Popaganda: Speaking to Specters

Whether they expose past tragedies or family tragedies, ghosts reveal what is hidden away, under the layers of social etiquette, historical revisionism, and taboo. A poltergeist may expose unethical building practices as a ghost on videotape may reveal an unsolved murder.

In that way, the monster is really a messenger: of a past that won’t stay buried, of feelings that haven’t been acknowledged, of a heartache that still stings. On this episode, we’ll be talking about the storytelling potential of ghosts and the truths that emerge when they appear. First, Stu Maddux, the independent filmmaker behind the web series Queer Ghost Hunters, will speak on the task of unearthing hidden queer histories. Then you’ll hear from Margaret “Maggs” Williams of the Bench Breaking Broads, an all-woman ghost hunting-crew that operate in the American South.

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Image: “Me in the window!” by Ye Jinghan

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TRANSCRIPT

SOLEIL HO: Hi there! You’re listening to Popaganda, a podcast by Bitch Media. This is Soleil Ho. On this episode, I’m gonna be talking about one of my least favorite things: ghosts! 

[super creepy music] 

Ghosts actually terrify me, especially because I sometimes experience insomnia from anxiety. Late at night, I’ll remember that midnight to 3 a.m. is the witching hour, when supernatural activity peaks. [music builds into ultra-creepy and scary] I imagine a dark-haired woman standing at the foot of my bed, a face looking through my second-story window, a closet door slowly opening. [ghostly gasps] So a part of me really, really doesn’t want ghosts to be real. 

It’s because of my fear that I think people who hunt and pursue ghosts, who jump right in when they hear about hauntings and bumps in the night are so strange but brave. Why do they do this? And what can the living learn about ourselves and our histories when we speak to the dead? 

[theme music] 

I think my family has always believed in ghosts. In Vietnam, where we’re from, it’s just a common part of life. The Communist government’s official line is that it’s a superstition that shouldn’t be encouraged, but that doesn’t really stop people from seeking out spirit mediums, making offerings to deceased ancestors, and reciting ritual incantations at haunting sites. Part of funeral rites is making sure your loved ones have everything they need for the afterlife: money, clothes, and snacks for a start. If they don’t…that’s when they’ll getcha. 

[haunting calls of jungle bird life] 

A common belief is that the souls of soldiers who died during the Vietnam War wander the country as ghosts. They drift through the trees and rivers, hungry and lost until their families can find their bodies and finally take them home. Their stories speak to a deeper feeling of loss in Vietnam, of a society that was truly turned upside-down by war. The ghosts make the past real. 

On the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, Vietnamese American journalist Nguyen Qui Duc told Public Radio International, “There are so many people who died, who suffered through it, who are not recognized…. It takes away any sense of humanity from you — that you can’t recognize the suffering, you only recognize the triumphs and victories, and yet not recognize that mistakes had been made, that people died, people suffered. Fifty years on, there’s no honesty there. And that saddens me.” 

The ghosts of lost soldiers are, in a sense, a roundabout way of having those honest conversations. To have the space to say, my father or my aunt or my friend died here when they should’ve been home with us, safe. 

In an interview with NPR, Toni Morrison, who created one of the most famous phantoms in literature, shared her thoughts on ghosts. 

TONI MORRISON: I think of ghosts and haunting as just being alert. If you are really alert, then you see the life that exists beyond the life that is on top. It’s not spooky necessarily; might be. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s something I relish rather than run from. 

SOLEIL: In that way, the monster is really a messenger of a past that won’t stay buried, of feelings that haven’t been acknowledged, of a heartache that still stings. 

On this episode, we’ll be talking about the storytelling potential of ghosts and the truths that emerge when they appear. First, you’ll hear from Stu Maddux, the independent filmmaker behind the web series Queer Ghost Hunters, on the task of unearthing hidden queer histories (while also hunting ghosts). Then you’ll hear Margaret “Maggs” Williams of the Bench Breaking Broads, an all-woman ghost hunting crew that operate in the American South. I hope you enjoy the show! 

[Antonio’s cover of Beyoncé’s Haunted] 

♪ My heart alone 

Ghost in sheets 

I know if I’m haunting you 

You must be haunting me…. ♪ 

SOLEIL: Ghosts reveal what is hidden away, under the layers of social etiquette, historical revisionism, and taboo. In their pursuit of queer spirits, the Queer Ghost Hunters of Ohio hope to do just that. Here’s team leader Lori Gum in the first episode of the docuseries about the group. 

