On ‘Otherworld,’ the podcaster feeds into a resurgent cultural interest in the paranormal, from near-death experiences to demonic encounters to lost time

As a kid, I used to stay up late listening to a paranormal radio show called Coast to Coast with George Noory, feeling a strange kinship with truckers who’d been abducted by aliens or men calling in from a post-apocalyptic future. Each caller confirmed my suspicions that there really was something beyond my everyday reality: something mysterious, terrifying, and sublime. But whenever I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye, heard a strange sound, or felt a presence, I was quick to convince myself that it was just my mind playing tricks on me. Curiosity compelled me towards the unknown, and doubt functioned as my protective armor against it. Despite a third of Americans claiming to believe in ghosts and UFOs, personal accounts are often relegated to late-night campfire stories and family lore, and are very rarely taken seriously. But what if the thing you encountered felt too real to deny? What if it persisted over weeks or months? For those who have experienced something paranormal, they’re often forced to contend with two impossible realities: that they’re losing their mind, or they really encountered something otherworldly. Either way, for many, it can be a deeply frightening and alienating experience.

I now live in Los Angeles, a place where New Age spirituality has been co-opted by wellness brands and biohacking podcast bros; topics like the occult, astrology, and psychedelics are so commonplace that they’ve been reduced to cliché, devoid of any mysticism. I don’t think I realized how starved I was for genuine paranormal discourse until I discovered Otherworld Podcast through the recommendations newsletter Perfectly Imperfect, and listened to the first handful of episodes one night while cleaning my house, progressively scaring myself to death. I was immediately hooked.

Dubbed the “Paranormal This American Life,” Otherworld, hosted by Jack Wagner, tells extraordinary stories of regular people who’ve experienced anything from ghostly hauntings to demonic encounters, lost time, kundalini awakenings, near-death experiences, and magick rituals. Born from an annual call for ghost stories on his other podcast, Yeah, But Still, Wagner became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of submissions he received, to the point where he decided to go all-in and start a podcast entirely devoted to the paranormal.

Otherworld has amassed something of a cult following over the last few months, attributed largely to Wagner’s journalistic approach to all things supernatural and unexplained. A former skeptic himself, his perspective has evolved from amused curiosity to wholehearted belief, due in part to the earnestness of his subjects’ accounts, many of whom were compelled to tell their story not out of a desire for brief internet fame, but in a desperate attempt to make sense of what happened to them. “When I started, I thought there might be something going on, because all of these people can’t be imagining things. Now, just a little bit in, I’ve had moments where I’m like, Not only do I think something’s going on, I think we could figure it out,” says Wagner.

There’s a certain art to choosing the best stories to tell, which Wagner can usually spot based on the way a person writes an email: “I look back on some of the stories that ended up being really good. Sometimes, their email was only two sentences originally, but there was some random part of it that made me think, Oh, this seems interesting. Then people send me 20 pages, and it’s nothing.” Wagner also recognizes the courage it takes to tell a story and potentially risk public criticism. “It’s easier to tell yourself that you’re crazy,” he says, “even if you saw something with your own eyes and there’s evidence, because what are you gonna do? That’s why people don’t talk about it. Most would be like, you know, I just saw Bigfoot. What am I gonna do with that? I’m an accountant.” He offers an analogy, using Back to the Future. “I give Marty McFly four hours before he convinces himself that he made up the ’80s and checks himself into some kind of mental institution and gets a lobotomy—or just falls in line and is like, Shoot, I have amnesia, and I had a weird dream. Then he becomes a milkman or something, and just lives his life in the ’50s as some guy with amnesia. I think the real version of that movie would be really boring, because most people’s instinct is to defend their brain.”

This isn’t to say that Wagner takes each story at face value; instead, he probes further, often interviewing experts, family members, and other witnesses to lend credibility. “I’m approaching this with the genuine hope of finding answers, and doing the best I can with the tools at my disposal. For me, that’s just telling the stories accurately, and trying to document them in the best way I can, without adding too much of my own spin. My goal is to create a home for these stories, where people feel safe to come and tell [their own]. I know this sounds corny or made-up, but I really do treat every single episode as if it has to be the best. I really try to perfect them. I don’t know how good it is for my mental health,” he admits.

It’s a delicate dance between producing an entertaining—and, at times, humorous—show, and maintaining the integrity and seriousness of the subject matter, especially when stories involve trauma and drug use. Wagner feels a responsibility to get it right, especially when the lines between paranormal encounters, addiction, and mental illness start to blur. “As a rule, I try to avoid stories that begin with drug use, just because that’s obviously a hard hurdle to get over for anyone listening. But that topic, and others like it, do come up a lot in some of the longer and darker stories. It seems that the scariest paranormal stuff tends to increase in a home with lots of chaos and negative emotions. Skeptical people might look at that and assume the person imagined it in a state of stress. In my experience, people going through real-world chaos are usually so caught up in real-life horrors that they barely notice the paranormal stuff happening around them. Nor do they have the desire to add imaginary fears. The best stories have many layers and I love the challenge of trying to tell the complicated ones,” says Wagner.

