The Power of the Paranormal — A Chat with Jill Witecki of Tampa Theatre and Jeremy Rettig of Genesis Paranormal Services

This blog is based on Episode 34 of my A Scott in the Dark podcast, entitled “The Power of the Paranormal,” in which I had the great opportunity to look at how interest in paranormal research has worked its way into the entertainment field—especially the haunted-attraction realm. There are many haunted attractions out there that take place in actual haunted locations, and quite a few of them aren’t only playing that up from a theatrical standpoint but also inviting paranormal investigators to come in and explore the deepest, darkest realms of their space. Some haunts are offering this to guests as an add-on experience or upgrade, and some offer paranormal investigative opportunities to guests year-round to generate revenue outside of the haunt season.

Recently, I went to the Tampa Theatre to talk to its director of marketing, my dear friend Jill Witecki. You may remember her from a podcast episode a while back at the League of Historic American Theaters Conference. I also spoke with Jeremy Rettig, a paranormal investigator with Genesis Paranormal Services.

The Tampa Theatre offers guests the opportunity to take part in a paranormal research investigation, so I spoke to to Jill and Jeremy about how that works in general and how it works for the theatre. Is it something they sell as, “This is real,” or is it something they mess with theatrically (which I don’t think they do). I’ve done the paranormal tour at Tampa Theatre a couple of times, and it’s amazing. You get to go behind-the-scenes in this beautiful, stunning, vintage, 1920s, vaudeville house turned movie theater turned Tampa icon.

In this blog, we’ll be looking at how the real paranormal can benefit a haunted attraction. If you’re lucky enough to have real ghosts in your location, this episode might give you some insight or ideas as to how to capitalize on that and perhaps even generate some additional revenue while also building some really cool credibility for your haunted attraction.

The Power of the Paranormal — A Chat with Jill Witecki of Tampa Theatre and Jeremy Rettig of Genesis Paranormal Services
Image Credit: Tampa Theatre

The Ghostly Backstory of the Tampa Theatre

First, Jill told me a little bit about the historic Tampa Theatre.

“Tampa Theatre opened in 1926 as a silent movie palace and, for the first three years of its existence, all of our films were accompanied by a live orchestra and our mighty Wurlitzer theater organ. Now, 93 years later, we’re still here. As you sit in our 1200-seat auditorium, it looks like you’re in an outdoor courtyard at night. Our ceiling looks like a night sky, there’s all this beautiful statuary and architecture. The venue looks just like it did in 1926. Our primary programming is still film. We do a little bit of live entertainment here and there—standup comedy, small bands. Our stage is built over what used to be the orchestra pit, so it’s very tiny. We also enjoy the reputation as being the most haunted building in Tampa,” Jill explained.

“As a nonprofit, we have to generate revenue over and above the grant money and operating revenue we have. I’m very lucky that the team at Tampa Theatre allows me to embrace the haunted history of this building. Some organizations that have paranormal activity as part of their story tend to shy away from it. I have leadership that lets me shout from the rooftops that we’re a haunted building, and we’re proud to be a haunted building. So, we’re an organization that embraces our spirits. Over the past eight years—as long as I’ve been here—I’ve been able to take the groundwork that was laid before I got here and turn that into a horror film series as well as a very active ghost-tour program,” she said.

“The theatre is located on Franklin Street, so we appropriated a bit of a cultural meme and call our Halloween event ‘A Nightmare on Franklin Street.’ The length of this event ranges somewhere between 17 and 19 days depending on how the calendar falls. This year we were open 18 days, starting in mid-October and running through October 31st. Besides the horror film series, we started doing an evening of live storytelling as well as the occasional live performances. In this year’s Nightmare on Franklin Street series, we had more live elements and more ghost tours than we’ve ever done before.”

It was my understanding that Jill did all the ghost tours herself, and I asked her if that was true.

Paranormal Tours in a Truly Haunted Building

“Yes, I do all of the ghost tours, because I just love doing them,” Jill replied. “I also feel it’s part of my job as the director of marketing. It’s my job to tell the stories of the building—the history, the architecture, the architect, the programming, the stars who’ve appeared on the stage. The ghosts are part of this history, and they’re as big a part of my job as anybody else.”

I asked Jill what was unique about the paranormal aspect at the Tampa Theatre.

