up into the wilderness of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon.
During his hike, he came across what he initially thought was a person high up in the trees. He very quickly realized, however, that it wasn’t human. Over the next hour or so, Jeff proceeded to be chased down the mountain by whatever this creature was. It herded him down the mountainside, snapping great big bows of trees and getting closer and closer as darkness fell.
So it’s a story of an extraordinary chase by an unidentified creature. Again, the person involved is a former cop and Marine and another very credible witness. Something terrible happened to him out there in the wilderness. I can tell you I certainly won’t be going to Cascade Mountains on my vacation.
Do you personally have your own paranormal story?
ML: No, I’ve never had a paranormal experience of my own. Interestingly enough, though, as soon as you start working on a show like this and you meet people, whether they’re camera crews, researchers, journalists, directors, whoever, everybody talks to me and starts telling me their tales. That’s when I start to think, “I must be about the only one who hasn’t had a paranormal experience.”
You suddenly realize that a lot of people have actually had some form of experience in their lives and it’s affected them in one way or another. It’s also not always something that they sort of freely talk about, whether it’s because they’re embarrassed about it or they think that people will laugh at them, or whatever the reason. So I think that has certainly changed my perspective, and after 11 stories for six episodes, it’s very hard to knock these stories down and not to believe.
Even if they weren’t true, though, all of these contributors would have had to have come up with these incredibly detailed, convoluted, extraordinarily complicated tales and then had to corroborate one another. I just don’t think that’s possible, so therefore something terrible has gone on in these peoples’ lives. They are compelling as well as incredibly convincing in their testimony, and if you’re doing the interviews or you’re watching their stories, I think even the most skeptical individual couldn’t help but be partly convinced by them.
What terrifies you?
ML: For me, it’s the idea of demonic possession. I would encourage you to tune into “The Rain Man,” which is part of our final (sixth) episode, because that absolutely is one that disturbs me the most. I spent quite a long time in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania where it all took place, and there are six contributors to that film - Don Decker, the gentleman himself who was possessed, and five other people who witnessed what happened to him over the course of a couple of weeks.
You sit across from people in their living rooms and they say, “Mark, you just had to be there. You have to understand that what we felt in that room was evil.” Some of them told me, “I’m not a particularly religious person, but having lived through what happened back in 1983, I feel that there is real evil in this world and it’s very difficult to convince people unless you were there,” When you hear someone say that to you, it sends shivers down your spine and sort of unsettles you, It certainly did with me.
All photos above by JP Moczulski and copyright of Syfy.