It’s no coincidence that, in the last few years, our collective appetite for the unexplained has grown. History has shown that during times of intense stress people start looking for answers beyond the “normal” realm. It happened during reconstruction when people desperate for closure from their losses during the Civil War turned to spiritualism. It happened in the 1970s with the Vietnam war and the rise of a wave of paranormal celebrities like Ed and Lorraine Warren, who investigated the Conjuring house and the allegedly possessed doll Annabelle. It happened after 9/11 with Ghost Hunters and the huge explosion of paranormal television shows. And now it’s happening during the pandemic, when people are reporting an unusually high level of supernatural phenomena, especially in their homes.
Paranormal entertainment—not fictional, scripted productions, but allegedly real accounts of the unexplained—is more mainstream than it’s ever been. But even the tv shows starring celebrities with broad appeal (see Kesha’s new show Conjuring Kesha) are mostly in-world, created by and for an audience that’s already open to—and often looking for—things that go bump in the night.
That’s why the podcast Bigfoot Collectors Club has established such an interesting niche. It bridges a gap between people who don’t own ghost hunting equipment or have books by John Keel on their shelves, and paranormal topics that they might not seek out, but are, by and large, at least a little interested in. The podcast is hosted by three friends with a shared interest in high strangeness: actors Michael McMillian (True Blood, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) and Bryce Johnson (Oppenheimer, Expedition Bigfoot), and musician/director Riley Bray (TOMI, Spindrift).
Rather than talking exclusively to professional paranormal investigators and bigfoot hunters, BCC often brings on guests who have no expertise in the supernatural realm. They’re regular people—often actors like Rachel Bloom and comedians like Jen Kirkman—who are just there to have a conversation about weird stuff. As often as not, the guest is a skeptic who pokes holes in the featured story of the day, regardless of whether it’s about ghosts, aliens, cryptids or any other manner of high strangeness.
“I think it’s a great way to bring people in,” Johnson says. “A lot of these paranormal podcasts and shows, that’s really all they do, speak with paranormal experts. And I think we were all like, ‘we’re in the entertainment business, let’s come at it from that angle.’”
What they’ve found is that the people who are more skeptical are often the ones who open the door to candid conversations about strange experiences.
“It feels like safer in a way to get into it,” Bray says. “I think when you can laugh a bit, it’s a way of encouraging people to question their own experiences and their own reality. It has this feeling of sitting around a campfire and swapping stories and being like, ‘Oh my God, you experienced that too.’”
As a person who’s interested in the paranormal, and has written about it, I’ve witnessed that effect myself. When I mention any of those stories in casual conversation, the person will ask me a question or two about what I’ve seen, and then always, without fail, will share a story about their own experiences. Maybe it was a weird “coincidence” when the person knew the minute something had happened to a loved one, or waking up from a sound sleep to feel someone sitting on the edge of their bed, even though no one was there.
“I think it’s really fun to do a paranormal show where it’s not a given that the guest is going to believe any of the stuff,” McMillian says. “I can sit and share a ghost story with Paul F. Tompkins, who is super hilarious podcast gold. He doesn’t really believe in any of this stuff, but he’s just an awesome guest… Then there are times when we go in blind, we don’t know what they’re going to say. Sometimes our minds are completely blown.”
Soon, listeners began writing in with their own unexplainable stories. Sometimes on the show, the hosts will read those letters and dissect the experiences, comparing them to similar stories of high strangeness, or sometimes offering their opinions on what a more mundane explanation could be.
“That’s absolutely a goal that we didn’t realize we had starting the show,” McMillian says, “but about a year in, we realized that it had become sort of a permission slip to talk about weird experiences we’ve had.”
On the October 19, 2022 episode, the guests were Wes Larson and Jeff Larson, hosts of Tooth and Claw, a podcast about extreme animal attacks. Wes, a wildlife biologist and animal behavior expert who currently studies bears in Yellowstone National Park, shared a story about an experience he once had.
He was doing a black bear study in Bryce Canyon National Park, and was alone for the week in a forest service cabin in the woods. One night he decided to go out and take astral photos of the night sky, with the cabin in the shot. In the middle of the series of about 100 photos that he took, Wes saw one he wasn’t expecting: in the window of the cabin, he saw shadows that he describes on the episode as looking like “humans with antlers.” None of the photos before or after had the shadows, and he was totally alone in the middle of the woods.
Though he approaches everything with a scientific mindset, Wes says, “The door is open. I’m not out there expecting to see [something] or necessarily afraid, but it opens the door that I can maintain the possibility of that thing existing.”
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The more the three hosts and their guests talk about experiences, the more other people are talking about them, too. The show, which just hit its fifth anniversary this Halloween, has more than three million downloads to date.
“A big part of doing this show, at least for me, is normalizing the conversation,” Bray says. “It’s amazing that my family wants to talk to me about it, people I would have never expected to want to talk about ghosts and aliens. As soon as people start being a little more comfortable with it, where it’s not this thing they’re being told about, it’s more just like they’re relating to other people who have experienced it … I think that kind of opens people’s minds in an interesting way.”
Julie Tremaine is an award-winning food and travel writer who’s road tripping—and tasting—her way across the country. Her work appears in outlets like Vulture, Travel + Leisure, CNN Travel and Glamour, and she’s the Disneyland editor for SFGATE, covering California theme parks. Read her work at Travel-Sip-Repeat.com.