Los Angeles is rife with ghosts, and paranormal investigator Zak Bagans is on the hunt. The host of the Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures” and his crew of spirit sleuths have roamed the city, capturing all manner of unexplained phenomena on camera. Among the haunted places they’ve explored are the dreaded Cecil Hotel, the Black Dahlia house, Hollywood’s American Legion Post 43 building, downtown L.A.’s Roxie Theatre, Pasadena’s Ritual House and the Los Angeles Police Museum.
“We focus on Los Angeles because the locations here offer so much in the form of hauntings and mysterious history,” Bagans says. “It’s a smorgasbord of pure, haunted dreams.”
Today we’re at the Comedy Store, the Sunset Strip club known for two things: launching the careers of such comedians as Richard Pryor, Jay Leno and Roseanne Barr and scaring the bejesus out of countless performers and patrons during its half-century run. Demonic growls in the basement, flickering lights on stage and manifestations of a man dressed in a World War II-era military uniform are accredited to the building’s former life, when the cavernous structure was home to Ciro’s nightclub. Celebrities and mafia bigwigs like Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen frequented the venue throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Legend has it that the place was used to extort, torture and kill those who crossed the mob, and the spirits of those unlucky victims still haunt the place today.
“Did you see that?” Bagans asks during our interview in the Comedy Store’s empty main room. “I just saw an amber orb fly into your shoulder.”
Go ahead. Make fun of us. But I’m officially freaked out because I definitely felt something, be it a waft of cold air from the AC vents, an adrenaline rush from this morning’s coffee or an otherworldly presence tugging at my sleeve. One thing’s for sure: I’m a ghost-hunting lightweight. Bagans and his team of Aaron Goodwin, Jay Wasley and Billy Tolley usually lock themselves in a location overnight and shoot in pure darkness. I requested we do our run-through during the day, with the lights on. It should also be noted that I steer clear of Ouija boards and have never made it through all two hours and 12 minutes of “The Exorcist.”
Bagans and I look for spikes on the electromagnetic meter he’s placed between us on the sticky cocktail table. Nothing. But that doesn’t stop us from talking about the orb incident for the next two hours as we scour the rest of the club.
Faith is everything in the paranormal business, and these guys are true believers. They’re not alone. Creepy investigations, from multipart series to bite-size social media posts, have proliferated on cable TV, YouTube, TikTok and other platforms in recent years. If you haven’t seen one of these shows before, imagine the “Scooby-Doo” crew poking around a haunted hotel, except these are real folks armed with high-tech equipment and the culprit is never the innkeeper. “Ghost Adventures,” which is also available on the streaming service Discovery+, leads the pack in the spooky realm of paranormal programming. Bagans has lost count of how many episodes the series has aired, between more than 20 seasons and a raft of specials, but he knows it’s well into the hundreds.
“People keep complaining about how weird I am, and I’m like, ‘Wouldn’t you be if you did this every other week, at the darkest places you can find?’” Bagans says.
At 45, he doesn’t appear all that eccentric. In fact, you might mistake him for any other tattooed, spiky-haired dude in his hometown of Las Vegas, if not for his sixth sense and his bouts of possession caught on tape. He says he always felt “different” and had “experiences,” which is why he made the 2004 documentary “Ghost Adventures” detailing an eerie run of events he had as a film student in Detroit. The film paved the way for the Travel Channel series.
The tall, dark and bespectacled ghost detective now has millions of followers and fans who gravitate toward his earnestness and intensity. With each investigation he addresses spirits in a booming voice, coaxing them to come forward, and half of the thrill is witnessing his reactions. Bagans is a human meter tuned to occult vibes. He’s often startled, terrified, sad or overwhelmed “by the energy” he feels. He’s become physically ill from the encounters, or shuts down completely. It’s real, he says, and accusations to the contrary sting.
“I am sick and tired of people calling me overly dramatic,” says Bagans, who in person is a gentle soul, if not awkward and slightly nerdy. “It really upsets me. I’m a magnet for energies and I can’t turn that off. I’m a hyper empathic person. … You start crying, I’m probably going to start crying too. There’s someone bad in the room, I’ll sense that and it’ll give me a headache. I can’t turn it off.
“Within the human brain and the conscious mind, there is an electromagnetic energy field,” he continues. “When you die, that electromagnetic field doesn’t disintegrate. Ghosts have an electrical charge to them and I’m sensitive to that. I feel it, I’ll get those goosebumps. I’ll feel that static charge.”
Our hunt through the Comedy Store isn’t a highly charged encounter as far as the annals of “Ghost Adventures” go. I blame myself for insisting this be a daytime affair. The spirits are disgusted by my cowardice. Bagans and the crew say I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Ghosts can be shy, like people, and just because there was no quantifiable response to Bagans’ repeated requests that entities show themselves, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
We walk up a narrow staircase to the Belly Room, the crew loaded with more equipment than an Area 51 surveillance team. Along with the aforementioned EMF detector is a highly sensitive audio recorder that picks up electronic voice phenomena (EVP), a camera with a special lens, a temperature-sensitive video device and Goodwin’s old-school Polaroid. “I snap like a billion of these just to prove that whatever we see on the other cameras isn’t doctored.” Goodwin is the comic relief. Fans of the show refer to him as “Zak’s bait of choice.” He’s sent into the worst situations, alone, just to see how he’ll react: “I want to market a ‘Ghost Adventures’ diaper because I’m always getting the s— scared out of me.”
Not a lot happens during our mini-investigation, but, to be fair, it’s more of a walkthrough designed to show this Times journalist how the process works. My big discovery: Lugging all that equipment around is a chore. “We want to show there’s a whole other dimension of life that’s undetectable by the human eye, Bagans explains of the infrared light, ultraviolet light and digital recorders when I ask if all this stuff is really necessary. By the time we reach the spooky green room, the tiny space is so hot and claustrophobic I put aside my fear and hope for an evil presence to chill the air. The more sinister, the better.
It’s rare that the team catches a fully materialized apparition on film. They say their best catch was a cowboy materializing on camera during their exploration of California’s Cerro Gordo ghost town in 2019. They do capture unnerving EVPs of disembodied voices demanding they “GET OUT,” “DIE” or “HELP.” The current season of the show features such hair-raising “evidence” from the so-called Los Feliz murder house — two episodes’ worth of scares — and the shuttered Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey.
Bagans, the crew and I wind up back down in the main room, where we try once more to conjure a response from dead gangsters or the poor stool pigeons rumored to be buried in the basement. “We usually have to pick through 30 hours’ worth of footage, recordings and other stuff for the few minutes we capture on the show,” Bagans says. We have only two and a half hours for our investigation, but the Ghost Adventurers have been here before and they documented plenty of mysterious activity. I’m pretty sure I’ve put a damper on the hunt — until I check my own cellphone footage and spot a frenetic spec of light jetting around the guys. They watch it excitedly, but my finding is debunked as a reflection from a mirror. Disproving phenomena is also part of the process.
When I get home and go over the rest of my footage and spot a floating orb of light about Bagans’ head. Finally, something! I email the footage to a representative for the show who passes it on to him. The “dust particles wouldn’t be picked up like that without your phone light,” he told his rep, “and the trajectory of it is also a little unique and jagged, whereas a dust particle would have more of a floating effect, like a snowflake.” Bagans couldn’t definitively say it was supernatural but was “definitely intrigued” given the “other light anomalies he experienced earlier.”
I’m hooked, and ready for the Cecil Hotel. Bring it on, haunted L.A.
This story originally appeared on LATimes