[recorded clip from YouTube, plucky music] 

NARRATOR: The team leader attempts contact. 

LORI GUM: OK. I seriously wanna talk to the Sisters here. 

NARRATOR: By coming out to the dead nuns. 

LORI: We are the Queer Ghost Hunters. We are women who loved women and men who love men. And we have all kinds of gender identities within our group. Maybe you might be interested in talking to us because we think maybe some of you might have had some of the same experiences that we’ve had. 

STU MADDUX: Yeah, so it’s basically about queer ghosts! My name is Stu Maddux, and I’m a filmmaker, independent filmmaker. There is a group of people, of real people, in Columbus, Ohio. They’re friends, and they go out, and they ask that question when they go on their paranormal investigations: are you a person who likes other women or other men? Or do you identify as maybe not as a— They don’t say it quite like that because they don’t use today’s terms. They have to use more 18th Century wording. But yeah, they ask the question, are you a queer ghost? 

So we didn’t really think this was going to be like any kind of history show, but it turns out that as the team went investigating, they were digging up all this buried history along with the people, like everyday queer history from hundreds of years ago. And it was fascinating stuff. They would go to a prison, and they would find prison records of people who were convicted of expressing themselves as queer people. They’d be convicted of sodomy. Or they would go to a convent, and they would be learning about the history of love relationships between women in the church, between nuns. And so that’s all really great stuff that nobody’s ever really talked about, and the cool part is you’re actually talking to the real people who lived it when you’re making contact with them, whether it’s their ghost or whatever you wanna believe. 

S: And here are the ghost hunters talking with a spirit with dowsing rods at the Ohio State Reformatory, a former prison known for high levels of paranormal activity. 

[recorded clip from YouTube] 

GHOST HUNTER 1: Were you, in life, a guy who was attracted to other guys or other men? 

GHOST HUNTER 2: Don’t be shy. 

GHOST HUNTER: Yeah, we’re all friends here. 

[spooky music] 

GHOST HUNTER 1: Nice. 

LORI: You know that feeling we all know of telling our story finally or coming out? That ghost came out that night. That ghost came out to us, and we all know about the power of coming out. 

GHOST HUNTER 3: Thank you for sharing that with us. 

ALL: Yes, thank you. 

GHOST HUNTER 1: Yeah, it’s not easy to meet in this type of a place. 

S: What would a hypothetical queer ghost, what would satisfy them? 

STU: I think that that comes from a place of like we all think that ghosts are only here because there’s something wrong, that they have unfinished business or some tragedy or unhappiness. And actually, we’ve kinda found that they dwell in happy places. They really like going back to the queer spaces that they had the best times in, where they could really be themselves. So I think it’s really cool the way these paranormal investigators are saying, you know, this doesn’t have to be a angry or sad thing. These people actually probably inhabit the barstools at the gay bar they were at in the 1940s and the dance floors where they could actually dance as a lesbian couple. And I like that. I like that notion a lot, that it doesn’t necessarily have to be this ooooooh sad story. 

BOTH: [chuckle] 

S: What is the importance, in your mind, of excavating those spaces and talking about them? Especially, as some might argue, for instance, gay culture’s pretty mainstream at this point. It’s on cable TV and Netflix, and it’s a part of everyday pop culture discussions already. 

STU: Well, ‘cause it’s cool. 

S: [laughs] 

STU: I mean, it doesn’t matter whether pirates are mainstream; it’s cool to go back and look at what pirates did back in the 1500s. So that’s a really bad analogy, but I really get a lotta juice out of seeing how people were able to be their authentic selves back 100 years ago, especially right now when we’re all fighting to kind of have our own identity preserved; it’s kind of under attack in a lot of ways. It’s nice to see how people who were under attack back then kind of triumphed over that attack. 

S: Mmhmm. 

STU: So that’s good from an inspirational place, but I also think it’s just cool to see how people got around the system: the red light that would go on when the police were raiding a bar. That’s really, things were pretty ingenious back then. That’s the thing that’s different is now everything is easy to do. You can be yourself in a lot of places, but back then, you really had to be ingenious to be yourself. And it kinda speaks to how smart we are as just kind of a human race. 

