Welcome to Creators Going Pro, where in partnership with Semaphore — a creator-focused family of companies providing business and financial services to social media professionals — we profile professional YouTube stars who have hit it big by doing what they love. Each week, we’ll chat with a creator about the business side of their channel, including identifying their Semaphore Moment — the moment they truly went pro.
The boys are back in ghost town.
Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej have a fair amount in common. They both went to film school and found their way to content creation via a “wandering path” of various jobs, they both dig horror films, and they both ended up joining media giant BuzzFeed a few years ago, by way of an internship.
There’s one thing, though, that they’ll (probably) never share: a belief in the paranormal.
And that’s their secret sauce. Or, at least, it’s the secret sauce of their hit web series BuzzFeed Unsolved. The show, which returned with a new season premiere last week, has been running for three years and a total of 11 seasons between its two verticals (true crime and supernatural). It’s one of BuzzFeed’s preeminent productions, with its 91 episodes collectively netting more than 806 million views. In watch time, that’s a whopping 9 billion hours of Unsolved consumed by casual viewers and hardcore fans, whom the duo have affectionately nicknamed “Boogaras” (those who are on Bergara’s side and believe the truth about ghosts, ghouls, and demons is out there) and “Shaniacs” (who, like Madej, do not, unless you’re talking about aliens or Bigfoot).
For the uninitiated, Unsolved follows Bergara and Madej through legends and lore of yore and yonder, and generally has two episode formats. In some, the duo trek to locations reportedly haunted by ghost, ghouls, demons, and/or cryptids. In others, they sit down in-studio, and Bergara cracks open a folder of research about the week’s case to present to viewers and to Madej — who, as the resident skeptic, often doesn’t look into cases ahead of time, instead focusing on presenting an opposing viewpoint on Bergara’s theories in real-time. The pair have investigated a range of true crime (such as the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and one family’s less than pleasant road trip) and supernatural (the Mothman, the exorcism of Anneliese Michel, and the Queen Mary, to name a few), in alternating seasons. They put together four seasons (two true crime, two supernatural) of around eight episodes each per year — which, as you can imagine, has turned into a full-time job for Bergara, Madej, and Unsolved’s two dozen behind-the-scenes staffers.
The show’s newest season, the first episode of which dropped this past Friday, is an installment in the supernatural vertical, which means fans will follow Bergara and Madej as they probe a new bouquet of potential paranormal phenomena. The premiere, a sit-down studio episode, kicks the season off with a deep dive into the secrets of Area 51, aka the venue of last weekend’s Alienstock.
For Bergara and Madej, the past three years have been a whirlwind of hard work and a rapid ascendance to their spot as one of the internet’s most recognizable duos, hosting one of the internet’s most-watched shows.
Here’s what they have to say about it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tubefilter: So first, how did each of you get into content creation? And how did you then end up at BuzzFeed?
Shane Madej: Well, like a lot of people at BuzzFeed, I had a very winding path. I went to film school for editing, and then when I graduated, I worked a myriad of gigs. I loved them, but they were all very, you know, some corporate jobs, some public access type stuff. I worked at Starbucks. And eventually I applied for an internship at BuzzFeed. And it was at a time when digital video was not necessarily thought of as a huge career path, but it was interesting enough to me, and I had dabbled in it enough that it was something I was gonna pursue. I got hired for the internship and did a lot of crazy things there for a while, then ended up on the unscripted team, which is where Unsolved was born — from Ryan’s strange brain.
Ryan Bergara: From my psychosis, yeah. (laughs)
I would say my path was also equally winding. I thought I had a very good idea of what I wanted to do in this business, but it proved to be quite nebulous once I started to put it into action. I went to film school for directing, and figured out I didn’t really like it that much. It just gave me a bunch of anxiety. And then I went into cinematography — I thought maybe I wanted to be a DP. That was fun for a little bit. So I did that toward the end of college.
After college, I went and I worked on sets doing lighting and grip work. I did that for about two years, figured out this was definitely not how I wanted to live my life either. And then after that, I kind of did something similar to Shane, where I went to public access, did a lot of video production. I worked on filming professors from USC essentially giving PowerPoint presentations on like…IBS, and really fun things like that. And then, from there, I decided that I would take a chance on the internship at BuzzFeed. And also, at that point, I was very close to joining the union for lighting and grips. So I was dabbling in a bunch of different things. But ultimately, I left all those avenues and decided to put all my eggs in the BuzzFeed basket.
