It's a strange comfort finding solace in something that terrifies most of the world. It's an exclusive feeling, like you're part of a special club that only a select few know the password to. The paranormal is not a naturally palatable subject for many people, and yet Travel Channel's popular Ghost Adventures has taken this once-taboo genre and made it part of this decade's zeitgeist. Zak Bagans, Aaron Goodwin, Billy Tolley, and Jay Wasley are the reason that paranormal investigations are now casual dinner-table conversation, and this show is only at the beginning of its saga.
Finding Ghost Adventures tends to be a life event for people, like getting a driver's license or being accepted to college — you remember where and why you started watching. For me, it was a middle school friend showing me the Waverly Hills Sanatorium episode, simultaneously trying to cure me of my fear of the paranormal and appeal to my sentimentality for my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. She achieved both objectives.
The show can become something of an addiction, one I have to explain to those who haven't watched it but never to those who have. Even after just one episode, people tend to get it. The draw of Ghost Adventures comes from Zak and the team, who act more like friends than television hosts. There's a level of transparency with them that is paramount to their style, and it sets them apart from any other investigative show on television.
"When the four of us are together investigating it's like this invisible cord connecting us all," Bagans told TV Guide. "While some investigators may go in with gear and they just walk around with beeping gadgets — and that's all they're looking for is a beep — we go in there and we feel things. We all have such a hypersensitivity to spirit. We've done over a thousand investigations, we've been doing this for 15 years. This is our life. This is what we do."
Bagans added that everything viewers see on the show is the real deal. "We truly are invested in these investigations. The reactions that you see from us are our genuine excitement, our genuine fear."
Ghost Adventures began as a documentary-style independent film that debuted on Syfy in 2007. The series, which premiered in 2008 on Travel Channel, has exploded into a can't-miss phenomenon that taps into pop culture, like the team's investigations of famous locations said to be linked to the spirits of serial killers, as well as a recent episode focusing on the Harrisville Farmhouse, more commonly known as the house that inspired The Conjuring.
"Our audience has has grown with us, they've seen us evolve," Bagans said. "They've been there with us from day one. And I think that they are noticing how we are developing. Some of these TV shows, they go on for years and they tend to fizzle out like a candle flame. But ours is [the] reverse. Our flame grows brighter and bigger every year, every investigation."
Bagans, who admits he and the team were "amateurs" when they started out, doesn't take the show's expansion for granted. "In the beginning, we just had a curiosity, and it really stemmed from an experience that I had back in the early 2000s. And it was something that I couldn't get out of my mind," he said. "Ghost Adventures was for me to try to get more answers about what I saw because it was so powerful... but it just meant something to me — like I was chosen to do this."
After 11 years on the air, the Ghost Adventures team are no longer amateurs. They've gained the trust and resources of the paranormal world's most respected researchers and technicians. Throughout the show's run, the team has collected strong evidence for the existence of the paranormal. They've traveled to storied locations like Bobby Mackey's Music World in Kentucky, Poveglia Island in Italy, and the Paris Catacombs. But Ghost Adventures still feels as fresh as it did in Episode 1, even if, for Bagans, there's no more "white whale" location, nothing unattainable left on his "Most Haunted" bucket list.
"There's not a particular location that I want to go investigate. It's where the road leads us to. And as crazy as it may sound, a lot of these locations and the spirits at the location... they call us," he said. Bagans has become particularly fond of using the show to help families in need: "Families that are being victimized by demonic infestation, oppression, diabolical possession. I really like getting in there because I have such a deep understanding of what these families are going through, and I like going to battle with these dark forces. You do something for so long, you want to go extreme. You want to go to the biggest you can, the more dangerous you can. And there's nothing more dangerous than trying to put yourself in between the devil himself and an innocent family member."
The way Bagans speaks is practiced, like a professor, but his knowledge is backed up by undeniable passion. It's that passion that viewers have appreciated from the very beginning, but for Bagans, the fans are a huge part of that enthusiasm. "They keep my mind positive," he said, adding that he's fueled by the people he meets who say they've connected with the show. "It makes me emotional when I hear that, because what I've been through doing this... it's a lot of work, and it takes a toll on you spiritually and physically."
Despite that toll, Bagans believes in his work. "Every investigation, I take a piece of the spirit that has communicated with me. And all that together has just kind of created who we are today," he said. "It's a purpose in our lives, and when we're not doing it, we crave it. And I think it's something that spirits themselves help set up for me to personally do this. Yes, we've been doing this for such a long time, but I feel like we're just in the beginning of it."
Ghost Adventures' impact reaches to anyone who's ever been affected by or interested in the paranormal. It stands as a masterclass in how to spot and understand the unseen. Bagans and his team bring hope to the show, unmasking and confronting evil like metaphysical vigilantes. "And we're getting answers for ourselves, not just evidence to show the viewers," Bagans said. "What we do is for us... There's no hesitation to that, TV show or not. This is what we're supposed to be doing."
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)