I bury the dead, like the boatman who takes them across the river Styx.
During “Dark Man” everyone was just getting to know one another. We were all trying to figure out what did and didn’t work. As quickly as our next case though, which would come to be called “The Cemetery,” the relationships became more relaxed. That was partly because the location, Clearfield, was only thirty minutes from State College. The shorter travel time helped our tight schedule.
Being college students, the shooting schedule had to work around classes. By and large there was a two-and-a-half-day shoot for each case. We’d leave Friday, then get back Sunday night to be in class Monday. Here the extra time allowed for some of our best investigatory work, most of which, unfortunately, didn’t make it to the final cut.
It was November when we learned about Matt Franson, a cemetery caretaker in his midthirties, and his bride, Chandra. As part of his job, Matt lived in a house with a barn adjoining the cemetery grounds. He’d lived there six and a half years and had experienced some activity on his own. He had felt paralyzed and seen a female apparition. But it was when Chandra moved there in June 2006 that their troubles really began.
Chandra began experiencing intense pains. Her back ached. At times her hands and feet became so inflamed she had trouble getting out of bed. Within two weeks of their wedding they started hearing noises, whispers, someone calling Chandra’s name. Soon Chandra was hearing the voices every other day.
Matt, meanwhile, was having what he described as hallucinations. In the episode, he talks about lying in bed and seeing a woman climb out of a clothes basket, but he also described seeing the ceiling above him crack open. Tiny spiderlike creatures swarmed out and down the walls.
This couple was obviously in distress. Instead of enjoying their lives as newlyweds, they were feeling upset and threatened. The thought of investigating an entire cemetery for the first time was also very exciting to us. For the producers it made for a nice visual location, so the choice was easy.
We also decided to shoot a short sequence at a football game on campus. Originally the concept for Paranormal State was that it would include more details about our lives as students. Cameras followed us to parties, bars, Heather’s band playing, that sort of thing. A reporter even quoted one of our producers as saying they hoped some of us would start relationships with each other. This episode has a sequence where Heather and Katrina ask Serg if he’d consider dating someone from PRS.
But with only twenty-two minutes and some great, detailed cases, that concept didn’t last. PRS pretty much was our lives, so it wasn’t as if we had time for socializing. The early shows, though, make the effort, hence the football game.
We shot the game Saturday, which was fun, but complicated. It’s hard not to get noticed when you’re walking around with cameras pointed at you. The press passes the camera guys had also happened to be the same colors as the visiting team, Michigan State, so people razzed them.
We tried to get a shot of me walking down the steps, but as I went, everyone cheered and high-fived me like I was a big time celebrity. It was awkward trying to watch the game, but even with all that, I was happy to get to one before being wrapped up in production.
Next came the briefing. For the curious, the case file numbers I rattle off indicate the year, the month, the number of the case for that month, and a letter, p for parapsychological research and f for field investigation. All the cases on the show are field research, so this case number was 2006.11.26F, meaning we received the call and opened the file for a field case in November 2006.
Our Saturday briefing took place the day after I’d gone up to meet Matt and Chandra. By then, they told me a number of things about the case, including that an urn with unidentified ashes had been buried on the property, that the Fransons were born-again Christians, and that certain members of Matt’s family apparently disapproved of their decision to contact us for social and religious reasons.
The clients also expressed strong feelings about not wanting to work outside their own beliefs. So during the briefing, I jokingly ask Eilfie not to bring her cauldron and Serg not to mention his agnosticism. When the episode aired, viewers gave me flak: How dare you say that to Eilfie?
I see how it might’ve come across, but Eilfie knew where I was coming from. We’re being invited into intimate, usually very sensitive emotional situations. When the clients clearly tell me that they’re not open to other beliefs, I don’t see any sense in adding to their tension. It could easily get in the way of finding out what’s going on and helping. Now that the show’s been on the air for several years, more people know who we are and what we believe, so it’s become less of an issue.
