Liberace once sang, "I'll be seeing you / In all the old familiar places / That this heart of mine embraces / All day through," but he probably never thought he'd mean it in the supernatural sense. And yet, the flamboyant lamé-encrusted singer is probably one of the few LGBTQ ghosts who have been logged in the history books by ghost hunters—he was said to haunt the old Carluccio's Tivoli Gardens in Vegas, his apparition appearing to restaurant staff in an sparkling cape.
One group of ghost enthusiasts wants to help queer paranormal history come out of the closet, and they're the subject of Queer Ghost Hunters, a new YouTube series directed by San Francisco documentary maker Stu Maddux. The Stonewall Columbus Queer Ghosthunters traces its origins to a local LGBTQ community centre in Ohio, when program director Lori Gum and her former coworker Shane McClelland began attending ghost hunting trips in the state and neighboring Kentucky for fun ("everybody wants to go ghost hunting once," Gum explains). But both quickly grew frustrated with the heteronormativity of the ghostbusting scene.
"If the [ghost hunting] group always thought this was a male entity, they would ask if he would have a wife and vice versa for women," says Gum, pointing out that these gendered presumptions pervade most TV ghost hunting series. "Driving home that night, we were talking about how ridiculous that really was and that no one had ever found a queer ghost. [LGBTQ people] were disproportionately incarcerated throughout the centuries, disproportionately put in insane asylums, we worked in theaters [and] operas disproportionately. So why is it that in all of these ghost shows, no one has ever found a queer ghost?"
"And," she adds with evident satisfaction, "Queer Ghost Hunters started right then and there."
Now on its third episode, Queer Ghost Hunters is a ghostly 21st century romp through the dustier corners of LGBTQ history. The team is a motley crew of queer people whose gender identities and sexual orientations are every bit as diverse as the spirits they're attempting to track down—there are bisexual cisgender paranormal history researchers, pansexual genderfluid photographers, and one who simply identifies himself in his title credit as "Bear."
In one of their first adventures, the Queer Ghost Hunters attempt to make contact with dead nuns at a cemetery and nunnery. The Ghost Hunters undertake meticulous research—looking at prison records and other documentation—to find places that might attract queer hauntings. Nunneries, like theaters and opera houses, are promising for obvious reasons. Gum says that the other dead giveaways are mansions inhabited by rich men and women who never married while alive.
"Things like that, little red flags that there might have been a queer entity here," Gum says. "We take it from there. And it ends up creating this alternative history of these venues and the time and the cities. That's really hooked us all. We are digging up these histories [that] are totally buried. These people's names have never been said in 100 years—no one looked at the sodomy conviction in Mansfield in 1903! I always say that in our community, a lot of things happened before Stonewall. They're just not written down in the history books."
While most ghost hunting shows feature straight, macho guys in flannel shirts charging around old buildings with EVP (electronic voice phenomena) recorders, Queer Ghost Hunters takes a friendlier, more community-oriented approach. In one episode, Gum appears to make contact with a dead nun called Madeleine—but instead of playing the encounter for dramatic thrills, Gum is positively overjoyed when the apparition appears to move the dowsing rods to profess that she was in a relationship with another sister.
"When we do connect, we want to welcome them to the community," the ghost hunter tells Broadly. "[We say,] 'This is your community,' and that's really a good feeling." While Gum says that she's been "grabbed a couple of times" by invisible forces on their hunts, she explains that the group would never adopt the usual ghost busting techniques of "busting into somebody's house and insulting and screaming at them."
"Why would they respond to you being that rude? It just doesn't make sense. It's rude and narcissistic and boorish," she says.
I tell Gum that If I were a queer ghost and some buff straight guy came running into my eternal place of rest, I would definitely try to wreak some havoc and throw furniture around. "That's absolutely true," Gum says, "You want to, in real life, hit him over the head."
Curiosity, openness, and empathy, that's what you need to be a queer ghosthunter.
Gum says that she started out as "more of a sceptic," but noticed supernatural happenings in the house where she grew up. "My mom called it Hoo," she says. "It would just bump around in the attic, move things around the house; we would find an elastic bandage in the refrigerator. There would be coffee stains on the table… and we hadn't made any coffee. Years and years of years of this stuff." But the family grew attached to it, like "an annoying pet." When her parents moved out, her mother put an empty box on the floor and said, "Hoo, get in! You can come with us to the other house." It never did.
Instead of relying on fancy electronic equipment and testosterone to interact with ghosts, the group again deploys a friendly, empathetic approach. When the ghost hunters get in touch with the spirits, their method seems to have more in common with a therapy session chaired by an especially welcoming LGBTQ counselor than an encounter with the unknown. "Curiosity, openness, and empathy, that's what you need to be a queer ghosthunter," Gum explains. "Fourth or fifth down the line is courage… I'm sure that other ghost hunters say that you need nerves of steel and courage to go, [but] we're coming from a totally different approach."
It sounds, weirdly, like the kind of outreach services that an LGBTQ rights non-profit would provide—albeit for the dearly departed. "That's exactly it," affirms Gum, who also works a daytime job at the local Stonewall LGBTQ rights center. "We provide service and community to our members. We're doing exactly the same thing that we do everyday at Stonewall. [With Queer Ghost Hunters] we welcome people through those doors and do everything to make them feel comfortable and proud and loved and their stories honored and their stories valued."
Queer Ghost Hunters is currently crowdfunding the money to produce a second season, but Gum is hopeful that the philosophy that animates the show lives on in other ways. Ghost hunting, like other marginalized and creepy pursuits like cryptozoology, is dominated by men. To her, the documentary series is the start of a revolution. "We really see this as the beginning of a movement that encourages minority ghosthunting. Have women's groups ghost hunt. Have this minority ghost hunting movement to go dig [up] your history," Gum urges. "Dig up your history, your local history, and retell the story."