A lot of Americans believe in ghosts. Forty-two percent of us, to be exact, and 18 percent believe they've actually seen or been in the presence of one, according to a 2009 Pew Research poll. And while some studies may cast doubt on whether such phenomena are probably real, there are scientists who themselves believe in the supernatural, which speaks to the intensely personal nature of such beliefs. Just ask Shane McClelland.
McClelland says his first encounter with an apparition came to him when he was eight or nine years old. He'd glimpse it walking down the hallway of his childhood home. One night, he awoke to find an electric blue hand pressing down on him. Other encounters followed into adulthood: "Voices, music, full-bodied apparitions, things being thrown," he said. "I guess the paranormal found me."
Shane is also gay, and last September, he joined a group of fellow paranormal enthusiasts at his local LGBTQ center in Columbis, Ohio. They organized an informal ghost-hunting social group, and the band of queer spiritualists, who call themselves the Stonewall Columbus Queer Ghost-Hunting Club, have undertaken regular outings with the goal of "resisting against the often presumed heterosexuality of ghosts." And though they're not the only queer people with an interest in the paranormal, they appear to be the first group dedicated exclusively to hunting queer spirits.
After a successful year of hunts, which have taken them from lesbian convents to theaters, mansions, insane asylums, prisons, and more, the group launched a web series this October called Queer Ghost Hunters. It attempts to balance the portrayal of what admittedly sounds like kind of an odd pursuit with the seriousness of the group's efforts.
Those efforts, in part, are an attempt to resurface lost queer history in an unscientific way. "Queer history is largely unrecorded," said McClelland. "There isn't a tradition of passing down stories. If you were recording stuff, you were putting yourself and your friends at risk of being discovered."
At one prison, they played Patsy Cline in the dark, straining to hear evidence of a haunting while water dripped around them in the cold.
The techniques of the ghost hunters are, to put it mildly, inexact. Like most in their field, they carry dowsing rods (metal arms that swivel in various directions to divine presences) and radio scanners they call "spirit boxes." At one prison, they played Patsy Cline in the dark, straining to hear evidence of a haunting while water dripped around them in the cold. To an outsider, it looks bizarre—but to the participants, it's all very real.
"This is a whole other way to show the history of the LGBT community," said Joe Applebaum, who co-produces the web series. "In this case, we describe it as the lost history. These are the lost true stories of countless lost lives, lost in the afterlife because they couldn't live freely in this one. These are not the famous people who we hear about in history books. These are just ordinary people, and they have their own stories."
At one prison, McClelland talked a docent into allowing him into a room with graffiti reading "Tommy hearts Ronnie," and to a floor designated for transgender people. Applebaum also discovered evidence of a police sting that captured 50 to 60 young gay men between the ages of 17 and 21. "We have a list of these people's names," he said. "Many of them died in that prison."
But for all their work, the findings of any paranormal investigation are seldom verifiable. "With ghost hunting, it's the Wild West," said McClelland. "There are theories. There's no hard evidence to support anything. A lot of what you're working with is circumstantial and anecdotal."
Though the ghost hunters have a deep appreciation for the past, their findings tend to be limited to uncomfortable feelings and eerie noises. Without documentation, their experiences can only serve as symbols of true history. But sometimes, even true history can begin with circumstantial evidence.
Amanda Littauer is an associate professor in the Department of History at Northern Illinois University, and she recalls finding a particularly intriguing folder full of obituaries in the University of Southern California's LGBTQ-focused ONE Archive. The folder was labelled "suspicious deaths."
"It was a collection of hundreds of newspaper clippings that never mentioned sexuality," she said. But for the person who collected the obituaries, something "suggested to him that queerness could have been part of the story."
"You almost do have to have a sixth sense sometimes to sense the queerness in a story," she continued. "Because especially when you go back earlier than the 60s, the queerness really was suppressed. You do have to get creative and develop an intuition and instinct."
"It is always difficult to pin down the intimate moment of any individual's past life," said Nicholas Syrett, an associate history professor at the University of Northern Colorado. Along with Professor Littauer, Syrett chairs the Committee on LGBT History for the American Historical Association. "We can't count on having sources for any one individual person unless they happened to leave something for us."
"Often in the past, our families would disown us because we're different," said Applebaum. "It was not unusual for a gay person to grow old alone. The family then comes in to take care of responsibilities, and the whole house full of stuff would just get thrown out. Treasures and pictures and letters and home movies of their experiences. It would just get tossed out as garbage because it was unimportant, or they wanted to erase that person."
Those artifacts can turn up in unlikely settings. Professor Littauer recalls finding a study that examined venereal disease in the late 1950s. One 18-year-old participant described a sexual history that included same-sex relationships. "She very clearly said at the end of the interview, when asked, 'What do you want out of life?' she said, 'I want a home, a good job and someone to love.' This black 18-year-old telling a white researcher in a VD clinic in the late 50s that she had and enjoyed relationships with woman, and she wanted to build a home, and the way she said 'someone to love' suggested to me it might be a woman. That's all I know about her."
"Looking to the past is a way of legitimizing one's place within the body politic more generally," said Syrett. "That's been a powerful trope in civil rights campaigns—we are here, and we've always been here."
"Queer people have existed in all times and places," said Littauer, "and when we don't ask what that meant, and we don't look for the stories of people who fall outside of their culture's definitions of normality, not only are we missing these stories of those who were seen as abnormal, but we don't fully understand the people in the normal category."
Regarding the ghost hunters, she tactfully avoided passing judgment. "It's outside of my areas of expertise and familiarity," she said. "What I love about it is the impulse to connect. And it reflects an understanding that queer history is suppressed, sort of..." She trails off for a moment to search for the right word before concluding, "spectral."