Looking back, it’s also interesting that during the briefing I remind my team that spirits are human, and not all had happy go-lucky deaths. In this case, there wound up being a different idea about the nature of the spirits involved between myself and the clients.
From my first meeting with them, Matt and Chandra came across as very reserved. I didn’t feel they were hiding anything, just that they were quiet. I do remind myself that when a bunch of strangers come to your home with cameras, you can be anyone you want for a couple of hours. Usually, though, our clients are worried that they’re crazy. Just showing up and expressing a willingness to believe them often gets people to open up. Here, though, it took time.
Matt did strike me as unhappy. There were things in life he said he enjoyed: rock, video games, and horror films, but he also said his family disapproved of that. It seemed his whole life revolved around maintaining that cemetery. When I asked what it was like, he joked that the customers never complained. He also said it was a special job. “I bury the dead, like the boatman who takes them across the river Styx.”
It didn’t seem to be a position he’d aspired to. He’d studied film at Penn State, but things didn’t work out. My sense was that now he felt stuck there.
The cemetery opened in 1881 and Matt’s family had been in charge ever since. His great-grandfather and his grandfather before that were caretakers. His father, Bill Franson, broke the tradition and became a successful banker and Matt’s siblings since found different careers. Matt may have felt like he slipped backward.
Meanwhile, Matt and Chandra, who was about ten years younger, had married after two months of seeing each other. It was a big change that happened very quickly.
As I’ve said, I’m not a psychologist, but I’d spent time working with Adam, who’d been trying to figure out how psychology fit in with the paranormal. He shared his sense with me that wherever there’s a trauma, dysfunction, or even ongoing unhappiness, the paranormal tends to parallel it, as if it finds a weak spot and fills it, or feeds off it.
Here there was potentially a lot going on emotionally.
To try to draw out Chandra, Katrina and another investigator sat down with her and went through their wedding photos. The few smiles she gave us turned out to be the biggest reaction we got from her.
As for their relationship, from what I saw, while Chandra had her say, she sometimes looked to Matt before answering my questions. It wasn’t as if she were afraid, more like she looked up to him.
Between the emotional dynamic, the mysterious urn, and the hallucinations, there was a lot to look at, but the most urgent problem was Chandra’s physical pain.
She told me she’d never experienced anything like it before moving in, but now it was constant. She’d been to a doctor, had blood tests and an MRI, but there were no conclusive results or even a theoretical explanation.
To try to figure out what was going on, I brought her for another exam, with Thad Diehl, a chiropractor at the university. He examined her thoroughly, and failed to find anything wrong. He did say that the types of pains she was having were more appropriate for an eighty-year-old.
Matt already had told me his own theory about what was happening. Feeling paralyzed and seeing a ghostly woman crawl out of his laundry basket made him think a female ghost had grown attached to him. Now she might be jealous of Chandra. He and Chandra both felt it was attached to the urn that had been buried on their property.
We also spoke with Matt’s father, Bill, who said he believed what Matt was experiencing and agreed the activity was tied to Chandra’s appearance. There was another family member, though, who came by while we were shooting, and seemed to have an affect on Matt.
Unwilling to appear on-camera, this relative made no bones about being unhappy about my presence. They were worried about the family’s reputation, but also blamed the activity on demons. They felt Matt had opened himself up to it because of his interest in horror movies and video games.
They asked to speak with me directly, which was a tricky situation. On the one hand, here was someone doing what they felt was right. But Matt and Chandra were my clients, and I’d been asked to do a job for them. In situations like that, I try only to be reassuring, not to express any opinion.
It’s difficult, though, especially in this case where I was being aggressively challenged. I was asked things like, “Do you even know what demons are?”
Inside I was thinking, “Man, if you only knew what I knew about demons.” Instead, I calmly explained about my background and mentioned I’d worked directly with the Church. That gave them some respect for me. It was apparent, though, that Matt was getting flak for allowing us there at all.
