“Despite thousands of years of theological study from every different form of religion, the duality of nature, light and dark, remains unfathomable.” ***
Everyone loves a good ghost story, particularly if the story bears evidence of a genuine haunting. Born on Halloween and gravitating from earliest memory to “things that go bump in the night”, I relish true ghost stories. Why, then, when I first tuned in to the A&E series, Paranormal State, was I not so much chilled and thrilled as I was thinking, “Hey, these kids are smart. They got the network to bankroll and film their paranormal investigations and made names for themselves. They’re probably theatre majors seeking careers in that vein.”
Although this reaction was probably the result of too much exposure to reality TV, Ryan Buell, founder and captain of the Paranormal Research Society (PRS), would probably appreciate my healthy dose of skepticism. Ryan, you see, is a skeptic himself. But he’s much more than that, and he and I have a bit more in common, as I discovered in reading his absorbing book, Paranormal State, written with Stephan Petrucha.
Tormented by paranormal activity as a child, Ryan’s nightly confrontations with things either beyond the grave or not of this world — or perhaps both — were met with confusion and ultimately, repression on the part of his family. He grew up with these issues unresolved, turning inward for solutions that never quite materialized, as well as the writings of respected researchers and authors, which also left questions unanswered. Driven to uncover those answers, while studying at Penn State University, Ryan founded the PRS (Paranormal Research Society) in 2001. Its objective was to find the truth behind reported hauntings.
In establishing his core group, Ryan’s criteria was no less stringent than that of the classes created and taught by his professors. He desired associates who were serious and hardworking; cohorts who did not frighten easily, and who could balance their course loads with the rigors of conducting investigations (primarily, long after the sun had set), gathering and documenting evidence, and arriving at well-supported conclusions, conclusions that either affirmed or refuted otherworldly activity in reportedly haunted settings.
What Ryan didn’t want were jokesters and thrill seekers, including students who showed up for investigations after getting tanked in the local taverns. The resulting, well-culled group was a collection of unique, focused, dedicated, and interestingly diverse young people as thirsty for knowledge of the paranormal as their leader.
The team’s first cases were an old, unsolved murder that had occurred on campus and the 2001 disappearance of a coed. For the latter case, the PRS collaborated with the local police, who welcomed the assistance. Soon, the PRS was branching out into other cases, which people often brought to the team.
As word of their investigations spread, the PRS attracted the attention of A&E, which offered to craft a series (originally, 13 episodes) centered upon the investigations. Contrary to my initial opinion of how the show was created, Ryan did not curry the favor of the producers or directors; they came to him. When they did, he laid down the law.
The series, like the investigations themselves, had to be conducted with the utmost of integrity: no special effects, no coaching of clients, psychics, or anyone else concerned prior to the explorations, no subterfuge whatsoever for the sake of ratings. The network’s onus was, essentially, to condense days’ worth of investigations into meaningful half-hour formats appealing to viewers. In so doing, A&E financed more sophisticated equipment for the team, paid travel expenses, and perhaps most importantly, sought out and identified potential cases beyond the geography of Penn State and surrounding areas. With input from his team, Ryan would have final say as to accept the cases or not. And, all investigations, as they had from the inception of the PRS, were to be conducted without monetary compensation from the clients.
In crafting the series, Ryan Buell arrived at a deeper understanding of the paranormal, himself, and his talents. He also became confident and courageous enough to share some very personal data with his readers. Like me, Ryan was raised in a Catholic family and retains a strong faith. While I walked away from the Catholic Church many years ago, and while I got the sense that Ryan no longer practices scheduled rituals as the Church demands, neither one of us threw Baby Jesus out with the bathwater. We both honor the core of the faith while refusing to bow to manmade constraints that remove it from the teachings, and indeed, the life lived and the examples set by Jesus Christ.
But even with his roots firmly planted in Catholicism, Ryan is accepting of other religions — or the lack thereof. One of his associates is agnostic; two are pagans (and before you conjure images of devil worship at the mention of “pagans,” please understand that paganism is an ancient religion that respects life in all its forms and those who created that life). Ryan’s openness allows him to utilize the services of both priests and psychics, often simultaneously: partnerships never sanctioned by the Catholic Church at large. (And this, I have always found odd, as 39 Books of the Bible mention prophesy, including direct references to it being a gift from the Holy Spirit).
But Ryan himself was not keen on the use of psychics, as many of those with whom he’d had previous contact proved themselves to be charlatans and thieves. Chip Coffey, a reputable, tell it to ya straight psychic, was more or less thrust upon him by A&E as, I suspect, was soft-spoken psychic Michelle Belanger. Ryan grew to develop a genuine respect for, as well as friendships with, both of these individuals featured frequently on the series. Michelle, in fact, wrote the enticing forward to Ryan’s book.
Lorraine Warren, a psychic of worldwide renown, was not dropped in Ryan Buell’s lap. Initially leery of an association with the series, Lorraine came around on her own, impressed by Ryan’s focus and commitment, and that of his team. Lorraine and her deceased husband Ed were, respectively, the psychic and demonologist who had conducted the most extensive work on the “The Amityville Horror” case. Interestingly, I have a connection to that case via less than six degrees of separation. My uncle, who passed over several years ago, was friends with the head of the household murdered along with the rest of the family in that infamous house in Amityville on Long Island, New York. Ironically, my uncle and the murdered man had been hunting buddies.
If you’re a fan of the series, Paranormal State, and have yet to read the book, you’ll want to know what cases the volume covers. I’m not going to give you a lot of details. Life should hold a few surprises, and those in the book include some behind the scenes information that, because of time restrictions or other reasons, never made it to the screen. There are a few horrific cases, not limited to those involving demonic activity, the investigation of long-lived urban legend, physical manifestations of spirits at a pub, and the haunting of an asylum whose departed denizens scared two former military men away from the place, with vows of never stepping foot onto the property again.
In the book, as in the series, Ryan and his team debunked a few of the cases as having no basis in the paranormal. They always seek, first, to attribute unexplained activity to the here-and-now. These include the creaking of an old house, vibrations caused by nearby train tracks, blackouts precipitated by a power company, or – most interestingly — the beleaguered emotional states of some clients. Anything else must be proven to be paranormal, as far as one can prove things in an evolving science.
The book is a very basic primer for those uninitiated into matters of the occult; it whets the appetite of those who may wish to delve further into this broad and fascinating domain.
Initially a skeptic, I came away from the book with a much greater respect for Ryan Buell and his team. This includes original members Elfie Music, who serves as spiritual advisor, Serg Poberezhny, technical guru, and Josh Light, another original member now acting primarily behind the scenes. Heather Taddy and Katrina Weidman began as trainees assigned to conduct interviews and historical research prior to the investigations, and who became active participants in those investigations. As with most casts in most series, Paranormal State‘s has gone through changes demanded, in part, by the graduation of the students from the university.
What began at first as a quest for the truth behind alleged hauntings or possessions wound up being exactly that — and much more. For Ryan and his team’s greatest joy is to bring peace to their clients, whether by helping lingering spirits to pass over, ousting demons from other realms, or assisting clients to purge themselves of their own, internal demons that prevent them from pursuing fulfilling lives.
If you’re looking for something different in your reading material, something that will leave you still wondering, but in a good way, look no further than this book.
*** Excerpt, page 220, Paranormal State by Ryan Buell with Stephan Petrucha (2010, A&E ibooks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)