“A Supernatural Evening with Jeff Belanger” was prefaced by a slideshow that featured, a la Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Belanger’s face sticking through a hole in a door, fangs bared, eyes shot wide open, and a smile creepier than any hockey mask.
In Robsham Theater this Friday night, Belanger told the attendees about ghost stories, the Celtic origins of Halloween, and his experiences working on the Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures.
After putting aside his microphone and moving to the front of the stage, he began.
“For a living, I get to chase legends,” he said.
Belanger’s interest in ghosts and the supernatural began when he was a student at Hofstra University, where he started writing features articles for the local newspaper in the mid-1990s. He kept interviewing people who claimed they saw ghosts or heard voices in empty rooms. At first he was skeptical, assuming that they were tricks of the lighting or shadows of objects mistaken for people.
One incident convinced him there might be some truth to their stories. Belanger found a newspaper clipping from 1880 advertising Shaker Medicinal Spring Water, which was said to make users live unnaturally long. He investigated further.
“I started in a cemetery,” he said. “That’s kind of my thing. For me, the backstory is everything. You start at the end, and then you want to go back.”
When he visited a Shaker gravesite in Harvard, Mass., he saw that there was an abnormal number of people who died when they were nearly 100 years old, in an era with a life expectancy of about 40. He concluded there might have been some truth to the Shakers’ claims.
Since then, Belanger has written more than a dozen books, launched a website, and given a TEDx Talk. He was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the PBS series New England Legends, and he hosts his own online talk show, 30 Odd Minutes. In 2008, he started working as a writer and researcher for Ghost Adventures, which features a group of friends visiting haunted locales and searching for ghosts using night-vision footage.
“Wow, we were just a bunch of schmucks making a TV show back in 2008.”
Belanger started on the show at the behest of his friend, star and executive producer Zak Bagans. Travel Channel originally only picked them up for one season, but ordered more episodes when the show became a hit.
“What was supposed to be eight episodes has become 139,” Belanger said. “That in itself is kind of paranormal.”
He mentioned that sometimes he is stopped on the street and asked about the show.
“Wow, we were just a bunch of schmucks making a TV show back in 2008,” he said.
Belanger also told the audience about his visits to the catacombs of Paris, an ancient monument in New Hampshire known as “American’s Stonehenge,” and an abandoned tuberculosis sanatorium in Kentucky.
It was in Paris, where an estimated six million skeletons make up the Catacombs, that he first saw a ghost. Walking down a narrow hallway several stories underground, the walls lined with thousands of skulls, Belanger saw the shadow of a man. He thought it might be his flashlight, or another person, but eventually he ran out of options.
“You’re alone, and you’re feeling this human energy,” he said. “I ran out of every possible word but one—ghost.”
The factor that most attracts Belanger to stories about the supernatural is this human energy, the connection he feels to the people who have been there before him. For Belanger, “history is a ghost story.”
He told a story about visiting the former Pennhurst State School and Hospital, an asylum in Pennsylvania. The asylum was closed in 1987 after numerous complaints about the treatment of residents in the 1970s. It was featured on Ghost Adventures in 2012.
“That’s 1970s, not 1870s, or 1770s,” Belanger pointed out.
Before its closure, due to allegations of dangerous conditions in the asylum, Pennhurst State School and Hospital was the subject of a Supreme Court case about cruel and unusual punishment. Belanger mentioned that the episode was met with some controversy over its content.
“We got to tell this story, and if that made people uncomfortable because such bad things happened, maybe, just maybe, it won’t happen again,” Bellanger said. “That I was proud of.”
As he closed, he implored the audience to remember and cherish the past, particularly on Halloween.
“We shouldn’t ignore the past. You should take these things with you, and tell the stories,” he said. “The big day is tomorrow, a time to dance with the devil in the moonlight, talk about ghosts, and let the spirits run amok.”
Featured Image courtesy Travel Channel