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.