Syfy’s School Spirits Interview: Creators Seth and Julie Jarrett

By June 21, 2012

The creators of Celebrity Ghost Stories, Seth Jarrett and Julie Insogna Jarrett, team up with executive producer Mark Burnett to explore haunted high schools and universities nationwide for the Syfy original series, School Spirits, which debuts this Wednesday, June 20. I joined a discussion with the Jarretts about this new project.

Seth: 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: And the recreations are meant to 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 visual.

Seth: We really wanted the audience to be able to go along for the ride. And these are amazing, compelling stories, made more compelling by the fact that they’re true.

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

Seth: 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. People by nature are skeptical. They want to watch these shows, and 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 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. 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. 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.

So it’s not a coincidence that a lot of our stories will be multiple sorority sisters telling similar stories in the house or roommates in a dorm who saw the same thing. Roommates who haven’t actually seen each other for 25 or 30 years, we brought them in to do these interviews, and without a missing a beat they tell the same story note for note. It’s pretty amazing, pretty fascinating to listen to.

Travis: With all that research and interviewing, how long does it take, beginning to end, to put one episode together?

Seth: That is a good question. The casting process is a big – big and obviously important – part of it. It takes a while to find people. It takes a while to vet them. In some cases, we have someone who was there and told the story, and then it may take a few months to track down their roommate or a sorority sister, whoever it is who can really corroborate their story….

Up until Celebrity Ghost Stories, I had absolutely no personal experiences but just had a complete fascination with the genre, reading a lot about it, watching other shows, always being fascinating that that people from such different backgrounds and from different locations would tell such similar stories. That was sort of the 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 shooting, turned around and there was absolutely no one for at least 20 feet. It was a pretty eerie sensation.

But I think it’s still that need to sort of find answers, to explore, that keeps driving us to do these shows. What’s really important for our casting process is 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 “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.” Those are the people that you genuinely want to watch and you’re interested in where this journey takes them.

Travis: Since you really had not had paranormal experiences yourself before working on these shows, why have each of you personally wound up getting involved in what we might call paranormal entertainment?

Julie: Seth said he never did. I’m quite the opposite. I think that I’ve had many experiences in my whole life. It’s not a world that I was necessarily interested in getting into in television, but I think my continual storytelling to Seth about things that I’ve experienced or that people I know have experienced piqued his interest. As a filmmaker and a storyteller, I think that’s kind of what navigated him into the space. Would you say that’s accurate?

Seth: Yes, I mean in the 20 years that Julie and I have been doing this, no matter what kind of show we do, whether it’s a docusoap, a reality show, a documentary film, it’s always about stories. That’s what makes great TV.

So when we essentially learned about this genre and started watching some of the shows, we were instantly pulled in. These were amazing, amazing stories, and these were personal stories, as personal as or more personal than anything else out there. These were life-changing experiences.

When we started doing Celebrity Ghost Stories, the celebrity aspect was almost secondary to the fact that these people were opening up and giving you a look into something that they experienced that they had never talked about before, that came from a very deep, personal place. Paranormal or not, these are things that these people carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Travis: What about the people that you run into that you don’t believe them? What’s the farthest you’ve gone in investigating a story before you decide, “Okay, we’ve got to drop this one”?

Seth: We will go as far as it takes to make sure that these stories are credible, and in some cases we have investigated police documents to make sure that stories that people are telling are factual.

Julie: Newspapers, historians…death certificates.

Travis: Do you have trouble getting people to share their stories with you?

Julie: In most instances, they’re writing to us to tell us they have a story. I think it takes some time to get them comfortable with telling the full details of the story on television because often people think their story is a two-minute story. And then as you really delve into what happens, it’s much deeper and much more emotional, and much more intimate.

What do you think about these paranormal investigation TV series? Are they more for entertainment or education? Do they play on the audience’s weaknesses or enlighten people in areas we all should know more about?

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GeekNation friend Travis Langley is the author of the best-selling book Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.