We’ve all been there: You’re channel surfing on a lazy Saturday afternoon when suddenly you land upon a green night-vision scene showcasing a group of ghost hunters. But what ― if anything ― is real, and what’s just TV hocus pocus?
Well, after booking a gig on one of those paranormal reality-TV shows, I got my answer.
You know the shows I’m talking about. Television is currently flooded with series that feature ordinary folks sharing their supposedly supernatural encounters or investigators camping out at a haunted location in the hopes of finally capturing something irrefutably real on camera.
Several months ago, while scrolling through a casting website, I found a call for actors to reenact a paranormal encounter. I’ve done a few acting jobs before, but nothing like this. Still, I figured, why not give it a go? So I sent over my photos and acting reel. All in all, it was a relatively painless process. I emailed back and forth and chatted on the phone a few times with the casting directors, and because they would be shooting the reenactments with no lines, there was no need for me to audition ― my reel was enough. Within a month I was confirmed for a gig on a well-known network for one of television’s longest-running paranormal reality shows.
I was stoked, as I have long been a fan of these types of shows. Growing up, my grandma raised me on a healthy dose of “Unsolved Mysteries” and midnight radio. Pair that with the fact that my childhood home stood on the grounds of a former asylum for the mentally ill and you have the perfect ingredients to create a paranormal fanatic.
While the validity of what happens on some of these shows is somewhat questionable (to say the least), they are undeniably entertaining. And, sure, they can even be a bit hokey at times, but I still love them. They’re also a ratings goldmine for the networks and, in turn, drive an entire industry of paranormal fanfare and conventions.
Though I was excited to book my role, when it comes to ghosts, I consider myself a “skeptical believer.” As open as I am to the realm of the supernatural and what may lie on the other side, I am very grounded in my beliefs. I’m never going to hear a creaking floorboard and immediately jump to the conclusion that it was caused by Casper and his buddies.
I want to see convincing evidence.
But I am also open to the idea that some things are beyond our comprehension.
On the day of the shoot, I drove to the where the show was filming in upstate New York. I thought I was headed to a stand-in “haunted house” or television set, but my GPS directed me down a long gravel driveway flanked by overgrown cattails. As I pulled down the narrow drive, a decrepit farmhouse with patches of aged siding and chipped trim came into view.
When I laid eyes on the eerie two-story structure, I thought to myself, Wow, what brilliant production design. But little did I know, this was no set. Production was filming the reenactment segments at the actual house being featured on the show.
The “real” haunted house.
Going into the shoot, the producers disclosed the title of the series pretty early on. I had heard of the show, but it had been a long time since I watched it. Still, I didn’t realize this particular program filmed the reenactments at the locations where the events actually took place.
And while I was ready as I could be for my scenes, I wasn’t ready for what I’d encounter at that house that day.
“Several children supposedly passed away on the property after experiencing various accidents. As if that’s not dark enough, an expectant mother reportedly hung herself from a tree in the front yard, and an alleged serial killer is said to have once resided in the home.”
When I arrived, one of the show’s producers quickly greeted me and walked me to a tent in the front yard where the cast and crew could camp between takes. There, I met the homeowners, and they shared a bit of the property’s rich and deeply disturbing history, as well as a few of their own personal paranormal experiences.
Several children supposedly passed away on the property after experiencing various accidents. As if that’s not dark enough, an expectant mother reportedly hung herself from a tree in the front yard, and an alleged serial killer is said to have once resided in the home.
Nearly a dozen bodies have been unearthed in the backyard alone. However, it’s unknown exactly how many souls claim the surrounding swampland as their final resting place.
The inhabitants of the house say they’ve seen unexplained shadows and heard disembodied voices and even growls. They claim an angry spirit who lives on the second floor of the house has also made his presence abundantly clear.
The family’s priest, who was present during filming that day, recalled the time an unseen force assaulted him on the staircase inside the house and left a scratch on his arm.
Because we were filming at the very location where the entity allegedly harmed him, he voiced his concern for the cast and crew who were shooting inside the home. But it was this piece of advice he gave us that sent shivers down my spine: Make sure nothing follows you home.