So, I did the internship. I met Shane there. I made a bunch of weird taste test videos and, basically, content that they wanted us to make. And out of that, the idea of Unsolved came to my mind. It wasn’t exactly what BuzzFeed was doing, but it was something that I thought might be worthwhile, even though it was very much just a germ of an idea. So I made a pilot, it was like three minutes long. There was a good response to it, so I made another one, which I think was like five minutes long. And then a seven-minute video after that, and that video exploded. And then BuzzFeed like, “Maybe this is what you should do.”
And so I started to build that out to what it eventually is today: a 22-minute show that is very much a television show that lives on the web. So yeah, it was a winding path to get to content creation as it is now. But it’s something I love doing. I love creating content and I love performing and I’m really glad that everything led here, even if it was essentially just gut checks at every turn.
Tubefilter: Ryan, you’ve mentioned a couple of times in episodes that you had experiences before Unsolved that prompted your interest in the supernatural. What fostered your passion for all things ghost and ghoul? How did Shane come onboard?
RB: I think it really started from me being obsessed with the horror genre. I’m a huge horror movie buff. I love all of it. I watched horror movies when I was a little kid, which my parents actually allowed me to do. Which, like, I look back on and I wonder about that. I think I watched The Exorcist before I was 11, so that was just great nightmare fuel for me.
I also love the paranormal genre. And unbeknownst to a lot of people who follow the show, I was a skeptic. I was one of Shane’s precious little Shaniacs who didn’t believe in ghosts and thought the idea of it just very much didn’t seem very rational to me. So to test that, I went to the Queen Mary when I was in high school with a bunch of my pals.
There’s a variety of things that happened on the Queen Mary that turned me into a believer, and I couldn’t really ignore it anymore. But it didn’t make me think, “My passion is now to be a ghost hunter.” I just kind of shelved that passion and was like, “Okay, this is something I’m interested in now.” And I continued forward with my pursuit of having a career in film and television.
And then [at BuzzFeed], I got the opportunity to ideate and explore some of the things I was interested in. Unsolved was born out of this idea that there was a lot of — well, it first started out as a true crime show. There were a lot of true crime shows out there, but they didn’t really talk about true crime the way that, you know, normal people talk about it. It was always a very professional presentation, and there was only one point of view, mainly that of a person who’s somewhat of a conspiracy theorist and not someone who’s there to call him on his BS.
So, I started the show with the idea of these two opposing viewpoints, and then that naturally led into my other interest, which was paranormal. There aren’t ghost shows where there is a believer and a skeptic. It’s just a feedback loop of people feeding each other’s confirmation bias of like every little noise is a ghost. I thought it would be funny if you took that same scenario: someone who is a skeptic and would call it for what it is, if it in fact is wind or water moving through a rusty pipe, things like that. So Unsolved got born out of that passion from when I was in high school, but also the idea that there wasn’t really anything out there in media that explores the topic in the way I wanted to, with two different points of view.
SM: Well, like Ryan, I was a fan of horror movies. We sort of diverged when he saw toothpaste fall off a shelf, and I did not.
RB: I would say tossed off the shelf, but yeah.
So when Ryan asked me to be on Unsolved, at that point, it was really just two people sitting in a room. And, you know, I was gung-ho for that. (laughs) And then it very quickly turned into exploring old, decrepit buildings all around the world — which, like anyone, I think it’s fun to go on little adventures with your friends. I wasn’t necessarily chomping at the bit to debunk everything. That happened sort of naturally.
Like Ryan said, in the sense that you don’t get a lot of paranormal shows where you get the opposing viewpoint…I wasn’t necessarily trying to get any glee out of proving him wrong. But as a skeptic, I personally don’t watch any ghost hunting shows because I think they’re all kind of dumb. So I think it’s fun to be on the show and to give skeptics a reason to watch.
RB: Give them their day in the sun.
SM: Yeah. ‘Cause it’s really not something you see in any other paranormal show. I mean, as far as I know — I don’t watch almost any of them. People will often ask me like, “Oh, you must love Ghost Hunters.” And I’m like, “No. It’s just a show full of crazy people.” (laughs)
RB: Contrary to popular belief, Shane and I did not major in ghost hunting at our respective universities. It was just something we are very interested in. And I think the TAPS guys, the Ghost Hunters guys, they were plumbers before they became ghost hunters. So I think it’s fun to just watch people who are very passionate about something and weirdly make a career out of it. It’s fun that we both kind of made something out of this weird little passion we had. But as Shane said before, a lot of it just comes from it being fun to hang out with each other. There was really no ceremony to me asking him to join the show.
SM: I mean, it was the exact opposite of ceremony.
