The Travel Channel recently introduced America to the Madison County hamlet of Erieville. Its new reality show, “The Dead Files,” visited Elvis Restaino’s haunted farm house.
There, in the backyard, a psychic TV ghost hunter discovered a newly opened portal, which allows dead spirits to re-enter this realm. She warned of some nasty characters returning to wreak havoc, as summarized by the episode’s title: “Evil In Erieville.”
Ever since, Restaino says, nights haven’t been quite the same.
“No one has called me to come and stay there,” said Restaino, owner of the Erieville house that is an invitation-only bed-and-breakfast. He is also a Los Angeles-based writer, director and production designer. “I have a few friends who are interested in coming up, but their kids refuse.”
So goes the reality of reality TV, the paranormal version. These days, things that go bump in the night, and the folks who chase them, have become stars. Be they dead or alive, you better keep them happy.
In recent years, more than 80 reality shows have been dedicated to poltergeists, UFOs and entities that seem to have vaulted from Stephen King best-sellers. Take “Paranormal Cops,” (They hunt criminals by day, ghosts, by night!) Or “Celebrity Ghost Stories,” where the revelation often is not that the stars — such as Donny Most or Corey Feldman — contact the dead, but that they are not dead.
Some ghost hunters welcome the new TV popularity, saying it has freed people to discuss their paranormal experiences publicly, without ridicule. Others say it’s spawned a generation of “ghost groupies” who are less interested in seeking ultimate answers than a cable network deal.
“The reality show is kind of a scary movie that lasts 23 minutes,” says Stacey Jones, of New Woodstock, founder of Central New York Ghost Hunters. She has investigated apparitions since the 1980s. “In fact, there’s very little in reality that goes with them. It’s a smokescreen. It’s Hollywood.”
Jones has appeared on several shows and periodically gets calls from producers, seeking new ectoplasmic talent. Fifteen years ago, her group had most of Central New York to itself. Today, she estimates between 60 to 70 ghost organizations operating within a 100-mile radius of Syracuse.
“Right now, these production companies are contacting everybody,” Jones said. “I’ve been contacted by some and, frankly, have just refused them. But you know what? There’s 25 or 30 others who will be on that plane to California tomorrow, and they’ll do anything, because, hey, they want to be on TV.”
Jones says TV ghost chasers are evolving from serious practitioners into “tattooed chicks who run around and bounce.” Moreover, she says, the ghosts themselves increasingly are being portrayed as the bad guys. In fact, they’re usually just misunderstood.
In “Evil in Erieville,” which will be rerun Oct. 22 (8 p.m.) and Oct. 23 (3 a.m.), the investigative TV duo of psychic Amy Allan and ex-cop Steve Di Schiavi visit Restaino’s house on Eatonbrook Road in the town of Nelson. The medium channels a female apparition, an evil sociopath, who glares down at her from atop the stairs. Meanwhile, the cop digs up an old news clipping about a 19th century mom, who poisoned her kids in the house.
But it’s the final scene, when the pair confronts Restaino, that raises the threat level. The psychic tells Restaino that a seance he attempted two years ago was a dangerous blunder: He unwittingly opened a door to the Other Side. All manner of spirits — good and evil — can now slip through the portal into Madison County. She tells Restaino that he should fear what is to come.
“That was the first time I heard her say it,” Restaino says. “I was kind of taken aback.”
Restaino — whose Hollywood film credits include “Happy Hell Night,” “See Dick Die” and “Making a Spoof “ — says he has sensed spirits in the house since he bought it, five years ago. The place captured the TV producers’ interest via a photograph, which showed an unexplained light in a window. He said he’s received no big paycheck for the show.
“They took me out for dinner one night,” he said. “They gave me payment for cleaning the house, for having maids over, because there would be 20 people trampling through the house .. There was no, ‘Here’s a load of cash, and now we want to do it.’”
Restaino’s house — called Erieville Manor — serves as a bed and breakfast for his friends and associates. Its website promotes “peace, serenity, and the inner calm we all seek in our daily lives,” not a rest stop for wandering apparitions. A haunted reputation could conceivably attract visitors, as long as the ghosts don’t terrify them.
Restaino says the spirits have calmed down since last winter, when the show was filmed. Then, the place unnerved him.
“I really couldn’t stay upstairs, where my bedroom was,” he says. “I’m not afraid of anything, but I was extremely uncomfortable with being in that house .. I think the energy in that house was upset, thinking that I had invited these people to capture it.”
Restaino stresses that he’s always treated the spirits with respect — even the allegedly homicidal mom, whom he suggests got a raw deal. He says it took him weeks to convince the ghosts he meant them no harm. Eventually, they chilled out, and the paranormal activities returned to normal.
Then, on Sept. 23, “Evil in Erieville” aired to about a half-million viewers, a Nielsen household rating of 0.4. That’s less than half of what Fox News Channel’s “On the Record with Greta van Susteren” received — a 1.1 rating — but it topped the Game Show Network’s “Deal or No Deal,” at 0.3.
In the following days, Restaino says he could not dispel a new, powerful sense of being watched.
“I’ll be sitting on the porch, drinking my coffee, and everybody who goes by thinks, ‘There’s the crazy guy,’” he says.
Restaino says he has no plan to close any portals or evict anybody. He says he often hears the woman walking upstairs. He’s seen the tracks of a ghost cow in his yard. And he’s still learning more about the five-acre property. A former owner who saw the show alerted him to an old grave site and reported her family’s running gag: She often joked about poisoning her husband’s coffee.
“I’m not here to determine if they are real or not real,” he says. “I’m here to appreciate the fact that they were here before me.”
But is there a portal? Jones expressed doubt. She says most moans in the attic don’t need an exorcist, just some foam insulation.
“First of all, nobody has the answers from the other side,” she says. “I don’t care if you’re a psychic, a medium, or whatever — you’re not that good, that you can say a portal has been opened. That’s absolutely ridiculous. The ignorant and the stupid always say things like this on TV, always— and you can print that. ‘Oh! A portal’s been opened up! Oh! You’ve got a direct line to the dead, right here in your living room!’ Bull—!”
Either way, in the episode’s final scene, the medium predicts that Restaino will call her back to Erieville, after he has been scared enough.
Will there be a sequel? Will the ghost hunters return?
“Hollywood works in very mysterious ways,” Restaino says. “And they’re all based upon ratings.”