Part of the issue went back to that belief I discussed earlier, that there’s no such thing as earthbound ghosts, and therefore all preternatural activity must be demonic. It’s a pretty widespread belief. To this day, I get letters insisting that no matter the evidence or the situation, it’s always the devil deceiving us.
While I try to respect everyone’s beliefs, I’d be doing my clients a disservice if I didn’t trust in my own experiences. Here I just didn’t see any evidence for a demonic presence. That led to some interesting situations not only with Matt and his family, but also some interesting conversations with the producers.
Prior to this person’s visit, Matt rarely said the word “demon.” He described his experiences as hallucinations, but also considered the possibility of a jealous spirit. He seemed open to entertaining whatever theory fit the facts. After the visit, though, Matt’s demeanor changed. Suddenly, he was talking demon, demon, demon. And, while he’d originally agreed to bring in a psychic, now he refused.
It was a scenario I was familiar with. In my own life, growing up, I’d seen my mother’s behavior change whenever my grandfather and his wife visited. When they weren’t there, she’d take me to see the latest Halloween movie, for instance. When they were visiting, there were no movies for me beyond PG. From watching Matt, I couldn’t tell if he wanted his family’s approval or felt as if he had to have it to avoid punishment.
As the others set up for Dead Time, I had a talk with Matt in the barn. I didn’t think this was a demon case, but I spoke to him in those terms because I felt it’d be the most useful for him. There’s also always an interpretive part to paranormal phenomena. If your beliefs don’t allow for the existence of ghosts, you use other terms.
I pointed out that his identity as a “ferryman” put him in a good position to be attacked. Even so, he could take charge of the forces working on his life, no matter what he wanted to call them.
He seemed to open up a bit. He started talking about how he’d let his feelings stew, and then he would lash out. In a way, he reminded me of my father when he was younger, when he was feeling trapped in a job he hated. If my dad were in a bad mood back then, you’d stay out of his way.
Matt, though, described his pent-up feelings as a way for Satan to get through. I tried to convince him it was up to him to reclaim his home.
While our conversations before that were very matter-of-fact, now he said with some emotion, “I feel good. I’m ready to fight this son of a bitch.”
During Dead Time, Matt remained committed. He asked if a demon was there to torment them, and condemned it back to hell.
At the time I heard nothing in response, but our recorders captured a very faint, almost electronic whistle. In terms of evidence, it was pretty light, but it felt as if things were starting to shift psychologically.
In the episode, the buried urn isn’t brought up until about halfway through, but it was during our preliminary talk Matt first told me about it. From the beginning, the Fransons considered it a possible source for their problems.
Years before, an unidentified urn containing ashes had been found by a police officer on the nearby banks of the Susquehanna River. The police thought someone might have thrown it off a bridge near the spot. According to Matt, on October 11, 2001, the chief of police brought it to him, asking if he’d bury it someplace.
Matt, concerned he’d have to dig it up again if someone claimed it, let it sit on a shelf in his barn. Almost five years later, on July 27, 2006, he decided it was finally time to bury it. He put it in his own yard, leaving a bit of cement on top to mark the spot. The burial roughly coincided with their marriage and, hence, the beginning of the activity.
Going into this case, one of our biggest concerns was whether or not our short schedule gave us the time to fully investigate the urn. As it turned out, I was particularly proud of what we were able to accomplish, and very disappointed that practically none of that investigative work made it into the episode.
One of the first things we did when we arrived was exhume the urn. There’s a scene with Matt digging it up in the rain. It was a square metal box with a relief of praying hands, a Christian symbol, on one side. At first we didn’t even know if the ashes were human.