RB: Yeah. It was very unceremonious. We were just friends, we had hosted a different show before called Test Friends — where we tested health and fitness trends — and I needed a host, so I was just like, “Hey, would you like to do this?” And he looked at his Google calendar, saw that there was some time open, and was like, “Yeah, sure.” And then he locked it in.
Tubefilter: So, as you said, Unsolved started with two people sitting in a room, but now there’s a lot of investment in it from BuzzFeed. You two frequently travel to far-flung locations, and you’ve got serious ghost hunting tech you use now. What was the point where BuzzFeed began to put real stock and production resources into the show?
RB: Well, it was weird, because the way the seasons were kind of mapped out is that once we figured out this was a series, we retroactively went back and looked at the episodes that were preexisting, and then sorted them into seasons. So it’s tough to talk about in the term of seasons.
But I remember the first episode we did, just as a test to see if this idea even worked — to view this Unsolved franchise through a paranormal lens — was we went on this big trip. We went to Mexico City, Kansas, and then also to San Jose. And we did a mega episode that was like 45 minutes long. It was three different content locations, and that was kind of like the pilot. That did really well.
We did three more episodes, just to test it even further if we did one location per episode. And that’s when they said, “Okay, let’s do a proper season where we send you to places for this amount of episodes.”
SM: It was very strange to be in Mexico City on a ghost hunting mission, essentially as two people who had never ghost hunted really at all.
RB: And that ended up being one of our most fruitful hunts, in terms of evidence and things that happened! There was a natural escalation to that episode that still is very amusing to me. And it ended up being one of our more perilous hunts too, in terms of the danger that was presented.
SM: Much of it off-screen.
RB: Much of it off-screen, exactly.
Tubefilter: Uh, what happened off-screen?
SM: Oh boy. It’s such a long story.
RB: It’s a long story. Let’s just say it involved some shady dealings in Mexico City that we thought were locked down.
SM: Just know if you ever get on a boat with someone, make sure you know what kind of person you’re getting on a boat with.
RB: Have an exit strategy! An exit strategy is always important on a ghost hunt. Know where the exits are, and if the exits are only through one person, then you got issues. Especially if you’re just kind of marooned on an island, which we were. Yeah, I will never go back to that island ever. Not just because of the person who is the arbiter of it, but also because it was inhabited by maybe a little bit north of 10,000 spiders. Armies of them! That were organized!
SM: Every now and then, someone online will tweet at us like, “Hey, I’m visiting the Island of the Dolls!” and send a photo. And every time I see that I think, “Are you out of your mind?”
RB: I also usually go out of my way when we do public speaking events to really just say, “Please do not go there.” One, it’s gross, and two, it’s not safe. And three, also not fun.
SM: Mexico City in general: lovely.
RB: Great place.
SM: Big fan.
RB: Island of the Dolls? Never again. We don’t need it.
Tubefilter: The official Unsolved advice: “Do not go”?
RB: Yeah. Do not go to Isla de las Muñecas.
Tubefilter: Got it. Switching gears a bit…Now we know when BuzzFeed recognized Unsolved as a professional production worth growing, but what was that Semaphore Moment for you personally? When did you realize you had become a professional content creator?
SM: After I went to film school, I spent a few years working at a company that produced corporate videos — think visual textbooks. Then moved on to do a few years in public access, which fleshed out my skillset as a one-man production crew. So to answer your question, I would probably say somewhere during the years I spent editing PSAs about math.
Tubefilter: Is Unsolved currently your one full-time creative endeavor, or are either of you involved in other projects as well?
RB: Before it was, but now we’re kind of going off into other content creation and expanding our careers to do other shows and ideas. Stuff that’s more traditional. But for the most part, yeah, I would say Unsolved is our primary thing that we do. It takes a pretty big chunk of our time, and we’re still doing two seasons a year, and it’s still something that brings me joy. Hunting ghouls. Killing them. (laughs) And then also researching the topics and being on location, and searching for evidence in the footage we find — that takes up a fair amount of time. I think people don’t realize how long it takes to search through footage to search for evidence.
SM: If you imagine that we have three or four cameras rolling pretty consistently every time we’re at a location over the course of four or five hours, and then think about Ryan watching through all of that footage to see if he can see one little orb…
RB: Sometimes frame by frame! And then also going through that footage to listen to the audio for EVPs, for ghosts that may be whispering something, it’s a long time.
SM: Most of the time, he doesn’t even find anything that compelling. Which is unfortunate for him.
RB: According to you! According to Shane, it’s not that compelling. That’s an important distinction.
Tubefilter: Noted. Along those lines, how long does it take you guys to produce an average episode, from conception to actually uploading?
