Haunted & Horrified
"Tonight's first caller is Amanda, coming in from New England with a story for us…"
I grew up in an old home filled with strange noises and unexplainable occurrences. Footsteps would trail across empty rooms and babies would wave to the cemetery down the street. I haunted the Dewey number 133 shelf in the city’s children’s library and later, the adult library, devouring old books of ghosts with sticky dust covers and blurry photos. Even now, I distinctly remember the shock on my third-grade teacher’s face as I showed her the famous picture of the ghost of Raynham Hall in an old picture book. The paranormal was something that wove through my entire life and it never occurred to me that others didn’t think about ghosts all the time.
At thirteen years old, I won a writing competition at my middle school and the prize was a coffee-table book on any topic I wanted. So of course, I got the one that was full of alien abductions and spontaneous human combustion. The teachers presented it to me in front of a room full of spectators, including my completely unsurprised parents.
I was, in short, a creepy little kid.
I’ve always loved hearing people’s stories of paranormal encounters. Growing up in a New England Catholic family, there were plenty of them to share. For me, the paranormal has always mingled with the mundane. My family tells stories about hauntings in the same breath as community gossip. But while it was normal, it was somewhat detached and observed, like a train track running parallel to our lives, but rarely intersecting.
Then, on March 16, 2017, my father died. And suddenly, the paranormal was much closer. This wasn’t just ghosts in a graveyard far away; this was my dad. The courageous, complicated, and darkly funny man from whom I got my height and fabulous (according to the two of us) sense of humor. We’d known it was coming as he’d been sick for years. And during those years, death and the other side were a common topic of conversation as we all came to terms with what was happening. It wasn’t always grim, sometimes the conversations were funny. We even have photos of my dad hanging out on his own headstone before he passed.
During the months leading up to my father’s death, then the time immeasurable afterward, I spent hours driving back and forth between my home outside of Boston and my mother’s house in Central Massachusetts. While fiction podcasts, with their solid storylines and ever-moving sound design, kept me company as my infant son slept in the backseat, non-fiction paranormal podcasts crept in as well. The familiarity of ghosts and unusual phenomena was comforting, distracting me from my grief.
Glynn Washington’s Spooked, with its longer stories and intricate sound design, filled the space as I drove through the historic, looming woods of Route 20. New England Legends was a homecoming of sorts, as Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger explored the more mysterious parts of this region that I’d always loved as well. And Spirits, with Amanda McLaughlin and Julia Schifini, merged the two, with both discussions of particular topics and episodes devoted to true ghost stories.
I still distinctly remember listening to Jeffrey Nils Gardner on Spirits, telling the story of a haunted dorm on their college campus, where the phenomena traveled the path of a doomed man in the elevator shaft. The reason I remember this one in particular is that I was too afraid to get out of my car and walk up the street to my apartment after hearing it. Imagine a grown woman, with a baby in the back seat, bracing herself for a three-minute walk up to her home. I was terrified, but it was a fun fear, a much better fear than the one I’d been facing since my dad’s diagnosis.
In the time where my family was piecing itself back together, these familiar topics were a much-needed solace. But as time went on, these podcasts came and went, simply because of my listening schedule. Life was busy. I had moved closer to my mother, cutting down on my driving time, which was also my podcast listening time. My son was now old enough to understand just enough of what he heard; I had to be careful what I played if I didn’t want to give him nightmares. While I listened to these shows still, it wasn’t with the same frequency as it had been in those first shocking months.
Then, a few years ago, I got sick. Nothing life-threatening, but certainly life-changing. A routine medical procedure resulted in complications that left me with permanent nerve damage and a substantial amount of trauma. A day after minor outpatient surgery, I was in the emergency room with the worst pain of my life, and it never fully went away. I remember waiting half-delirious in the car as my husband got our son bundled up to go stay with his grandmother while he brought me to the hospital. In that haze, I was so certain I could feel my dad in the car with me. As we drove to the hospital, I could still feel him there, lingering as my husband told stories to distract me from the pain.
It took months to figure out what was wrong with me. Not only did my case bounce around specialists as we tried to pin down the problem, but this also lined up with the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States, which caused “non-essential” healthcare like mine to be delayed and choppy. I had an amazing team of doctors who never doubted me and did their best to solve the mystery. But during those months of severe pain and very limited mobility, I spent a lot of long days and nights awake in bed. This was when I not only returned to paranormal podcasts, but also discovered the paranormal call-in show.
