Paranormal investigators have a rough gig. Not only is it pretty tough to catch genuine anomalies on film, but once you do, you have to hope it will stand up to the scrutiny of your peers, not to mention face the unwavering cynicism of Skeptics. Well, ghost hunters’ jobs just got way harder thanks to a new professional service that promises to provide untraceable hoaxing of paranormal activity.
Mike Bisch runs Kentucky Special FX, a company that specializes in building movie prop replicas, haunted house attractions, and realistic animatronics to name a few things. According to Bisch, custom orders account for nearly 70% of his company’s revenue, and they’re responsible for the special effects in the 7th Street Haunt, a highly-reviewed haunted house with over $850,000 in movie grade illusions at work.
It’s safe to say that when it comes to scaring the pants off people, Mike Bisch knows his stuff. But when he’s not creating replicas of Ghostbusters II‘s dancing toaster or rigging up terrifying animatronics in theatrical haunted houses, Bisch offers another service that’s sure to scare ghost hunters in a much different way: professional paranormal hoaxes in the legendary haunted location of the buyer’s choice… and according to Bisch, he’s already pulled it off over twenty times.
In a package named “Real Ghost And Unexplained Phenomenon And Apparitions”, Bisch offers up the covert operations of he and his team as they set to work creating everything from equipment malfunctions, sudden temperature fluctuations, and appearing and disappearing apparitions for unwitting ghost hunters in haunted buildings. They claim they can even make an entire group of people feel ill at the same time.
By arriving in unmarked vehicles and blending into ghost hunting groups, Bisch promises the owners of allegedly-haunted locations a “helping hand in making sure your guest or ghost hunters get to see or experience some pretty cool stuff on demand to help keep you in business.” They’ll perform all these services and more without ratting you out, either. In fact, the only way they’ll spill the beans is if law enforcement comes knocking with a warrant.
With such far-reaching implications for the field of paranormal research, I couldn’t help but wonder: what drives a special effects artist to offer a service like this? I reached out to Mike for answers, and it turns out, he sees his job as a challenge to ghost hunters.
“I started offering the haunting package not long after my father passed away,” Bisch told Week in Weird. “When he was alive.. we did the same pact the Weiss’s did [referring to Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess]. We had a simple code word that would be solid proof of the others’ existence in the after world and when we passed we would try in any way possible to reach out. Well guess what? Never heard a peep from either of them and no mentalist, psychic, or anyone for that matter has even guessed close.”
A magician since age twelve, and an escape artist since fourteen, Bisch decided to put his skills to use fooling “fakers, spiritualists, and those ghosty hunters” using a combination of state-of-the-art technology and good old fashioned misdirection.
“I’m not a hardcore paranormal believer,” Bisch says. “I’m a man of science.”
Mike says that so far, his clients have been a fifty-fifty split of private individuals and big name companies, both eager to manifest all manner of spooky activity.
“Every place is different, as is every budget. One place might want something simple to fly or float by, another might want a full blown hologram to appear and disappear completely untraceable. There’s a lot of hours that go into planning on the bigger-scale projects. A lot. There’s a lot of paper work to be done before we show up.”
Mike wouldn’t tell me exactly how many hoaxes he’s pulled off, but hinted that the number is over two dozen. He’s even said no to a few, but only when he’s certain someone might get injured or his team can’t get away with the illusion.
“Yes, we have turned down opportunities that we thought would cause physical harm to people, and we’ve turned down a couple because of [mental health risks],” Bisch says. “Some projects we were able to salvage with alternatives, and some we flat out lost out on. The biggest question is, ‘does the customer have the means for us to fulfill the request but not get caught?’ If not we won’t even attempt it. We don’t get caught, ever.”
For ghost hunters, a service like this is alarming news. Not only does it call into question the validity of evidence they’ve previously collected, but it’s casting doubt on which haunted locations they choose to investigate.
“We pay a lot of money to travel to haunted places in search of answers,” Sue Nielson, a long-time paranormal investigator told me. “If we wanted a fake haunting we would stay close to home and wait for the haunted houses to start up in October.”
Todd Manoli-Smith, a ghost hunter from Seattle, says hoaxes in properties with haunted histories are an insult.
“Not only is this degrading to the field it’s so disrespectful to the deceased who may actually be trying to reach out,” he wrote.
Even Chip Coffey, a famed psychic medium known for his appearances on shows like A&E’s Paranormal State, weighed in on the subject.
“If there is reliable, substantive, irrefutable PROOF that such activity is occurring, then it should be made public,” Coffey wrote. “No blind accusations, suppositions or conspiracy theories. PROOF ONLY!”
But it isn’t just paranormal investigators who are upset by the idea of professional hoaxers. For the owners of spooky locations with honest reputations, the fears of being lumped in hoaxers are scarier than the resident spirits. Jesse Leimkuehler, who owns the Belvoir Winery, a castle-like building noted for its paranormal street cred, including an appearance on SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, sees the rise of haunt-for-hire services as another challenge in the uphill battle of maintaining a haunted property.
