Trigger Warning: Death, Suicide and Trauma
My name is Sara Jones. I’m a blonde, blue-eyed, white, American girl from the suburbs with a name so common it somehow seems fake. As ordinary as I may appear, however, just like you, I am a layered and complicated human being. I’m not the person you might expect upon first meeting me.
As a kid, I was always creative. I loved to read, write and draw; I loved singing and acting. No matter the medium, I was always drawn to the dark and twisted. I always had an insatiable sense of wonder for the unknown. I was drawn to all kinds of horror-themed entertainment as a kid: anything Tim Burton-created or anything Stephen King wrote, I would absolutely devour. I loved to watch Travel Channel’s Most Haunted and Unsolved Mysteries, and I loved no other television program more than The Twilight Zone, though nothing could beat a good campfire ghost story on a warm Michigan summer night.
Recently, I was back home and went through a box of childhood memories that my mom usually has tucked away in the attic. While unpacking this box, I found a small book that I made in kindergarten. The book had typed prompts that began basic sentences, and I was to finish them. One page simply read in bold type-face “I like . . .” and, in crayon, with large, imperfect lettering, I had written, “the dark." I had then colored the surrounding blank page with a purple crayon, a deep purple night sky lit by a canary yellow crescent moon.
Twice in my childhood home I had ghostly encounters, including one full-bodied apparition of a woman at the end of my bed staring directly into my eyes late one night. I did not feel threatened by her, but the second I got out of bed I ran to my mom’s room to inform her that I had definitely just seen a ghost. This didn’t stop me. It only fed my curiosity.
As I got older, I’d enjoy exploring more places that seemed interesting and possibly haunted, if not just creepy. There was a very old abandoned house in the middle of the woods close to our family home in Northern Michigan. We used to call it “The Haunted House," though we knew no actual ghost stories about it. One night when I was about 14, I went out to explore the place with my friend, Anna. I had been there in the daytime and had collected some antique Pabst Blue Ribbon cans scattered around the woods, which I lined up on my bedroom dresser much to my mom’s confusion, but I hadn’t yet been there at night.
I don’t know what I was hoping for. I guess I was hoping it would be scarier because it was dark. I showed my friend Anna how the side wall had completely peeled off and lay dangling, barely supported, hovering over the forest floor. I showed her how a chalkboard on the wall had been torn in half, proving that this building used to be a schoolhouse. I was so intrigued and in love with the aesthetic, but I did not feel fearful.
This came to my dismay.
I sighed and said, “You know what we should have done? We should have watched The Blair Witch Project before we came out here. That would have made this really scary.” I looked to my friend Anna, who stared back at me with wide eyes and told me that she’s actually terrified, and could we please just get the hell out of here?
I never lost my sense of intrigue when it came to the unknown. I had gone on a few guided ghost tours, and had always had a fun time exploring, but always wanted to go a little further or to learn a little more.
And so, the darkness has always been a part of me – a fun part, not an evil or negative part. I’ve always just approached the unknown with a sense of eager curiosity. I never thought I could actually do something with that fascination for a career, though. Sure, I’ve always loved to write and to explore, to research ghost stories and make people laugh… but I never thought I could do something with it. Not really. I thought you had to be a lawyer. A doctor. You had to have a “real” job. It just isn’t feasible to do anything artistic… nothing “too fun."
I was an inconsistent college student because I never knew what I wanted to do. Deciding on something to do for the rest of my life just seemed so daunting, and, since I’d unconsciously told myself to suck all the fun out of any plausible career choice, I never felt like I could be happy and successful at the same time. I finally decided to pursue my interest in the morbid in a much more reasonable way: medicine. I became a pre-medicine student and decided my interest lied in Neuroscience. I got a volunteering job working in a small morgue and neuropathology lab in a teaching hospital where I would watch human autopsies and assist in human brain dissections. I couldn’t think of a more fascinating experience. I absolutely adored it.
I knew medicine would be a hard path to pursue, but I couldn’t think of anything else that could simultaneously serve as a successful career and keep my interest. I juggled between wanting to be a neurosurgeon and a neurologist. The only thing I was really sure of was that I was interested in the brain – what I referred to as the ocean of the body, given how little we had explored it or understood it yet. I explored surgery and neurology thoroughly. I even got the chance to shadow neurosurgery in the operating room of a teaching hospital, and found myself a brilliant young mentor in neurology, who I shadowed twice. In fact, he told me I was the first person to ever shadow him.
Then, something earth shattering happened.