Many of these podcasts have a similar setup. One or two hosts either read stories sent in by listeners or play phone calls of those people telling their own stories. Real Ghost Stories Online with Tony Brueski. Anything Ghost with Lex Wahl. Real Life Ghost Stories with Emma Ozenbrook and the late Dan Issitt. And the granddaddy of them all: Jim Harold’s Campfire. While their styles are different, the formats are the same and I love them for it. If podcasts are frequently described as feeling like a conversation among friends, then these shows feel like the podcast equivalent of midnight inside a blanket fort, shining your flashlight under your chin as you and your friends scare each other silly. They’re warm and open-minded, welcoming anybody who wants to play.
I began listening to these podcasts every night. At first it was just for something to listen to, more stories to fill the hours and distract me from the pain. As it had been after my dad’s death, ghosts and demons and monsters were a familiar topic, something I was much more comfortable contemplating than the looming uncertainty that was my future.
During these years of lying in bed, feeling disconnected from my body and filled with a shame I now know was a symptom of PTSD, hearing these stories of unknown things has been an unsurprising comfort. I’m the type of person who looks for signs. Most often, signs that my dad is near. It might be a favorite song on the radio (or my sister’s father-daughter wedding dance song, in which case I tell him “wrong kid, but I’ll pass on the message”) or a strange occurrence in my house. I’m not alone, weird, or desperate for doing so. In fact, there is an entire community of people out there doing the same thing. Some actively try to contact a world beyond ours, while others just fall ass-backward into a sign from the other side after years of not believing in an afterlife.
Last week, on Jim Harold’s Campfire, a woman told a story about her father, who loved clocks. He and her mother had a cuckoo clock in their home with delicate little figures who would dance on the hour. One day, the dancing stopped and would have been too expensive to repair, so her parents decided they could live without it. But shortly after her father’s death, the figures danced again.
And, as Harold regularly says, the paranormal isn't just about the scary, but there’s a lot of love there as well. The stories people call in with are endlessly different, yet so many are the same. Family members share one last goodbye with their relatives across the world. The Hat Man shows up in far too many bedrooms for me to be comfortable getting up in the middle of the night when the cat wakes me. UFOs twinkle in the sky three miles from where I’m lying in my bed, curled around my heating pad.
A father who died too young comes back to visit his grandchildren as they grow.
“Our next caller tonight is Francis Xavier, coming in from the afterlife. What’s it like over there, Frank?”
There are so many links between the stories that callers tell. People immediately say that they’re nervous to share their stories. They preface it with the fact that they haven’t told anyone about this before. Or they mention how the star of the story was a skeptic their whole life until this happened. Sometimes they’re still a skeptic, even after seeing a ghost sitting at their supper table. They say that they feel completely alone in this.
And without fail, there has been a story with a similar scenario. Jim Harold will ask them if they listened to a previous episode, four years ago, where someone called in about the same type of glowing light. Emma Ozenbrook will pause and tell the listeners exactly what previous story this ghost reminds her of. Even the most wild stories will have connections, thin threads that reach across time and space to bring them all together.
Even within the unknown, those connections are there. And if there are connections among the ghosts and monsters and Hat Men sharing our existence, then maybe my connections to this world haven’t been broken by the damage done to my body.
I don’t know what comes next. And by that, I’m referring to both life after death and my own future. I don’t know if my chronic pain will get better, worse, or stay the same. I work hard to keep it manageable through a strict exercise routine, a cocktail of daily medicines, and carefully managing my physical and mental health. I have a good life, one I’m extremely grateful for, and I want to live it as well as I can. These shows have been an unexpected, but deeply welcome, part of maintaining that life.
There are people out there who will say that the paranormal is all fake. People make up stories to bring themselves comfort, attention, or a scare. Our brains look for patterns, there’s no proof of life after this one. It’s all electricity.
Is there life beyond this one? Who am I to answer that question definitively? Our reality is shaped by how our bodies and brains process it. My body is incapable of processing cheese and my nerve endings are making it up as they go. I’ll never be arrogant enough to say that I know exactly what the world is, or that I know what happens to us after we die. But I know the universe is a weird and glorious place. Hearing caller after caller tell their stories on these podcasts, following the links between the tales and the hosts’ platforms for sharing these stories with the world, it makes me feel a little more connected to that weirdness and glory again.
Amanda McCormack is an independent author and podcaster who focuses on paranormal fantasy, as well as the culture and folklore of New England. You can find her work at EnfieldArts.com.