We started by interviewing the policewoman who’d found it. Our first surprise came when she told us that at the time she found it, this “unidentified urn” had a metal ID tag. Whenever someone’s cremated in Pennsylvania, the ashes are always given that sort of tag. Unfortunately, according to the police, before they took the urn to Matt, it was brought to a funeral parlor (this is not the same parlor shown in the episode). When it came back, the tag was missing.
It was incredibly frustrating. Not finding any lead at all is one thing, but in this case we were so close. There were only so many places in Pennsylvania that cremate remains. Based on the location, the ashes were likely from a crematorium very close to State College. With an ID tag, it would’ve been easy to find out who this was.
I called the parlor, but they denied there’d ever been any tag. In fact, they didn’t seem to want to talk to me at all. Perhaps if they’d admitted to losing the tag, there may have been a legal or a public relations issue for them, but I found the attitude strange.
Our best chance gone, I took the ashes to the Penn State forensics department, hoping they could identify the remains through DNA. A technician there explained that not only would the results take weeks, there was only a very small chance of finding any DNA to begin with. It was likely all destroyed during the cremation. Then, even if they did beat those odds, the deceased would’ve had to have their DNA pattern stored in a database in order to get a match.
I was stumped. Not knowing when the person died, we couldn’t just check hospital records. I figured someone must’ve thrown the urn into the river, but we didn’t know when, how long after the date of death, or even how long after that the urn was in the river—two months or twenty years.
But that brought up another question. Why would someone throw an entire urn off a bridge? Maybe the deceased wanted their ashes scattered over the river, and someone tried, but dropped the urn. We’ll never know.
The ashes did reveal a couple of things. I interviewed funeral director Bill William, and his examination of the ashes did make it into the episode. He poured them out on a plastic bag, and then sifted through them with his bare hands. I also put my fingers through the ashes. Unlike Mr. Williams, I wore latex gloves.
My career as an investigator sometimes involved sticking my head and hands into some very questionable places—including dead dogs, spirit vortices, and dusty attics. Here, I was actually touching what was once a human being. There’s a quick cut in the episode with a look on my face expressing my feelings at the time.
During a modern cremation, the corpse is heated to around seventeen hundred degrees Fahrenheit, completely incinerating it. Even at that temperature, though, some personal items survive. Mr. Williams uncovered a bracelet and some surgical staples. The feminine bracelet led him to conclude it was definitely human, and likely a woman. The staples indicated she’d gone through a major surgery. Since these staples were of a type that is usually removed after the incision heals, it was likely she’d passed away before recovering.
This created an intriguing possibility that made me think Matt and Chandra were right in pinpointing the urn as the source of the haunting. Rather than a demon or a jealous spirit, I wondered if it was someone who’d been sick when they died. If they couldn’t move on because they’d never been buried properly, they might be imposing their illness, their pains, on Chandra.
That fit, for the paranormal aspect, but I still felt that there were issues surrounding the emotional side of things. Chandra was experiencing the bulk of the phenomena, but Matt’s notion of a demon or a jealous female put him at the center of the problem. He pictured this entity as wanting to take away the people closest to him. It sounded as if it wasn’t so much about jealousy as punishment. I wondered if he might be using his theories to express feelings of guilt and being trapped.
At that early stage, I was very, very hesitant to bring a thought like that to a client’s attention. I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to tell people what I thought their personal problems were. But again and again those problems seem linked to the activity. These days, for better or worse, I try to be a lot more direct. If I believe it’s true, I’ll just say, for instance, “Hey, your menopause could be causing your poltergeist activity.”
Whatever the explanation, I felt the best thing we could do was give the urn a proper burial. That would create the possibility for all three of them—the spirit, Matt, and Chandra—to move on.
Since the urn had a Christian symbol on the side, we assumed the deceased had been of that faith. Matt picked a spot in the cemetery and we made preparations. Once the decision was made, they both reported already feeling better, lighter. With that sense of impending relief, Matt opened up some more, revealing a sense of guilt.