“In a word, authenticity. That the building is haunted lends a credence and believability to what we do. When I finish with a ghost tour, people often ask me, ‘Do you really believe all this stuff?’ My answer is always, ‘Well, yes.’ Jeremy and his team have investigated the building over and over through the years, and this has allowed us to collect an amazing body of evidence. I’ve got it all in a file, and it’s been building gradually all this time. What Jeremy and his team does is huge, but it doesn’t feel huge because it’s grown so organically. They’ve built the body of proof for us to such a degree that this year we’re actually adding an entirely new layer to our ghost tours—our VIP add-on investigative experience—that allows guests to basically have the run of the building late at night.”

I asked Jill if she’d ever had anything happen while she was in this building—either during a tour or by herself—that she couldn’t quite explain.

“That’s probably the second most common question I’m asked. The answer is yes, although probably not in the way that most people would think of it. When people ask me that question, they want to hear, ‘I saw something,’ or ‘I smelled Fink upstairs,’ or ‘I felt a cold spot.’ The experiences I’ve had aren’t that simple…although I did finally smell Fink up in the balcony.”

I have too, by the way.

“But that didn’t happen for about six years. I feel like I have a good working relationship with the spirits, and they understand that if they scare me too much, I’m not going to be able to come to work anymore.”

I asked Jill to talk about her favorite story related to the paranormal activity in the theatre.

“My favorite story is the story that’s evolved the most since I’ve been at the theatre. It’s about a man named Paul Short. When I got here about eight years ago, I was handed a collection of ghost stories that had been told about the theatre for years by my predecessor and others. One of those stories was about Joe the janitor and his jingling keys. There’s an office at the top of the stairs, and people standing in the lobby would hear keys jingling in the lock of the door to that office. This was attributed to Joe, who used to be a janitor here. The problem is that Joe is still alive.”

I commented that it’s tough to be a ghost when you’re still living…well, unless you work in my industry, and then it’s a job.

“The story continued to evolve. I’m not gonna ruin it for anybody who wants to come on that tour, but basically, more and more pieces of evidence pointed to the fact that this wasn’t Joe the janitor but a former manager named Paul Short. That was all crystallized for us one evening as I was giving a ghost tour to a group of guests. There was an obelisk device near me—which had already figured prominently in the story—and, as I was telling the story of Joe the janitor and how I knew that story wasn’t accurate, the obelisk crackled to life and said the name ‘Paul.’”

I commented that we can’t write stuff that creepy for a haunted attraction. Well, we can, but we’d add blood to it. The obelisk explodes in blood and says, “Paul.”

Why Jill Decided to Do Ghosts Tours Rather than a Haunted Attraction

Jill responded, “Your comment reminds me why I chose to do ghost tours instead of a haunted attraction.”

I took the bait and asked, “So, Jill, why did you choose to do ghost tours instead of a haunted attraction?”

“Because it’s a lot cheaper. We don’t have to cover everything in blood. We don’t have to cover everything in cobwebs. We don’t have to hire a bunch of actors with costumes. We don’t have to hire brilliant minds like Scott Swenson to write us a venue flow with a script. All we have to do is tell the story of the building, which I know is something you talk to your listeners about all the time—telling the story,” she said.

“We just let the building speak for herself. We tell her stories and, whether or not you actually have a personal experience while you’re on one of our ghost tours, you’re going to hear about people who did. You’re going to hear it in a convincing way, and it’s convincing because it’s true. We’re telling the stories as truthfully and honestly as we possibly can, and that’s what makes them creepy.”

Having been on these paranormal tours and seen the horror films and heard the mighty Wurlitzer, which still plays at certain films, I can say it’s an incredible experience. I’ve seen live performances, too. I’ve seen everybody from Lily Tomlin to Darlene Love to David Sedaris. I asked Jill where our listeners and readers could go to find our more information and experience the joy that is the Tampa Theatre.

“We’re doing ghost tours every day this year, but we’re only doing the VIP add-on for two nights, and each night is limited to 25 people. Those tickets go fast. Tampatheatre.org is our website.”

The Power of the Paranormal — A Chat with Jill Witecki of Tampa Theatre and Jeremy Rettig of Genesis Paranormal Services

Sitting on the Balcony of the Tampa Theatre Talking About Paranormal Activity

Next I spent some time sitting in the balcony of the beautiful Tampa Theatre with Jeremy Rettig from Genesis Paranormal Services. I first asked him to talk about what Genesis Paranormal Services does.

“We’re a paranormal research team. We go into a location that may or may not have paranormal phenomena to assist in validating or whatever it is that the homeowner or the building owner needs. We deal with the darker side of things if necessary. We’re part of a large network of paranormal researchers that aren’t only trying to understand why these things happen but also to help people when they feel they’ve been afflicted by something living in their building.”

