It might sound strange but the concept of hauntings – ghosts, poltergeists, strange phenomena – are something of a comfort to Danny Robins, the British writer, broadcaster and journalist behind the highly successful podcasts Haunted, The Battersea Poltergeist, The Witch Farm and Uncanny, the latter of which is now also a three part show which aired on BBC 2, now available on BBC iPlayer. Created during the pandemic, Robins’ foray into supernatural podcasting felt, well, natural.
“Battersea Poltergeist was the first time where I just felt like I was really myself on tape,” he tells Den of Geek. “I just felt it was like a deliciously refreshing invigorating thing to just completely be yourself, to make something that you really desperately care about.”
If that level of care and enthusiasm is apparent from the podcasts (it is), then it’s even more so in the show, where Robins investigates a story over the course of an hour, consulting with experts both skeptical and credulous, and conducting his own experiments in attempts to recreate what may or may not be supernatural phenomena.
Robins is a believer, though he’s never seen a ghost himself, he is desperate to do so. But that’s not to say that his show has an agenda, or indeed an internal logic about what a ghost actually is.
“I never really asked, do ghosts exist?” He says, “Because people are witnessing them all the time. I think the question is, what are ghosts? Are they the dead, returning to us? Or are they a figment of our imagination? Or are they the product of our environments? I think there’s a range of different possibilities about what people are witnessing, but they’re definitely witnessing something.”
We sat down with Robins to talk about grief, death, the stories we tell ourselves, what makes a poltergeist do its thing and how polarized opinions on life after death might be the key to rescuing humanity (sort of).
We aren’t sure whether we are team skeptic or team believer – perhaps both things can be true at the same time?
The more that we’ve done Uncanny, the more I feel like it’s a secret manifesto for how we could actually be living our lives. I look out there on social media and see everybody arguing and hating each other and defining themselves by what they are opposed to or what they stand for. And I just think that actually, sometimes we need that sense of being uncertain, being not sure, listening without judgment and keeping an open mind and that ability to change your mind. Actually, we’re, we’re sort of denied that ability to change our mind in society right now. When somebody says something really dumb when they’re 18, we hold them to it for the rest of their lives. There’s no ability to learn from mistakes or to progress. There’s very little capacity for forgiveness now. That thing of learning and changing your mind and being unsure about stuff is is ingrained in Uncanny and you might go from being team skeptic, to team believer and back to team skeptic, and then back to team believer in one episode. I think that’s really important. I’ve loved watching this community grew up around it, of people who agree to disagree, and I feel like if we can agree to disagree about ghosts, which is a kind of fairly safe, uncontroversial space then maybe we could agree to disagree about other things. We might be able to find more common ground and in life or at least find ways of not hating each other as much. We’re doing these live shows at the moment and we get this big gang of people together in a theater with totally polarized opinions. It doesn’t get much more polarized than believing the dead can come back to life, and that you have evidence of it, or being utterly utterly opposed to that. I just love the fact that we’re all enjoying these stories in our own way. Whether you’re a skeptic, or a believer, it’s a detective story, and you find your own route through.
How did you select which stories you feature on the show, or the podcast?
I’m really drawn to stories where somebody says, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I saw a ghost”. Those are the ones that make my heart beat faster. I’m intrigued by that very life changing moment of the road to Damascus-style, conversion from skepticism to something closer to belief. I’m also looking for stories that have a kind of a narrative structure to them, if they’ve got a kind of progression, and it feels like there is a beginning and a middle and an end there, they lend themselves better to the format.
You’re also looking at the person and for television, particularly, there’s a higher bar. Doing an hour of TV, you feel like you need a case that really grabs and holds you and multiple witnesses can be great for that. Then of course, the only other factor that ruled things in or out was that some people would feel comfortable with the anonymity of the podcast and not feel comfortable being out there on TV with their face being shown because there’s still a great deal of stigma around these things. I think we as a society are still not very kind or respectful to people who have had these experiences and there’s a tendency to pigeonhole them in certain ways, that people will laugh or mock or question their mental health. I think that’s one of the things that’s been holding people back from telling their stories, and I’ve got so many emails from people who say, “I’ve never told anyone this before, I’ve never told even my partner this before”.
It’s scary to see a ghost, it can be even scarier to tell people you’ve seen one. You look at Ian in Episode Two, you can hear the emotion in his voice, you can see it in his face. He’s a senior teacher at a school, he’s got to walk in the next day and see his colleagues and see the kids. I think that takes guts. I’m really glad to say that he emailed me and he’s had an incredibly positive response.
Have you ever seen a ghost?
