Zak Bagans tiptoes into a darkened bedroom, hunting a predator.
"Are you here, can you talk to us?" he asks, scanning the empty room where he just heard mysterious steps.
Bagans was summoned to Victoria's Black Swan Inn in San Antonio because something strange was afoot. Jo Ann Rivera, the inn's owner, told him that disembodied voices threatened to kill her, invisible hands groped her, and something yanked the sheets off her daughter's bed at night, leaving bruises on the girl's legs.
Bagans, the buff star of the Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures" series, is prepared to do battle, but with what he does not know. As he and Rivera creep through the darkness, they are about to find out.
"Something just came up on me and backed me up," Bagans says, his voice rising in alarm.
Rivera turns to respond, and her eyes widen in shock.
They have a "visitor."
Chasing gigs instead of ghosts
We've heard of ghosts that harass the living. Now people are starting to harass the ghosts. Virtually every night on television, a paranormal investigator like Bagans can be seen trying to summon a ghost or "dark spirit." All across America, novice investigative teams are creeping through people's homes at night, trying to get rid of their paranormal pests.
The public's fascination with the paranormal, though, has created a problem. Ghost-hunting teams are chasing television gigs more than ghosts, some investigators say. The allure of fame, they say, has done what the forces of darkness could not do -- turn ghost hunters against one another.
The stars of some paranormal shows feud over whose show is real or fake. Local ghost-hunting teams refuse to work together because they see each other as business rivals. Some teams refuse to share spooky "evidence" captured on film because they plan to use it as a demo tape for a potential television pilot or a Hollywood movie like "The Conjuring," investigators say.
For years the paranormal community functioned like an extended family: People bonded over shared experiences with the supernatural and joined one another on ghost-hunting expeditions. Now, though, the feuding has turned so toxic that some ghost-hunting groups have mounted a "Paranormal Unity" campaign via social media to get rid of all the "paradrama."
"With all of these paranormal shows, we're asking people to unite and to quit being so selfish and childish and share evidence and experiences with one another," Bagans says. "People don't need to compete against one another."
That may be unavoidable, though, because the law of supply and demand is hitting the paranormal community. There's a ghost-hunting glut: too many teams and not enough hauntings to go around, says Bill Wilkens, who created paranormalsocieties.com, a national online database of ghost-hunting teams across the United States.
Wilkens says 4,413 ghost-hunting teams are registered on his site, and 200 more have asked to be added. His site also lists potential cases. Movie producers and casting directors frequently call him, asking for the creepiest stories and the most telegenic investigators. He had to hire an assistant to help him run the site.
Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of that paranormal pie.
"Sometimes when I post a case," he says, "I might have eight teams respond."
Why ghost hunters are sexy
Paranormal investigators used to be as coy as the ghosts they tried to coax into the open. Many hid their vocation from neighbors and friends because they didn't want to be called kooky. Now they're cool. They speak at corporate events, land book deals and get appearance fees at college lectures and paranormal conferences.
Ghost hunters have gone from being nerds to action stars. Some have even become sex symbols.
"It's true," says Steven LaChance, a paranormal investigator who wrote "The Uninvited." The 2008 book is a harrowing account of what happened to his family when they moved into an old home he says was haunted by malevolent spirits.
When "The Uninvited" was featured in a Discovery Channel documentary, LaChance says he was contacted by women who thought there was something hot about a man tangling with the supernatural.
LaChance chuckles at his new image. He mimics the voice-of-doom baritone of a horror movie narrator:
"He was the guy who fought the devil for his children. He stood toe to toe with the devil."
Click onto some paranormal stars' websites and you'll see men dressed in tight black T-shirts, black shades and leather jackets, staring into the camera with grim determination. Most of these stars may be men, but the fan base is primarily women.
Bagans, host of "Ghost Adventures," embodies the new ghost-hunter-with-an-attitude persona. He often taunts ghosts during his investigations ("You want us; you got us"), and one of his most memorable scenes came when he took off his shirt during an investigation, revealing his muscles and tattoos.
"There're definitely girls into that," says Wilkens, of paranormalsocieties.com. "It's a bad-boy thing."
Bagans has become a brand. On his website, he cradles a silver skull while advertising his Twitter handle. He has his own "Dungeon Wear" clothing line and a "NecroFusion" rock album for sale, and he has posted an interview with Muscle & Fitness magazine to share the secrets of his chest workout.
He says he's been criticized by investigators on another popular paranormal television show, but he won't say who.
"It's unfortunate that some shows feel like they own the paranormal," he says. "There's one show in particular, they talk a lot of crap."
Before paranormal investigators fought one another, though, they first fought for credibility.
Critics have long said ghosts don't exist and that paranormal shows are faked. Even "South Park" lampooned the overactive imaginations of ghost-hunting teams by depicting one duo as flinching at every stir of the wind before asking, "Did you hear that?"
One of the most formidable critics of the paranormal community is a former detective and magician who says he knows all the tricks.
Joe Nickell has been investigating hauntings since attending his first séance in 1969. He has been featured on many television shows debunking the supernatural, and has written a book aimed at disproving some of the most famous paranormal cases, "Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons and other Alien Beings."
Nickell says he's never seen a ghost or any other supernatural entity in 44 years of investigations.
"I've never been able to find one," he says.
He has a theory, though, about why people are so fascinated with the paranormal.
"The paranormal, by and large, promises pretty wonderful things," he says. "If ghosts are real, then we don't really die. If I were voting, I would vote for that. There's a big market for this."
The show that started it all
The market for the contemporary fascination with ghost hunters can be traced primarily to one show: "Ghost Hunters" on the Syfy Channel. "Ghost Hunters" is to the paranormal field what Sugarhill's "Rapper's Delight" is to hip-hop -- it launched a subculture. The show was developed by Craig Piligian, founder of Pilgrim Studios, which created reality shows like "American Chopper" and "Dirty Jobs." The show was launched in 2004 and remains the Syfy Channel's top-rated paranormal reality show.