“I had let my guard down over the years,” he told me, “taken it for granted and let this demon come into my house and cause problems, but now this has been a rebirth for me, and I’m ready to fight.”
He choked up. It was a very emotional moment for him. At the same time, though, I had to tell him what I thought. The complete conversation isn’t in the episode, but I said, “I don’t think you did anything wrong. I don’t think you summoned a demon.”
But I don’t know if he ever believed me.
Because of the strength of his feelings at that moment, I wondered if there might be something he wasn’t telling me. He definitely seemed to feel he was getting a resolution to something. What that something was, I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand.
Given his concerns regarding demons, I gave them a blessed Benedictine medal. It’s the only medal that has an exorcism prayer on it rebuking Satan and evil spirits.
At the burial, I wound up performing the eulogy. I wasn’t particularly comfortable with that. I felt it wasn’t my place. I’m often seen performing Christian ceremonies, but I constantly worry that my faith isn’t strong enough to make a difference for the clients. Unfortunately, though I ask, beg, and plead for spiritual leaders to come, many are adamantly against helping anyone who claims to be experiencing a haunting, which leaves it up to me.
Once we buried the urn, Chandra’s pains really did go away, so far as she’s told us. When we followed up a while later, for the first time, I heard happiness in Matt’s voice. They’d bought themselves some cats, and he was going on and on about that. I was surprised, and thought, this does not sound like the Matt I’d met. It felt like I was talking to a new person, and I genuinely felt happy for him.
Was it the urn being buried? Did it mean that symbolically Matt was able to put something away and say to himself, “You know, I don’t have to deal with that anymore?” Was it just timing? Who knows?
Just as showing up ready to believe can get someone to open up, sometimes doing anything can help bring about a change. The fact that a client is calling means they no longer want to keep their problems secret, and that often means they’re ready to deal with it. It’s almost like going to a marriage counselor for the first time. The issues come out. Then, once revealed, they sometimes resolve themselves.
As far as final thoughts, again, a paranormal investigation is usually based on theory and wild hunches that hopefully lead to some sort of answer. In this case, I don’t doubt that the urn played a part. Though we captured no quantifiable evidence, the argument for that is solid. The forensic investigation gave us a strong indication, through the surgical staples, that the deceased went through a major surgery near the time of their death. The phenomena’s escalation in July 2006 coincided with the urn’s burial on the property. That was when Chandra began experiencing severe back pain and arthritis, symptoms that one medical examiner described as more appropriate to “an eighty year- old.” Chandra’s illness could not otherwise be explained.
Once the urn was removed and given a proper burial, not only did the haunting die down, but Chandra’s health returned. Those are the facts.
How does an urn, carrying only the ashes of a human body, affect the physiology of another human being? I can give you theories, but they require that you take the giant leap that maybe the dead stay with us sometimes. The ashes in the urn in particular, lost from home, didn’t seem at rest. History and mythology is full of tales of spirits lingering because of a lack of resolution. Maybe the deceased just wanted to be buried properly and given Christian rites (given the Christian symbol on the box containing the urn).
There are still unanswered questions. Matt claims he had a few experiences prior to the urn’s arrival. But if we accept that the ashes could affect Chandra, what’s not to say that the few thousand dead people buried in his backyard weren’t occasionally poking their heads in?
Sometimes, despite all the technology ghost hunters carry or the plethora of testimony, the only answer amounts to a simple act of human decency: to honor the dead and let them pass on to the next world at peace.
As an interesting side note, when production heard Matt’s original take about a jealous female spirit and a demon, they felt it would be a good idea to frame the episode around the concept of a “succubus,” a female demon that drains the life force from a male victim.
“The Cemetery” remains one of my favorite episodes, for the emotional story, the creepy setting, the urn, and the resolution, but in terms of extra footage, it was a disappointment. We had so much good material left over that at paranormalstate.com online, there’s an interactive game making use of some of the additional footage. Despite that, I think the heart of the story survives very well.