Spooked Britons seek out tales of paranormal amid Covid uncertainty
Exclusive: academics and podcast creator tell of rising desire for ghost stories, as BBC launches radio series
The pandemic and political uncertainty are fuelling the popularity of programmes about the paranormal, according to academics and the creator of the hit BBC podcast The Battersea Poltergeist.
More than 5 million people have been tuning in to the BBC One comedy Ghosts, 3 million streamed The Battersea Poltergeist, and Netflix’s Haunted and The Haunting of Bly Manor have also gone down well with viewers.
So much so that in the run-up to Halloween, BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds are launching a late-night spooky series from The Battersea Poltergeist writer, Danny Robins, called Uncanny.
Robins said there was a hunger for haunting tales because of the pandemic and the “chaotic, uncertain times we find ourselves in”, and that audiences who had seen his West End play 2:22: A Ghost Story – which stars Lily Allen – were keen to ask him if he thinks ghosts exist.
“It’s the biggest question possible: does something happen to us after we die? And I think it is directly linked to the chaotic, uncertain times we find ourselves in and also, sadly, the death-filled times with Covid.
“You can draw a line between now and after the first and second world wars when there was a boom in supernatural interest and it was linked to people trying to process grief, chaos and uncertainty, and organised religion couldn’t fill that gap.
“You saw the growth of spiritualism and people reaching for mediums. Now is like that. Horror is popular at these times of chaos and brutality and uncertain times. But also people want to know: is there something more to life?”
He added: “When we’re losing people close to us then that’s the point we go reaching for ghosts. The stakes are much higher … it’s something we all relate to as we have skin in the game; we want to know if there’s life after death.”
The story of The Battersea Poltergeist, about the haunting of a house in south London, proved so popular during lockdown that it is being made into a TV series and a live national tour. Robins is also making a follow-up next year.
He wants to build a similar community of fans around Uncanny, which features 15 separate cases he will explore with the help of listeners and experts. They include an evil presence in an undergraduate halls, a nurse who claims a patient was saved by something supernatural, and a police officer who says he saw a UFO.
Robins said: “The stories that set my pulse racing are the ones that begin: ‘I don’t believe in ghosts but …’, when a sceptic witness witnessed an incredible thing.”
He added: “From a sceptic point of view you can draw a line between things like Trump and Brexit and belief in ghosts and UFOs – it’s this sort of triumphing of raw belief over expert opinion. But the people in our stories aren’t like that.”
Prof Chris French, the head of the anomalistic psychology research unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of a book about the paranormal, said: “There’s always a substantial level of belief in different levels of society but the thinking is that it tends to increase at times of stress and uncertainty. There’s been Trump and Brexit and then along comes Covid.”
He said paranormal interest in Germany during the second world war and experiments by psychologists showed that “if you increase people feeling out of control of a situation then you get an increase in … ‘magical thinking’, superstitious beliefs and unfounded conspiracy theories.
“When loved ones die and there has been lots of death due to Covid and lots of worry, people think about death and dying a lot more. So then there is more interest in reincarnation and paranormal as they appear to provide evidence that death is not the end.”
Uncanny is on BBC Sounds from 20 October and BBC Radio 4 from 23 October.