Producer of new TV series talks about premiere's University of Michigan ghost story
That’s where a few female University of Michigan students/alumni, who are featured in the pilot episode of Syfy’s “School Spirits,” distinguish themselves. Telling their experience of moving into, and establishing, a local sorority house in 2009, the young women report the ways that a mysterious, malevolent energy pervaded the building, and the role a ghostly, long-dead former resident played, as more curious events transpired.
The show premieres on Wednesday at 10 p.m.
Why did the show’s producers choose to launch the series with this U-M tale?
“We absolutely love the story,” said executive producer Seth Jarrett (“Celebrity Ghost Stories”). “There’s a great balance of creepiness and nervousness in it, but it also resolves in a really interesting, unexpected way. I love the fact that part of the story is rooted in the history of the school. That’s always something that’s really fun, because you get to take a journey back in time. And I like our witnesses. I found them very credible. I like that it was a group of sorority sisters who experienced it together. From the beginning, (putting the U-M episode first) felt like an obvious choice.”Of course, it doesn’t hurt that U-M is a big school with an enormous alumni base, either. But locals and alumni tuning in to see shots of Ann Arbor will likely be disappointed; while eyewitness interviews were often done on or near the campuses at the heart of each “School Spirits” story, the dramatizations were not. (The house that appears in U-M episode, for instance, is not the Ann Arbor building that haunted the sorority sisters.)
“The re-creations were harder to shoot on campus,” said Jarrett. “These (episodes) were shot 6 to 8 months ago, while classes were in session, and we didn’t want to cause a disruption. But students and alumni are generally overjoyed with this. We’ve gotten great cooperation from professors and historians, some of whom appear on the show.”
Other schools spotlighted in the six-episode series are SUNY Geneseo in upstate New York; Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania; Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia; Slippery Rock University in Slippery Rock, Penn.; and Eastern Kentucky University.
U-M football fans who cheer when Slippery Rock’s game score is announced in Michigan Stadium—a tradition since 1959—may be amused to learn that as the focus of the sixth and final “Spirits” episode of the season, “Slippery Rock is a bookend to the University of Michigan story,” said Jarrett. “It’s a fraternity story, so in that one, we hear from several members of the fraternity who believe they were haunted by the violent spirit of a man who, 150 years ago, was hanged not far from their frat house.”
"Spirits" producers solicited school-oriented ghost stories through social media sites like Twitter, as well as alumni magazines and newspapers, among other sources. But having one person’s account wasn’t enough for “School Spirits,” which aims to give viewers a horror movie-like experience.
“What we set out to do was find multiple voices for these stories—people who could corroborate the stories,” said Jarrett. “It wasn’t good enough for a student or faculty member to sit in a room and tell his or her story. In order to really come along for the ride, we want to believe. So from the start, stories had to have corroboration—whether a roommate saw the same apparition, or there’s a historian validating what the person’s saying, or a police report. It’s important to us to bring other sources into it.”
Plus, it helps if those involved began as skeptics, but had their beliefs challenged by their experiences with the paranormal.
“We always joke here that the best voices for the show are the people who don’t want to be found,” said Jarrett. “People who’ve had scary, life-changing experiences, but they don’t tell people, because they don’t want people to think they’re crazy. And I’m most fascinated with the people who say, ‘I don’t really believe in ghosts, I never believed in ghosts before, but after this experience, I have to give it a second thought.’ Those are the people I want to watch, and then see where the experience takes them.”
What drew Jarrett and his wife, co-executive producer Julie Isogna Jarrett, to tell school-related ghost stories?
“They take place at such a life-changing time,” said Jarrett. “Meeting new people, being away from home for the first time - there’s a level of tension that exists at this time in people’s lives. When you go to college, it’s supposed to be the best time in your life. The last thing you’d think would happen would be that you’re haunted by terrible, evil spirits.”
Here's a preview for "Spirits"' U-M episode.