The familiar crackle of applause erupted from beyond the curtain. Dustin double-checked his stage smile in the stand mirror and stepped into the lights.
Every eye in the audience stared as he made his way to the padded chair reserved for guests. Each step forward was like a metronome ticking off his practiced movements — a swipe of his fingers through his poof of curly hair. A nod. A wave to the crowd.
He’d done these interviews dozens of times before. Twice on this very show.
“Welcome back,” said the host, Johnny Kimble, after shaking his hand. The greeting was barely audible over the claps and cheers that roiled across the set in waves.
Dustin sank into soft, brown microfiber, flashing a gap-toothed smile toward the active camera.
Kimble settled the audience with a two-handed gesture. “It’s really great to have you back, Dustin.”
“Great to be back, Johnny,” Dustin said, beaming.
“It’s been six months since the series finale of Dark Sightings went live…”
Another roar from the audience.
“…Looks like your fans missed you, too!” Kimble added, chuckling.
“Aw. And I missed them!” Dustin said, blowing kisses into the seats.
From a Hollywood leading man, the display would have seemed like pure narcissism. But Dustin was an awkward teenager with freckles and curly red hair. As a drama club nerd who’d landed a role in a breakout horror series six years ago, the kisses were charming.
“We all know it was a heck of a ride,” Kimble continued. “Dark Sightings is still in the top-ten most watched on Webflix. The show introduced not only yourself, but three other talented young actors, to viewers all over the world.”
“Thank you so much,” Dustin cut in with a humble nod.
“You already know what everyone is asking now. What’s next for Dustin Mazzeti?”
“I do know. And I came with an answer,” Dustin said, pausing for effect. “I’m producing something brand new. I’m gonna use the term ‘passion project’ even though it’s a little played out.”
Kimble raised his chin, mirroring the anticipation that calcified the studio audience in their seats. Dustin grinned, his gap on full display to his legion of eager and ready fans.
“Anyone who follows me on social knows that after season three of DS, I became obsessed with paranormal research. The gadgets, the history, the people.”
Kimble spread his hands. “Yeah, of course. That’s the season where the show brought in the ghost hunter characters.”
“Even though we were shooting a horror series — pure fantasy — we had a couple of professional paranormal investigators on set to help with their characters. I loved talking to those guys.” Dustin laughed in spite of himself. “And before long I got really into it.”
Kimble chuckled. “I feel like you’re pointing us in the direction of a ghost hunting show.”
Dustin waved the notion away with both hands. “Not quite. The old ghost reality show format is kind of dead in the water. We’ve already got shows that embellish the sightings, and there are a few shows that focus on debunking. What’s missing is a legitimate attempt at getting investigator and skeptics together in a controlled environment to really test this stuff.”
“Okay, you’ve got my attention!”
“Well, that’s where I’m putting my considerable financial investment. I’m producing the biggest, baddest ghost hunting show ever conceived. No tricks, no special effects, and our team has representation from both sides of the argument — psychics and skeptics.”
“That couldn’t have been easy. Like oil and water, I’ll bet.”
Dustin laughed. “It’s been a challenge finding investigators who are willing to go into a situation completely blind knowing there will be tons of scrutiny.”
“But you’ve found them?”
“With help from friends I made on set who hooked me up with Grant Williams, the head of the California Society of Paranormal Research.”
“CASPR?” Johnny nodded. “Even I’ve heard of them. The epicenter of the ghost hunting boom of the early 2000s.”
“Exactly,” Dennis nodded. “These guys are like…a directory of investigators, and most of them are thrilled to get the exposure. We just had to find the ones who were willing to put it all on the line for a chance to be on the biggest ghost hunting show in history.”
“How big are we talking?”
“Well, for production crew and field experts alone we have over thirty people. Another thirty PAs and interns below the line. We’ve purchased and leased almost a quarter-million dollars worth of scientific equipment, along with an arsenal of your standard ghost hunting tools.”
Johnny chuckled, eyes widening. “And what haunted location do you plan on swooping down on with this…army?”
“That’s part of the fun.” Dustin grinned. “We’re not telling anyone. There are only three people involved in location scouting, including me. That means zero chance for the investigators to go into the show with foreknowledge. And I can tell you one more thing. It’s going to be a location they’ve never even heard of. We’re going obscure, because these hunters already know the stories around the most well-known sites.”
“Very cool, but I gotta ask. Aren’t you worried they’ll show up and nothing will happen?”
Dustin laughed, shaking his head. Another practiced move, deftly executed for the cameras.
