Many of us are interested in learning more about LGBT figures in history, from the names we learned about in history class who may have been straightwashed to everyday people who don’t make it into textbooks, but whose desires and families looked at least a little like ours. In that respect, the Queer Ghost Hunters of Ohio are just like the rest of us. The difference is that they don’t just want to learn about the LGBT people of the distant past; they want to talk to them directly.
The cofounders of the Queer Ghost Hunters, Lori Gum and Shane McClellan, both say that they’ve been interested in ghosts since they were young. But as they grew up into queer adults, they found that the other people in the ghosthunting community all seemed to be straight — and assumed all the ghosts they investigated were, too. After visiting the Waverly Hills Sanatorium with traditional ghost hunters, Shane and Lori both felt they’d had it with the presumed heterosexuality. “Now that we felt we cut our chops as ghost hunters, we really went from there,” Lori told me. In the trailer for the Queer Ghost Hunters’ webseries, Lori points out that “in the places where most ghosts are found, we were the people in those places!”
Soon after they set up the first-ever meet up for what would become the Queer Ghost Hunters; they now have several members, and have done 12 or 13 hunts by Lori’s count in their first year. They have their own YouTube channel where they’ve launched their own webseries about their adventures trying to contact LGBT ghosts, and a Kickstarter where they’re trying to raise the funds to continue making the show. Several members of the team talked to Autostraddle about their experiences hunting ghosts, getting in touch with the other side, and coming up close and personal with what they believe is interactive LGBT history.
Lori Gum, who identifies as a lesbian and genderqueer, has been comfortable with entities since a young age, she says, when some kind of spirit that her family named Hoo lived in their home, and was “absolutely attached to [her] mother.”
“There was no doubt in the house I was raised in here right outside of Columbus,” she says, “there was no doubt that there was an entity in our house.”
“My mother had this little wrought iron cross she would wear, and we were driving to my grandmother’s in southern Ohio and my dog bit my little brother and we had to go to the emergency room and all this kind of stuff. And I remember my mom bending over my brother in this intense moment, he’s bleeding, and there was this iron cross — she always wore it. And so when we got to my grandmother’s house that night, she put the iron cross on the top of the jewelry box in my grandmother’s house. When we went to return home 3 or 4 days later my mom was like, I can’t find the necklace. We went through the whole house, she loved this necklace. Of course we couldn’t find it. We drove home and my mom took her luggage in her bedroom to start unpacking and I heard her scream. I ran in and the iron cross was sitting on the top of her jewelry box.
Actually when they moved — they moved into their new house about 20 years ago — before they moved my mom got an empty box and said, Hoo, if you want to get in and go with us to the new house you are more than welcome and hop in. We’ve never had an experience up in that new house, but this is so uncanny: about 10 years ago my mom just serendipitously happened to be at a church function and ran into this woman and when they talked she found out that she was living in our old house. Completely knew nothing, didn’t know my mom, knew none of the history — by the end of the night the woman came up to my mom and said, did you ever have strange unexplained things happening inside the house?
Lori says she had an intense supernatural experience her very first time on a ghost hunt, which she went on with later QGH cofounder Shane. When she paused to take a photo in an empty room in the Licking County Jail, Lori says “something grabbed me so forcefully on the back of the calf, that I literally dropped my camera and went screaming out of the room — it wasn’t like a tickle, it was somebody forcefully grabbing me on the back of the calf.” Although she had only gone on the ghost hunt on a whim, after having met a lesbian couple at a pet adoption event who invited her, “by the end of that night, with the dowsing rods and we got some EVP and that touch — I mean, okay, I don’t know what exactly the afterworld is, none of us do, but there is something there.”
Shane McClellan, a cis gay man, is Lori’s cofounder and her co-ghost hunter on their very first ghost hunt, before the Queer Ghost Hunters came into being. He also had supernatural experiences from a young age, saying that he’s “lived in a few places that I believe were haunted… they definitely had some kind of entity or entities present.” He, too, has had experiences while ghost hunting with entities who want to get his attention in some jarring ways. Shane reports that in the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, there’s at least one spirit that’s “I don’t know if it does like me, if it doesn’t like me, but it’s very interactive with me.” After stepping out of the area in which the team was hunting for a minute to get a break from what he calls “this sense of kind of like, doom, or like your body just being like you should not be here,” Shane suddenly felt someone throwing pebbles at him, and says he has video with a small night vision camera of a stone being thrown and hitting the ground.
It sounds scary — especially paired with the aforementioned sense of doom — but like all of the Queer Ghost Hunters seem to, Shane’s response to the encounter is one of equanimity and empathy, choosing to leave room for the ghost to have some benefit of the doubt. “You know, entities aren’t something that we truly understand. If we could, then it wouldn’t really be so much investigating, if everyone just agrees that ghosts are real. But trying to think about how they can communicate with you, or how they can get your attention… they’re definitely very limited in their means of doing so.”