“I don’t know about ghost hunters, but as the owner of a haunted location that goes out of its way to make sure nothing is faked, that pisses me off,” he says. “It creates more questions by guests when they know that kind of stuff is being done at other locations. All it takes is one falsified haunting to allow people to blanket all locations as not legitimate.”
Robbin Terry, who owns and maintains the well-known Ashmore Estates property featured on Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, says that operations like Mike’s and the fear of potential hoaxing accusations have been enough to make him think twice about the kind of renovations he performs on his own building.
“As a venue owner I can’t imagine anyone doing this, but I suppose greed takes over,” Terry says. “I was going to put a sound system throughout the building for personal use when working or events but have refrained just so someone doesn’t think I’m trying to ‘fake’ things.”
The struggle to make a buck in the paranormal industry is a real one, and while there’s no doubt that unscrupulous property owners have resorted to scheduling a few extra bumps in the night in hopes of bumps in ticket sales, many locations offer up their ghosts for more practical reasons. For Leimkuehler, the motivations for events at the Belvoir Winery have less to do with raking it in, and are more about the necessity of providing a safe alternative to researchers gone rogue.
“If we don’t do the events,” he says, “we have people (mostly kids) who break into our property to search for paranormal stuff, which is a HUGE liability to our family/business. We do the paranormal events because it gives those people a safer outlet for that paranormal interest where we can control the risk to participants. By the time I pay investigators/staff/maintenance, we don’t make that much on the paranormal events.”
As for Mike Bisch and his bag of supernatural special effects, the motivation to hoax hauntings is a direct response to what he sees as a lack of proper effort on the part of the ghost hunting community.
“Way I see it, if they’re worth their weight, they’ll know it’s us [behind the fake paranormal activity].”
But even if Bisch wasn’t compelled to fool paranormal investigators out of a sense of moral commitment – or just cold hard cash – he’d probably still be doing it anyway because, he says, he’s gotten pretty good at it.
“If you’re gonna be good at something, be the best you possibly can be, give it your all,” Bisch told me. “Live it, breathe it, become it, and by God, you can best believe if we don’t take the job someone else will.”
Maybe he’s right. In fact, according to many insiders, these kinds of tricks have been occurring at a growing rate since the paranormal television boom took ghost hunting to the mainstream. After reaching out to investigators for opinions on this story, my inbox was flooded with responses from ghost hunters who say they’ve discovered sneaky supernatural hoaxes happening at some of the most famous paranormal hotspots in America.
One man, who didn’t want to be named, claims that he and a business partner discovered hidden speakers in one of these legendary haunts, devices that are still completely unknown to the public, but intended to replicate paranormal activity with low-frequency sounds. Having a degree in audio engineering, his partner recognized what was happening “almost immediately.”
One of the most common responses from ghost hunters is that, if they were to discover that such a hoax had been perpetrated at their expense, they would sue. Indeed, many of these investigators spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to attend events in allegedly haunted locations, most of them setting out to capture genuine evidence of the paranormal. The question is, do they have any legal recourse if they find themselves at the center of a hoax?
Turns out, in most cases, probably not very much.
While there doesn’t appear to be a good legal precedent for a case in which paranormal investigators sued a haunted building for fake ghosts, the fact that ghosts themselves are so hard to prove in court makes situations like this pretty murky.
The real issue, though, is proving quantifiable damages to ghost hunters, a community of people who have spent the last decade setting themselves up as non-profit entities. While the famous ghost hunters of the 1970s were all too happy to charge for their services, these days, the act of receiving payment for a paranormal investigation is a cardinal sin in the wider ghost hunting community. This makes establishing damages a whole lot harder.
Additionally, if the “haunted” location in question offers no guarantees of genuine paranormal activity, they’re probably off the hook. As long as the property owners are merely offering up access to their building – and nothing else – they’re more than likely free to hoax all the ghosts they want. In fact, they’ve got the most money to lose in the deal, which means that any investigation team bringing suit had better be prepared for the potential of a countersuit.
Of course, I’m not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. With a situation as strange as this, we’ll never know exactly how a case of hoaxed ghost hunters will play out until someone brings it to court.
At the end of the day, there’s only one reliable way for ghost hunters to be sure that the evidence they’re collecting is legitimate: investigate well and when in doubt, throw it out. Just as it was during the heyday of fraudulent seances and mediums pulling cheesecloth from their nether-regions, the hallmarks of a good paranormal investigator remain in knowing to look for a hoax first and a haunting second, being willing to admit it when you’ve been fooled, and telling the world as much.
Unfortunately, this shifts the moral responsibility to the ghost hunter. When even the most respected paranormal investigators have to sing for their supper, do the risks of exposing phony phantoms outweigh the financial gain of using them to your advantage? In that respect, Mike Bisch, and the countless others like him, are the devil sitting on the shoulder of the ghost hunting community, gleefully whispering about how its not wrong if no one finds out.
As for Mike, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I can’t apologize.. or I guess I could, but I won’t,” he says. “I’m an asshole, I know, but a lovable asshole though.”
I’m sure the paranormal community would agree with him on at least one of those descriptions.