I commented, “So, the majority of your work isn’t necessarily for entertainment purposes. It’s for people who call you and say, ‘I need to get this ghosty out of my new home.’”

“Yes. Most of the time, it’s just a phone call. They want to talk to somebody and feel validated they’re not crazy, that there are other people out there that have experienced the same thing they’re experiencing.”

The Power of the Paranormal — A Chat with Jill Witecki of Tampa Theatre and Jeremy Rettig of Genesis Paranormal Services

The Science of Paranormal Investigation

I observed that paranormal science is a slippery slope.

“There’s no baseline for what we do, and everything we do is theory. Much of the equipment and processes we use come from best practices that have yielded results in the past, and we develop on that. As we get results, we try new things to get better results. The reality is that true paranormal phenomena are difficult to find, and such paranormal phenomena are only as good as the people that experience it. It’s challenging nowadays with social media and YouTube, where there’s so much that’s fabricated,” Jeremy explained.

“Also, we’re kind of shunned by the scientific community because we have no baseline. There’s nothing that says the device I have in my hand is going to capture exactly what I’m experiencing. I can’t guarantee that. A lot of the new equipment that’s been developed is based on previous equipment that would elicit responses and drive us closer to an answer. We deal with a lot with coincidences. Everything seems to be coincidental. We have to be skeptical and question everything. We don’t go to a paranormal explanation first, because, nine times out of 10, we can find a logical explanation for what’s happening, and we owe it to ourselves to find that explanation. Once we’ve eliminated all those ‘possibilities’ of whatever it was we experienced, what we’re left with is the potential that what we experienced was the paranormal, or at least ‘the unexplained,’” he said.

“We have to be practical first and try to find the logical explanation. We don’t just go in and do an investigation. It doesn’t work like that. It’s not like what you see on TV. That’s entertainment. With us, 99.9% of the time, nothing’s happening. When we have that 0.1% of something happening, it spikes our adrenaline, it gets us going. But then again, that’s not enough to prove what we’re experiencing. However, we’re not out to prove something to the world. We’re out to prove something to ourselves—and to help the person that’s being afflicted by whatever’s going on.”

I asked Jeremy if he considered himself to be on the pioneering end of this type of investigation.

“What I do as a paranormal investigator I learned from a 30-year-old veteran who’s now retired,” said Jeremy. “He dabbled in the darker side of things, but I’m an information gatherer. As an investigator, I first go into an environment and try to understand what’s being experienced. It’s extremely rare to find something genuinely paranormal. I’ve had personal experiences where inanimate objects were thrown across the room, and I have no logical explanation for what force on this planet could possibly make that happen. Mine has been a journey of understanding that, in my world, in my limited knowledge, and in what I can touch and feel and express, there’s something otherworldly. There are forces on this planet we can’t understand.”

I’ve seen video of Jeremy in the Tampa Theatre experiencing physical contact. I asked him what that feels like and what makes that experience different from a total stranger walking up to you and grabbing you by the arm.

“With those encounters, I first went through the process of rational thought and asked myself if I really did experience something. That involves taking a step back and examining the environment. Did my shoulder brush up against something? No. I couldn’t explain what, in my environment, could have caused me to feel a distinct double tap on my shoulder. There was an EMF [electromotive force, which is an electrical action produced by a non-electric source] that was constant where I was standing. There was a concentrated and constant manifestation of energy, and that, in addition to what I experienced, was unexplained. You have to put the pieces together to understand what you and others experienced. It’s a process of deduction to come up with the same result, and then, hopefully with an explanation for it. The explanation is the challenging part of what we do.”

The Relationship Between Haunting and Paranormal Investigating

We all know that haunters like to go to paranormal sites—mostly to gather information for their next haunt. Just as Jeremy does from a scientific standpoint, we, from a theatrical standpoint, try to include every element that can make people believe it’s real.

Jeremy agreed. “It’s all about the experience, but we’re not trying to create an experience, like you are. We’re trying to understand the experience by analyzing the environment and understanding what’s taking place to come up with some sort of conclusion.”

More and more haunted attractions—especially those that take place in older or historic venues such as the Queen Mary or various abandoned prisons and asylums around the country—are now starting to offer experiences in which guests go into the facility after hours or off season to do paranormal research in those locations. I asked Jeremy what he felt about that relationship between the theatrical and the scientific.

“I like to be scared as much as the next person. However, if you’d asked me 12 years ago if I’d ever be rooting around in old buildings looking for ghosts, I would have said, ‘Heck no.’ There’s an element of fear that everyone has, especially when it comes to the unknown, and I wanted to confront that fear and overcome it,” he confessed.

