Jeff Belanger has made a decades-long career out of chronicling ghost stories. He co-created and hosts PBS’ “New England Legends” TV show and podcast, which in their respective runs have featured hundreds of stories about haunted places, monsters, ghosts and things that bump in the night.
But Belanger himself was once a skeptic.
“I always took the position that ‘I believe that you believe.’ I wasn’t there,” he told Boston Public Radio in an appearance on Friday. “But then it happened.”
Belander said he was walking alone in the catacombs of Paris, surrounded by human skeletons, when he had his first ghost sighting.
“I saw what looked like a man step out from one side and go to the other and back. And I just froze and I went, ‘OK, if that’s not a ghost, I don’t have another word for what it is that I saw,’” he said.
Despite the sheer number of ghost stories he encounters, Belanger said he has only a few personal experiences as visceral as that day in Paris. He thinks the appeal of ghost stories is directly tied to how varied those reports of paranormal experiences are — from visions to smells to unexplained sensations.
“There’s Abe Lincoln, tipping his hat, saying ‘four score,’ and then there’s, you know, smelling grandma’s perfume weeks after she died,” he explained. “There’s a whole spectrum in there. There’s having a dream that feels like it’s more than a dream, or that — just that feeling you get that someone’s nearby and you look around and no one’s there.”
Ultimately, it’s our ability to empathize, he says, that really allows us to understand and relate to ghost stories.
“We’re human beings, we have empathy, we tune into things,” Belanger said. “I’ve been in haunted places all over the world. And when I walk into an old abandoned prison, where people were murdered, killed, shvived, executed and so on, I imagine what it must have felt like to be brought into a place like that and know this is home for the next five years, ten years, whatever.”
Belanger doesn’t think that empathy needs to translate into belief in the paranormal to make the stories worthwhile for a listener, however. He said ghost stories have value beyond their sensationalism or entertainment factor.
“When we talk about ghosts and haunted places, we get to have this profound discussion without getting into all the dogmas of religion, and my belief system says this and yours says that,” he said. “Be a skeptic and just enjoy the story. There’s still some inherent value in it.”
Belanger will be hosting a virtual event, “Ghosts and Legends with Jeff Belanger” with GBH on Monday night. You can buy tickets here.