Dakota Laden has a spooky feeling we’re not alone.
“This has the classic smell of all haunted places,” he said last week, surveying the interior of the Wabasha Street Caves, where long-deceased gangsters are rumored to still belly up to the bar. “As creepy as it is, I wouldn’t mind spending an hour in the dark here just to see what happens.”
It may be the Minnesota native’s first visit to the spirit world’s favorite St. Paul watering hole, but he’s no stranger to mingling with ghosts.
In his new Travel Channel series, “Destination Fear,” the 23-year-old budding filmmaker recruited a team of friends he made while growing up in Lakeville, as well as his older sister Chelsea Laden, to travel across the country in an RV, eschewing hotel beds for the floors of possessed prisons, hospitals and sanitariums, tossing and turning in their sleeping bags as they nervously wait to see what goes bump in the night.
In Saturday’s premiere, the “Fear” stars pull up to Tennessee’s Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, where they end up screaming more than tweens at a BTS concert. At one point, Chelsea, a former WNHL goaltender who is studying at the Illinois College of Optometry, becomes convinced that the ghost of former inmate James Earl Ray is hitting on her.
“We don’t consider ourselves paranormal investigators,” said Tanner Wiseman, Laden’s longtime friend who rode shotgun on the road trip. “We’re more like explorers and experimenters. We hear all the stories and then say, ‘Let’s just be in this building for 15 hours and see what happens.’ ”
Figuring out what’s real and what’s nonsense may be part of the reason viewers are gravitating toward these types of ghost stories.
“Hollywood Medium With Tyler Henry” is one of the biggest shows on the E! Network that doesn’t involve a Kardashian. A&E has created four new paranormal series, including a reboot of “Ghost Hunters,” which premiered in August.
“Paranormal worked really well for us in the past,” A&E’s head of programming Elaine Frontain Bryant told the Hollywood Reporter. “It feels like it’s a time in the country where there’s a trend for people to be spiritual without being overly religious. I think paranormal programming can feed that, while being entertainment-forward.”
Travel Channel is going one step further. The network, once best known for following foodies Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern as they racked up both frequent-flier miles and calories, has rebranded itself as the home for reality series designed to give you the creeps.
It’s working. In 2018, the channel drew more viewers than it ever has in its 22-year history and moved into the list of the Top 25 most watched networks in the 24-54 age demographic.
“People are curious about something they don’t know much about,” said Wabasha Caves owner Donna Bremer as she offered Laden some background on her sandstone-lined rental space that regularly offers “lost soul” tours. “My anal-retentive husband doesn’t believe in ghosts, but even he has to admit to seeing some strange things happen.”
Laden’s interests date back to growing up next to woods that supposedly once hosted satanic rituals. He vividly remembers his mom tearing up the stairs when he was 8 or 9, insisting that a ghost had just run through her body after she opened the storage-room door.
Instead of diving under his bed until he reached puberty, Laden recruited Wiseman to help him set up cameras in the basement where they would record for eight hours straight and watch the results the following day for eight straight hours.
Convinced that the footage had captured shelves flying open and random lights flicking on and off, the two began to embark on “field trips,” checking out nearby places — Pokegama Sanatorium near Pine City, Minn., the former Abbott Hospital building in Minneapolis — for signs of the afterlife.
“It was innocent fun,” Laden said. “We didn’t drink. We weren’t partyers. We didn’t spray paint. We just wanted to go in and get scared. It was just a natural rush.”
Laden also found time to focus on making videos. By the time he got to Lakeville South High School, his YouTube channel already had 30,000 subscribers. At 18, he won a contest on the TV series “Ghost Adventures” and ended up becoming a crew member. Since graduation, he’s also worked on several movie sets, doing everything from getting organic cold-press juices for producers to serving as an assistant director on the indie, “Virginia Minnesota.”
“I told them I had done AD’ing before they hired me. I had no idea how to do it,” he said. “I was going insane. Dealing with the Screen Actors Guild, with all those rules and regulations, now that’s scary.”
In between crew gigs, Laden directed and starred in 2016’s “Trail of Terror,” a documentary that served as a template to “Destination Fear.” As with the TV series, Laden leaned heavily on family and friends. He still lives in Las Vegas with three of his friends from Lakeville, all of whom contributed to the new show.
Laden has more than horror on his wish list. After editing the 10-week series, he celebrated by working on a script for a comedy.
But he’s still hopeful for a second season of “Fear,” one that would include a few stops in Minnesota.
“When this trip was over, you’d think we’d be drained — and we were,” he said. “But five days later, we’re like, ‘Do you guys want to go to another insane asylum?’ It’s such a weird addiction. But it’s fun.”
When: 9 p.m. Saturdays. Where: Travel Channel.