Mary Ann Winkowski was at a movie theater with her husband, Ted, when she noticed a ghost leaning on a trash can near the door.
"As people walked in, the ghost would reach out and hit the bottom of their popcorn box," Mary Ann recalls. "People were looking all over to see where they tripped, and he was getting the biggest kick out of it."
Now that's a ghost story, according to Mary Ann. In fact, it's a scene she'd like to see in "Ghost Whisperer," the CBS show she inspired and works on as creative adviser.
"I'd like them to do a funny (episode)," she says. "There are ghosts who are just plain practical jokers. If they were jokers when they were alive, they are now, too."
But, alas, the viewing public likes their ghosts scary, and Mary Ann has been unable to convince the writers — so far, at least — to introduce a fun-loving spirit.
Creative differences aside, "Ghost Whisperer" (8 p.m. Fridays) has meant more notoriety and a much busier schedule for the well-known ghostbuster from North Royalton. "I spend a lot more time in airports now," she says, what with her college lecture tour and frequent visits to the "Ghost Whisperer" set in Los Angeles.
And when she's home, she's busy reading the weekly scripts and appearing on local TV and radio shows, including a spot every Tuesday on WKYC-TV Channel 3's "Good Company" morning show. Life will get even more hectic this fall, when her new book, called "When Ghosts Speak," is released nationwide.
"The excitement about this book coming out is just amazing," Mary Ann says.
Her first priority, though, is still the show, which stars Jennifer Love Hewitt as Melinda Gordon, a woman who can see and talk to earthbound spirits. Her mission is to unravel their stories, helping them find closure so they can cross over to the next world.
Her character is based on Winkowski, who professes the same ability and has made a career of ridding homes and buildings of earthbound spirits by meeting them, hearing their stories and then bringing the "white light" — the portal that allows them to cross over.
Well-known psychic James Van Praagh approached Mary Ann with idea for the show in 2004, working with producer John Gray, who had met Mary Ann at a party and was so fascinated with her story he agreed to make his first foray into weekly television with the show.
She offers story lines, relaying tales of the spirits she's encountered over the years. But the writers invariably make changes, giving the ghosts a creepy side.
"I never have scary stories, because it's just not scary," Mary Ann says. "If I saw a quarter of the things Melinda sees, I'd have a nervous breakdown." Reading the scripts every week can prove a bit aggravating, because the writers "stretch reality," she says. A ghost taking over a dead man's body? Doesn't happen. But there are "two or three sentences" in each show that are true, Mary Ann notes with a laugh. In some episodes, for example, a ghost will catch Melinda looking and she'll quickly turn her head so he doesn't realize she can see him.
"That's what I do," Mary Ann says. "If you stare at a ghost long enough, they know you can see them. So I just look at them, and keep my eyes moving."
And Melinda had a line this season that Mary Ann uses all the time: "There are more ghosts in a shopping mall than a cemetery."
Ghosts are everywhere, according to Mary Ann. They missed the 48-hours-or-so deadline to go into the white light after they died, hanging around because they felt they had unfinished business here, and have become earthbound.
For Mary Ann, who says she has always been able to see and talk to them, they're kind of an annoyance. They're "attached" to a house or a building or to a person, and she typically tries to ignore them.
But when people want her to get rid of them, she'll initiate a conversation, find out who they are, then convince them to cross over.
In Hollywood, she's in big demand.
"I'm always clearing ghosts off the set, out of the trailers," she says. "Ghosts don't eat or sleep. They need human energy, and you can imagine the energy and the stress and the drama on a set."
She believes some are drawn to the "Ghost Whisperer" set because they get an inkling someone there can help them.
In fact, one ghost followed Love Hewitt home in an effort to find Mary Ann, she says.
"They can hear everything we say, and this one knew that if he hung around with her, she'd eventually talk to me and I'd be able to help him (cross over)," Mary Ann says.
She has actually cleared Love Hewitt's home of ghosts twice. In a previous house, Mary Ann says she discovered the spirit of a man who had grown up in the same town as the actress and was obsessed with her.
Some research showed that when he was alive, he'd had pictures of her all over his walls.
"This guy was like a stalker," Mary Ann relates. "It was so easy to do, once he was dead."
The fame and traveling are a whole new world for someone who used to reveal only her first name to protect her identity. Now, she gets recognized in restaurants. She's met lots of celebrities and visited their homes — usually to clear them of ghosts.
When her phone rings, it's often writers from the show, asking her advice on a particular plot twist, or Love Hewitt saying, "Hi, Mary Ann, it's your little ghostbuster-in-training."
Her Web site, maryannghostbuster.com., has gotten millions of hits. And she gets 300 to 400 letters a week because of her weekly WKYC-TV appearances.
But don't look for the friendly, down-to-earth Mary Ann to "go Hollywood" anytime soon. While the show is filled with angst and anguish, in real life, Mary Ann has never played up the dramatic aspect of what she does.
When she goes to someone's house to get rid of a ghost, she doesn't bring along music, doesn't use any special effects, doesn't hold any ceremonies.
She simply relays what the ghost is saying, asks if he's ready to cross over and then brings the light for him.
Here's one similarity with the show, though — her husband is easily as supportive as Jim Clancy, Melinda's TV husband.
Ted handles the paperwork, the airline reservations, and all the other detail work of his wife's career.
"It's nice he could retire a little early. I hate doing the paperwork, and he's good at it," she says.
Pretty good for a guy who never knew his wife talked to ghosts until after their first daughter was born. "I didn't want him to think he was married to a nut," Mary Ann recalls.
When she finally admitted her ability to him, he looked at her for awhile, then stood back and said, "I'm ready."
"At the time, 'Bewitched' was on television. He thought I'd wiggle my nose and something would happen," Mary Ann says.
They will find out in May if "Ghost Whisperer" has been picked up for a third season. Even if it is, the Winkowskis will stay in North Royalton, rather than relocate to the West Coast.
"Everyone in California is crazy," Mary Ann says. "Even the ghosts are nuts out there."
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