S: Mmhmm. Yeah, it just seems like the ghost is a really great metaphor for taking lessons of resilience and just humanity from the past in order to, I don’t know, I feel like there’s a sense of gratitude that also infuses the series of just these are our ancestors, in a sense, right? 

STU: Yeah, that’s so nice of you to say because that really is what it is. It’s like our grandparents, our queer grandparents, that we don’t have access to, making a connection with that. And I identify as a gay man, so I can see my community in my present day. And I can look back a few years, and I can look a few forward a few years. But I don’t really see my community very far back, like many other groups of people get to see. And so to be able to see community back 100 years ago, that’s really powerful for me personally. And then if you layer in actually potentially getting to talk to somebody from back then, that’s pretty great. 

I think it’s also cool for them to be able to talk to us. 

S: [laughs] 

STU: Like, “Oh, really? You can get married now? Hmm! That just is making my head spin off, my paranormal, ghostly head.” 

S: [laughs] Oh, yeah. It’s a really clever way of getting around that huge obstacle of, like the evidence of queer culture is so hard to find as far as letters, which might’ve been burned because they could’ve been used as criminal evidence, or even just oral histories: people might’ve been reluctant to actually share their experiences out of shame or just fear of persecution. And so actually just getting to talk to someone—a ghost, someone who’s already dead, so the stakes are pretty low for them—to actually share a genuine part of themselves, that’s really clever. 

STU: Yeah. And that’s exactly it, and that’s still going on today. People either don’t realize their importance, being a part of history just by virtue of living through a day-to-day. To me, that’s the most fascinating part, is how did you live your day-to-day life? Not like, what part of the parade were you in or what rally did you go to or what protest did you put up a fight for? It’s more like, how did you survive day to day? And I think people throw that part of their lives out. They chuck the photos at the end of their life. They don’t realize— Or somebody does it for them. And unfortunately, people still, families still do it just because they don’t want that page of their family history to see the light of day. I know that sounds like god, is that really happening? But yeah, that really happens a lot. We see that a lot. 

But I think more than that, it’s like people themselves don’t realize, you know those pictures that you’ve got from that party you had back in 1960-whatever? That’s really great. Especially if you’re doing a queer ghosting hunting show because it looks really good onscreen when we go back and make contact with you. So keep that in mind. 

S: It’s important to note that, despite going on many ghost hunting trips himself, Stu remains a skeptic. 

I’m just so curious about where the line is for you between belief and non-belief. What would convince you whole-heartedly in that whole concept of ghosts? 

STU: This is such a basic question that I’ve never thought of. What would make me a total believer? So there’s the equipment that goes off, and that’s not as convincing as if I were to actually see something in front of my eyes, even if it was not like a full-on apparition or whatever. But if I were to, even out of the corner of my eye, and maybe hear something too. And usually how it works is those are recordings that are played back and are kind of soft and muffled in the background. So you can draw your own conclusions. That’s usually how it always is: you draw your own conclusions. But if there was a female impersonator from the 20s that I saw on a dance floor at an old gay bar or something like that that’s saying my name, that would definitely convince me of paranormal activity. 

S: [laughs] 

[jazzy music] 

The Bench Breaking Broads is another group of paranormal investigators, but they’re all women. Made up of three nurses, a paralegal, and a mental health professional, the Broads investigate hospitals, sanitariums, cemeteries, and homes throughout the Deep South. According to member Maggs Williams, they mostly go for the lighter stuff.  

M: Our group, since we don’t do anything that’s deemed dark or evil or anything like that, most of the times, they just don’t know what it is. They have the feeling that someone’s there, or they see things happening, and they’re scared. We went into the one house, and the poor guy—and I’ve told his story, bless his heart—he’s from Compton, a Latino. He saw his father killed at his sister’s wedding, and he also saw his brother die from a gang shooting. Then he met his wife, and they moved here, and there were all kinds of things happening in their home. They didn’t think it was anything. You know, they still felt safe and secure in the home. They just wanted to know what the heck it was. Turns out, it was his entire family trying to get in touch with him to tell him how proud of him they are. 

S: Thanks to the Bench Breaking Broads, the man they helped now talks to his deceased family every day! So much of what they do amounts to validation, to setting people at ease with troubling parts of their past. It makes sense why, as skeptics, they lean towards that style of investigation. 

I guess I’ll ask a broader question then, because I’ve never had any experience with ghosts. I mean [giggling] they personally terrify me. 

