Ryan Buell founded the Paranormal Research Society as a student at Penn… (Karolina Wojtasik / A&E )
Vampires may be getting all the glory these days, but when it comes to day-in, day-out spooky family entertainment, it's hard to beat ghosts.
The popularity of ghost and paranormal stories are nothing new -- from the King's ghost in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" to Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" to the phenomenal box office last fall for "Paranormal Activity."
But it's on the small screen that ghosts are most alive -- a staple of the medium, so to speak. The first two hours of CBS' Friday night lineup are devoted to "Ghost Whisperer," now in its fifth season, and "Medium," which joined the network last fall after five seasons on NBC. Both dramatic series revolve around women who can see dead people.
Several of the cable networks have built their lineups around ghost/paranormal reality shows. These series follow investigators going to residential homes, historical locations, abandoned hospitals, prisons and even aircraft carriers that are supposedly haunted. They claim to use scientific methods and equipment, such as digital tape recorders to capture EVPs (electronic voice phenomena), which are believed to capture the voices of spirits.
Thanks in part to the success of these shows, ghost hunting has become a big business. Several Internet sites including Amazon offer equipment for sale for the budding paranormal investigator.
So why are so many willing to see spirits?
"Some people would say it's a trend, but I think it's always been a trend, this borderline between the apparently civilized world and the wider, larger, scary world whether it's literally the wild or unseen," says Marjorie Kaplan, general manager of Animal Planet.
The network has two paranormal series, "Lost Tapes" and "The Haunted," the latter about people whose pets feel the presence of spirits; it began in November and returns to the lineup with new episodes Jan. 15.
Ian Sander, an executive producer and director on "Ghost Whisperer," believes these shows give audiences hope that there is an afterlife. "We live in a time, God knows post-9/11, that people need to believe in more," Sander says. "They want to be optimistic."
The majority of these series attract more females than males. "Women love horror movies and haunted shows about the afterlife," notes Mark Stern, executive vice president of programming for Syfy, home to the popular "Ghost Hunters" series.
"If you look at these shows, they deliver a real mix of emotions -- a visceral one about the investigation and another about who might still be here and what happened to them."
Here's a look at several of the most watched cable paranormal series:
The cable network has the top three paranormal series on the air. "Ghost Hunters," which begins its sixth season in March, averages 3 million viewers weekly.
The show's spinoffs "Ghost Hunters International," returning Wednesday, and "Ghost Hunters Academy," which concluded its first season in December, also have performed well. Another popular paranormal show, "Destination Truth," is on hiatus.
"Ghost Hunters" is led by Roto-Rooter Rhode Island plumbers Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, who formed the Atlantic Paranormal Society about 20 years ago after what they say were personal paranormal encounters. They investigate homes and hotels like the Stanley, the basis for "The Shining." They also have done live investigations over the seasons.
"Ghost Hunters," says Stern, takes a "very sober-eyed" view of the paranormal.
"Their success rate [at finding ghosts] is so low that in the beginning it was counterintuitive for us. There was a concern if they were not finding a ghost in every episode why are people watching the show. But we quickly found that that is what gave them total credibility."
Hawes and Wilson, who still work as plumbers, are surprised they are heading into their sixth season. "I never thought we would survive past 10 episodes," jokes Wilson.
"None of the other shows can probably say this, but Grant and I have Pentagon clearance to get into some of these [government] locations," says Hawes of their investigations of military bases and even battleships.
This 30-minute weekly series, now in its fourth season, revolves around the case files of the Paranormal Research Society, a group that began several years ago with Penn State University college students.
Ryan Buell, the soft-spoken director-founder who says he had his first paranormal experience as a child, leads his teams in investigating cases of possible haunting and possession.
Spinning off from the series is "Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal," in its second season. Atlanta-based psychic-medium Chip Coffey appears in both series. And set for a Jan. 19 premiere is "Paranormal Cops," about a group of ghost-hunting Chicago police officers.