tv reporter

Lots of freaky goings-on in A&E's ghostly 'State'

A&E's spooky new reality series "Paranormal State" could make believers out of the staunchest skeptic. It certainly did for network executives and show producers, who say they witnessed paranormal activity firsthand while shooting the series.

"I was a skeptic's skeptic," says Robert Sharenow, head of nonfiction and alternative programming at A&E. "I didn't buy into this stuff at all. But I gotta say, after what I've seen on the show, I totally re-evaluated my feelings (about the paranormal)."

"State," which debuted last week as A&E's most-watched series premiere in three years, follows the Paranormal Research Society, a group founded in 2001 by Ryan Buell consisting of Penn State University students who balance college life while investigating cases involving ghosts, hauntings, demonic possession and other paranormal phenomena.

"Almost everybody on the production team experienced something — from being pushed or feeling cold to other really weird things that happened," says Gary Auerbach of Go Go Luckey Prods. (MTV's "Laguna Beach"), which produces the show with Four Seasons Prods.

For example, while dealing with a case that involved demonic possession, every time anyone would make a phone call — be it from a cell phone or from a land line in Go Go Luckey's offices — the phones would "go in and out of reception," he says. In another instance, Auerbach was talking to a youngster who could have walked straight out of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense."

"He said he was experiencing different phenomena, this dark mist, and could see dead people all the time," Auerbach says. "I asked him if he could see someone right then, and he said yes and pointed right behind me. I got chills, and when I turned around, I saw a black mist roll past, light as a wisp."

They say they also experienced electronic voice phenomena — said to be the voices of ghosts or spirits heard through static — when cutting the episodes.

"It's really kind of freaky — if we weren't believers, we are now," Auerbach says, noting that the crew all wore St. Benedict medals dipped in holy water while shooting and had been briefed by Buell beforehand about what to do and how to act "in front of a spirit." (Buell is still a student at Penn State, working on another degree.)

"State" came about after Betsy Schechter brought the idea to A&E through her Four Seasons banner, which then partnered with Go Go Luckey. A&E executives were so encouraged by what they saw early in production that they increased the episode order from 14 half-hours (including the pilot) to 20 before the show even premiered. Sharenow says what makes the series such a good fit for A&E is that it deals with more than just paranormal phenomena.

"The purpose isn't to prove there are ghosts out there but to show these dramatic, very real confrontations and help these people in distress. The ghost element is almost incidental sometimes," he says. "The high-impact human drama in every episode makes the show accessible to a mass audience. It's very emotional and compelling and real."