He explained that it’s common for a spirit to trail someone from a haunted site. Basically, you visited them at their house, so now it’s their turn to visit yours.
I didn’t want to experience that and neither did any of the other cast or crew. The priest claimed that in order to avoid a spirit following you off the premise, you simply had to speak aloud something along the lines of, “If there is anything following me, you’re not welcome here. Go away.” The tactic apparently worked for him ― or at least he said it did ― so I figured I’d give it a try when I left. I mean, better safe than sorry, right?
My scenes weren’t until after lunch, so as everyone else was filming, I wandered outside and decided to explore the barn that was adjacent to the house.
As I entered the empty structure, I heard what sounded like someone walking on the tin roof of the barn.
I rushed outside to see if there was someone on the roof, but I didn’t see anyone. It would have been impossible to climb to the top of the barn without a ladder ― and there wasn’t one ― and besides, everyone else was inside the house shooting a scene.
I was spooked ― especially considering why I was on the property in the first place, but I also wasn’t convinced that what I had heard were really footsteps.
I returned to the production tent, and the homeowners joined me not long afterward. They showed me their spirit box, a piece of ghost hunting equipment that looks similar to a radio. The spirit box supposedly picks up frequencies that cannot be heard by the human ear and makes them audible, and some paranormal researchers claim it allows them to communicate with the dead. The homeowners proceeded to ask the box if there were any spirits present. Almost immediately, a robotic voice replied, “Yes.”
When they asked the entity to reveal its location, the box said, “In the barn.”
My heart immediately skipped a beat.
One of the homeowners then told me they believed a “friendly spirit” lived in the barn. They called him “tin man,” as he was frequently heard walking on the barn’s tin roof.
My jaw dropped. Did the footsteps that I had just heard belong to tin man? I had no way of being sure, so I decided to just keep it to myself. But before I could even completely process my thoughts, the director told me it was time to get into costume.
I was presented with a mostly black wardrobe consisting of dark jeans, a work shirt and a fedora, and I quickly changed in my car (ah, the glamorous world of television).
I didn’t know much about my role or what I’d be doing ― I’d only been told that I’d be playing a menacing-looking spirit for the reenactment segments. I hadn’t received a script ahead of time because I didn’t have any lines to memorize and I was told that my blocking would be explained to me on set. I didn’t even know which spirit I was going to be playing, but when I returned to the tent, the homeowners saw my fedora and immediately knew.
“Oh, you’re playing him.”
“Him?” I reluctantly asked.
They told me about the spirit of the man who supposedly occupies the top floor of the house. They claimed he was by far the darkest spirit that resided in the house and they believed him to be the one who attacked the priest on the stairs. He had also allegedly attacked another visitor at the house by throwing a heavy can of food at his head.
Great. I was playing the man who turned out to be the most evil spirit in the house ― and on his own turf, no less.
After the homeowners revealed this information to me, the rest of the cast and crew came outside for lunch. As we were eating, something caught my eye on the second story of the house: I suddenly noticed a curtain in a window begin to move as if someone was slowly peeling it back. I immediately thought it was unusual because, as far as I knew, no one was upstairs and it was a particularly still summer day.
I continued to intently watch the curtain when a crew member noticed my gaze. She asked if there was anyone up there and the director confirmed that everyone was outside. Someone asked if a fan might be running in that room, but due to the silence that’s required for filming, all of the fans in the home had been shut off.
One of the homeowners noted that it was probably him. And before anyone could say another word, the curtain pulled back once again and a ghoulish face stared directly as us.
“There he is,” she said matter of factly. She had lived in the home most of her life, so she claimed to have grown up with this sort of activity, and to her, it was almost commonplace. I, on the other hand, was fully trembling at this point.
The curtain dropped back into place and he was gone as soon as he appeared. I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed.
I just saw a ghost. Or at least what I believe to be a ghost. And he appeared to be watching me.
