Jeff Belanger of Ghost Village - talks to Ghost Connections
Jeff Belanger leads a very haunted life. He’s been fascinated with the supernatural since age ten when he investigated his first haunted house during a sleepover. Since then, the paranormal investigator has been a writer and journalist for various newspapers and magazines, and in 1999 he launched Ghostvillage.com as a repository for his writings and research on the subject of the supernatural. The site has since grown to become the largest paranormal community on the Web, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. Over the years, Jeff has interviewed hundreds of people about their experiences with the profound. His objective approach to the subject makes the supernatural accessible to a wide audience. He brings personality and humor to this subject which makes him one of the most sought-after experts in the field. He's written for many paranormal Web sites and print publications and is the author of several books.
Jeff Belanger graduated from Hofstra University with a B.A. in English. After college Jeff served as Editor-in-Chief of Main Street -- a biweekly arts and entertainment newspaper in northern Fairfield County, Connecticut, he worked in marketing and public relations for both private and public companies, and he's currently a full-time writer living in Massachusetts with his wife, Megan, daughter, Sophie, and parakeet, Mambo.
|Q&A with Jeff|
G.C - Jeff. You are a busy man in the field of paranormal research, writing and lecturing. What made you select this subject to devote your time to?
I’ve been interested in the subject my entire life. I grew up in an old New England town in Connecticut with many historic buildings. I had friends from a young age who were very matter-of-fact about their houses being haunted. We’d have sleepovers at these houses and go looking for the ghosts. I was intrigued at the possibility and gripped by the stories my friends were telling me. After college I became a newspaper reporter and around October you go looking for haunted interest stories. I got hooked on researching the history that often supports the haunted legends, touring alleged haunted locations, and interviewing eyewitnesses of the phenomena.
G.C - How did you get involved in investigating claims of the paranormal and how are your findings received?
In 1999 I started my Web site, Ghostvillage.com, and began writing on the subject regularly. I was working for an international software company at the time and I often had to travel for my work. Wherever I went, I’d find a few moments to sneak off and investigate some famous haunts. I’ve always taken a journalistic approach to the subject, so I’ve been fairly well received by those in the mainstream. However, I do occasionally run into a person who believes the notion of ghosts is an affront to their belief system (either religious or scientific). I disagree, but that’s my opinion. There will always be believers and non-believers. My job isn’t to try and convince anyone of anything. I want the facts, the eyewitness accounts, and the evidence that may support or disprove any paranormal claim.
G.C - Have you found that your view of the paranormal has changed at all as a result of your investigations and in what way?
When I first got started researching these oddities back in 1997, I thought the subject was simple: ghosts and haunted places. I’ve since learned that there are many avenues and offshoots of the topic that touch on many other areas: religion, psychology, belief, science, history, and other paranormal topics. Some people believe in everything, others don’t believe in much at all. But the event is perceived as real by millions of people from all over the world and all walks of life. I’ve come to realize that the topic is vast, and not easily definable.
G.C - You have investigated many sites and written many articles about them. Do you have a favourite that you can explain a little about and why it is important to you?
That’s like asking which of your children is your favorite. There are many places that I think are special. I love important historical locations that have come to accept their ghosts (even if they only accept them begrudgingly). Locations like: The Tower of London, The White House in Washington DC, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Other places have wonderful legends that have become so well known that they enter popular culture, like: Resurrection Mary in Chicago, or the many “White Lady” legends from all over the world.
G.C - . Your first exploration into the paranormal was Dudleytown in Connecticut in 1997 by invitation. How did you come to be approached to investigate there and what was your approach?
I was asked to work on a documentary film about Dudleytown back in ’97. I was living in Connecticut at the time and only lived about 45 minutes away. The film company was located in California so they looked to me to research the history and legends and to line up the interviews. My approach to Dudleytown was the same as it is to any story today: I want to capture who, what, when, where, and why. I found some of the history was indisputable (like who bought the land and when), other parts were vague (like the curse of the Dudleys coming over from England), and then there are those who believe it’s haunted and they have experienced something, and then there are those who live there and think the area isn’t haunted at all (and they take great issue with people coming on to their land at all hours of the day and night to try and prove otherwise).
G.C - You lecture to many groups of people. Do you find any particular groups more accommodating to your views than others and why do you believe this is?
I tailor my lectures based on the audience. In October I find myself doing many lectures to general audiences who are looking for a titillating scare for the Halloween season. I also speak at many ghost investigator conferences, and in that environment I can get a bit more technical, which is nice. And once in a while I’m invited to address a skeptic group. I enjoy those lectures the most. I usually start by telling the skeptics, “You may be right. I accept that there may be no ghosts… but take a look at some of the things I’ve been looking into over the last decade or so.” If I can raise awareness and promote the discussion and research of the topic, then I feel like I’m getting somewhere.
