On “Paranormal Chaplaincy,” by Leanna Renee Hieber

A career in telling ghost stories to a live audience has led me to a unique and unexpected calling. I’ve become a sort of “paranormal chaplain.” When I first began engaging with audiences about spectral phenomena, I had no idea just how much this would mean to me.

A chaplain is a term for a representative of a religious tradition attached to a secular institution, such as the military, or in hospitals or educational facilities. While the term had its origins in Christianity, the word is now used across faith traditions and has been adopted into secular usages as well. Although my personal background is rooted in progressive Christian traditions like the Society of Friends, I’ve come to embrace my path as one of open, unaffiliated, interfaith mysticism. I consider discussing the spirit world a sacred transaction that can bring us all closer to existential beauty and unifying, elevated consciousness. How that relates to my jobs as a ghost tour guide and a writer of paranormal fiction and nonfiction is an ongoing dialogue.

Whether I’m giving an in-person ghost tour via New York’s acclaimed Boroughs of the Dead tour company or offering lectures about the history and impact of the Spiritualist movement around the country, people bring ghost stories to me. Each is a bespoke gift. They hope to share, to be seen and believed, each person still trying to process what they experienced and who the haunting may have been. These stories sometimes take the form of a confession, the storyteller not quite sure whether to believe themselves or if I would be able to believe and receive them in similar good faith. I accept stories as the gifts they are and receive them openly. I listen without judgement, and respond with whatever I think will help bring peace, closure, or the relief of being heard—without promising them anything I can’t provide.

After all, I can’t give a querent any concrete proof about ghosts or paranormal activity. I can’t try to interpret their distinct experience other than to be in conversation with them about it. All we have, together, is the uncanny. My audiences engage with me on a level playing field of the unknown. But I am, during the duration of a ghost tour, or throughout a public lecture on the importance of ghost stories, seen as an “authority” on the subject. But there is really no such thing. The paranormal remains firmly in the realm of possibility. I happen to enjoy the divine mystery, and the lack of concrete proof is something I embrace with ease. But that unknowing isn’t easy for everyone. One’s own relationship to death or thoughts about dying invariably affects how one might think about what might be next; and what ghosts might have to say about it.

While I’ve been writing ghost stories since I could hold a pen, it wasn’t until I began working as a tour guide and lecturer that I began realizing how powerful and important inperson discussion of death and the spirit world can truly be. One’s relationship to the paranormal is a deeply personal, unique, and intimate journey. So, when leading groups or lecturing, I center that truth; that we all experience spirit and our concept of what might be a sixth sense in a different, inimitable way. I speak from personal experience and I use history as my structural support. When on the streets of New York, the proven history of a given location is a vital foundation. From there I share strange stories told about the site that have been written down, paper-trail sources through time. If I have had my own experience in a haunted venue, I simply tell my own truth. I never tell anyone what to think or how to feel about any given ghost story, I just ask that we all keep thinking and feeling. I welcome skeptics on my tours, provided they don’t try to tell me I haven’t experienced the inexplicable things that I have. I remind everyone that experience is subjective.

I’ve referenced this sense of “Paranormal Chaplaincy” in essays and in my books, including directly in my introduction section of A Haunted History of Invisible Women: True Stories of America’s Ghosts, co-authored with Andrea Janes, founder of Boroughs of the Dead. But what I haven’t admitted to until this moment is just how profound a responsibility I feel is at the heart of this work, just how deep a spiritual path it has become. I’ve always been in tune with the spirit world, and sometimes it has directly spoken to me in brief moments of actual words or in inexplicable sights, sounds, scents, or inanimate objects found in a place they were not there before.

I’ve debated for years about whether I should share my very first “ghostly experience” in print. I didn’t include it in A Haunted History of Invisible Women. But while on book tour, I was asked questions about my own experiences and how early in life I had them. So I didn’t lie; I told them my truth, so I’ll finally commit it to print here.

I channeled something around the age of six that could be considered my first “ghost story.” Something loving and familial, but otherworldly. I had a dangerously high fever and couldn’t travel to northern Ohio to say goodbye to my great-grandmother—who I was named for—as she neared the end of her life. My father went instead. Just as my mother was debating whether to take me to the emergency room, my perilously high fever broke. I went into what she described as a “rhapsodic ode” talking about divine things—God and angels—using words I’d never been taught. My father called. My “channeling trance” happened at the time my great grandmother, my namesake, passed. I’ve carried an awe about spirits, and a sense that some can become guardian angels in and of themselves, ever since.

I admit that the role of chaplain appeals to me. Thanks to a nondenominational fancy piece of paper and a reputation for being able to speak in front of crowds, I’ve officiated weddings. I’m rather fond of vestments (I’m sure I wore them in past lives) and I am at home in the role of wanting everyone to be happy, seen, celebrated, and at ease. At peace. That hope translates well into ghost lore. Because while I appreciate that for most, a ghost story is used to chill or meant to startle people, I don’t happen to find ghosts inherently scary in and of themselves. They are of us, they were once us, they could be our loved ones and we could become them. That idea should, in essence, bring us all closer: a community of spirit, whether corporeal or not.

