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How Shane Madej and Ryan Bergara Became BuzzFeed’s Unsung Heroes with ‘Unsolved’

Originally published for Status Magazine, November 2018

SHANE MADEJ and RYAN BERGARA might constantly be risking their well-beings for 22-minute YouTube episodes, but these BuzzFeed Unsolved heroes are more than happy to shine a light on the unanswered questions that have plagued pop culture for decades.

Although discussions on true crime and supernatural mysteries are mostly topics in passing, Shane Madej and Ryan Bergara of the viral YouTube documentary show BuzzFeed Unsolvedhave made it their creative mission to instigate this conversation. Standing on opposite sides of the spectrum with Ryan as a believer and Shane as a skeptic, the two started off as interns and made their way up to full-time video producers. With this seed planted, the sprouting of Unsolved originated from paranormal exchanges between Ryan and his carpool buddy; they materialized their different viewpoints into short, two to three minute audio clips as a trial run. After choosing a location and revealing their faces on screen in the third episode, they had gone viral—hitting five million views in one day. “That’s when we kind of realized that we were on to something, and then we just slowly started adding to the bones of that small idea to the point where it expanded into what it is today: a 22-minute episodic series,” Ryan recalls proudly.

Producing two viral Supernatural seasons later, Shane and Ryan stepped out of the box and tackled another angle: True Crime. Adding this topic into their repository meant even more cases to pick from, and though they have no criteria set in stone, they make sure to pick the ones with twists, turns, and odd circumstances that will keep you awake at night. “I guess if a case has all of those factors, it’s usually the one that I would choose to cover. I try and keep Shane in the dark as much as I can about these cases, because I want him to be able to react in a genuine way and to be surprised by the weird details,” Ryan says. While the series significantly booms in popularity per season, they’ve expanded their one-man research team (initially composed of Ryan alone) into a full group. He explains, “In the early stages of the series, I would take an idea then lock myself into a room for a week or two and just find every article ever written about the case. Nowadays, we have a research team and they make sure everything we say in the episode is based on facts and not some dude with a MacBook in Minnesota.”

Two years since the show’s premiere, BuzzFeed Unsolved is racking up an average of six to seven million views per episode, and Shane and Ryan have no intentions of hitting the breaks. As the opposing duo continues to lurk deeper into the unknown, they gratefully look back at the the series’ unexpected success while moving forward with brighter, goofier, and even more spine-chilling ideas.

Shane only started hosting in the second episode and became Brent’s replacement. How did he get on board with the show, and what exactly was it about Ryan’s pitch that made him want to become a co-host?
Ryan’s pitch [laughs] was hilarious. I don’t remember the exact nature of it, but basically he turned to me because we sat next to each other and he said, “Hey, do you want to be on this show? Brent’s leaving,” and I was like, “Yeah sure.”
RYAN: And I was like, “You know, it may be a time commitment if we keep making it, I’m not really sure,” and then Shane kinda like looked at his Google calendar and he was like, “Looks pretty clear to me.” We’ve been friends since we were interns and we’ve sat next to each other since then so it just seemed natural to ask him. But yeah, there was zero fanfare. It was literally me taking my headphones off, turning to the right and asking, “Shane do you want to be on this show?” because Brent had decided he wanted to move to different opportunities in the company.

“You sort of have to get along because when we do ghost hunt, those episodes are 20 minutes long but we’re at those locations 10 or 8 hours at a time. We would never do that if we didn’t get along; we would’ve strangled each other by now.”

Your content provides a very realistic viewpoint of the supernatural because of your different stances. How are you guys able to maintain your chemistry and friendship without getting annoyed at each other for standing in the opposite side of the road?
S: I think it’s that we get along and we have similar interests with ghosts. You sort of have to get along because when we do ghost hunt, those episodes are 20 minutes long but we’re at those locations ten or eight hours at a time. We would never do that if we didn’t get along; we would’ve strangled each other by now.
R: Yeah that’s probably true, I would say that ghosts are the only topic we actually, for the most part, disagree on. I think people can sense that, even though we are arguing, we’re still friends. It’s kind of that friendly polarity that people are able to just kind of pick up on, because it’s one thing to have two people who have opposing points of view but then it’s another to have two people who have opposing points of view but you can tell there’s still mutual respect there. I mean you respect me, right Shane?
S: Yeah, of course I respect you! You’re the best ghost hunter I know.
R: You are too, man.