G.C - Among your lecture material is evidence that you have collected. What do you feel is your most compelling evidence and can you explain how it was obtained?
I captured a ghost in a jar once. I can bring it to a lecture, unscrew the cap, and let the little bugger fly around the room on a leash. I kid, of course (my ghost easily passes right through the leash). I know many investigators disagree with me on this, but I feel that some of the most compelling evidence we have is the eyewitness testimony. Because of what I do, I’ve become a magnet for people who want to share their ghost experience. It’s important to document those encounters early and well. I record almost all of my interviews on tape and I often share clips of the accounts in my lectures. I can tell someone else’s story, but it’s always best to hear it from the witness’s mouth whenever possible. The ghost experience is still a human experience, albeit a fringe one. I conduct my interviews alone, I keep it simple and friendly so the witness feels comfortable opening up about a very odd experience they went through. Of course I also share some of the many fascinating EVP, photos, and video clips that have been submitted to me over the years.
G.C - Following on from the last question do you have a piece of equipment that you consider is invaluable to you as an investigator and what has it provided for you as an investigator?.
Breath mints. Seriously. You’ll be speaking to the living a lot more than the dead. No one likes bad breath.
G.C - Do you consider that, in general, television and film have contributed good or bad influences towards would be investigators or indeed present any reasonable views of the subject?
Both. Any promotion of the topic is a good thing. So if someone watches a psychic or ghost hunting television show and is inspired to go out and ask questions, do some research, and try to figure this topic out, then that’s a good thing. However, television doesn’t always portray reality (not even reality television). It’s a starting point.
G.C - You were responsible for the founding of Ghostvillage.com in 1999. Can you tell us about the site, how you viewed its aims when you conceived the idea, and your view of those aims 8 years on?
The Web site started as a place for me to learn HTML and Web design. I had a couple of articles I had written for a newspaper to get the site started. Back in ’99 it was six simple Web pages. On the homepage I put up a sentence that said, “Tell us about your own ghost experiences,” and the site grew from there. People from all over the world have shared their research, experiences, videos, audio clips, and photographs. What started as six pages has exploded to over 150,000 pages of content. We’re now receiving between 7 and 13 million hits per month, and the objective is the same today as it was in 1999. We want to be a central repository of information for all things supernatural. We welcome the religious view, the scientific, and even the skeptical. All are an important part of the discussion.
G.C - Ghostvillage contains mention and links to various mediums. Are mediums a necessary part of an investigation team and how do you interpret the information that they provide?
Just a quick disclaimer here: Ghostvillage.com has a supernatural links directory to more than 700 other Web sites. We don’t necessarily endorse or condone the content of any other Web site.
When I do my research, I typically go alone. I don’t bring psychics or mediums with me. However, I have tagged along with various groups who do use them. I think their input is interesting, sometimes it’s even intriguing when they seem to pick up on something at a location that can also be found in historical research. I think mediums add a lot of color and intrigue to an investigation, but I don’t think they’re necessary per se because it’s so difficult to verify their findings.
G.C - How have you found views of hauntings and life after death published by yourself have been received by the religious side of America and do you have any views on outsiders views of the insular nature of some of these groups being almost occult in their practices?
I have noticed regional differences as to how ghost research is perceived. In England, you seem to embrace your ghosts more than other parts of the world. With so many old buildings and so much history, it’s no surprise there are so many haunts. I recall interviewing one employee of Ordsall Hall in Salford who said at one point, “If you have a 700-year-old building and you don’t have any ghosts, then you’re doing something wrong.” Where I live in New England, it’s a similar attitude, but not quite as prevalent as England. In the American south (also known as the “Bible Belt”) I’ve found that some religiously-inclined folks view ghost investigating as a form of devil worship. Some of these folks believe that anything otherworldly must either be angelic or demonic. I never understood the way some Christians believe this is occult or devil worship. The Christian Bible is full of references to ghosts. In the chapter of Luke, when Jesus returns from the dead to face his apostles, the Bible says they’re frightened, as if they were looking at a ghost. Jesus replies that he’s not a ghost, he’s flesh and blood. He doesn’t say, “You silly ninnies, there’s no such thing as ghosts.”
Then there’s the west coast of the United States that seems to take everything a bit more esoterically than the rest of us. The views differ slightly depending on the location, but the phenomena occur all over no matter what we choose to believe or not believe.
G.C - Do you feel that ghost 'tour' groups provide a realistic view of paranormal investigations or are they an unsubstantiated public thrill?
Like television shows, I think they offer an entertainment value, they can spark discussion and inspire some people to start doing their own research, but at the end of the day, they exist to sell tickets and give a different view of a location. All that being said, I have taken ghost tours in many different cities and enjoyed most of them a great deal.
G.C - If you could assemble an investigative team of people to obtain the best evidence of the existence of ghosts what type of person would you include and why?