RB: One episode, from the idea of what we’re going to do to the actual it’s-now-posted-on-YouTube usually takes about, at the very least, a month. Maybe a little bit over that. Some of the quicker episodes could be a month turnaround, but yeah, at least one. So it is a fair amount of time, which I guess like when you compare that to traditional streams, like television and film, that’s actually incredibly quick, but in the digital spectrum, I actually think that’s a long.
Tubefilter: So is the biggest chunk of that editing? What’s your biggest time suck?
RB: For me, the searching through evidence is probably the biggest time chunk spent. But we do have an editing staff that’s amazing, and a research team that helps me in pre-production and, and then, uh, then in post-production. So while they’re editing episodes, I’m looking through the footage to find evidence to help supplement the episodes. Personally, that’s the biggest chunk for me, aside from actually being there on the location and traveling and whatnot. But we have a great staff that supports us, so.
[Note: BuzzFeed Unsolved’s full behind-the-scenes staff is: Katie LeBlanc, executive producer; Liza Palmer and Garrett Werner, writers; Alaina Rook, Micki Taylor, and Lauren Woelfel, research producers; Kate Donnelly, head of physical production; Devon Joralmon, line producer; Mark Celestino, director of photography; TJ Marchbank, assistant director; Matt Real, camera operator; Jillian DiBlasio and Ryan Moulton, editors; Delon Villanueva, assistant editor; Leah Zeis, senior manager of post-production; Avery Kotzur, post-production supervisor; Mars Benjamin, post-production coordinator; Gustavo Rosa, lead motion graphics artist; Josh Richardson, motion graphics artist; Jenna Benty, photographer; Charlotte Gomez and Ryan Pattie, illustrators; Hannah Mueller, social media strategist; and Bekki Maggenheim, staff attorney.]
Tubefilter: What is the single most unnerving or compelling encounter you’ve had filming Unsolved?
RB: Probably the Sallie House for me. I hated that place so much. It was a demon house in Atchison, Kan.
Tubefilter: That’s the one you bailed out of.
RB: I did bail. Yeah, that is true. I’m not proud of that.
Tubefilter: I’m not making fun of you! Totally get it.
SM: Thank you for calling him out on that.
RB: I’m not proud of it, but you know, I also don’t mind. Looking back on that experience, no way am I gonna stay in there. But since then…Well, I can’t say where it is, but the season finale of this season…I would say they’re equal in terms of how much I lost my mind. And that comes on the heels of me doing six seasons of this!
Shane claims that I have now gotten to the point where I don’t believe as much, which is not true. It’s more that I’m just calloused to the whole fear factor of it. There are certain places we’ve been to that are just visually horrifying, and just have an atmosphere to them that really lends to my mind eroding in the moment. I’ve gotten hardened to that.
But there are some places, every now and then, where I will revert back to where I was at the very beginning of this journey. And the season finale of this one is one of those cases. There are moments where I don’t remember. I was looking at the footage later, and I don’t remember saying some of the things I said. I truly blacked out with fear. And that’ll come across in the episode. I’m excited for people to see that.
SM: To Ryan’s credit, I have accused him the past few seasons of believing less, but there are a few instances from this upcoming season where…he didn’t bail, but I did see a genuine fear in his eyes that I feel like I haven’t seen in a while. And now I’m back to believing that he’s a little wimp. And that’s a compliment.
RB: (laughs) I’ll take it as a compliment! I’ll spin that.
Tubefilter: What about you, Shane? Have things changed? Do you believe even a smidge more?
SM: You know, people always ask me that, and kind of roll their eyes when I say no.
RB: By the numbers, I think Shane’s scariest experiences are the flights, and then maybe the drives to the locations ’cause of accident probability.
SM: Yeah, I’m not even scared of that. If that happens, you know, it’s my time to go.
But really, there is a certain…I’ve said this before, but when we went to Waverly in Kentucky, that was the first place we’d been to where, even though I don’t necessarily believe in the supernatural, the sheer atmosphere of the building was so imposing that I was creeped out by it. Because you would be in a hallway and just look down it and it would just fade to black in a way that you only see in horror movies.
I remember there, we had been planning to…I think our plan was to sleep overnight in the hallways on separate floors, and toward the end of the night, we finished the ghost hunt around two or three in the morning. And Ryan was like, “Maybe we should just both sleep up on the roof.” And I was like, “Yeah! Yeah, that’s a great idea.” Not really giving away the truth that I just did not want to sleep in one of those creepy-ass hallways.
RB: Yeah, it was horrifying.