My pulse was racing. The entity was only in view for a second, and you would have had to focus on the window at the right moment to see it, but I was certain someone had been looking out that window. I couldn’t take my eyes off the spot where I had just seen his face. Several other people present also claimed to have seen him ― or something ― in the window, and the homeowner seemed almost a little excited that he decided to make a quick cameo.
I was less than enthused.
I immediately tried to find a way to explain away what I’d seen. I wondered if it could have been a reflection of some sort, but the outline was so distinct, and the curtain movement was very obvious. It had all happened in a way that made it difficult to rationalize ― or discredit.
I knew that I was filming at least some of my scenes in the house, and after hearing all the stories and having experienced what I’d just experienced, I really didn’t want to go inside. But I had already signed a contract, everyone was ready to shoot, and I didn’t feel I could back out at that point. Plus, the crew had been filming inside all morning and nothing had happened to any of them, so I hoped I’d be OK.
The director, who didn’t see the man in the window or have much time to entertain the sighting, began to organize the crew to shoot my upcoming scene. Before I knew it, it was time to head inside.
“Driving home late that night, I found myself continuously checking my rearview mirror to ensure there was nothing ― or no one ― in my back seat. My mind raced as I replayed what happened, and I was legitimately spooked by what I had experienced that day.”
My stomach began to churn as I entered the house for the first time. Old photos lined the wood-paneled walls. The temperature was scorching and the production lights didn’t help with the heat, either. Even though it was a bright and sunny day outside, the inside was eerily dark.
I slowly walked up the stairs and into the second-floor loft where I immediately locked my eyes on the curtain I had seen him ― or something ― peering through moments before.
As the director and camera crew reviewed the storyboards, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched.
A creepy doll sat in the corner, and I couldn’t tell what belonged in the house and what was a prop lugged in by the crew to set the scene. As it turns out, everything was original to the home, and I felt seriously uneasy in that second-floor room.
We spent what seemed like hours upstairs but we only filmed one scene there. The rest of my scenes were in other parts of the house and outside. Needless to say, I was happy when we finished filming upstairs and I could finally leave that room.
When the director called my wrap, I immediately hopped into my car and left. Remembering the priest’s advice, I spoke aloud, “If there is anything following me home, you’re not welcome,” as I pulled away from the property. I wasn’t convinced it would do anything ― or that there was even anything that needed to be done ― but I definitely didn’t want to wake up and find him standing at the foot of my bed.
Driving home late that night, I found myself continuously checking my rearview mirror to ensure there was nothing ― or no one ― in my back seat. My mind raced as I replayed what happened in the barn and what I saw in the second-floor window, and I was legitimately spooked by what I had experienced that day. Even writing about my experience now has adrenaline pumping through my veins.
Some might think that my experience would deter me from considering any more paranormal adventures, but, if anything, that day only added fuel to my curiosity about the supernatural. As freaked out as I was, I’m now equally, if not more, intrigued.
Before doing the project, I always wondered if the “real haunted houses” in these reality shows were actually real. What I’ve learned is that experience truly can shape perspective. Was it the environment I interacted with and the stories I was told while filming that caused me to hear and see certain things? Maybe. But after my day at that house, I believe what I experienced can’t be easily debunked.
Still, what makes so many of these shows ― and these kinds of experiences in general ― so frustrating is that there is no smoking gun that ever fully proves the existence of the paranormal. I find myself replaying that day over and over in hopes of finding a way to explain away what happened or, maybe, to finally and truly convince myself that I really did see a ghost that day.
I completely understand if other people don’t believe in the supernatural, and I’m sure some people reading this are already looking for ways to punch holes in my story, and that’s completely OK. It’s hard for even me to believe, and I was there. Ultimately, I hope people can agree to keep an open mind, because there’s so much in this world ― and beyond it ― that we can’t explain. And until we can, I’m going to keep wondering and keep looking for explanations whenever and wherever I can find them.
Alex Aronson is a pop culture junkie and entertainment writer. His work has appeared in Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Redbook and more. He is also a digital producer and the former host of Airtime’s “The Graveyard.” You can find him on Instagram and Twitter.