I would bring a psychologist, a skeptic, a professional crime investigator (police detective or some other government agent), a photography and videography expert, and my neighbor, Rob, who works for a company that develops equipment that measures and monitors everything in a given environment from moisture levels to dust, electromagnetic fields, free-floating particulates, and anything else that can float in the air.
G.C - In the United Kingdom we are familar with American television programs of a fictional nature dealing with government or law enforcement agencies and their involvements in the unexplained like The X Files. Do such agencies publicly involve themselves in such matters and how genuinely do you feel their findings are reported?
The X Files is one of my all-time favorite television programs. The show was loosely based on many different government programs that have either really existed or were alleged to have existed. If the United States government is still conducting experiments on remote viewing espionage, UFO sightings, or ESP warfare, I’d love to know about it. Though I’m sure if the government is conducting that kind of research, they would keep it very quiet because of potential ridicule or political backlash. I would probably be the last person they would tell.
G.C - You have a number of links on Ghostvillage to spirit photography sites. How objective do you feel these pictures are assessed in general. If you have a favourite compelling photograph can you tell us a little about it?
Spirit photography often comes down to a question of belief. Several years ago I started to pick up “orbs” on my digital camera pictures. I had heard that some believe this is a spirit traveling in its basic state. So I forwarded one of my photos to Olympus (the company that made the particular camera I was using) and asked, “Why am I getting these round, semi-transparent objects in my photos taken with your camera?” I got some very good answers from Olympus regarding how a digital camera works. I sent the same photos to a professional photographer and asked how these things can happen, and I got more good answers. Lens flare, picking up moisture in the air, dust, bugs, and a myriad of other natural phenomena that can cause these anomalies.
Sometimes we have to take the photographer at their word that the “ghost” photo we’re looking at is not a fake. In other cases we can look and determine that perhaps that mist is the photographer’s breath (considering it’s cold enough that we can see snow on the ground in the image), or some other natural explanation. But there are a few that can cause eyebrows to go up. I don’t think I would classify any of them as indisputable proof of the afterlife, but they are a good point of discussion.
G.C - There is propensity to investigate sites of a particularly scary nature i.e. church yards in the UK. What do you feel is the likelyhood of these being more productive in evidence than other locations?
Great question. Why should a cemetery have more ghosts than another place? If you’re a ghost, and time and space have no effect on you any longer, why would you hang around the place where you’re buried? You’d think the half-field seats at a Manchester United soccer match would be one of the most haunted places on earth.
So why cemeteries? I think that has more to do with the living than the dead. When we go to a graveyard, the site of a bloody battle, or some other place of the dead, we’re either consciously or subconsciously opening ourselves up to the notion of what comes after death. Perhaps that has more to do with the haunted reputations that these locations get.
G.C - Speaking of other locations. Do you have a favourite type of premises or site that is more likely to yield some type of phenomena and why?
I like historical sites and battlefields. When you walk into these kinds of locations and you understand the history that took place there, you’re stepping into the past. Like walking in a place of the dead, you’re opening up to any kind of residual energy that may still be hanging around.
G.C - How much do you feel that paradeolia has to play in reported sightings of a paranormal nature and do you have any views on how this can be avoided?
Pareidolia is more or less unavoidable whenever belief is in the equation. I can go outside on a cold winter’s day, breathe out a mouthful of steam, and snap a picture. When I look at the picture, I may believe I’m seeing the face of my dead uncle Larry in the mist. If I really believe it, then it’s true (even if it’s only true for me). One way to limit the effects of pareidolia is to be passionate about objectivity. If you have an anomalous photo or audio clip, don’t get excited. Ask multiple people to independently review your photos or audio clips. Mix in some regular/control images and audio clips for good measure (i.e. take a picture of cigarette smoke and warm breath on a cold day, plus audio clips of you brushing your teeth, fixing breakfast, etc.). See which images and clips your independent reviewers believe are anomalous.
G.C - Ghostvillage mentions cryptozoological sightings among its content. Do you feel any claims on this subject are more likely to be genuine than others and if so which? Ghost Connections is mounting a study into the first sighting of what became known as Mothman which was in Kent in 1963. There is a suggestion that other reports across the globe including the USA are UFO linked. What is your view on this?
Cryptozoology is a fascinating field and certainly touches on some aspect of the paranormal simply because one man’s Bigfoot is another man’s demon, and yet another man’s as-yet undiscovered primate. If the ancient Greek philosophers are correct in saying that “man is the measure of all things,” then we can never discount the perceptions of the living witnesses.
As for which claims are genuine, that’s difficult to determine, which is why it’s so important that those of us who chronicle the unexplained are meticulous about the facts and research. If a claim is going to be taken seriously, then we need to have all of our details together before they are presented for scrutiny.
Ghost Connections would like to thank Jeff for undertaking this interview.
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