TAMPA — Danielle Louiz had grown tired of being shadowed, of hearing creaks, moans and whispers and feeling her neck tingling and heart racing.
She thought it was just her 91-year-old childhood home, but when she still felt haunted after her family moved to a fairly new Brandon house, she sought help.
She came to the University Mall on Monday, where the cast of A&E's Paranormal State had stopped during a 10-city promotional tour to meet fans and collect stories for possible new investigations.
"I wanted to share my story," Louiz, 23, said.
Ryan Buell, 27, and Sergey Poberezhny, 25, stood in front of an A&E tour RV painted in a dark woodsy motif and took questions from fans while they signed autographs.
One person told them about a haunted hotel in St. Petersburg.
Others told them they also researched paranormal activity and felt glad to meet like minds.
One woman said she felt relieved to speak openly, scared of things real and surreal for decades.
She was scared of whatever spooked her. And she was scared of being ashamed to tell anyone about it.
"We want to break down these walls, those taboos of sharing your story," Buell said.
As a teen, he felt the same incredulous stares when he began studying the Salem-Black River Church just outside his hometown of Sumter, S.C.
But things changed in September 2001, just as the world did.
That was when Buell, a Penn State University student, founded a student club known as the Paranormal Research Society, which became a separate institution that is still based in State College, Pa.
The group struggled to pay the bills, getting some money from college workshops and other events, until A&E rocketed the society to stardom.
The fourth season of Paranormal State began this month.
The popularity of the show and ghost hunting in general, coincided with Sept. 11 and the subsequent wars that followed — and that's not a coincidence, Buell said.
Death is on everyone's mind and people are paying more attention to their own mortality, reminded every time they hear about soldiers dying.
"War, death is the biggest proponent of paranormal belief," he said.
Buell says he and his associates take their jobs seriously. They take pains to scientifically explore the unexplained, and take pride when they can debunk a ghost story with reasoning.
For instance, "orbs" or light flashes reported in the 1990s can often be explained by the poor quality digital cameras that were proliferating.
Another rational explanation for apparitions is exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide over extended periods, which can lead to hallucinations, Poberezhny said.
Mental illness can explain suspected demonic possession, the paranormal researchers said, and they sometimes bring counselors to their speaking engagements.
Even if someone really is being haunted, they said, the stress they face from feeling scared all the time or dealing with disbelieving spouses or family members begins to erode their well-being.
The TV investigators are sensitive to the ghost stories they hear because they know people are often at their wit's end.
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On Monday, Louiz came looking for help, too.
She was hoisted onto the A&E tour bus where she taped an account of her story:
She has felt haunted all her life. Recently, she heard a pounding in her attic and took her brother with her to investigate.
As they looked around, she said, she heard her sister scream on another floor. When they got to her, she was muttering about someone whispering something to her, and they saw a huge, mysterious scratch on her back.
"I tried to debunk it," Louiz's brother, Ben, 28, said. But he couldn't.
The ghost detectives listened to Danielle.
Sometimes they offer books to read, hoping science can help, and sometimes they look to the supernatural when stumped.
They gave Louiz four medals of St. Benedict, supposed to ward off negative spirits, and told her to put them in the corners of her house or around her neck.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.