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For Frank Baranowski, the trouble started when he was 8 years old.
Until then, Baranowski, the 57-year-old host of KTAR's weekend paranormal showcase "Mysteries Around Us," was just another blue-collar Polish kid growing up in the hayseed town of Michigan City, Indiana.
But Baranowski says at the age of 8 he started having strange visions. He began to see colorful auras around everyone he met. Not sure what to make of these multihued lights, he asked one of the nuns at his Catholic school what they meant.
The nun asked him what he was talking about. When he explained what he was seeing, she told him to report to the convent after school.
"They all lined up for me, and I was telling them the colors I saw around them, just blabbing like a kid will blab," Baranowski recalls. "In return, I got two holy pictures. So I thought if I died, I was going straight to heaven, with those holy pictures."
But Baranowski had unwittingly created a brouhaha of near-Biblical proportions in his tiny hometown. Three local priests came to his home that night, carrying incense, holy water and an oversize missal. They walked around the house blessing each room. Then they sat Baranowski down and repeatedly splashed holy water on him. As word of the attempted exorcism buzzed around Baranowski's Polish-ghetto neighborhood, 50 people gathered outside the house.
Baranowski remembers: "The priests kept asking me, 'Do you renounce Satan?' I couldn't understand what they were asking. I was too scared to understand." He says as soon as the priests left, his father, Harry -- a hardworking welder with a fierce temper and a weakness for alcohol -- grabbed him by the shirt collar and delivered an ultimatum: "You see another light around anybody, and that'll be the last light you'll see."
Nearly 50 years later, Baranowski still insists that he sees auras around people. But what once made him the scourge of Michigan City has ultimately provided him with a lucrative career as a lecturer, radio host and all-around guru of the supernatural.
For most of his adult life, Baranowski has been a consistent believer in -- and student of -- all things beyond the realm of science, from past-life regression to clairvoyance to psychic revelations to holistic healing to numerology. The years have only made him more committed and knowledgeable about these esoteric subjects.
Since the early '70s, he's performed thousands of past-life regressions, a three-hour process in which he puts someone under hypnosis and attempts to take them back into one of their previous incarnations. His objective is usually to help them get over a particular phobia by identifying that phobia's roots in an earlier life.
But a funny thing has happened over the past 20 to 30 years. Baranowski hasn't changed, but society has. Whether it's a product of millennial spiritual anxiety or Woodstock Nation reaching middle age, paranatural pseudo-science has moved from the fringes into the suburban two-car garages of mainstream America.
Consider the evidence: Long Island channeler John Edward hosts a daily psychic show on the SciFi Network, James Van Praagh tops the best-seller lists with his accounts from the spirit world, and avowed clairvoyant Sylvia Brown has drawn huge audiences for her three pay-per-view TV specials.
As Edward's supervising producer, Paul Shavelson, recently told the Associated Press, "If someone is into New Age or spiritual programming, they have a show like ours. Imagine trying to sell a show like this a decade ago."
To Baranowski's credit -- or discredit, depending on your belief system -- he didsell such a show a decade ago, albeit on radio, not on television. For the past 11 years, he's managed to bring a surreal late-night edge to KTAR-AM 620, the Valley's most popular talk-show station. He proudly points out that he even predated the nationally syndicated show by Art Bell, the eccentric radio host to whom he's most often compared.
Every Saturday and Sunday, from 10 p.m. to midnight, Baranowski's intensely devoted fans tune in to hear him tell what amounts to elaborate ghost stories, in a deep, sonorous, Merv Griffin-like voice, with a dramatic, breathless delivery that's reminiscent of John Belushi parodying Captain Kirk on Saturday Night Live.
"People love him for his great storytelling abilities," says Tisa Vrable, program director for KTAR. "He does that intriguing, strange stuff. He doesn't necessarily have a huge audience, but he has a very loyal audience."
Baranowski's ratings fluctuate widely, but in the past two years he's been as high as a 7.9 share, which translates into 7.9 percent of all Valley radio listeners for that time period. It's an impressive figure for a guy peddling psychic phenomena on weekend nights. By comparison, afternoon drive-time host Tony Femino recently earned an Arbitron rating of 6.4 with his core demographic, although he's competing for a much larger weekday radio audience.
But even at Baranowski's lowest point, a 3.7 share in the summer of 1999, he still had twice as many listeners as the three local sports-talk stations combined during the same time period.
Radio is actually just a small part of Baranowski's life. He estimates he's lectured in 43 countries, and has performed several high-profile past-life regressions, including one on country singer Loretta Lynn and another on a man who claims to be the reincarnation of Titanic designer Tom Andrews. He's appeared on Unsolved Mysteries and Larry King's radio show, and befriended celebrities like actor Burt Lancaster and director Sam Peckinpah.