Emmy-nominated paranormal investigator Jeff Belanger paid a virtual visit to Durham Public Library to share his stories about the unexplained in New England. Over the course of an hour he recounted several ghost stories local to the Northeast.
To Belanger, telling ghost stories is more than just creeping out his audience. “We’re talking about the biggest questions humans have ever asked since we crawled out of the ocean,” said Belanger. “When you talk about ghosts and hauntings what you’re really asking is, what happens after we die?”
According to Belanger, the stories we pass down hold innate meaning. “It’s almost like a sermon from our past selves to our present selves because we still haven’t reckoned with something,” said Belanger.
Skeptics of his work claim that he asks his listeners to put too much faith in too little evidence. Belanger’s response? Discourse over the reality of paranormal stories misses the point of why they’re re-told. He said, “We can get into these deeply spiritual and very big topics without getting into the dogmas that totally divide us.” According to Belanger, these legends cannot be disputed as stories that we continue to pass down because of their meaning and lessons. He is happy to make a career passing these tales along.
“It was not a plan,” he said, in reference to his career as a storyteller. He said, “I love history, I love interviewing people, and I loved these stories that just sort of linger and hang around because I feel like it gives us a lot of insight into a community, into ourselves.”
While attending Hofstra University studying journalism, he became accustomed to spending the fall months tracking down Halloween features for a magazine. In 1999, he made a website and started to gather people’s stories. “It was just one of those things where one day you wake up and you’re like, ‘oh my god this is my full time job,’” Belanger said. “Like who would believe that?”
After working on numerous TV shows, films and books, he now spends his time doing live shows across New England while producing a podcast. For him, Halloween is peak season. “It’s become the second biggest consumer holiday behind Christmas,” Belanger said. He plans on having gigs booked through November.
The pandemic didn’t stop Belanger’s business, it only forced things to change. Now that physical venues are closed, he presents almost entirely over Zoom. Belanger said, “Usually I’ll do 30-40 in person, and now it’s like 60 [people over] zoom.”
This new medium comes with its own set of drawbacks. Belanger said, “I love telling stories in front of people. And when you’re a storyteller you get so much from the audience, you get to feel their energy.” Zoom calls simply lack that element. Belanger adapted in his own way. “I just pretend everyone loves it,” he said. While lacking in personal feedback, he finds Zoom calls reach a larger audience. He even has a small following of people who show up to chat at every gig. “I’m reaching a lot more people through Zoom and I’m in their homes, which is very intimate,” he said.
Durham Public Library, which hosted Belanger, went through a similar transition to Zoom. All their presenters are now online in addition to a significant portion of their circulation. They have published online resources to help their patrons sort through the information and resources they provide.
Photo courtesy of the Durham Public Library.