Scott Priddy, who joined the group later on, has also had his fair share of experiences with spirits who seemed to want a connection with him — in his case, a sheriff at the Licking County Jail. Scott, a cis gay man and member of the bear community, describes himself as a “sensitive person,” who can sometimes feel entities around him. In the Licking County Jail that night, he felt “head to toe buzzing and tingling and hairs standing up.” They attempted to communicate with the spirit using dowsing rods, and through what Scott calls a process of elimination with different questions, like how the spirit died or whether it’s a child or an adult, and determined that they were talking to the ghost of a sheriff — one of three sheriffs associated with the Licking County Jail in its history. All three of the sheriffs reportedly died of heart attacks, and all in the same room.
“I could tell he was following me around,” says Scott. “We were trying to figure out if he was attracted to me, because we were looking for the queer ghosts, and for whatever reason he was wanting me.” Far from being unnerving or even surprising, a ghost sheriff with a possible crush is exactly the kind of thing the Queer Ghost Hunters are signed up for. To Scott, the sheriff is a sign of our community’s enduring presence through history. “It still surprises me to this day how many people think that gay is a new thing. …People still think when they hear gay guys it’s the party boys, that’s what they see. I mean, look! We’ve gotten nuns already, and we found a gay sheriff! I think I think those stories are just going to keep coming out.”
Unlike most other members of the Queer Ghost Hunters, Katy Detrow didn’t grow up believing in ghosts, or necessarily expecting to find gay sheriffs in the spirit world. In fact, she was still a self-described skeptic — until she went with them on the investigation to the Licking County Jail, where she says “I was real surprised by a lot of the things I saw, so it kind of won me over.” Although she initially came along just because she was friends with Lori and thought it would be interesting, when they reviewed audio files from the contact they attempted to make with the spirits, she could hear a voice saying her name, as well as sobbing or crying in the background, even though “it was really quiet and in an old jail with really thick walls and nobody else was there.” After that, she says, she couldn’t deny that it was “overwhelmingly convincing.”
Now Katy works as the research powerhouse of the Queer Ghost Hunters, looking up queer histories and personages of the locations that they plan to visit by searching old newspapers, prison logs and records for coded language of the time period — like “spinsters” for lesbians. (The ghost hunters also use period-appropriate language when trying to talk to spirits, describing themselves as “women who love women” or “men who love men,” recognizing that a ghost whose life experience is from a hundred years ago may not know what “lesbian” means.) It’s a lot of work, especially on top of her already demanding day job as a teacher in a school that serves a community made up largely of refugee families and children. But she finds important connection and purpose in the work, saying “I tend to keep myself up much later than I should when I’m the trail of a good ghost story or something… It’s exciting to find new history and to find people that haven’t been thought of in a long time.”
For Katy — and for many of the ghost hunters, who echoed to me the significance to them personally of finding and interacting with the community’s history — it’s a way to honor our predecessors. She sees in her research how often LGBT people in the past were ostracized and unable to have a full family life, and for her ghost hunting is a process of extending a hand to them, sharing empathetically, and finding some connection and healing in our own lives as well. “Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, honoring their history in that way is still really important and valuable,” she says. “I think it’s so cool about ghost hunting that we’re up all night, and you go on these road trips to some huge place you’ve never been, and you stay up all night with a group of people… every time we go I just learn more about them because it’s important to us that we share openly. That’s part of our process of inviting the spirits to talk to us; we feel like we need to share with them. I don’t what it is about it, but it opens you up. It’s very interesting.” She told me about how she felt able to connect with another queer woman ghost on a recent hunt:
Recently I went to this house in the middle of a field in Ohio, it’s called Prospect Place. The people that built it, the son was the son of a slaveholder in Virginia. As soon as he inherited his father’s estate he freed all the slaves and moved to Ohio, and invested everything he could to helping escaped slaves. He personally was smuggling them and the family was very rich. And so when we were there, we went into the ballroom, which was like a community gathering place for all the liberal people of the mid-1800s. It was amazing to be there, and I talked to a woman who was, I guess, the sister-in-law of the original owner, and she identified to us that she was a lesbian. There were pictures of her with other women that we’d seen, and we kind of explored how that family was also welcoming to different sexualities and different gender orientations, even if they were living in a time when that wasn’t a defined thing. It wasn’t, there wasn’t labels for it. It was just a family that valued people. It was really powerful to be in those places and have the opportunity to time-travel back and make connections; it’s always overwhelming and amazing.
Regardless of the differences in their experiences both supernatural and mundane, the ghost hunters I talked to seem united on the fact that their work isn’t just about EVPs and infrared night vision recordings, it’s about trying to connect our present to our past, and to reaffirm that we do, as a community, have a past to connect to. As Shane puts it, “What we’re doing isn’t just a ghost show; it’s finding forgotten LGBTQ history. And we’re trying to get to tell those stories in a format that we think is more approachable than reading a book or sitting in a lecture hall — you know, queer history has just really been kind of deleted from the history books and left out, and we really need to make an effort to include that in the discussion of the history of our country and the history of the world.”
Succeeding in convincing their viewers of life after death through contact with the spirit world would be neat, and the Queer Ghost Hunters’ reported experiences are pretty compelling. But they would be just as happy and maybe more so, it seems, if they can show us that the past had LGBT lives in it in the first place.