Around the time he was working on the pilot episode of “Ghost Whisperer,” series creator John Gray began dealing with some personal paranormal activity in the old New York home he shared with his wife. Items on the kitchen table were being turned upside down, furniture shifted in the attic, alarms went off, the doorbell rang when no one was there.
“Yeah, I know,” Gray says, laughing at the memory. “Too good to be true, right? Except we weren’t laughing at the time.”
Gray called Mary Ann Winkowski, the spiritual medium whose work inspired both the show and the character played by Jennifer Love Hewitt. Winkowski came to the house and matter-of-factly told Gray he had two ghosts — a mother and son who didn’t care for them much. She got them to “cross over,” and Gray says he has never had another problem in the residence.
Gray isn’t sure that he’d call himself a believer in the afterlife. But he says he doesn’t have to believe to appreciate the entertainment value of a show like “Ghost Whisperer,” which, along with CBS’ “Medium,” kickstarted a spate of paranormal-based television programming in 2005.
“The majority of the show’s audience might not believe in ghosts, but they do connect to the emotional content of the stories,” Gray says. “It’s all about having one last chance to say goodbye.”
With the variety of spook-centric shows currently on the air — the list includes A&E’s “Paranormal State” and “Paranormal Cops,” Syfy’s “Ghost Hunters,” the Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures” and “Fringe” on Fox — the viewing audience is spread across the demographic map.
But of course there is some commonality, says Ryan Buell, the founding director of the Paranormal Research Society and star of “Paranormal State.”
“After 9/11, there was a huge increase in interest in the paranormal,” Buell says. “Historically, that’s always been the case. In times of war, interest in the supernatural and spiritualism booms. Despite scientific advancement, when we’re bombarded with images of death and destruction, we always go back to the basic questioning of what happens to us after we die. Is there something more?”
The current paranormal programs take different approaches to answering the big unknown contained in that question, leading to some pointed debate, sometimes among people involved with the same show.
Spiritual medium James Van Praagh has been a consultant on “Ghost Whisperer” since the show’s inception, though his current involvement doesn’t extend much past lending his name to the series. Van Praagh, the author of several bestselling books on spirituality, says shows such as “Paranormal State” entertain on a basic level without shedding much light on their subject matter.
Likewise, “The Ghost Whis-perer” may sometimes go “over-board on the fright-night stuff,” he says.
“I know we have to put the frightening stuff in there,” Van Praagh says. “But there’s a way to do it that’s smart and not so in-your-face. But I understand: The TV world and the spiritual world are not the same.”
Nor should they be, says P.K. Simonds, who came onboard “Ghost Whisperer” in its third season as executive producer and immediately suggested the show’s most controversial, and popular, storyline: killing the Ghost Whisperer’s husband, Jim Clancy.
“People thought I was crazy, and maybe I was,” Simonds says. “But the heart of the show is its love story, and we had already established that ghosts can step into another body. Why couldn’t we make death as an obstacle to this love story, particularly since we knew we could overcome it?”
Romance and emotional journeys lend themselves to happy endings, Buell says, but he hastens to add that people need to understand that there’s a dark side to dealing with the paranormal.
“This stuff has become so mainstream that Parker Brothers is marketing pink ouija boards to preadolescent girls, who, at that age, can hardly fathom the concept of the afterlife,” Buell says. “What happens if they do contact the dead? We need to stop romanticizing these things and treat them with caution.”
Yet, for all the disparity in tone and content, the principals involved in the programs agree on one thing — the inevitability of their subject matter.
“We have two common experiences as human beings,” Van Praagh says. “One is birth, which we’ve been through and know a little about. And one is death. Every single one us of wants to know what happens when you die, and if there’s somebody out there that can shed some light on the subject, they’ll listen.”