Do you guys think that Shane’s skepticism of the supernatural will remain the same forever? And if not, what particular situation of what particular event will really change how he views things?
R: I think Shane will be a skeptic until he’s had a ghost directly in front of him, or like if a ghost punches him in the face or takes me and rock bottoms me into the floor. There’s gonna have to be sort of a bunch of events, in terms of evidence, for him to believe.
S: Like if I saw a ghost, and we always say that if that happens, that may be the greatest proof of ghosts of all time, because if I see a ghost I’ll admit to it and people will have to believe me.

Individually, which episode from the Supernatural and the True Crime series, did you enjoy filming the most?
R: For Supernatural, I think it’s gonna have to be the three horrifying cases. That was a 45 minute episode and it was just us hunting ghosts. I don’t know, that trip just had the perfect installation—it started very mellow, whimsical in the Winchester Mansion in San Jose, and then we went to the Island of the Dolls in Mexico which was a horrifying place and just frankly disgusting, and then the Sallie House which was the demon house where we captured, to this day I still think, arguably the best piece of evidence we’ve ever got. It was just a fun trip but it was exhausting.
S: I think I would go with, not a specific episode, but there was one season where we did back to back. We did the Salem Witch Trials and then from there, we went to ten degrees and blizzarding. We actually got snowed in. And then straight from there we went to New Orleans, but the back to back of going to those places was so interesting to me. It had a cool vibe to it. As for true crime, DB Cooper is probably the most fun we’ve had. We were just sitting in a room, but we had just shot some other episodes that were really depressing and while DB Cooper wasn’t the most hilarious story, for some reason it just struck our funny bones.
R: I mean I can see why we find that kind of funny. Yeah, I would agree with that, that’s probably my favorite True Crime as well.

Are there any specific unsolved mysteries around the world that you guys hope to check out someday?
R: The angle of wrongfully accused cases. The Innocence Project is always something I’ve been interested in, and Making A Murderer is a very popular series I definitely enjoyed. It’s wrongfully accused cases that kind of just capture that same spirit of justice, because they’re not only victims.
S: And as for Supernatural, we’re just looking for ghosts. Any place that says they have ghosts, we’ll go there.

Which episode would you say gave you the most frustrating piece of evidence?
R: In the second to the last episode of the latest season, we saw a ghost walk right in front of us.
S: Yeah, I mean it was caught on camera too.
R: That was one of the most frustrating occurrences in my life—to know that I saw something and Shane blocked my angle, and everyone in the crew were looking at me. I was the only person facing that direction, which I think is just cruel.
S: I find it to be convenient.
R: You find it convenient, I find it to be cruel because I know what I saw. [laughs] If only you could see the sh*t-eating grin on his face right now.

“At every turn, I’m surprised by the growth of the show. I can only hope that it continues to grow in the way that it has, and I feel like we have this fanbase on YouTube who are very loyal and engaged and polite.”

As the show’s creative directors, how do you picture BuzzFeed Unsolved in the next two years?
R: I really don’t know. At every turn, I’m surprised by the growth of the show. I can only hope that it continues to grow in the way that it has, and I feel like we have this fanbase on YouTube who are very loyal and engaged and polite. We’ll certainly try to grow in terms of the content side and try to keep pushing the envelope.
S: It’s pretty humbling… Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. A lot of weirdos out there. Every season, we always try to change up the show in interesting ways.
R: Shane has mentioned that in the future, he’d like to put me in more situations of peril.
S: Yeah, I feel like it just lets us go beyond. People ask me what I think we should do for the next season and I’m like, “More peril!”

Final question for you guys—are ghosts real?
R: Yes, absolutely. Zero doubt in my mind.
S: I hope that they are. I really do.
R: Oh my God..
S: No, I really do! I mean my career has become committed to finding ghosts and it just hasn’t happened, so I hope this isn’t just one big waste of time.
R: Whatever, I don’t need your false compassion. [laughs]


Written by Sophie Caraan
Photos courtesy of BuzzFeed