Wednesday, June 20, 2012

'School Spirits' explores ghostly attendance in college

A haunted sorority house, courtesy Syfy

Based on a new Syfy show, college students across the country are receiving a grade "G" for ghosts.

The series School Spirits continues the network’s love affair with the paranormal, but instead of being an investigation show in the vein of Ghost Hunters, the hourlong docu-series tells ghost stories from colleges and universities across the country through interviews and reenactments.

Produced by Seth Jarrett and Julie Insogna Jarrett of Jarrett Creative Group – the same production company behind Celebrity Ghost Stories, which heavily influences the look and tone here – and Mark Burnett (The Voice, Survivor), the six-episode School Spirits premieres tonight, June 20, at 10 p.m. after John Zaffis' Haunted Collector.

In the debut episode, the show follows a group of sorority sisters at the University of Michigan. When the women move into a new house off-campus, they almost-immediately begin experiencing unexplained phenomena. Intense fights suddenly break out between them, odd illnesses plague them and they encounter more than one force stalking their halls.

Jarrett and Insogna Jarrett joined Paranormal Pop Culture and a group of other journalists via phone to answer a few questions about School Spirits …(after the jump)

Q: Can you talk about the approach to storytelling in relation to the production value in order to get the most of the stories themselves?

Seth Jarrett: Let's see, all of the stories are based on firsthand accounts. They're all students or faculty or alumni. The story is built around their first person storytelling.

Julie Insogna Jarrett: And the recreations are meant to, you know, illustrate and dramatize their experiences. So we took a very cinematic approach to the recreations that we did on the show. So while these are firsthand stories, we wanted them to feel like movies. So it's factually true, but cinematically, filmatically visual.

Q: And Seth, can you talk about reaching out Mark Burnett and the potential that he saw in the project?

SJ: Sure. We had known the guys over at Mark Burnett for a while and had been speaking to them about some different projects. He was actually a big fan of a show that we also do called Celebrity Ghost Stories, and had always told us that he wanted to get into the paranormal space … when we came up with this idea for School Spirits, it just made sense to go to him. We had wanted to partner with him on a great project. This is something that he had expressed interest with. So we brought the idea to him. He instantly fell in love with it.

Q: Aside from the location being schools, what sets this series apart from other paranormal history programs?

SJ: Let's see, I would say what we set out to do is to find multiple voices for these stories, people who could corroborate these stories. It wasn't just good enough to have someone, student or faculty sit down and tell us a story. You know, people by nature are skeptical and they want to watch these shows. And again, in order for them to pull along for the ride, they want to believe … And so right from the beginning we said that all of these stories in some way had to have this corroboration, whether it was a roommate who also saw the same apparition, a historian or a professor who could validate the information that the person was saying. In some cases we checked with police reports, we have reporters on the show. It was always important for us to bring in other voices who, again could validate this information. I think many, many of the paranormal shows out there, while they're fun to watch, they rely on one story, one person's voice. And we knew it was always important for us, and especially for the network, to bring as much of this information and multiple voices in there.

Q: What kind of response have you had so far from the universities and colleges you have reached out to, and have you actually been able to film on campus for some of these?

SJ: For the most part, the campuses have been cooperative. They've been excited to be a part of this.

Not every campus, but many campuses embrace these experiences. They know that people have been experiencing some of these hauntings over a period of time. And in some cases the hauntings are really deep-rooted in their own history, whether it's the founders of the university or just students or alumni who have been there for a long time … when we can, we go to the campuses for interviews or to shoot what we can. But you know, it's - the students and the alumni are overjoyed with this. We've had really great cooperation from professors and historians who work with the campus, some of whom are on the show.

Q: When you were personally in college, were there any fun ghost stories connected to your university?

SJ: I wish I could remember that far back! With me, personally, no. I can tell you that there are several members of our staff who do have some pretty detailed accounts of what they experienced in school. And it's exciting to have them on the show. But where I went to school in Binghamton, I do not remember any specific hauntings. But that was a while ago and maybe some things have happened since then.

Q: We have a list of the six colleges you visit in the first season – University of Michigan, SUNY Geneseo, Lebanon Valley College, Sweet Briar College, Slippery Rock University, Eastern Kentucky University - but what's sort of on the dream list of colleges you've heard about that have phenomenal stories?

SJ: In our grass roots research we've spoken to people from many, many, many different schools. You know, a few of the stories that we're investigating right now - Ohio University, Michigan State, Drew University in New Jersey...

JIJ: NYU in New York.

SJ: They're all unique in their own way. You know, I love the big schools, I love that our first episode is University of Michigan because - between how many students are there now and how many alumni they must have over the, you know, 100 or so years - there are just so many people who have been in these same places, in these same locations where we describe these hauntings. I love that.

But I'll tell you, in terms of you know, that rich history, it does feel like some of these smaller schools like, a Lebanon Valley College or a Sweet Briar, both of them are schools and they're just, you know, they're just entrenched in the real history. And in a case like Sweet Briar, our spirit is the daughter of the founder of the school. You know, you can't get any more entrenched in the school history than that.

Q: Coming from Celebrity Ghost Stories, an obvious question would be is, "Do you have any of your own paranormal background experiences?"

SJ: Up until Celebrity Ghost Stories I had absolutely no personal experiences, but just had a complete fascination with the genre … fascinated that people from such different backgrounds and from different locations would tell such similar stories. That was sort of the birth to origin of Celebrity Ghost Stories.

I would say that most of the people on my Celebrity Ghost Stories staff, including myself, have at least once felt the presence of something. Myself, I felt fingers of a hand touch my shoulders once while we were actually shooting, turned around and there was absolutely no one for at least 20 feet. It was a pretty eerie sensation…

What I love about the people who are on these shows, and what's really important for our casting process is, you know, we don't want people to come on the show who necessarily believe in ghosts, who are out there doing ghost hunts and all of these things. For us, the most credible voices and the people that I'm most fascinated with are the people who start their story with, you know, "I don't really believe," or "Up until this happened I never believed in ghosts. But after this experience I have to give it a second thought," or "It's now something I need to figure out." Those are the people that you really - that you genuinely, you want to watch and you're interested in where this journey takes them.

Q: You've mentioned a lot about the credible witnesses and the lengths you go to having a good story, but a lot of ghost stories - when you come down to it, it's so brief instead of an extended story, so the litmus test for knowing you have enough there for an hour long episode?

SJ: Typically the experiences that seem to work best are the ones that do take place over a period of time. To some degree people need to have gone through some type of journey, an emotional journey or a physical journey.

And you're right, there are plenty, plenty of experiences that people have where they've caught something out of the corner of their eyes, you know, felt something one night and it never came. And that - those are good and very often very credible stories, but they may not have that arc that we need for the show. We want viewers to be able to go on this journey with the people who had these experiences.

I will also say that that's where having the multiple voices in the episode really helps, not only to just make the show feel different than other paranormal shows out there, but when multiple people have shared experiences, they can build on each other's experiences, and there's that escalation in that - in their story. So the multiple voices really help us on a number of levels.

Q: Because you’re on Syfy, which has a pretty strong stock of paranormal shows, has there been any kind of crossover or interaction with people from the other paranormal series?

SJ: I would say that the Ghost Hunters seemed very excited to watch the show. And they have definitely offered to us that if they run into schools, students, faculty in their travels that they will pass people on to us.

But I think because we've been so ultra-focused in on schools, that there's not as much crossover as there would be, let's say if we were investigating hotels or penitentiaries, or you know, a lot of the different types of places that you might see on some of the other paranormal series.