Michelle Belanger, Occult Researcher and Psychic Medium

Oberlin resident Michelle Belanger is a prolific author and researcher of the occult, who has published many books on the supernatural and paranormal. Her work ranges from religious research to occult young adult novels. She is best known for The Psychic Vampire Codex and The Dictionary of Demons. Belanger has also appeared as a psychic medium on a variety of psychic and ghost-hunting TV shows, including Paranormal State. The Review sat down to talk with her about the origins of her interest in the occult, her journey to a supernatural career, and the many haunted locales in the state of Ohio. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Could you start by stating your name and your pronouns?

I’m Michelle Belanger. I’m intersex [and] I was raised with she/her. But once I confirmed my intersex identity, he/him is sort of more my private pronouns, for people that really know me.

You said that you got into psychic work because you grew up in a haunted town in Ohio. Can you talk about that experience?

I grew up in Hinckley, OH. I think that my first experience that I can confirm … was at the Hinckley Library. I was somewhere just under four-and-a-half [years old]. … I went upstairs in an area that I wasn’t supposed to be in while my mom was talking to the librarian and [I saw] a woman standing in this room that was otherwise empty. She was standing at the window, [and] I became completely fascinated with this dress that she was wearing because it had all these tiny buttons down the back and down the sleeves, and these big poofy sleeves at top. And her hair was all piled up on her head. She never said anything [but] she did turn and look at me, and then my mom called for me. I was standing in the doorway for all of this. As far as I could tell, it was the only door in and out. … I leaned out and yelled back that I was coming and when I looked back into the room, she wasn’t there anymore. 

Four-and-a-half year-old logic [said that] she wasn’t supposed to be in the room either, so she found a hiding space. I just kind of toddled off and really didn’t think too much of it until, as I got a little older, I started to hear stories about multiple people having experiences at that library and they called her the lady in blue. The dress that I saw in my recollection was white, but it had little blue flowers embroidered on it. 

When did you decide to make the occult your line of work, or line of study?

I like to think of myself as an open-minded skeptic who has accepted — through a great deal of reflection and practical application — that … there is something to [my] abilities. I started reading up on things pretty much as soon as I could get my hands on books about it. One of the really interesting things about growing up in the time period that I did was that [the library], even in elementary school, had books on psychic phenomena.

My grandmother and I often talked about it. She had some abilities as well. Probably the best advice [I received] from my grandmother was to always record stuff. You know, anybody can be psychic after the fact. … Memory’s very unreliable, sadly unreliable. 

It certainly helped direct what I ended up studying [at John Carroll University]. I started off in the Psychology department partly to understand more about perception and how memory works — why we have experiences and how to navigate the line between hallucination and delusion. I ended up moving over to the Religious Studies department, partly because at the time my college was very much about pills; I was a Jungian in a Skinnerian institute and it just really did not work out. … I cobbled together my own degree under the tutelage of Dr. Joseph Kelly, which was [about] religious studies in myth and folklore and the stories we tell ourselves and why religion is important in a cultural way.

As we’ve talked about your work, it seems much more academic or scholarly than I think the public perception of psychics is. Can you talk about that discrepancy?

I identify myself more as a scholar and an academic, which sometimes has me at loggerheads with some of the other psychics, because there are still folks who experience it like this where they have abilities … [but] they’re almost intimidated to study about them or to question them. And I’m driven to … understand. 

To this day, even with the work that I’ve done on the shows … I still can’t tell you where the line is between being incredibly perceptive and perceiving something that is supernatural or paranormal. For me, it’s less about whether these things are real and true. I’m not interested in proving it to the world. What I’m interested in is understanding how they happen, why they happen, and what influence they have had on people’s experiences of the world, with one another, where they show up in our fiction and our literature, how they impact culture, social trends. So it’s not what a lot of people expect. 

I’ve had the James Randi Educational Foundation skeptics come at me a few times, and there is a logical fallacy among a number of what I’m going to call ‘evangelical skeptics’ that someone who makes the grave mistake of believing in what they think is hokum must be stupid [or ignorant]. I think it’s fair to say I’m neither stupid nor ignorant … and they don’t know what to do with that. … [But] there are fakers out there. I think it’s a bad idea to assume that there aren’t. If your bulls**t meter is going off, listen to that. … I think when we assume that it is always accurate, there is no way we’re going to formally understand how these abilities work, what they are, or even what we’re picking up.

You talked about having this extra layer of perception — is that difficult or something that you ever wish you didn’t have?

I don’t know that I wish that I didn’t have it, but it can be difficult. Especially when I was a teenager — high school was just hard enough without also walking down the hallway and having this other layer of everybody else’s emotions. 

