Dead Serious

Mary Ann Winkowski is the basis for Jennifer Love Hewitt’s character on the CBS drama “Ghost Whisperer.” We talked to her about where her televised supernatural world ends and her real one begins.
Whether you believe what Mary Ann Winkowski says she can do is not important to her.

She knows it is difficult for some people to accept that she can see dead people who have yet to move on to the afterlife, communicate with them and help facilitate their journey to what lies beyond the world of the living.

“Not everyone needs to believe this,” she says good-naturedly. “I’m not going to try to change your mind.”

If her abilities sound familiar — like the premise of a supernatural-themed TV series, perhaps — it’s because the CBS drama “Ghost Whisperer,” starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, is loosely based on Winkowski’s life. She works as a consultant for the show, and the script for each episode is delivered to Winkow-ski’s North Royalton home so she can suggest ways to make the stories truer to her own experiences as a paranormal investigator.

“I used to get so aggravated fighting with the producers and directors every week,” she says. “I would get a script and sit there with a big red pen saying, ‘You can’t do that! Ghosts don’t walk through you. You don’t walk through them. They can’t throw your hair down the garbage disposer.’ Finally, I was pretty much told, ‘This is not a weekly ghost documentary. This is entertainment. Get your head around it.’ ”

Winkowski has done just that, helping the show evolve as it winds through its third season, holding its place as the anchor for the CBS Friday-night lineup.

The success of “Ghost Whisperer” since its 2005 premiere has also carried Winkowski’s name beyond Greater Cleveland, where she has been known for years as the resident ghost buster radio and TV stations turn to each autumn to throw a spice of the supernatural into their Halloween-season broadcasts. She made her first local appearance 20 years ago on John Lanigan’s morning radio show.

“After I was on his show, I probably got 50 phone calls,” Winkowski recalls. “And 25 of those phone calls were from people who wanted to relate a story that happened to them when they were a kid, because they knew I wouldn’t laugh.”

Today, her appearance on a national TV or radio show, like her November spot as a guest on “Larry King Live,” will generate 400 to 500 phone calls, all of which she meticulously documents on yellow legal pads that sit stacked on her dining room table.

Winkowski has six phone lines in her home that help her keep up with the demand for her service of ridding homes of what she calls “earthbound spirits.” Along with private clients, she’s worked with law enforcement agencies, and religious leaders often keep an open mind about her abilities.

“If you call the Cleveland Catholic Diocese and tell them you have a ghost in the house, they’ll give you my name and number, and they’ve never even asked me,” says Winkowski, a devout Catholic. “I don’t think they’re getting ready to excommunicate me too soon.”

Winkowski says she has seen a cultural shift during the past decade in regard to people’s willingness to accept the supernatural and the unexplained. It was her desire to provide a straightforward book people could use as a reference that led her to write “When Ghosts Speak: Understanding the World of Earthbound Spirits” ($24.95, Grand Central Publishing), released in October.

“My editor felt this book could be one that people always keep on their shelf to go back to if they have a question,” Winkowski says, explaining that brushes with the supernatural are not like how television and movies have trained us they would be. “[The book] provides down-to-earth answers, without saying the walls are bleeding or you’ve been slimed. Those things just don’t happen. ... I’ve never, ever, ever found a house built on an Indian burial ground.”
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