by Sarah A. Peterson-Camacho
As Halloween approaches in a flurry of fiery leaves and gathering gloom, the cold air crackles in the shivery wake of Autumn and her restless spirits. The Season of the Ghost is upon us, and Central Valley podcast Ghosthropology, hosted by folklorist Matthew Armstrong and produced by his wife Kaylia Metcalfe, is here to tell you a ghost story.
KRL: What is Ghosthropology’s origin story?
Matthew: I have been fascinated by ghost stories since I was a kid, and I started really getting interested in the folklore aspect while I was in college. I have a Masters Degree in Anthropology with a focus in Archaeology, and I work in a field called Cultural Resources Management where I assist my employer in keeping in compliance with historic preservation laws, and also assisting in consultation with Native American groups and individuals.
And while I like this work, I missed having an active research project to keep my mind going. My wife had been doing a podcast called Pages and Popcorn, and she suggested that I start one of my own. After thinking through a few different podcast subjects, I landed on ghost stories, as it would allow me to do actual research and have the podcast give some structure to how I conducted that research. So, people who listen to Ghosthropology are essentially listening to me collecting data and doing initial analysis for the purpose of keeping myself mentally stimulated.
KRL: How did you become interested in folklore/urban legends/ghost stories? Was it a childhood interest?
Matthew: I was interested in ghost stories as a kid, but the current form of my interest comes from my academic background. Like most archaeologists, my degree is in Anthropology with Archaeology as the focus, and my general anthropology training exposed me to a lot of research on folklore, so I began to build up my knowledge by reading a lot of key works in Folklore Studies, cultural anthropology, history, and sociology, as well as collecting ghost stories wherever I could. ?
KRL: What urban legends/ghost stories have you covered in the past?
Matthew: My first episode was on 50 Berkley Square in London, a story that frightened me greatly when I was a kid. I have also covered the Winchester Mystery House [in San Jose], the story of a demonic lake monster in the Mojave Desert, Calico Ghost Town, and a variety of others.I have interviewed people about their own experiences, including Fresno’s first Poet Laureate, James Tyner. I have also been fortunate enough to interview historian Alena Pirok about her work on ghost tourism at Colonial Williamsburg [in Virginia], anthropologist Michelle Hanks about her ethnographic work with paranormal investigators, and Assyriologist Irving Finkel about ghost beliefs in Mesopotamia. Locally, I have covered the Wolfe House and the Madera Man, and am always on the lookout for other fun bits of Fresno County weirdness. ?
KRL: Which topics do you hope to cover in the future?
Matthew: I have a lot of episodes at various stages, but what I really want to do is further develop the connections between ghost stories and why we tell them. To that end, I will continue to cover stories covering a wide range of subjects, including teenage legend tripping, people’s experiences in allegedly haunted places, the tradition of campfire ghost stories, and I would love to be able to interview paranormal investigators. ?
KRL: How has Ghosthropology evolved since the very first episode?
Matthew: It’s evolved the way that every good research project evolves. I have learned that the subject is much broader and more complex than I had initially thought, and so I find myself having to dig deeper into the history of various stories…but also, into the social sciences and psychology to get a better handle on some of these tales. The deeper I get, the more fun I am having, and this has proven to be a wonderful topic for research. ?
KRL: Do you have a favorite episode? If so, which one, and why?
Matthew: It’s a three-way tie between my most recent interview with James Tyner, in which he discusses weird experiences he had earlier in life; my interview with Michelle Hanks about paranormal investigators in England; and my interview with Alena Pirok about ghost folklore and public understandings of history in Virginia. That said, I don’t think there’s been an episode that I have not enjoyed making. ?
KRL: What is your favorite ghost story?
Matthew: The most economical one I know. Highway 152, which runs between Merced County and Watsonville in Santa Cruz County, is said to be haunted by the spirit of a young woman who was killed by a truck driver. When you are driving the road at night alone, she may appear in your passenger seat, scream, and then vanish. I love how creepy that story is, but also how easy it is to tell. ?
KRL: Is a Halloween-themed episode in Ghosthropology‘s future?
Matthew: Arguably every episode is Halloween-themed, but every Halloween, since I started the podcast, my wife and I have had the tradition of doing a crossover episode between her podcast and mine in which we choose a book that has been adapted to a movie, and that book or the film must be either claimed to be based on true events or else have a major impact on how society views some paranormal subject—and we compare and contrast the book with the film, and also discuss the way that the story interacts with paranormal folklore.
In years past, we did The Amityville Horror and The Mothman Prophecies. This year, if all goes well, we’ll be covering The Exorcist. ?
KRL: Does your family share your interests in folklore and the supernatural?
Matthew: No. But I have found that there are a lot of people who do, so it has been a fun community to discover. ?
KRL: What are your thoughts on life after death?
Matthew: As odd as it may seem for someone who does a podcast on the paranormal, I am philosophically a materialist, meaning that I am unconvinced of the existence of spirits or souls. So, I guess I would say that I don’t believe that our consciousness continues to exist after death, and I have never been particularly moved by the arguments I have heard to the contrary. That said, I am always open to the possibility that I am wrong. ?
KRL: Have you ever had a brush with the paranormal or the unexplained?
Matthew: I like how you phrased the question. I have had a number of experiences that I cannot explain, though none of them were all that remarkable. But, just because I can’t explain it, doesn’t mean it’s unexplainable. I just that I don’t know what that explanation is.
Some experiences that seemed strange to me at one point, I now understand to have mundane explanations, but others I still don’t know the explanation. But that says more about the limits of my own knowledge than it does about the nature of the experiences.
For more information on Ghosthropology, please visit its Facebook page and online at kmmamedia.com/podcasts/ghosthropology-podcast.