Kathy Gallinger stands at the top of a shadowy staircase. Her dog wags his tail at her feet. “I’m trying to be brave like everyone said. It’s just me and the dog in the house tonight,” she says before being startled by the bang of a drum set cymbal below. The TikTok, which has more than 4.5 million views, plays like a scene from The Conjuring as she descends the staircase to her basement. When she reaches the bottom, a painting falls to the floor.
The “spooky side of TikTok”, as paranormal content creators call it, trades Doja Cat and Ratatouille: the Musical for flickering lights, slamming doors and objects moving on their own. Aspiring TikTok stars upload videos including caught-on-camera phenomena, security cam footage, storytime videos and paranormal investigators sharing their research.
For investigator Josh Louis, who performs intuitive readings and claims to converse with the spirits of deceased celebrities like Kobe Bryant, TikTok provides an avenue to connect with a demographic too young and too cool for his longform YouTube videos. “I think that the smaller bites of content are easier to digest,” he reasons.
He says that Gen Z is gravitating toward and connecting with the spiritual aspect of his work. “I think everyone has a stake in this on some level, because at some point, we're all going to experience what's on the other side.”
On TikTok, the hashtag #Paranormal has nearly five billion views while #HauntedTikTok has roughly two billion to date. With some trying to fake their way to the top using these popular hashtags, identifying true paranormal phenomena can feel like a ghost-hunting game of Phasmaphobia. Viewership has soared for scripted jump scares, VFX gore makeup and the Reality Ripple filter – featured in two million videos – that supposedly detects nearby ghosts.
“We don't really trust any kind of phone app,” says Kyle Hart, the lead investigator of the Hauntings of Ohio channel, regarding the Reality Ripple fad on TikTok. “You’ll see a phone app that turns your phone into a thermal camera, so it can detect heat and stuff – iPhones can’t do that. I feel like it's just more for entertainment use, not actual use.”
Hart, and his colleagues Jack Davis and Brett and Kade Meredith, all in their early twenties, first posted to their YouTube channel in 2018 after realizing their mutual ghost fascination. While they began as amateur investigators, they’ve since created a highlight reel of their work on TikTok. In December, they went viral and amassed 1.6 million views.
“It helps us want to produce more content for people,” says Hart. “Since that one video, we've probably been on five or six more investigations. And on YouTube, we've gained over 2,000 more subscribers in under a month, so that's pretty motivating.”
After going viral, their new goal is to reach a million TikTok subscribers. But not everyone who engages with their content is a fan. Some commenters are skeptics who accuse the group of scripting their videos.
“The more they comment on our videos, the more they stay on the spooky side of TikTok, and the more they help our vision,” says Brett Meredith. “So I'm perfectly okay with it. There's always gonna be haters in everything you do, especially on the internet.”
Some users take it a step further with TikToks debunking theories, with commenters alleging that floating orbs are actually flashlight beams, unembodied voices are friends behind the camera and slamming doors are wired.
TikTok user Nick Cimino deals with his own fair share of haters: “They're like, ‘Everything's fake. You're garbage… Stop posting this fake stuff.’” Cimino, 22, attracts swipers with his extensive catalogue of terrifying ghost sightings at his home and the frozen yogurt store he manages. “I got into this – and mostly on TikTok – because I wanted to share it, but only shorter clips and actually show there is an afterlife. This is real.”
Cimino gets creative with the ways that he proves the legitimacy of his encounters to followers: he goes live on TikTok and allows viewers to record what they see. “Am I going to have, like, 20 people unscrewing light bulbs and hiding in a tiny corner? When people accuse me, it angers me.”
But not all commenters are skeptics. Some engage with Cimino and give him advice like they’re performing a real-time investigation. “They taught me all these sage rituals, and different incense and all these ways to kind of protect myself, protect my aura, protect my home,” he says. “And I even had one person give me this whole reading.”
Cimino, though hesitant to call a lot of what’s on TikTok rubbish, says, “I'm one of the rare real spooky channels.” Since 2019, he’s scared up nearly 500,000 followers and over three million likes. He hopes to gain even more. “That was my main thing. I was like, I can blow up with this. I've never been famous,” he says. “Let me try.”