M: Yeah, they’re scary, but the majority of them aren’t. 

S: Right. So what are they? 

M: Well, being that I believe in reincarnation, I believe that their soul leaves their body. I believe that they just wait in wherever, the homes that they like or where they lived or where they grew up, until it’s their time to come back. 

S: You mentioned that a lot of ghosts are not malevolent, that many of them are just minding their own business. 

M: Yep. 

S: A lot of what we see on TV with paranormal investigators and ghost hunters and all of that, it’s really macho; it’s really aggressive. 

M: It is. It is. We do not do any type of provoking at all. To me, provoking would be the equivalent of if you came to my home, and we’re just sitting there, and all of a sudden, you just start yelling at me: “You need to show yourself! You need to tap on the wall! You need to do this.” Well, I’m sorry. It’s our home. 

S: [chuckles] 

M: No. 

S: Right. 

M: You know? So what we do is we just come in with positive energy, and we’re like, “Hey, we’d really like to talk to you. We’re here to listen. We want to know why you’re still here. We wanna know if there’s any way we can help you.” We get a lot of EVPs from just sitting in the room, talking to each other, just kinda ignoring the ghost, having our own little conversation. And they’ll pop in. And they’re like, “Hey, I’m here.” And we get better results, I think, than a lot of other groups by provoking. ‘Cause I mean, the way I am, if someone were to do that, come to my home and do that, I’d just be like, “You need to go.” 

S: The way you talk about it, it reminds me a little bit of therapy where you might not get immediate results, but it is supposed to just kind of help you exist in a space with your own mind a little bit better. 

M: Oh yeah. 

S: And in this case, it’s helping people coexist with whatever might be going on at their home or just around them. 

M: I think it is. I think we get an immense pleasure and satisfaction in doing it. And especially when we do a home investigation, which we love to do those. Because we’re also helping— I mean, we’ve got three nurses and a mental health therapist. So obviously, they’re about helping other people. And it’s become our little form of therapy. We try and go twice a month at least, more if we could, you know. But we have families. We’ve gotta come home, clean the house, do laundry. 

S: [laughs] 

M: Stuff like that. But it’s our therapy. 

S: As someone who is just very scared of ghosts all the time, it’s good to hear, it’s actually been really good to talk to you, people like you, who have a much less adversarial attitude towards them. 

M: Yeah. Yeah, if you ever feel like there’s someone there with you, just talk. Like when my dad was here, of course I smelled his tobacco smoke ‘cause he smoked a pipe when I was little. He hadn’t smoked a pipe in like 20 years before he died, but that’s the scent that I got because that’s how I knew him. 

S: Mm. 

M: And I smelled it, and I just started talking to him. And I’m like, “I think this is you, Dad.” And just talking it out, just a calm came over me. And it just was a lot easier. Now you know, you’ve heard of that—who is that—Dear Abby and her Pennies from Heaven? 

S: Mmhmm. 

M: Dad gives me quarters with buffalo on the back for Montana, whatever state it is. But he, in the last years of his life, was a pharmacist on Indian reservations, and we had talked about herds of buffalo. And very soon after, I started finding quarters with buffalos on them. And so when I get one, like if I’m just at MAPCO or Thorton’s or something and get a—I don’t know if y’all have those; those are convenience stores—and they give me a quarter with a buffalo, it just makes me feel good. I’m like, Dad’s thinking about me, letting me know he’s there. So and then I’ll go and put my quarter away, and I just won’t spend those buffalo quarters. 

S: [chuckles] I’m sure you have quite a collection now. 

M: Yeah, I do now. 

BOTH: [laugh] 

M: But if you ever get that feeling, just talk to them. 

[mellow music] 

S: Thanks to Stu Maddux and Maggs Williams for talking with me for today’s show. We’ll post links to their work on our episode page. 

And thanks to you for listening. This episode was produced by Alex Ward. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Thanks to Antonio for his cover of Beyoncé’s Haunted. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. If you have thoughts or feelings or feedback on the show, please feel encouraged to send me an email to soleil@b-word.org. Reviewing us on iTunes will help other people find the show, so please do that if you can! 

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[theme music] 

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by Soleil Ho
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Soleil cooks for a living and writes sometimes. When she was in kindergarten, she reviewed a book for Reading Rainbow that she didn’t actually read. She cohosts Racist Sandwich, a podcast on food, race, class, and gender.

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