On Feb. 4, 2016, “Buzzfeed Unsolved True Crime” premiered on BuzzfeedBlue. Originally hosted by Ryan Bergara, the show’s creator, and Brent Bennett until Shane Madej took over for Bennett in late 2016, the first season of “Buzzfeed Unsolved True Crime” was closely followed by the premiere of “Buzzfeed Unsolved Supernatural.” Both shows became almost immediate sensations. Within two years the Buzzfeed Unsolved Network was established to house everything Unsolved, and as of 2021 the shows had pulled a combined 1.3 billion views and over 16.6 billion minutes of watch-time. While typically staged as an armchair detective show with a presentation of a case and evidence, Bergara and Madej would also venture to locations where the episode’s central event had occurred. Much of “Buzzfeed Unsolved”’s success is owed to the high production quality of the show, the entertaining and well-researched presentation of cases and the chemistry between Bergara and Madej, a supernatural believer and a skeptic, respectively.
However, all good things must come to an end. Recently, Bergara, Madej and Steven Lim — another now-ex-Buzzfeed employee — left Buzzfeed to found their digital production studio Watcher Entertainment. They exited on a wave of other creators in a Buzzfeed mass exodus, with Bergara citing a desire for “other creative opportunities” and “actual ownership of the content we make” that they would not have had with Buzzfeed. Bergara and Madej kept contracts with Buzzfeed to finish “Unsolved” in 2021, before leaving to produce content on the Watcher YouTube channel. At the time of writing, Watcher has amassed 2.27 million subscribers and has produced 15 shows, including “Dish Granted” in which Lim cooks lavish meals for friends, “Puppet History” in which a puppet host retells stories from history, “Too Many Spirits” where Bergara and Madej get increasingly drunk while reading audience-submitted ghost stories and, most recently, “Ghost Files.” “Ghost Files” is essentially Watcher’s version of “Buzzfeed Unsolved,” but it is the fully-fledged older brother of the original — it’s the show “that I (Ryan) wanted to make.”
“Ghost Files” follows virtually the same format as “Buzzfeed Unsolved” — Bergara presents Madej with a supernatural case of some kind, and the two explore the evidence and explanations together in armchair detective fashion. Each episode since the show’s premiere on Sept. 23 has also seen Bergara and Madej explore the corresponding supernatural locations to attempt contacting whatever is haunting the sites. Where “Unsolved” was rooted mainly in history and folklore, however, “Ghost Files” pulls evidence and anecdotes from audience members and uses these to shape the investigation. In the first episode, Bergara and Madej visited Waverly Hills Sanatorium, the supposedly haunted tuberculosis hospital they also explored during their time at Buzzfeed. Revisiting the same location may seem like beating a dead horse, but it actually allows audiences to see where “Ghost Files” excels and shines in comparison to its predecessor.
The production quality of “Buzzfeed Unsolved” was always top notch for a YouTube show, but “Ghost Files” takes this quality to new heights. The office in which the presentation segments are filmed is industrially outfitted to truly resemble an underground bunker, whereas the “Unsolved” set looked more like a detective’s office from a noir film. During investigations on site, Bergara and Madej are still kitted with lights, camera and gimbals when not handling other equipment, but now they wear matching colors, green and orange, and “Watcher” branded clothes that offer the look of a cohesive team and production rather than two dudes in their plainclothes. There is also more team involvement in an episode of “Ghost Files” than in “Buzzfeed Unsolved” — the audience now catches glimpses of the team during on-site investigations, and they occasionally engage in dialogue with the hosts which adds to the feeling that this is a fully-fledged production. Of course these changes are largely aesthetic and surface-level, but even minute changes like matching clothes gives “Ghost Files” a sophistication that I didn’t even realize “Buzzfeed Unsolved” lacked. This time around, Bergara and Madej have produced something that feels like a real television show without the restrictions that a television show poses (namely being allowed to say “fuck”).
In the same vein, the investigation quality has also improved in “Ghost Files.” I mentioned before that “Buzzfeed Unsolved” took a slightly more historical approach to investigations where “Ghost Files” approaches things more anecdotally, but these elements aren’t necessarily comparable other than to say that “Ghost Files” is able to employ more audience engagement. Nevertheless, this audience engagement allows Bergara and Madej to go more in depth with their investigations on site as they recreate scenarios related by audience members, and the last approximately 10 minutes of each episode is now devoted to each of the hosts going on a solo adventure in their location, which also gives viewers a chance to get each of their unfiltered explorations of the investigation.
Additionally, Bergara and Madej are now using more, and more sophisticated, technology in “Ghost Files.” “Buzzfeed Unsolved” always employed some kind of tech — the spirit box, motion detectors and infrared cameras, to name a few — but it seems that the “Ghost Files” budget is bigger when it comes to equipment. This time we’re playing with pieces like the spirit box-Honeytone combo, which better allows for spirits’ voices to be heard, with REM Pods that create an electromagnetic field and alert users when something enters it and with the Ovilus, which is able to take environmental readings that ghosts manipulate and translate them into words or phonetic sounds. All of these technological improvements add up to an investigation that not only feels more reliable, but far more professional, sophisticated and thought-out than past investigations.
We’ve talked a lot about objective quality, but I also want to take this moment to commend Bergara and Madej on their growth as content producers and paranormal investigators. Compared to their original investigation of Waverly Hills Sanatorium, they are far more confident on camera and far more comfortable with one another as hosts and friends in this first episode of “Ghost Files.” According to Bergara in an interview with Collider, they “understand now how to make the series,” and it shows, but, luckily, not in a tired way. The hosts seem more excited than ever to continue producing paranormal content, and so far their humor and commitment to and excitement about these investigations, their audience and each other has not waned. They’re doing this on their own terms now, but it’s easy to see that Bergara and Madej’s time with Buzzfeed prepared them to grow as creators. Oh, and it would be remiss of me to not comment on Ryan Bergara — he’s always been the believer of the duo and the infamously more easily frightened, but his bravery around these investigations has excelled in ways that it never had during his time with Buzzfeed.
“Buzzfeed Unsolved” carved out a specific niche for itself on the internet in its heyday. It attracted a huge, passionate audience that seemed to happily follow Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej in their venture to Watcher and “Ghost Files.” This new foray into ghost hunting pays homage beautifully to what shot Bergara and Madej to internet fame in the first place, and it builds upon that foundation meaningfully in its quality and fresh perspective on audience engagement and paranormal investigation. “Ghost Files” runs the show now, and I have every bit of faith that it will continue to run as smoothly and interestingly as it began. Before season one of “Ghost Files” has even finished, it’s already been approved for a season two, which is no surprise given the fervor of its audience, its hosts and its spirits. Because as long as there are ghosts to bully, the ghoul boys will do it.
Daily Arts Writer Maddie Agne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.