Think of Pennsylvania State University, and undoubtedly Coach JoePa and football come to mind. Come Monday, a new TV show will add something darker to the campus mix when
debuts on A&E.
The 20-part docudrama focuses on the Penn State Paranormal Research Society (PRS), whose objective isn't merely to prove that paranormal phenomena exist. Like real-life Ghostbusters, the group enters the fray when ordinary families are terrified by inexplicable events.
An official university club, PRS was founded in 2001 by South Carolina native Ryan Buell during his first semester in Happy Valley. Reluctant to talk about what spurred his supernatural interests, Buell guardedly states, "I had some experiences that frightened me. I would prefer not to talk too much about it."
A video account on the show's Web site (
) is more forthcoming: Buell saw a 4-foot-tall, troll-like demon in his bedroom.
Elaine Frontain Bryant, vice president of nonfiction and alternative programming for A&E, comments, "Ryan had an experience himself when he was young. It really created kind of his mission in life. It's part of the foundation of the show."
Buell's parents, concerned with his claim, took the boy to see a child counselor. The therapist quickly dismissed the account as the product of an overactive imagination.
Which was pretty much the same reaction he got when he went to register the PRS. "I remember applying for the first time and the looks I got from the people standing across from me," Buell recalls.
Not surprisingly, the club was denied official university recognition the first go-round. "For the most part the university has been very supportive," Buell says. "There are the critics and the skeptics. You would think you'd find paranormal research more at universities but it's very discouraged and laughed at."
But four years later, the PRS is now one of the most respected organizations of its kind in the country.
Despite receiving hundreds of calls each year, the PRS takes on only about 30 cases annually. (The onsite investigative team is usually composed of Buell and four other Penn State undergrads.) They've assisted law-enforcement agencies with missing-person cases and also provided assessments for Catholic dioceses on claims of demonic possession.
On the show, 19 of the 20 episodes claim to find evidence of paranormal activity; as would be expected, this rate is far higher than that of the regular PRS annual caseload.
On the series premiere, the PRS heads to Pittsburgh to investigate the case of Matthew, an 8-year-old who has been seeing the ghost of "Timmy," a young man who committed suicide.
Matthew, who now sleeps in Timmy's old room, appears to make a positive photo ID of Timmy and knows things he couldn't possibly know unless adults had coached him or the paranormal is at work.
The second episode on Monday explores the haunting of a home by one of the more daunting paranormal archetypes, a demon. In a bit of a cliffhanger, viewers will have to wait until the next week for the resolution of this creepy two-part installment.
Made by some of the same people who produced
, it's no wonder the show sometimes borders on the sensational. Viewers are treated to lots of foreboding light effects, clever camera angles, and haunting music.
While Buell admits his "Director's Log" commentary may sound slightly scripted, he assures viewers that those are his own words and that "there's nothing on my part that is fake at all." Frontain Bryant adds, "We pride ourselves on the total authenticity of the show. We are just documenting it."
Equipped with rather standard gadgetry and the assistance of psychics, demonologists, and university counselors and psychologists, the PRS relies heavily upon client intake interviews and historical research.
They use tape recorders, night vision and thermal cameras, satellite thermometers, and electronic voice phenomenon recordings to document their cases.
But is that freakishly cold spot in the house they are investigating the result of a restless spirit absorbing all the warmth of energy from that location? Or has the satellite thermometer simply located a persistent draft? Intelligent minds may disagree.
Buell emphatically disagrees with the prejudice that people who have paranormal experiences are crazy, uneducated crackpots. "These are very real people. They are rational, sane people that are having very real experiences. I think that psychologists should be much more open to paranormal experiences. It's not ethical. It's really harming people."
The PRS sees its primary mission as providing help and reassurance to people plagued by circumstances beyond their understanding.
"Most of the time we can't find a natural explanation," Buell explains. "Whether it's paranormal or not is really irrelevant. We are here to help them if we can."
Viewers will be the final judge on both the entertainment value and the credibility of the Penn State Paranormal Research Society's services.
Does Buell ever get scared on a case? "There have been a couple of times I've been jarred. You literally go 'What the heck was that?' " he says.