Mary Ann Winkowski's paranormal experiences as a ghost buster for hire have inspired CBS to place "Ghost Whisperer" in its fall lineup, with Jennifer Love Hewitt in the title role.
Winkowski, a paid consultant to the series, is booked four months in advance to chase unwanted ghosts from people's homes.
"I never would have thought 20 years ago this would have been a full-time job," Winkowski said. "I don't advertise or drum up business. People call me. I don't call them."
Winkowski is matter-of-fact about what she sees, discussing it as plainly as she does her former pet-grooming business, which helped pay the bills before ghost busting.
She says she can talk to only those spirits who have not crossed over into the afterlife. Most hang around for just a short time.
Winkowski is often hired to attend funerals to tie up loose ends ("Where did Dad leave the will?") or to help relatives have one last conversation with a loved one.
"The ladies will always walk over and check out the flowers," she said of female spirits. As for the male ghosts, "They have to count how many cars are in the funeral procession."
Spirits who refuse to cross over are the ones that keep Winkowski busy. She charges $100 or more to guide them to the white light.
Hollywood became aware of the 57-year-old woman's work through her friend, best-selling medium James Van Praagh, the subject of the CBS miniseries "Living With the Dead."
"I looked right past her at first because she's the least likely ghost-busting person," said John Gray, executive producer of "Ghost Whisperer." "She's from the Midwest. She's friendly. There's no mystique."
Winkowski first met with Gray a year ago. Gray recalls they went for coffee and he asked where they could go to find ghosts.
"She said, 'There's people here right now.' "
"I said, 'Right here in Starbucks?' "
Gray worked the experience into the series's pilot episode. Later, he began hearing strange noises and doorbells ringing in the middle of the night at his New York home.
He summoned Winkowski and said she sent the ghosts away, but not before giving him a full description of the people in the house next door, where the ghosts were also hanging out.
He hasn't had any problems since.
"It was pretty impressive. No matter how cynical you are, you have to think, 'How does she know that?' " he said.
"Ghost Whisperer" is just the latest paranormal TV drama, following the success of NBC's midseason hit "Medium," which stars Patricia Arquette as psychic Allison DuBois (also a real person).
Gray thinks there's an audience for such shows right now.
"In this climate we're living in after 9/11, people want to feel there's some larger plan," he said.
Jim Longo, chairman of the Education Department at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., doesn't take a position on whether ghosts exist, but he collects stories of people who believe they have experienced the paranormal.
"Some cultures really believe that a spirit lingers until the body is buried, and some cultures believe they linger up to a year," he said.
Winkowski recently spent a week in Los Angeles, demonstrating her craft for the show's writers and for Hewitt, who plays a newlywed trying to cope with her unusual talent.
Winkowski says it wasn't until age 7 that she realized no one else could see what she saw. A lot of people didn't believe her, but her grandmother did and took her to funerals to talk to the recently departed.
"Mom didn't have a clue," she said.
Neither did her husband, Ted.
She told him she was seeing "other" people only after they exchanged vows.
"At first, I thought she could wiggle her nose like Samantha on 'Bewitched,' " he said. "I wouldn't be selling cars if that were the case."
Thirty-seven years later, he takes her ghost busting for granted.
"I never had a reason to doubt her," he said.