Wagner’s compulsion to deep-dive into his subjects’ lives has led to the cultivation of real connections with a few of them—subsequently introducing us to a recurring cast of endearing characters, like the paranormal power couple Sean Johns and Gina, fifth generation Romani psychics who vehemently caution against gnome worship and Wendy, a clairvoyant who played a formative role in the podcast’s origin story. Wagner’s series with Wendy has been especially meaningful to him: “I was very nervous to put the Wendy series out, because it was just so different. It doesn’t fully encapsulate how intertwined that story is with the podcast existing at all. I plan to continue that thread—maybe not right away. But Wendy is definitely not going away. I mean, I talk to her every day now,” he says.

Wagner delineates a “Before Wendy/After Wendy” moment in the podcast: when he received a private reading from the clairvoyant, where she entered a trance state and relayed personal details that no one could have known. That’s when everything changed: “I never believed in psychics or anything, because how could a human claim to master these things we barely understand? A lot of them do imply they’ve mastered it, but Wendy is different; she’s very straightforward about the fact that she doesn’t know what’s going on with her,” says Wagner. He understands the skepticism, but argues that, if people had this capacity, they wouldn’t necessarily be perfect at it. He likens clairvoyance to tuning into a radio channel that wouldn’t always be clear.

This experience compelled him to probe further, inviting a Harvard microbiologist onto the show to give a more rigorous scientific explanation for Wendy’s clairvoyant abilities, and to draw connections between expanded consciousness and the CIA-led “Gateway Process” of the 1980s, which used sound frequencies to achieve states like astral projection and remote viewing. (You can read the declassified CIA documents here.) He’s hopeful that science and technology will eventually demystify everything we currently have no explanation for, as it has throughout history. Referring to our Zoom call, he says, “If you were to ask somebody in the early-1800s about the most far-fetched future technology, this wouldn’t even be magical—it would be beyond comprehension. They wouldn’t have conceived of a modern photograph, let alone a moving one sent across the air, basically. To us, this is completely natural.” To that end, Wagner finds scientific certainty to be naïvely arrogant, considering all that we have yet to understand. “It’s funny, when you talk to highly-educated scientists—a lot of them believe in much loftier and outlandish possibilities than anything discussed on my show. A lot of times, something unexplained is given a scientific sounding name, and we just assume somebody out there must know about it and why it works. In reality, that’s not the case,” he says.

As for the resurgent cultural interest in the paranormal, Wagner attributes it partly to the destabilizing effects of the pandemic, a growing distrust in the mainstream narrative, and younger generations seeking out alternative explanations for the absurdity and horror of the last few years. “We just lived through this time where institutions have failed us, and the world got brought to its knees by a mysterious virus that nobody saw coming. And I think that shook people’s foundations in a way, where they were unable to live in their own little bubble. People are grabbing onto all sorts of things that maybe they didn’t expect to grab onto. I’m not saying it’s like a defense mechanism; I think it’s a good thing,” says Wagner.

For many Gen Z and millennial listeners, Wagner exists as a kind of gateway drug into the paranormal. Lending his reputation as a long-standing internet persona, along with his fluency in online spaces and meme culture, he translates his esoteric explorations into something for a broader audience—from fans of Yeah, But Still to people like me, who discovered him via niche influencer platforms like Perfectly Imperfect and How Long Gone Podcast. Even the show’s iconic theme song—by his friends in the band Cobra Man—sounds like something out of a classic ’80s horror movie. Wagner’s musical connections run deep; in a playlist he recently assembled called “Music of Otherworld,” he features Cobra Man alongside friends and collaborators, including Chrome Sparks, North Americans, and Juice Jackal. By engaging his audience with music, memes, cool merch design, and active Instagram comment threads, Wagner is ushering in a new era of paranormal storytelling, devoid of the usual cringe, un-self-aware, New Age aesthetic that saturates this space. (As someone who used to have a Gaia subscription, I consider myself an expert in this department).

As Otherworld Podcast’s popularity continues to grow, Wagner is excited about the future. “I was surprised—really early into the show, I had some TV interests reach out. I had to respond by saying, ‘Hey, this is awesome. Can we please talk in a few months or so?’ But yes, I imagine some people that come on the show will do their own projects and spin-offs, because a lot of these stories are bigger than what I’m capable of telling on a podcast. But I’ve always thought of this as something that I ultimately want to be much more than a podcast, so that’s what I’m working towards,” he says.