“Tony Robison talks about six basic human needs that everybody has: certainty, uncertainty, significance, love, growth, and giving. Just focusing on the first two, we all need to know things. We need to know that our house is gonna be there, that our family’s gonna be there, that our job’s gonna be there, and that we can pay the bills. We need a level of certainty that gives our life meaning. At the same time, we need uncertainty in our lives. If we knew everything that was going to happen, life would be pretty boring. We like surprises and, with a level of uncertainty, there’s healthy fear. That’s why we like horror and mysteries, and that’s why the paranormal interests us, because it terrifies us—and also satisfies our need for uncertainty.”

This is what we’re doing in the haunt industry—creating scenarios where there’s uncertainty and we can get that adrenaline rush. Yet, deep down somewhere, we know, “I’m not in real peril. The zombies aren’t really going to infect me and eat my brains.” We need that sense of uncertainty in our lives, and that explains why we do what we do on the haunt side as opposed to investigators like Jeremy, who are trying to explain it. We haunters are trying to enhance it and make it even more terrifying than the reality of it.

I don’t want to call paranormal investigations a parallel industry to haunting, because one is far more scientific and the other is far more theatrical. However, there’s always been that crossover between the two. And there have also been the frauds. I asked Jeremy if there are people in his business who claim to be researchers but who enhance things to the point of making them false.

“Yes, there are fabricators out there,” said Jeremy, “and they’re often in it for self-glorification. This hurts the field, and it hurts clients. It also hurts anything credible that we find, because we’re trying to create that baseline to make these investigations regarded as serious science. Again, real paranormal phenomena are only as good as the people who experience it. There are investigators that will fabricate evidence because they’re trying to appease the homeowner and give them some sort of validation. On the flip side, there are homeowners that will create stories and call us to see if we can prove these stories. Maybe they’re trying to get on television or achieve some sort of notoriety,” he said.

“The other aspect is that there are dangerous things that happen, so what if you go into a location where you come across something you don’t understand? I don’t understand half the things I come across, so I have a process to safeguard myself. You might encounter something otherworldly, which may be malevolent or, at least, not nice, and it may have an impact on you. You’ll have an experience, but it won’t be the experience you want, and it can majorly affect your life. So, you have to be very careful with this.”

I’m very sensitive to certain emotional states in locations. For example, I can’t go to Cassadaga, Florida anymore, because it feels like being a crowded shopping mall even though there’s nobody there. So, I totally understand the idea of not dabbling in things you don’t understand. But that’s exactly what some haunters want—they want the environment to be as creepy as possible.

“That’s the big difference between the entertainment side and the fieldwork side of true paranormal investigating. When it’s entertainment, there’s a rational component in your mind that knows it’s not real, but you’re there to be scared, you’re there to be tantalized. Whereas, with what we do, we’re dealing with real environments where things are happening that we don’t understand, so there’s an authentic fear that’s being amplified.”

My Suggestion—Take Part in a Paranormal Investigation

So, my suggestion is, if a haunter wants to find out about these scary things that truly happen, take part in a paranormal investigation. I’ve been on several, and you’ll find there’s a lot of sitting in the dark talking to yourself, which would make for a really dull haunted attraction. But, in those moments when something does happen, there’s that racing of the heart that all haunters want to try to recreate—that moment of, “Oh my gosh, this is real!” But then we have to do that back to back to back. Of course, that’s not what happens in a real paranormal investigation. Real paranormal investigation happens, from my experience, in dribs and drabs. We, as haunters, have to take what could be years and years of data and research and condense that into a five- to seven-minute walk-through experience for guests.

So, if you want to contact Genesis Paranormal Services, go to  Facebook.com/GenesisParanormalServices. The company is based in Tampa, but the investigators travel all over Florida.

As you can see, there’s real interest in the paranormal in the general population, and taking advantage of this can generate both revenue and interest in your space or location. Hopefully you’ve gotten some ideas about how to incorporate paranormal research into your own haunted attraction, or at least your interest has been sparked to go on a paranormal ghost hunt just for the heck of it. It’s interesting how paranormal research and the theatricality of putting together haunted attractions are kind of the antithesis of one another, but they both end up trying to do the same thing—to tell a creepy story that affects people on an emotional level.

Whether you use paranormal stories and research to assist the science or you’re doing it as a way to share local history and encourage the preservation of historic spaces or you’re doing it as a revenue generator to help keep your haunt active year-round, it’s a cool sister industry to what we do in haunted attractions.

Scott Swenson

by Scott Swenson