Go to “The Haunted Bay” if you’re looking for some real ghost stories this Halloween.
Now in its third season, available to stream starting Friday, Oct. 30, on AsianAmericanMovies.com and Amazon Prime, the six-episode docuseries takes viewers on a journey with producer, director and occasionally unnerved onscreen personality Ying Liu, who has spent eight years searching for spirits in Northern California — and often discovers fascinating aspects of local history in the process.
“We dig up these details. We don’t know beforehand the connections and what we’re going to find. It’s been mind-blowing,” the East Bay native said from her Berkeley home. “The show has kind of evolved into this paranormal/history mystery thing.”
Liu and her two-person camera teams have felt, heard and (maybe) even seen spirits at San Francisco’s Warfield and Great Star theaters, at the old Preston Castle reform school in Gold Country, and onboard the Hornet aircraft carrier. Season three’s opening episode leads to the discovery of a former Odd Fellows cemetery beneath San Francisco homes (though most of the interred were relocated to Colma), and at the fraternal order’s Seventh Street hall, psychic indications that Sherlock Holmes creator and enthusiastic spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle left something behind when he visited the city.
Liu didn’t begin this project wanting to believe.
It is true that shortly after her mother died in 2005, she met and was impressed by the abilities of Pacifica medium June Ahern (now a semi-regular on “The Haunted Bay”), but the show began in 2012 for thoroughly down-to-earth reasons. Liu was completing a video production class, and since it was Halloween season she figured shooting members of the Alameda Paranormal Researchers at work would make for a fun, spooky final project.
“The idea, to start, was that we were just going to be documentary makers that follow haunt investigators,” she said. “We had not intended to be in front of the camera. But things started to happen to me and my crew, which we did not expect. In fact, one of them was completely skeptical and at first was laughing at how stupid it was to follow ghost hunters. But then, on our second shoot at Oakland’s White Horse Inn, he felt something squeezing his shoulder and couldn’t swallow. He’s not on the team anymore.”
Liu said she has experienced unseen presences at filming locations and, at least once, when not working on the show. She sensed a strong image of a long-haired Asian woman dressed in white in the women’s restroom of Chinatown’s Great Star Theater.
The best visual evidence — a kind of selfie from the other side — manifests in the episodes featuring the Warfield. A number of “Haunted Bay” segments, however, involve watching displays on electromagnetic field meters blink and squinting at splotchy video when someone shouts “I see shadows!”
The show has its ominous music cues and re-enactments, but Liu said she’s not out to convince anybody of anything. Almost the opposite.
“It’s very, very hard, I’ve found out from paranormal investigators, to capture physical evidence. That’s part of what we wish for, but we keep it real, we don’t fake anything,” she said. “We’ve had experiences that we cannot explain rationally, but we actually try to debunk things. Y’know, maybe that noise was just old wood creaking.
“We’ve learned about what things can be mistaken for supernatural, and it’s sometimes awkward for me when people are excited to show me their photos of ghosts and they turn out to be dust or insects.”
The producer is getting more satisfaction now from sort of reverse-engineering psychic flashes. She finds the old Barbary Coast district especially rich in history and has discovered smuggling tunnels, opium dens, brothels and even execution sites from before the 1906 earthquake.
While walking in the area, Ahern felt certain that a police station had been located in a small alley off of Osgood Place. Liu researched and found no evidence of its existence at the library or on period maps but was able to confirm there had been a station there from a history page on the San Francisco Police Department’s website.
The documentarian is also proud of the show’s contributions to the historical record. Season one’s “Defenestration” episode immortalized the “escaping furniture” art installation at the old Hugo Hotel at Sixth and Howard streets in San Francisco before the building was demolished in 2014.
“We never really thought about exploring history” at the start of her fun, spooky project, Liu said. “It’s been more of a journey for us. Things just unfolded the way they did.”