Living Legends of the Dead

Paranormal journalist Jeff Belanger’s New England Legends premiers on PBS Springfield.

When he was 10 years old, Bay Stater Jeff Belanger heard that his friend’s historic house was haunted by ghosts. Immediately intrigued, he requested a sleepover. That night, Ouija board in hand, the two boys attempted to contact the spirits squatting with his friend’s family. It was the early ’80s, years before the influx of ghost hunting cable TV shows and zombie paraphernalia took root in popular culture. But Belanger’s path was set.

“Ghosts weren’t out of the closet back then,” Belanger tells the Advocate, adding that he was impressed that his friend’s parents appeared so relaxed about the paranormal activity possibly taking place in their home. “It wasn’t like a Hollywood movie,” he continues. “They weren’t scared.”

In the intervening years, Belanger has authored several books on mysterious phenomena, including Weird Massachusetts, hosted the web talk show 30 Odd Minutes, and written for the Travel Channel series Ghost Adventures. His new documentary project, New England Legends, airs in two parts this Halloween on Springfield’s PBS affiliate, WGBY. He is hopeful the project will grow into a series.

“We’re focusing on the backstory and the history of these legends,” he explains, “trying to nail it down to something that can’t be argued: the experience of an eyewitness. That’s what gives a legend its legs.”

“A legend is a living, breathing thing,” he says— something that is constantly evolving according to both the people who agree with it and the people who don’t. “These stories make our communities unique,” Belanger adds. “We all have a link to them.”

The first episode, “The Spooky Berkshires,” features stories taking place at spots such as the Houghton mansion in North Adams. But Belanger says that October Mountain, in Lee, is by far the most paranormal place in all Western Massachusetts. “It’s a hotbed for everything,” he explains, “ghost stories, Bigfoot sightings, even UFO. activity.”

Named by former Pittsfield resident Herman Melville, October Mountain has an abandoned cemetery, built in the 1800s. Legend has it the old cemetery is haunted by the ghost of a 10-year-old girl, who has been seen wearing a white dress.

As you talk with Belanger, it is clear that he holds the earlier inhabitants of the unforgiving New England landscape in high regard. “People lived up there,” he says of October Mountain. “And they died up there. And they were buried up there.”

Spread out over 16,500 acres, October Mountain State Forest is the largest in the Commonwealth. Not surprisingly, the remains of the cemetery are difficult to locate. “I didn’t find the cemetery on my first excursion,” says Belanger. “But then I went back with someone in the know and was successful. It’s great to be able to take viewers there.”

But the oddest tale explored in New England Legends, Belanger says, is the story of a pirate who was buried alive with his treasure, and the medium who—centuries later—spent 30 years digging for the loot.

Around 1850, a man named Hiram Marble moved to Lynn. He was part of the Spiritualist Church of Charlton, Mass.—whose followers believed they could communicate with spirits—and Marble said the ghost of a pirate had told him to dig for a buried treasure at a place called Dungeon Rock. The pirate had made his way to Lynn two centuries before Marble, but had been chased into the woods by British soldiers. There the buccaneer found an old cave, hid his treasure, and took up residence in the primitive abode. But an earthquake hit the region, trapping the pirate in the cave along with his gold. Marble spent each day of the last 30 years of his life digging for the pirate’s treasure, as per the instructions of the ghost. But the treasure was never found.

At least, that’s the legend.

We don’t know how much of the tale is true, Belanger says, but parts of it are for sure. “Much of the story has been documented,” he explains. “We know there were pirates in Lynn. We know there was an earthquake” around the time the pirate is reported to have been there.

It is, perhaps, the thin line between that which is digestible and can easily be explained, and the unexplained—the barely possible, the otherworldly—that makes projects like New England Legends so engaging.

According to a recent Gallup poll, Belanger says, over 40 percent of Americans have seen a ghost. He suspects, however, that if a poll were to include more general paranormal activity, such as vivid dream visitations or pronounced chills up the spine, that the number would be far higher, and include more of us.

“These are deep curiosities, primal questions,” states Belanger. “We don’t quite know how everything works.”

“Look at the very nature of Halloween, where we connect with pagan Celts from centuries before,” Belanger continues. “They thought the veil between the living and the dead was the thinnest [at this time of year]. So we dress up in costumes to mock the things we fear. This connection is so strong not even the Catholic Church could beat it, so they have All Soul’s Day.

“That’s the power of story. It can change behavior,” Belanger says. “Kind of like why you’re doing this article at Halloween.”

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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