“Not a problem,” he said, holding up his hands. “The drama and conflict isn’t coming from the ghosts. It’s coming from the experts. Look, you can put any ten people in a dark building and you’ve got the seeds of a show. Make them investigators who have never met, combined with skeptics trying to find flaws in their methods, and it’s a guaranteed powder keg. I brought a clip to give you some idea of what’s coming.”
Johnny leaned back in his chair, raising his arm. “Roll the clip.”
The screen behind them glowed to life with exterior shots of a one-story commercial building bearing the ‘CASPR’ logo on a cheap sign. Accompanied by dramatic music, it transitioned to a shot of a man in a chair. If the viewers didn’t recognize Grant Williams, they certainly knew the reference to his 2001 show, Ghost Seekers, lettered across the screen.
“I’m excited for this opportunity to put some of our most active investigators on the show,” the gray-haired man said. “I think Dustin’s giving us a chance to really demonstrate a depth to what we do that has never been shown on TV. Am I confident that viewers will be convinced that spirits are all around us? Absolutely. I’ve never seen someone walk away from an honest investigation believing otherwise.”
The image crossfaded to another man in a chair — this one sporting a smart-ass grin and leather blazer. The audience gasped and cheered.
Far more recognizable than the head of CASPR, smug scientist Ian Farnsworth was a social media darling. A celebrity skeptic with a degree from MIT who’d made himself famous with his funny, but confrontational, YouTube videos and angry tweets to climate change deniers.
“Ghost hunting is a pseudoscience, plain and simple,” he said to the unseen interviewer. “Two things allow it to exist: confirmation bias and ambiguity. When we remove those two elements, there will be nothing left but dark hallways and creaking floorboards.”
Ian pointed his grin straight at the camera. “Sorry to tell you this, Dustin, but you’re not going to have much of a show.”
The audience laughed, and Dustin joined in. The shot faded to a slow, sweeping panorama of the inside of an airplane hangar — rows and rows of folding tables with an assortment of electronic hardware that could pass for a mad scientist’s garage sale. Behind the tables, three dozen men and women stood in formation with their hands folded in front of white lab coats, gray jumpsuits, or black tee shirts and cargo pants.
The camera panned up. Behind the impressive lineup of crew and equipment loomed a pair of black MH-6 helicopters. Each bore the new show’s logo and tagline:
Spirits & Skeptics: The Ultimate Truth
Johnny’s audience had already been cooing and fawning over the show of equipment and manpower. The two choppers pushed them over the edge into gasps and cheers.
Dustin’s grin broke into a satisfied smile. As he’d hoped, the sheer scale of it all was getting attention.
Of course, he’d had to take a lot of creative liberties with the shot because his team was still assembling the talent and gear. The scientists were straight out of central casting, not a lab. And the choppers? Like the hangar itself, they’d borrowed them from the Parks Department and slapped on a couple of ten-dollar decals that Dustin printed the morning of the shoot.
He wasn’t lying, really. They would have scientists and helicopters. Eventually. Probably.
Dustin kicked the doubts aside as the studio audience broke into another round of applause. His clip was over. Time to get back to selling it.
“Now, Dustin,” Johnny continued, chuckling, “that’s pretty amazing. But be straight with us. You’ve got Ian F. on your promo. This is gonna be twelve hours of people making fun of fortune tellers and looneys, isn’t it?”
Dustin’s smile dropped. “No, no! This is not a ‘gotcha’ show. We’re not going to be mocking anyone, or cutting the interviews to make people look crazy. None of that.”
Johnny shrugged and nodded approvingly. “Okay, okay. I can get behind that.”
“Real science, Johnny,” Dustin added, leaning in. “Real. Science. That’s the difference.”
Johnny leaned sideways to clap him on the back. “It’s almost time for a break, Dustin. Tell the folks why they should watch Spirits & Skeptics in one sentence.”
Dustin nodded and stood, ignoring the blocking he’d discussed with the stage manager on the way from the green room. Giving the DP enough time to catch up and get him framed, he walked to the edge of the set, sweeping his eyes slowly over the crowd.
“Because by this time next year, we’ll prove that death isn’t the end. Something bigger than us is all around. And I’m going to get it on camera.”
The audience erupted. As the housewives and tourists rose to their feet, Dustin bowed, drinking in the approval.
Johnny darted from behind his desk, reaching out to shake his guest’s hand before the cue to commercial. By the time the director called the set clear, the host had already shot Dustin a dirty look with his back to the cameras.
Dustin ignored it, laser focused on the standing ovation that proved he wasn’t squandering four million dollars.
People cared. People wanted to know.
And he still had two weeks to figure out how to make it all work.