SM: We don’t really sleep over in too many places anymore, because nothing ever happens when we do that.
RB: No, and that’s just more footage for me to look through. Just hours of me watching Shane and I kind of toss and turn in our sleep on an uncomfortable concrete floor. So, yeah, it didn’t prove to be a very fruitful effort. So we stopped doing that, thankfully.
Tubefilter: One episode where you collected a very significant amount of evidence is last season’s investigation of BuzzFeed producer Hannah Williams’ house. Can you talk a little about that?
RB: Oh yeah. There were lots of weird noises coming from that place. The psychic also added some interesting things. But really, it was that session with the Ovilus in the the room. It seemed very pointed. I mean, Shane doesn’t believe, but there was a moment where genuinely, Shane, I, and A.J. Barrera, the psychic, all looked at our arms, and the hair on our arms was standing straight up. And it was wild. That’s the only time that’s ever happened. And Shane was like, “Look, I’m not a believer, but look at me. I have my hair standing up, and I have goosebumps!”
SM: To be fair, when I see people get goosebumps, it just gives me goosebumps.
RB: Oh yeah, ’cause you’re such an empath.
SM: I am such an empath that sometimes when I see other people, I’m like, “Ooh, that gives me goosebumps!”
RB: Yeah, you’re such an empath with your face that can’t emote.
SM: But I think that honestly, that shoot was blessed from the start, because if you look at the intro that we shot when we’re outside the house, there’s like, a clap of lightning behind us. It’s just the most dramatic, cartoonishly spooky atmosphere we could have hoped for. And then obviously having A.J. and the Ovilus, which is this wonderful little funny ghost robot. I wish we would buy one of those, ’cause that thing really cracks me up.
RB: It was a fun episode. That’s probably one of my favorite episodes we’ve ever done. When people ask, “Is there an episode of the show I should watch?” I’m always like, “Well, you don’t really have to, but if you do want to watch the show, watch Hannah Williams.” That episode is very fun, indicative of what the show is about, and it’s compelling, like you were saying.
Tubefilter: How do you come up with locales and legends to investigate for the next season? Do you ever find out about new cases from viewers?
SM: The world is full of people who think they have ghoul infestations, so there’s plenty of cases to choose from. We definitely choose some locations or topics that have a recurring vocal demand from our fans — Jack the Ripper, for example — but for the most part, Ryan and our team prioritize a good yarn over anything else.
RB: As an avid horror fan, I definitely draw inspiration from legends and folk lore and pop culture and the internet. If there’s ever a specific case that catches both our attention, we’re all in. And we always consider suggestions from the Shaniacs and Boogaras.
Tubefilter: Has working on Unsolved changed the way you approach content creation for your own individual projects?
RB: I think, if anything, it’s just strengthened the ideas I had before about like, this is how content should be made. This is the process. I mean, obviously through the seasons, we’ve streamlined that and figured out what we do and don’t need. But yeah, I think it’s just kind of given me a confidence in terms of my ability to ideate and then execute. So that’s been really fulfilling for me.
SM: One of the things that I’ve kind of picked up from it is that I’m really impressed with how our audience responds to our honesty. And that’s not even just ghost hunting. Like, again, I don’t watch enough other ghost hunting shows to really know, but it does seem like a lot of ghost hunting shows will sort of milk any little noise or feeling they get to play up the idea that a place they’re visiting is haunted.
We’ve always been pretty upfront about, you know, if we get somewhere and we really don’t feel anything, obviously we’ll still try to present a fun episode and get into the stories. But if a place doesn’t necessarily feel all that spooky, we pretty much level with the audience about it. I think the audience has really grown to appreciate that about us. And it adds more weight when we are genuinely spooked by something. But I think that kind of goes across the board, just in terms of being upfront and candid with the audience. I think that’s sort of worked its way into pretty much all our content.
Tubefilter: Anything else people should know going into season 6?
SM: Ryan’s brain eats itself in an episode, and it’s of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.
RB: Honestly, it was funny to me. I’ve never watched footage of myself and felt like I was watching somebody else. And this is one of the rare cases where that’s true. And it happens, like I said, in the finale. Not to make people hang around until the finale, but that’s the truth. There are also a lot of fun things that happen this season.
SM: There’s a lot of firsts in terms of the places we visit. There’s some places we visit that have long been on my bucket list of haunted places. I can’t give away too much, but it’s a real barn burner of a season.
RB: We go to one of the most famously haunted places in the world. One that I’ve always had circled.
Tubefilter: Where is BuzzFeed Unsolved headed after this season? What direction do you want to take the show in next?
SM: MORE CAVES.
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