A haunting episode

The SyFy network’s Paranormal Witness investigates Chico’s scary side

An actress portrays Chico’s Jodi Foster in “The Apartment,” an upcoming episode of <i>Paranormal Witness</i>.

An actress portrays Chico’s Jodi Foster in “The Apartment,” an upcoming episode of Paranormal Witness.

Photo courtesy of syfy

Paranormal Witness
“The Apartment,” based on events that took place in Chico, airs Wednesday, Sept. 12, at 10 p.m., on SyFy.

A few years ago, Jodi Foster could barely talk about her experience living in a haunted apartment. She was sure people thought she was crazy, and she herself wasn’t quite convinced otherwise. But with encouragement from friends and family—and the desire to tell not only her story, but also the story of the ghost who haunted her—she sat down and wrote a book about her first apartment in Chico and her encounter with the ghost of a missing teenager.

Earlier this year, Foster and a host of others—including this reporter—were interviewed on camera for an hour-long television episode about her haunting. She is quiet no more.

I’ve written about Foster’s story in these pages before “Real-life ghost whisperer” (Cover story, April 15, 2010). The abridged version goes something like this: Foster moved to Chico in 2000 and immediately began having nightmares about a girl being tortured and killed. She believes that girl was Marie Elizabeth Spannhake, who went missing from Chico in 1976 at the age of 18 and who police think was abducted and murdered by the infamous Cameron Hooker, the man who was convicted of kidnapping and rape after keeping a young woman named Colleen Stan as his sex slave for seven years.

Foster published her book, Forgotten Burial, last year, and among her readers was a story developer for a TV show on the SyFy network called Paranormal Witness. After months of meticulous fact-checking to ensure Foster’s story would stand up to the show’s often skeptical viewers, producer Mark Lewis gave it the green light.

“It’s really hard finding really great stories,” said Lewis during a recent telephone interview. “We have a fantastic story production team—basically a group of journalists who comb the States for great stories.”

I had met Lewis in person back in January, when he was in Chico to interview Foster, myself and the others to be featured in the episode titled “The Apartment.” The show (which airs Wednesday, Sept. 12) features interviews with real people—the narrators—as well as actors who re-enact the events of the story. I was not allowed to sit in on the other interviews, and I admit I was surprised and impressed by the show’s commitment to factual accuracy over drama. More than once I was asked a question that I either couldn’t answer or didn’t answer in a way that they might have hoped I would, and they simply moved on rather than push me to bend the truth to get a better story.

Because of the paranormal nature of the show, most of the episodes—including “The Apartment”—are pretty scary, and Lewis goes so far as to say they appeal to people who enjoy the horror genre.

“Many of the stories that we select, for the people involved, were tremendously traumatic experiences,” Lewis explained. “We couple their testimony with a dramatization, and it becomes scary—but that happens quite naturally. It’s born of the testimonials, and the people are genuinely frightened.”

Lewis has called “The Apartment” one of the scarier episodes, adding that one thing that makes it stand apart is the real-life aspect of the violence in Foster’s dreams.

“It was a difficult film for us to do because of course it’s a paranormal story, but we never forgot that at the heart of the story was a real woman who was abducted and murdered and whose body has never been found,” Lewis said. “You can never forget that you’re dealing with, in this case, a real trauma and a very real family that still has to deal with that.”

Not all the stories, however, are as intense. In addition to “The Apartment,” which centers on Chico and nearby Red Bluff, where Hooker lived, this second season of Paranormal Witness features another North State story, called “The Good Skeleton.” That episode, which will air in October, features a young Yuba City girl who “has the capacity to see what she describes as good and bad skeletons,” Lewis said. “It’s quite bizarre but also quite sweet.”