A Super Kmart [Center] opened up in [Medina, OH] I think at some point, like the late ’80s, early ’90s. And my grandmother was all about getting the bargains the first day. … The place was super packed. It felt to me that everyone was screaming all at once…. I could hardly hear anything. I could barely think. My grandmother was trying to get me to do something for her and she’s like “Mickey? Where’s your head at? I told you to move that.” I said, “I can’t hear you, it’s so loud in here!” And she’s like, “What are you talking about? … Listen.” And once she drew my attention to it, it was loud and chaotic. It was not quite what I was hearing with my ears — [I was] becoming aware that there was this other layer of what most of the time just sounds like static … that unfortunately, if I don’t tune it out, is incredibly distracting.

Can you speak, either anecdotally or academically or both, to some ways that belief in the supernatural and paranormal has been cemented for you? 

One of the experiences — and this was with Paranormal State — that convinced me I was picking up something that I can’t necessarily explain [was when] we started working with a blindfold — and initially that was just something they wanted to do for one episode. And then I found it so incredibly useful to be able to rule out that accidental cold reading [through sight]. I [go] in with the blindfold [and] I’m there to pick up emotional residues, spirits, if they’re there — [for example], if there’s somebody who’s been murdered in the house. I started to get so used to the blindfold that when I’d walk into a room, I get this image in my head. … This particular one, for no reason that I had an explanation for, I saw with a very particular color of wood paneling [and] mounted animal heads on the walls. Taking the blindfold off and realizing that down to the grain of the wood … I could not explain how that image was so strong as I moved from place to place. It got to a point with being able to perceive spaces with the blindfold on that the production company was pretty sure that it was a fake. So they’d try to punk me or walk me into walls and stuff just to see. 

There’s an awful lot of theory, so much of it in the paranormal community that really, honestly, is pseudoscience. … There are some people who run around with an EMF meter and, honest to God, they’re really just trying to be Eagan from Ghostbusters.

What I end up falling back on is how schools of fish will know and turn as one. … [Some] animals in large groups seem to have a groupthink. … I think on some level, humans have a hard time accepting that we are as much a part of the animal kingdom as anything else, that we put the stuff in [the] language of gut instinct. We have a feeling — the energy of space, the vibe — that there is some other sense, and maybe it’s not metaphysical. It doesn’t have to be magic. It’s just not something that we’re accustomed to peeling out and looking at. 

I ended up having a lot of conversations about that with my wife, who is the granddaughter of Vera Rubin, the Jewish scientist whose findings led to the discovery of dark matter. … So here’s this incredibly science-y family, and we talk about this stuff. I don’t necessarily think that it’s something that we can’t … [or] shouldn’t study. I think we should certainly apply [the] scientific method to it [and] ask yourself, where is this information coming from? What’s going on here?

You mentioned that you’ve worked all over but found that Ohio and Pennsylvania are particularly haunted.

Ohio has just a weird history and there are so many odd little places. … Some places seem to be weirder than others and I don’t know if it’s the people, I don’t know if it’s the land. I think there’s far too many variables to be able to be sure. But the vast number of anecdotal experiences, from Gore orphanage to Mansfield Reformatory to the Melon Heads to Franklin Castle, [is] ridiculous … The only other place I know that is as weirdly haunted is down in Louisiana.

What about Oberlin?

I have definitely heard stories about Oberlin. One of the reasons I bought the house [I currently live in] is that I was pretty sure when we walked through it that it was haunted. After living here about a year and a half, [I’m even more] sure that the house is haunted. When I’m out of town and travel a lot we rent it out on Airbnb.… We later learned on Airbnb to mention that it might be haunted, because we had a couple of people be like, “Nope! All the nope.” 

It’s what I call a charming haunting. [During] late summer probably around this time last year, [we had a guest who] had been here for about five days. One of the days she opened all the windows because it had been hot in the afternoon and she fell asleep on the couch and it dropped colder. When she woke up, someone had closed all the windows and tucked her with a blanket. So we get this little message through Airbnb where she’s like, “So this might seem weird, but do you know anybody else who’s had experiences in this house?” And fortunately, she wasn’t weirded out. She actually wanted to blog about it. She seemed to have enough wherewithal and self-awareness to be aware that she wasn’t the sort to wake up in the middle of a nap, cover herself up, and forget about it.

We’ve [also] got footsteps and there are a couple of music boxes that play on their own on a fairly regular basis. … It really just feels like people who lived here loved the house and didn’t feel like leaving. 

Everybody’s got a story, is the one thing I can say. Everybody. It’s interesting when I’m recognized as someone who’s on TV because I’m now the safe person to tell. It usually starts with, “this is probably going to sound crazy, but…” or “maybe this is a little weird, but…” or “I don’t normally believe these things, but… .” It’s always fascinating to hear why people won’t talk about it otherwise — why they don’t feel safe talking about it with family or with coworkers. … Because I’m that wacky person that hunts ghosts on, you know, whatever travel channel, it’s okay to tell me because it can’t get any weirder.