BBC Radio Four’s paranormal podcast ‘Uncanny’ has garnered a loyal fan base and rave reviews by critics. Has the pandemic made us more susceptible to tales of the afterlife?
The past two years have seen us all do some spooky things we never (ever) envisaged doing.
Baking banana breads, happy birthday hand-washing and cleaning our supermarket shopping was just the start of what has been a really long, real-life horror show. Finding comfort in such rituals is understandable: staying clean to keep Covid away is key, and banana bread makes everybody happy(ish). But there is a more shocking hobby that many of us have taken to during a time of sickness, ill-health and death. It is, in fact, the dead themselves.
Amid these already dark times of loss and uncertainty, a huge number of us are being drawn to programmes about paranormal activity. ‘Ghosts’ on BBC One, as well as ‘Haunted’ and ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ on Netflix are just a handful of haunted hits that have really taken off in the last year or so. ‘The Battersea Poltergeist’ by Danny Robins on BBC 4 was one of the top ten most popular podcasts of 2021 on BBC Sounds. So, Danny’s latest podcast ‘Uncanny’ is naturally music to the ears of loyal paranormal programme listeners.
The podcast hears people from all walks of life recall their own terrifying supernatural experiences – a family’s haunted Cotswolds home, a policeman’s UFO sighting, and students scarred by the same room in Belfast university accommodation to name a few. For 20-or-so minutes, we are placed at the centre of each location, as tellers look back on the night (or nights) that changed their lives forever.
Of course, each episode does not go without its fair share of input from sceptics – who are eager to convince listeners exactly why the tale is far from supernatural. But hearing these profound, first-hand accounts, later backed up by other believers, it is hard to believe that all these people could have got it wrong. Regardless of your own opinion, the facts are this: you will be hooked from the first encounter. This is largely thanks to Danny’s captivating narrative and excellent production, which even non-believers have a lot of time for.
And what could be more appealing than a platform for people of completely opposing opinions (‘the believers’ and ‘the sceptics’) to put forward their ideas about the paranormal in a safe, respected and well-balanced space? It is no coincidence that so many fans find this “honest” aspect of ‘Uncanny’ almost relieving in a time when we fail miserably to make this an option in our own politics.
While it may seem odd to be drawn to such an eerie, unexplainable aspect of life in a period of similar uncertainty in the pandemic, it is seemingly this very uncertainty that is fuelling our new-found obsession in the first place.
One ‘Uncanny’ fan who is all too aware of this is 37-year-old Jessica McIntosh from Oundle near Peterborough. She described her initial experience during the pandemic as a positive one (or at least, “as far as it could be”, she said). Jess lived in a small village, with lots of space to enjoy in lockdown. Being a primary school teacher, she was met with challenges when teaching children remotely, but was able to cope with this stress remarkably well.
“However, the uncertainty really did have an impact,” she said.
Jess told The New Voice: “I’ve never had to think about the possibility of serious illness or death in the way we were experiencing. I was so concerned with the invisible presence in our lives…Covid. I was constantly checking the daily death count, worrying. “I’ve always had an interest in ghosts. I love history and learning about the past. During the pandemic I started rewatching old ‘Most Haunted’ episodes. I’m not sure why.”
Jess soon started listening to ‘Uncanny’, along with any other paranormal podcast she could find.
She said: “Maybe it was a need to know there just ‘might’ be something else. Something more. That no matter what happened, we were going to be ok.
“I’m not religious so maybe this interest in the afterlife was the reassurance I needed. Almost a ‘safety belt’ for the pandemic.” So, the podcast may be ‘Uncanny’, but it seems our obsession with the paranormal during a traumatic time actually isn’t. The pandemic has brought more questions into our lives than we ever could have anticipated and it seems no coincidence that this keen interest in the unknown has taken off at a time when life itself has been so unstable.
According to Caroline Watt, Koestler Chair of Parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh, there is already evidence from past events that suggest this idea could be right. While she has not conducted any covid-specific research into a potential link between the pandemic and an interest in the paranormal, we only have to look back to the past for clues. Prof Caroline said: “There is evidence from previous studies that, in times of uncertainty and fear, people are more drawn to the paranormal and superstitious ideas.
“This gives them a feeling of comfort and control.”
This aligns with Jess’s story all too well. After watching any paranormal programme she could, Jess began feeding her interest in other ways – including buying herself some tarot cards to find out “if there might be an end to Covid, as well something more.” Speaking to other fans, Jess is not the only one searching for answers from this podcast. One listener said: “The subject matter raises the ultimate and unanswerable question – is there something when we die? The prospect of that is tantalising and terrifying. Uncanny forces the listener to face those fears head on.”On first look, it seems we are drawn to paranormal activity in the pandemic as a form of escapism, or because of it’s similarly uncertain nature. But according to listeners, it is the opposite: people are searching for answers, and ‘Uncanny’ specifically is providing a balanced and genuine response for those who need it.
With three episodes still to go, and the pandemic still ongoing, we cannot say whether our obsession with the paranormal will fizzle out when life eventually resumes to some form of stable routine.
But for now, while the madness continues, it seems people are still very much invested.
Jess said: “My interest in ghosts hasn’t gone away, even though life has settled a little more. I still find myself looking for more ‘spooky’ books, podcasts and TV programmes.
“The world hasn’t quite settled enough for me to stop. I’m still looking for that reassurance and safety belt.”
April is a journalist covering stories of all kinds. When she’s not finding the next best story, she’s at the back of a gig pretending to be a nineties rockstar.