No, I haven’t. I definitely have not even come close and I live vicariously through the people who told me their stories. I feel like I’ve always wanted to see something. I found that whenever I’ve been in a supposedly haunted location, I’ve found myself willing something to happen like wanting a plate to fly in front of my face, or to have my hand pulled by an invisible hand. But I haven’t. I feel like the closest I’ve come is an experience I had in my early 20s, where I thought I was dying. I was lying on the floor of the bathroom of my childhood home and, and having what I was convinced was a heart attack and hallucinating angels. It was terrifying. It turned out it was a panic attack, something that is frightening, but not life threatening but it gave me a really profound fear of death for about a year afterwards. I had this really debilitating fear of death, where I just essentially couldn’t function, couldn’t socialize, sleep, study, do anything, really, and it was horrible, absolutely awful and changed my life and sort of still persists. I think that I am frightened of death. And I think that that’s been a big factor. That became my personal ghost. I think it gives me a certain empathy with the people I’ve talked to. It’s also what made me interested in ghosts.I hate the idea of death. I see ghosts as the antidote to it. That strange dichotomy at the heart of ghosts that they can be frightening and comforting, that you can be terrified about the idea of the dead appearing to you. But if they are apparent to you, then that means that you might not die or that you might not die in the sense that we understand it.
Have you had a lot of responses to the show? Was that an important element?
I’ve always viewed it as a conversation, that it’s a two way thing that I put something out there, and then people respond. I feel like the show is only half a show without the audience, so there’s five minutes of each of the episodes of case two, case three on the TV that basically are unaccounted for until after the previous broadcast. Suddenly, we start working on making sense of all these questions and theories coming in by email on social media, and constructing these case updates.
Ian grew up in the 80s in a mining town, and we were all taught about little kids going down the mines, so that’s maybe what you would manifest. But then on the other hand, with all the noises, could it be a bit of both?
One of the things we often say is that there doesn’t need to be one answer to something. You can hold two things in the mind at the same time, you can explain certain things and other things feel more inexplicable. We’ve talked about this a bit in the live show recently about how we, as humans, project a lot onto these things. So if you see a sort of a dark figure it In your room, and your knowledge and understanding of ghosts is based on all the ghost stories that we’ve consumed, many of which are Victorian stories Charles Dickens or the Edwardian M. R. James stories, your brain runs to envisaging that black figure as a Victorian figure. What is a poltergeist? Is a poltergeist a dead person? Is it a sort of energy form? Or kind of type of consciousness? There’s a theory that it’s something that comes from within us, and it’s kind of psychokinesis, that idea of moving objects with your mind then maybe it’s just people misinterpreting their environment or, or tricking themselves. Clearly, we as people, both the witness, and us, as observers bring a lot of baggage to these things in terms of how we interpret it.
Your show consciously appeals to both believers and non-believers, was that important to you?
I think we’re probably the first thing that came out and aimed to interest skeptics and believers in equal measure and I think an even bigger group of people in the middle who aren’t sure. I’ve really enjoyed that. I think there is a kind of nostalgia in people for debating these mysteries. I think a lot of people remember those books they read or the shows they watched as a kid about UFOs and ghosts and stuff like that. I think there’s a huge interest in the paranormal right now. We’re living through a moment in time where our world is quite frightening. We’re in a very chaotic, uncertain, and sadly, death-filled moment in history. We go looking for answers. When our world is strange and frightening, we go looking for another world outside of it.
Is there a type of person who is particularly susceptible to ghosts?
I think I’d probably previously thought that there was a type of person who saw ghosts. I don’t think there is any more. The kind of people who write to me are from all sorts of different backgrounds and geographical locations, and experience their hauntings at all different types of day, and under different weather conditions. These experiences often happen at a transitional moment in life. Where you are growing up or you’ve just moved out of your home. There are lots of student stories. Or you’ve just lost someone close to you, or separated from your partner. The skeptic would argue that that is a time in your life when you’re more anxious, and you’re more likely to imagine things. A believer might argue that these are times in your life, when you are more open and receptive to things. That it’s definitely not true of all cases. But I think there are many cases that fit that build up being some sort of shifting state where you’re away from the security structure of your previous existence.
Do you think it matters whether you believe the case is real?
I don’t think I would ever tell a story where I didn’t think it was real. If I felt I could answer it or dismiss it I wouldn’t tell it. I think all of the stories are mysteries to me. I feel like I can’t explain what’s going on, I can explain potentially aspects of it, but I can’t explain the whole thing overall. That feels crucial to me, I think it would be disingenuous to go in with one where I felt I can explain it. That does make it hard to find the cases. There’s a lot of stories that people send me that I feel I can explain, and it doesn’t make them any less life changing or profound to the person. I feel like everybody who emails me is taking the time to do that, because this experience meant something to them.
What future plans do you have for Uncanny?
We’re doing more podcast episodes after the TV series goes out. I’ve got my book Into The Uncanny at the moment, and the tour is going to be going on till the beginning of December, and then we’ll come back for more dates next year. So there’s lots of Uncanny on the horizon. I think we’d like to do some international Uncanny as well. We’d like to go abroad and find some cases outside the UK. I would love to do another big case. Like Battersea or Witch Farm, and whether that’s on podcast or TV I’m not sure yet. But you know, I think there’s something about exploring one case through multiple episodes that is really, really satisfying. So I think there’ll definitely be more of that. I’m a writer of drama and fiction as well, like my play, obviously. I’m really interested in trying to tell some supernatural stories for the screen that are drama as well, and drawing on some of the real life experiences I’ve had, to create something really frightening.
All episodes of Uncanny are available to watch on BBC iPlayer.