The “paranormal” genre of programming — particularly, the type dealing with ghosts — has become crowded of late. Syfy’s Wednesday night programming in particular is haunted by this type of show. When Ghost Hunters is not on, as now, there are, in its place, shows like Haunted Collector, the upcoming Haunted Highway and, premiering tonight, School Spirits.
School Spirits, however, tends to set itself apart from the pack in its effectiveness at setting scenes and delivering creepiness. It comes from producer Mark Burnett, the ubiquitous mind behind everything from Survivor to The Voice, and Seth Jarrett and Julie Insogna Jarrett, who also produce the similarly themed Celebrity Ghost Stories. Like that latter show, School Spirits takes a format in which witnesses to purported ghostly phenomena relate their stories, and we cut from them telling their stories in the present day to reenactments of the supernatural events they supposedly experienced.
In the case of this series, these events took place during the witnesses’ school days. School Spirits, as its name implies, is all about the ghost stories encountered by students, teachers, parents and staff on various academic campuses. When you think about it, it’s a great idea. Most schools have their own urban legends on campus, some spooky tale of a student who killed himself in a dorm room whose spirit still hangs around, or the specter of a long-deceased professor who still walks toward that one final lecture. These tales especially find fodder on older campuses, that have a longer history, and perhaps an aura and architecture that might lend themselves better to imaginative people seeing things as they walk back to the dorm room at night.
So it is from this premise that School Spirits interviews various people who claim to have encountered ghostly extracurricular activity while in school. In each hourlong episode, we hear the tale related, with the reenactment. We don’t get an investigation, or necessarily any attempt into trying to solve the mystery or effort to prove or disprove the tales, which is probably for the better. What we get instead are basically mini-horror movies, effectively done. Perhaps Burnett’s influence keeps (at least in the two episodes I’ve seen) the series from veering off into where so many of these other types of shows go. The reenactments are, for the most part, imbued with an understated eerieness, which I find works best for a ghost story. The jump cuts and quick editing that dominate much of the other shows for cheap scares aren’t too prevalent here, although they do turn up.
Tonight’s premiere episode is called “Sorority House Terror.” Several young women recall how, as sorority sisters at the University of Michigan in 2006, they moved into a huge old house just off campus. Almost immediately, they say disturbing things began happening. Healthy girls fell ill, and fights erupted mysteriously and without reason. A spectral figure of a man began terrorizing the girls, but they soon would find out he once owned the home, and was back to save both them and the house.
“Sorority House Terror” is a good example of what I mean when I say you can enjoy School Spirits as a series of mini-horror movies without necessarily even taking the women’s stories seriously if you don’t want to. It’s effectively shot, and has all the staples of a scary movie — young women alone in a big, old, creepy house at night, some of them going in the basement or upstairs to explore noises, encountering mysterious shadows, the whole shebang. If their story is not already part of campus lore, it probably will be after this airs, and the cycle of school urban legends will go on.
The June 27 episode is called “Dorm Room Nightmare,” and takes place in 1985, when, as Chris DiCesare now recalls, as a student at SUNY Geneseo, he began hearing his name being called while in his dorm room — even though no one else was around. His roommate also heard it while he was alone in the room, and got the hell out of there. Chris says that he eventually became tormented by a horrifying ghost with a broken neck that claimed it needed his help, but had a funny way of showing it, leaving deep scratches in his back and harassing his friends.
Again, this episode can be enjoyed on a horror-movie level — it’s got a creepy ambiance, a priest brought in to bless the room, a young man on the brink of losing his mind, attempts by Chris and his friend to record and photograph the spirit (even though we hear the actual audio they recorded, and see the actual photo they took, as with most of these shows, you really can’t tell much).
School Spirits won’t convince you one way or the other that ghosts do or do not exist, and that doesn’t appear to be its aim. If you’re just looking for some creepy fun, the series is a worthwhile elective to add to your TV viewing schedule this semester.
School Spirits airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET/PT on Syfy starting June 20.
Photos: Barbara Nitke/Syfy