Channel surfing on a Sunday afternoon, I stumbled upon a show I hadn’t seen before: A&E’s docudrama series Paranormal State.
All right, I thought. It’s kind of like the Sci Fi Channel’s Ghost Hunters, and a little like The Travel Channel’s Most Haunted. I like it.
But it was really the show’s 26-year-old star, Ryan Buell, who caught my attention. I watched as he made the sign of the cross, prayed, invited a priest to bless the house, and gave its owners a couple of blessed medallions. The show’s religious turn kept me fixed in my seat.
Is he for real? I asked myself. To find out, I tracked him down and spent some time chatting over the phone.
The Birth of Paranormal State
“Can you hold on a sec?”
It was two in the afternoon and Ryan Buell was still in his pajamas, washing the spoon he used to make his coffee. It had been a late night of paranormal investigation.
He explained that what would become his life’s work had its genesis in the 1990s. He was in pajamas, buried in blankets on the bottom bunk of his childhood room in Sumter, S.C. His step-father, a member of the Air Force, was in Iraq for the first Gulf War and his mother had gone to bed for the night. As he lay awake, he saw someone standing in his doorway.
“No one can grin that way humanly,” Buell told me. “Its face was wide. Not like a football head, like [Nickelodeon’s] Arnold, or anything, but wider than normal.” Buell screamed, and his mom came to see what was up.
“She was tired, she was stressed out,” he reported. “This was not the time to be claiming you have a monster hiding underneath your bed, you know what I mean? When she left, I didn’t want to turn away, but at the same time, I didn’t want to look right into the doorway. Staring at the footboard, I said, ‘I’m not looking, I’m not looking, I’m not looking.’ And that’s when all of a sudden the thing rose up from the foot of my bed.”
Buell got a spanking for screaming again, and avoided his bedroom for as long as he could.
“I was young,” Buell said. “I’m not sure if it was real or imagined. It certainly looked real, and the entire experience felt real.”
Fear and Fascination
That fear fostered a longtime fascination with things he can’t explain. During his sophomore year at Penn State, he started the Paranormal Research Society, or PRS, a group of college students and alumni that travels nationwide to investigate claims of paranormal activity.
In 2001, a Penn State student went missing and PRS introduced law enforcement officers to a psychic who offered to help in the investigation. Potential clients began calling soon after, followed by television producers. Buell eventually accepted A&E’s offer to build a series around the group, and Paranormal State’s premiere aired in December 2007, drawing 2.5 million viewers. Its second season finale airs on September 29.
Each episode of Paranormal State features a different client: a bar owner whose wine glasses won’t stay shelved; a young woman whose barn houses black mists; and a couple whose religious relics are burned without explanation.
Skeptic? You aren’t alone. Most people have to wonder whether some of the phenomena is fabricated by clients, but the show is so entertaining I rarely miss an episode.
Talking with Buell and some of his cohorts, it’s clear that he takes each case seriously, on or off camera. Each of the cases is unique, Buell told me, as is the team’s response to it. Buell’s reason for pursuing a paranormal line of work has always remained the same.
“There’s something real happening to these people, and someone needs to deal with it,” Buell said to me.
Science Can’t Explain Everything
“There are no official qualifications for being a paranormal investigator,” Buell said. “I’ve spent the last ten years training myself, working with highly regarded professionals in both the paranormal community and in other professions, [including] Catholic exorcists, law enforcement [and] psychologists, to become a well-rounded individual.”
Based on his childhood experience, Buell understands whether the phenomena are paranormal or psychological, the experience takes a physical or mental toll. He also knows that people are generally more likely to be judged than believed. His goal is to listen without judging, in order to try to determine whether the paranormal is involved.
“In PRS, we’ve developed a six month long training program that covers everything from in-class education to on-site training,” he explained. “They learn about research methods, religious perspectives, cultural perspectives and the history of paranormal research so they get an understanding of the diverse field.”
Of course, there are the skeptics who don’t take him seriously.
“Paranormal investigators can’t prove that any of this stuff is real,” he said. “So? People are forgetting that science can’t explain everything.”