December 4, 2022

Pierreloti Chelsea

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Otherworld podcast is perfect for Halloween

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LOS ANGELES — UFOs, ancient curses, possession, ghosts and creepy ephemera are topics usually relegated to the fringe corners of the internet, but one podcast is gaining traction with young listeners by taking these otherworldly events seriously.

“Otherworld” is a podcast in which people who have had supernatural experiences tell their stories firsthand. Dubbed by fans as the “paranormal This American Life,” the host, Jack Wagner, a 34-year-old director in Los Angeles, conducts in-depth interviews and investigations to uncover the mysteries presented in each episode.

The show has struck a chord online and is poised to become the breakout podcast of the Halloween season. In its first weeks it racked up more than 1,400 five-star reviews and entered the top Top 30 on Spotify and iTunes charts. The show has become a cult phenomenon in young online communities. Meme accounts post about the show’s episodes and fans gather on apps including Discord to discuss the stories. In one Discord server, high-schoolers and college students debated theories about the episodes.

It is praised by influencers including the founder of the Birds Aren’t Real movement, Peter McIndoe, and Jason Stewart, co-host of the hit podcast, How Long Gone.

“Jack has been a master of finding the humor and intrigue in seemingly lifeless parts of our life,” Stewart said.

“Otherworld” comes at a time when surveys show young people have lost faith in legacy institutions and are increasingly seeking escape into the supernatural and spiritual. Signs of this shift can be felt across the internet: Conspiracy theories are on the rise, Catholicism is having a renaissance, witchcraft and “manifesting” are popular on TikTok, and people across the political spectrum have embraced more mystical belief systems.

Americans’ belief in ghosts has been on the rise since 2015, according to a poll by YouGov, a research and analytics firm, and paranormal beliefs are becoming common, with 59 percent of women and 52 percent of men expressing a belief in haunted places, according to a 2019 survey by Chapman University. Even the U.S. government has refused to rule out the existence of aliens after making footage of unidentified flying objects public.

“Spirituality and energies and all that stuff is mainstream now,” said Evan Ramroth, 22, a college student in Rhode Island who listens to “Otherworld.” “It’s a big thing in my age demographic and the subject matter of the podcast goes hand and hand with it. I think young people are more prone to looking at things with an open mind. We’re caught in this world where if you look at things through a realistic lens, they look pretty bleak.”

Unlike other paranormal podcasts, Wagner interviews people who have had paranormal experiences directly, and often goes to great lengths to investigate their validity. In one episode, where two brothers talk about seeing the same strange, dark figure wearing a hat, Wagner tracks down the founder of a “hat man” forum that catalogues these types of supernatural sightings. Wagner interviews the forum founder about the root of these visions and his background as a priest. In another episode, Wagner speaks to a woman who visited a clairvoyant who believed that her father was being poisoned, which turned out to be true. He then conducts a long interview with the clairvoyant herself.

“Otherworld” is born out of Wagner’s previous podcast, “Yeah, But Still,” a successful Patreon show featuring its own, less supernatural, internet investigations and interviews with cultural figures like the singer Lizzo, producer and actor Quinta Brunson, and the musician John Mayer. For the past four years, Wagner has produced a special Halloween episode of “Yeah, But Still” where he invites listeners to submit stories about strange and supernatural encounters.

This year, Wagner decided to spin it out into its own show. “Otherworld” launched the first week of October and features stories from people in the U.S., Venezuela, Australia, Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom and Morocco. Believers and nonbelievers say the show is entertaining.

“There needs to be a healthy outlet for people to explore and form communities around mysteries,” Wagner said. “We’re living in this lonely and increasingly helpless world. It’s important that people have a place to be curious and believe in something.”

Wagner plays the role of a podcast world Fox Mulder, the FBI agent from “X-Files” who investigated unexplained phenomena — open-minded, curious, and able to pull a great story out of anyone. “The idea that maybe there’s more than what we all experience day-to-day, that excites me,” Wagner said. “More than anything I think these are incredible stories, no matter what you believe about the paranormal.”

Sam Hunter, 22, an outdoor educator in Ohio and fan of the show, said the fact that people on the show aren’t inherent believers themselves or trying to oversell their experiences appeals to him. “It sounds like the people on the show feel like they’re forced to believe these things because of what happened to them,” he said. “That’s really a unique element compared to other paranormal podcasts.”

Maddalena Farinati, 23, a bartender in California, who is also a fan of the show, said she likes Wagner’s style of interviewing. “I love how he comes from a journalistic approach,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like he’s forcing it to be spooky and he isn’t trying to make you believe in the paranormal, but you can tell he has a genuine interest in these people’s stories.”

Escapism is the core appeal of “Otherworld.” The stories in each episode offer the alluring possibility that there’s more to this world than what we’re experiencing.

“Institutions and people in charge have disappointed the younger generation,” said Josh Citarella, an independent internet culture researcher. “They no longer believe in rational scientific expert ways of organizing the world, and that’s manifesting in all these fringe belief systems, which includes religion, spirituality, paranormal and things that are largely unexplained. Jack has become a trustworthy narrator for a generation that has lost belief in old institutions and systems.”

Wagner got his start in 2016, running a popular meme account with more than 100,000 followers called @versace_tamogatchi. His viral stunts and creative projects often offer a dystopian view of the future. In 2018, he staged an influencer-only Instagram wall, where only verified influencers or people with a minimum of 20,000 followers could take photos. That same year he also wrote and created the TV show “Like & Subscribe,” a comedy about a group of young influencers forced to live in a house together and create content.

The fan base he’s built up online over the years is loyal. “Truth is brokered by influencers now, and they trust Jack,” Citarella, the culture researcher, said.

Wagner takes that responsibility to heart. The stories he tells are unbelievable, but he treats his subjects with respect. His pursuit of answers often takes him on strange journeys, but he checks in with listeners to let them know he hasn’t gone too far astray.

“All right, so that was a lot,” he says midway through the fourth episode after interviewing a priest. “I’m sure some of you are thinking, ‘Hey, Jack, I thought you said you’d be taking a journalistic approach to the paranormal. I thought this was going to be a more grounded podcast. Who is this guy talking about ranks of demons?’ That’s true, I did say that. And for the most part, the podcast will be like that.”

This sort of authenticity is what builds his appeal. Fans like that Wagner’s content isn’t sensationalized, and even he can laugh at how crazy some of the stories can seem.

“The digital content ecosystem is so saturated, there’s so much content,” said Francois Jolicoeur, 23, a musician in Montreal who listens to “Otherworld.” “I think we’re drawn to these stories because they’re not sensationalized, people aren’t trying to sell you something or do something for attention. These people [on “Otherworld”] weren’t seeking out these kinds of experiences.”

“Otherworld” is entirely self-funded and independent. Wagner records and edits each episode himself, and episodes feature original music by artists including Chrome Sparks, Cobra Man, Trayer Tryon of Hundred Waters, and North Americans. The show’s “season zero” will feature at least 12 episodes.

“I’ve never been known as a paranormal person,” Wagner said. “But we’re living through what would have previously sounded like the plot of a sci-fi movie, and we didn’t see it coming. It leaves people wondering what else is out there that we don’t fully understand yet.”