Grant Wilson is a ghost hunter. He is also a husband, father, recorded musician, published author, tabletop gaming company entrepreneur, YouTuber, and – at the moment I meet up with him in New York City – just a guy who blends in with every other person having lunch.
But for 15 years the world has publicly known him as a guy who explores unexplained phenomena on the unscripted paranormal reality series Ghost Hunters — which returns with its first new episodes since 2016 tonight at 9 p.m. on A&E. However, Wilson gave up the ghosts as it were, and left the series in 2012, after more than 160 episodes, and with a feeling of satisfaction.
“When I first started the original, my youngest son was one, and now he’s 16,” says Wilson, reflecting on the passage of time — in between nerd-out comments about Disney’s Haunted Mansion, and Star Wars Galaxy Edge land — as he hovers over lunch in a posh Tribeca restaurant.
“And I had almost 15 years of investigating before the show.”
Stepping into the spotlight in 2004 on the then-named Sci-Fi channel, Ghost Hunters documented the paranormal investigations of Wilson and co-lead Jason Hawes via their group, The Atlantic Paranormal Society (T.A.P.S.). It was a hit for the network, peaking with three million viewers in its fifth season in 2009, and running 11 seasons, where it was the network’s longest running series. It inspired many similar “procedural” paranormal shows, helping to make paranormal investigations mainstream. The impact of Ghost Hunters, which arrived during the nascence of social media — as fans of the paranormal could connect with likeminded individuals — similarly influenced films and scripted TV shows within the paranormal pop culture genre.
[Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, this would be a good time to note this author has known Wilson for a better part of the last 15 years through work as a paranormal journalist, and personality, before getting to know him socially.]
But it also dominated his life, and kept him on the road. So Wilson chose to leave the show to focus on raising those three sons, spending time with wife Reanna (who serves as a producer on the new show, alongside Wilson), and launching his Rather Dashing Games company. Plus, he felt his work on the show, and the genre itself, had become repetitive.
“We had done everything I set out to do, and it had this momentum, but kind of felt we were kicking a dead horse, and not teaching anything new [about paranormal theory].”
Though he says he didn’t leave the field itself, he left television — aside from a handful of guest appearances in recent years — because new shows were too “niche-y.”
“People were more in it for the gimmick, and to see what happens when they treat the entities like circus animals.
Plus the paranormal reality-TV genre faded, going from a dozen shows on the air at a time to just a handful — all around the time Wilson left GH. Although it must be noted Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures led by Zak Bagans has been an altogether different beast, and remained a stalwart performer for the network since its premiere in 2008 – so much so that the series has essentially led to Travel being remade in its likeness, dominated by paranormal programming.
But now the genre has returned in a big way. Many of Wilson’s former teammates, such as Amy Bruni and Adam Berry on Travel’s Kindred Spirits, are now appearing on their own shows. So Wilson decided it was time for Ghost Hunters to return, and wanted to mix things up.
“A lot of the paranormal field operates in this bubble, and they talk amongst themselves in that bubble, but don’t reach outside of it very often … but the culture, the technique has to be moved forward.”
What Wilson is speaking to is the irony of being the lead on Ghost Hunters— a flashy name, but one that speaks more to traipsing around a cemetery — when he chooses to label himself as a paranormal investigator who seeks to pursue theories, and assist clients.
“Between the original, and the beginning of this, I’ve had an epiphany that there are a lot of weird things in the paranormal, but it is about the humanity – it is not about freaking yourselves out, or creepiness, and graveyards, it’s about people.”
He adds that “the experience” is what he’s been seeing more of with other series, “with Kindred Spirits being an exception that tries to really help people.”
However Wilson acknowledges that the success of the original Ghost Hunters paved the way for that experiential programming, because amateur paranormal groups took on the show trappings — the team acronym and logo, and gadgets — without always going deeper with theories about the phenomena.
“Ghost Hunters, and the fanbase did a great thing. Most people are comfortable talking about [the paranormal], and people wanted to do what we were doing,” he says. “But it’s a double-edged sword; there was just not enough information on the show to do it right, and you can’t learn everything you need to know by watching Ghost Hunters.
Now he says the show is “taking that next step,” and bring humanity back to paranormal investigations. He says the show “started something” but the next level is examining how to deal with potential hauntings.
“Before it was, ’Is this haunted or not?’ Now we’re not asking that question. It’s, ‘How can we help this person, whether it’s haunted or not?’”
Along with building, and testing, new theories, Wilson says the series will nevertheless feel familiar, but fresh, as they delve into “emotional states.”
“It is going to feel very familiar, but fresh; the evidence, debunking, and camaraderie is still there,” before adding that, rather than showing up at Alcatraz or famous haunts, “We’re not going anywhere unless there’s a call for help.”
Joining Wilson for the latest iteration of Ghost Hunter sis an all-new team, co-led by Daryl Marston, and Kristen Luman (keep an eye out for follow-up Den of Geek interviews with them) as well as a lot of new equipment.
“What speaks loudly is what we don’t use on the show,” he says. “You won’t see the garage tech, and you won’t see stuff designed just to catch a ghost because it has a confirmation bias.”
So original Ghost Hunters fans shouldn’t expect well-worn ghosthunting gear such as K2 EMF meters, Kinect/SLS cameras, “spirit boxes,” or the famous Panasonic RR-DR60 recorder (which is a prized gadget for paranormal nerds). Instead, look for ambisonic recorders (used for virtual reality, which record in 3-D), TriField EMF Meters, and data loggers. Moreover, he says he’ll rely less on video evidence due to how easy it is to manipulate.
“Everything we use is stuff that companies rely on to do their jobs, and we aren’t looking for equipment to say, ‘Yes, you have a ghost.’ We are using equipment to find data that we can interpret to say, ’Is there something here or not?’
Additionally, Wilson says the new show is conducting practical experiments he hasn’t really done before. For instance, a popular theory has it that renovations, or other changes to a structure, can stir up activity. Well, with the recommendation of Marston, one investigation will involve the team taking a hammer to a wall, and literally doing demolition — a tactic Wilson said elicited evidence.
Another example he notes is that he used to play period music in historic locations to draw out potential spirits – but on his phone. But on one case at a social club in Indianapolis, where a German entity was said to haunt, “we brought in a four-string quartet to perform German composers, and boom, all sorts of stuff happened.”
Wilson believes the trust built up from the success of the original Ghost Hunters has allowed his team the resources to push things further in this way. But he adds the mainstream awareness of the paranormal with the viewers, and even the media that covers these shows, has also allowed for evolution.
“We’re always getting a lot more educated questions, coming from a sincere place of curiosity,” he says. “You’ll always get, ‘What’s the scariest place you’ve ever been?’ but you can tell there is more intelligence – and that’s why the show needs to change to embrace that awareness, and take it to another level.”
As such, whether Grant Wilson and his Ghost Hunters team find a potential ghost, or just bad plumbing, he believes audiences will be “equally satisfied” as they follow the new mission of helping people.
Ghost Hunters airs Wednesdays at 9 pm on A&E.
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