Queer Ghost Hunters introduces equality to search for the afterlife

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive

Growing up in Westerville, Lori Gum lived with a bad-mannered roommate who would randomly move household items, leave behind coffee stains on the dining room tablecloth and clumsily knock around the attic of the suburban abode at all hours of the day and night, showing little consideration for anyone else sharing the home.

His name was Hoo. And he was a ghost.

Though Hoo was the ornery type, the Gums adopted him as one of their own, even inviting him to accompany the family when Lori's folks relocated after three decades spent living in tandem with the spirit.

"When they moved, my mom put an empty box out in the middle of the floor and said, 'Hoo, if you want to come with us you can,'" Gum said. "And then she closed the box and took it to the new house."

Apparently the apparition declined the invite, because Gum's parents never again experienced the strange phenomena that plagued their Westerville existence.

"Then by happenstance at a church meeting three years ago, my mom ran into the woman who now lives in that house," Gum said. "[My mom] was talking about the trees I planted as a kid, and finally … the woman says to my mom, 'Did you ever have anything weird happen in the house?'"

These days, Gum continues to seek out the paranormal alongside Shane McClelland, Katy Detrow, Scott Priddy and Kai Stone in the Queer Ghost Hunters, a group that has been in existence since September 2015 and recently launched an online video series, which follows the collective as it searches for LGBTQ spirits in haunted locales scattered throughout the Midwest. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

During a mid-October photo shoot at Green Lawn Cemetery on the city's West Side, the group briefly demonstrated the various tools employed in the ghosting trade, including dowsing rods - free-swinging metal rods easily manipulated by supernatural forces - and EMF meters, which are used to measure electromagnetic fields (it is believed ghosts emit detectable energy).Alivephotographer Tim Johnson is liable to believe in the energy of ghosts; during the shoot, which took place at dusk in front of a towering mausoleum deep inside the cemetery, a background strobe continued to malfunction despite operating on fresh batteries.

Early episodes of the series, which can be viewed via the Queer Ghost Hunters YouTube channel, have functioned as a de facto introduction to ghost hunting, detailing equipment (the aforementioned dowsing rods and EMF meters), as well as documenting a visit to a former convent outside Toledo where Gum communicated with the ghost of a lesbian nun.

Gum and McClelland actually started ghost hunting in its more traditional form a year-and-a-half ago, first accompanying a small group on a visit to Newark's Old Licking County Jail, a well-known paranormal hotspot said to be haunted by the spirits of former inmates. During the visit, a ghost grabbed Gum's calf, and a digital recorder captured the sounds of footsteps and disembodied human voices.

"There was a group of us in one of the jail cells, and we're trying to catch an EVP (electronic voice phenomenon). So we have the recorder going and we're asking questions, and every three to five minutes we played it back to see if we got anything," said McClelland, who saw his first ghost at age 7 - "I remember being woken up in the middle of the night and there was this hand on me … and it was like, 'That's a ghost'" - and described himself as "sensitive" to the presence of spirits. "And every time we did it we caught something, whether it was something answering the questions or footsteps. There were four of us sitting in [the cell] and it was completely silent, but you'd ask a question and you could clearly hear something answer yes or no."

The two were hooked by the experience and started accompanying the jail group on subsequent hunts. Eventually, however, Gum started to grow disillusioned with the standard line of questioning adopted by ghost hunters.

"We had just finished at Waverly Hills [Sanatorium], which is in Lexington, Kentucky, and even though the group we were ghost hunting with that evening had a lot of LGBTQ people in it, if we thought we were talking to a female spirit we would still say, 'Did you have a husband?' Or, if we were talking to a male spirit, 'Did you have a wife?' Everything was based in heteronormative assumptions about the spirit," Gum said. "It didn't make any sense. We were disproportionately incarcerated and disproportionately put in insane asylums, and we worked in theaters and opera houses, which is where all the ghost hunters go. And you're going to tell me on all these shows and all these hunts people have been on they've never found a queer ghost? It's because they're not asking."

On the return drive, Gum and McClelland hatched a plan to start Queer Ghost Hunters, kicking things off with a September 2015 seminar at Stonewall Columbus, where Gum works as program and Pride coordinator. The current five-person core, which includes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members, emerged from this early public forum, which drew an estimated 95 attendees. In the months since, the crew has been on more than a dozen hunts, trekking to opera houses and prisons and theaters in search of LGBTQ ghosts.

The group's work appears to have struck a nerve with the general public, as well as within the queer community. A trailer for the web series has now been viewed more than 20,800 times on YouTube, and press coverage has stretched from outlets like NBC News and The Daily Dot to Howard Stern, with a story about the group turning up on the homepage of the radio shock jock's website, an experience Gum termed "surreal." "I never thought I'd see the term cis-gender on Howard Stern," she said, and laughed.

Earlier this year, documentarian Stu Maddux ("Gen Silent") and co-producer Joe Applebaum started filming the group's excursions. "At that point we thought maybe it was going to be a documentary," said Gum. "But as it went on we had so much footage and so many sites, and this was all going to be wasted if we put it in an hour-and-20 minute documentary. And that's when Stu and Joe really came up with the idea of the web series."

Filming the show further cemented the group's belief in the concept, and both McClelland and Gum said they've been caught off-guard by the positive public response.

"There are these kids, or even adults, who identify as part of the [queer] community and they're like, 'This is so cool. This was made for me,'" McClelland said. "It's been amazing, and it's not something we ever fully expected to happen."

The group did enter into filming with the awareness it was exposing a history that had been either long-ignored or purposefully buried. Prior to each hunt, Detrow, who functions as the group's historian, assembles a thorough queer history for each site, digging through prison records, sanitarium log books and decades-old news clippings in order to unearth once-hidden details that should hold interest even for those who consider themselves supernatural skeptics.

"There was no doubt the purpose was always to unbury this queer history. … If there's one thing I think will be most important about this series in the end, it's reaching those 16- and 17-year-old queer people and getting them to hear this history," Gum said. "They're getting to see these stories of people in insane asylums and prisons, and they know what it's like to live in a society that doesn't want them, where politicians are threatening to criminalize us again. It makes those trans-bathroom bills relevant. It makes politicians saying they're going to get rid of marriage equality relevant. This is a cautionary tale about what can happen to us, and that makes it relevant to today."