But I can’t be flippant or casual about divesting ghosts from fear. A ghost story confronts us with death. Everyone has a different way of coping with death, and some people have an understandable terror about it, or devastating personal experiences. Every culture deals with death differently, and we can all learn from other cultural rituals and practices. In the United States, we are living through an interesting time of “death positivity” being an increasing part of our cultural lexicon, and I look at my approach to ghost stories as part and parcel of an open dialogue about the end of bodily life. In essence, for those afraid of death being the end, ghost stories might be able to prove a comfort; the idea that spirit does go on, admittedly differently, but that something still lingers. What is worrisome to many people is the concept of a ghost who cannot let go, of a person or place, or a haunting that occurs because of trauma or injustice. That’s where I cycle back towards a prayer for peace.

There is cognitive dissonance in the “haunted tour industry,” as Andrea and I discuss often in our work and on our tours themselves. We are committed to making sure our audiences remember that we’re talking about real people who lived, not fictional characters, and we insist upon respect for the dead as our cardinal rule. Being salacious about historical traumas only reinstates the offense. Ghost tours are billed as “entertainment,” and often companies lose sight of historical truths in favor of a jump scare, falsified accounts, insensitive wording, or sloppy timelines. (A lack of historical accuracy in other haunted tour companies is what made Andrea found her own.) But one doesn’t have to lie or exaggerate to be entertaining. On our tours we don’t do tricks, we don’t “conjure up” something like so many sham Spiritualists did in the mid-nineteenth century. I entertain my audiences with my passion for history, my wonderment and interest in peculiar reports that have been well-sourced through the years, and then I celebrate the lives of those people who passed through the given spaces. We don’t whitewash villains and we don’t shame any victims. History’s real truths are often frightening enough on their own, so we share them and then posit questions about the spectral unknowns. And then often, someone will posit something to me.

At one convention, after a panel I gave on ties between the Spiritualist movement and women’s rights, a couple approached me to ask my thoughts on an odd event regarding the loss of a dear friend who passed before there was closure or peace between them. The friend “appeared” to them after death in a way they couldn’t fathom; it wasn’t a memory or dream. They wanted to know if it counted as a “ghost story” or if they, the living, had been the ones “creating” the haunting. It was clear they were still grieving for this friend and all the things left unsaid. I was “taking confession” during a transitional stage of grief. These are moments when I must take extra care. I responded that their experience had all the hallmarks of a haunting but at the same time, I noted that the human mind is very powerful. If what had been experienced was actually just a trick of their mind, something they themselves were creating, the particulars of it were so outside of their everyday experience that the moment, in and of itself, could be considered paranormal. I mentioned that the bonds between friends and loved ones are palpable and in that moment, that link was still there between friends, a continuation of connection, incorporeal or not, no matter who initiated the contact, there was still a responsive other party and an exchange of energy. In that way, lives continue unbroken. I can’t tell someone to see something only one way when there are infinite possibilities. But the result we all wanted did happen: They seemed to gain a greater sense of calm and peace from the discussion. Their offering was believed, and they received a framework in which they could consider those strange moments.

Another notable account came from a woman who heard me give a book talk and wanted to share her own experiences of her “haunted farmhouse.” She emailed me a moving story, sharing her keen and specific senses; her ability to see and feel all the people who had ever lived at that farmhouse, from the first woman who called it home a century prior up until the present. It was beautifully written. She noted that I could reference her tale in my work if I ever felt it relevant, noting that it was something she didn’t always feel she could share. Those who walk this path can gift one another our shared understanding of a conversation that can’t be had in every place due to people scoffing or calling us “crazy.” Some people do not want to entertain a discussion like this in the slightest, and I have to accept that.

I’ve been able to speak publicly about these things only as an adult who has lost the fear of not being believed. Whether someone does or doesn’t believe me doesn’t change my lived truths. Women not being believed is another exhausting topic for another day, but I don’t do my work demanding belief. I don’t proselytize. If my words resonate, wonderful. I don’t have anything, ultimately, to prove. I’m not in the business of trying to unequivocally verify the existence of ghosts; that’s for scientists and paranormal investigators. I’m simply called to share stories and creating meaningful spiritual dialogue, with ghosts as the prompt.

If a spirit—whatever echo resides in a space, whatever that may mean—if that residual energy wants to be at peace, then I wish that for them in the same way I welcome hearing a ghost story from one of my audience members; I wish them to be seen and heard, and to receive peace and comfort. And I hope we all can continue to live in wonderment of the unknown. That’s my ongoing liturgy.

Leanna Renee Hieber is an actress, playwright, ghost tour guide and an award-winning author of Gaslamp Fantasy novels such as The Spectral City and Strangely Beautiful series. A Haunted History of Invisible Women: True Stories of America’s Ghosts, co-authored with Andrea Janes, explores women’s history through ghost stories and was a Bram Stoker Award finalist for Superior Achievement in Non-fiction. Her Strangely Beautiful saga garnered three Prism Awards and she was a Daphne du Maurier Award finalist for Darker Still. Featured in film and television on shows like Mysteries at the Museum and Beyond the Unknown, discussing Victorian Spiritualism, she is a guide for NYC’s Boroughs of the Dead and lectures nationwide on Gothic themes, 19th Century women’s history, Spiritualism and the Paranormal. https://leannareneehieber.com

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