I got a phone call from my uncle to tell me that my father was dead. He had shot and killed himself early that morning. The world felt like it was collapsing around me. A cold sensation passed steadily through my body, like the way you watch the soap systematically paint your windshield at the car wash. I leaned my back against the wall and slid to the floor. My body made sounds like I was crying, and yet my cheeks weren’t wet – tears refused to fall down my face. I was paralyzed. I was in shock. Though we can’t ever be sure what was swimming through my dad’s tortured mind on that fateful summer morning, we do know that a fallout at work had been a catalyst for his demise.
Two weeks before that, I had later found out, my brilliant young mentor had also taken his own life. He had given me handwritten advice to get a leg-up for medical school. He had told me to get a job in phlebotomy, which I obediently did. He had smiled and exposed an arm covered in tattoos when I told him I was worried I didn’t look like a doctor. He had volunteered to teach residents in his free time. He had exceeded all expectations ever held for him. He had hung himself at home.
As a result of these back-to-back tragedies, a few things happened.
First, I became even more desperately curious about the unknown. I wanted to know where my dad was. I started reading as many books about Near Death Experiences as I could get my hands on, one after the other. Second, I had realized how important it was to talk about suicide. I started to be open about how I’d lost my father, and how important it was to talk about that. I would say that suicide wasn’t a four letter word and, privately, handfuls of people came to me to tell me their experience losing a loved one to suicide. Finally, I began to think much more seriously about how I wanted to live the rest of my life. I would sit in Chemistry class and find myself drifting off. I would go from feverishly copying down notes and making sure I was cognitively keeping up with the content of the lecture, to then staring blankly at the projected lecture notes, feeling somehow lonely in an enormous auditorium.
I would sit there and think, is this what I really want to do? Am I doing this just to prove that I can? To who? Myself? Do I really want to work 80… 100 hour weeks? Do I really want to commit to a career where I may hardly ever see my family?
At one point, when I was shadowing neurosurgery, the Chief of Surgery pointed without looking at a small mirror in the corner of the OR.
“Do you see that picture?” he asked me nonchalantly. “That’s my family. You know why they’re up there? Because if they weren’t, I’d never see them.”
I remembered that moment and just thought to myself, is this really the life I want to live?
I never wanted to build a life for myself that I would rather escape.
I started to have a bit of a crisis of identity. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted. I had realized that I didn’t want to be a doctor. At one point, I considered being a PA, where I could at least probably work less hours. I spoke to my supervisor about maybe moving up in the business side of the hospital I worked for. I ultimately decided to drop my pre-medicine classes and just finish my Bachelors of Science in Psychology. Still, I was desperate for an answer that nobody else could give me but myself.
Around this time, I had learned about a ghost-related event happening somewhere in Portland, Oregon. I invited my friend and her boyfriend to come with me. I just wanted to go do something fun and not think about anything serious for a night. When we got there, we saw a line had wrapped all the way around the building, and multiple people told us it was already sold out. We couldn’t believe it! We went to a nearby pub instead. My friend and her boyfriend joked that they were shocked this thing was sold out, as they couldn’t think of anyone else they know other than me that would actually think to come to this on a random week night. We laughed about my unique and often conflicting interests.
And just then, a lightbulb lit up.
Yeah, this was something I loved. Ghosts. But what do I love about it? I don’t like when television programs try to bullshit me as a viewer. I get offended when I can tell something is faked or gimmicky. I also don’t like it when it’s too serious. People often take ghost hunting so seriously that, to me, it seems to take the fun out of it. I would always rather be laughing, no matter what context I find myself in. I also noted that when I hear ghost stories, I’m often left with more questions.
I was fascinated to know the history of some of these haunted places, not just the urban legends. I thought the history gave a much richer background to the legends and the places. This was when I started to develop an idea for a show. A major inspiration for me was Anthony Bourdain. I wanted to create a show exploring and giving respect to other cultures like he had, only instead of food I wanted to learn about haunted places. Having a paranormal experience wouldn’t be the focus of the show, but would be a bonus. It was only a year later that Bourdain died and I found the irony that he, too, had died of suicide, to be absolutely striking.
Thus, Laughing in the Dark was born.
Laughing in the Dark is a podcast where I research the history and urban legends of haunted places and visit them with comedians. While we’re exploring the grounds, I’ll tell my comic guest what I discovered when I did my research on the place, and we’ll ponder and riff on the unknown. Of course, sometimes the comedians are afraid, but use comedy as a defense mechanism, making for an entertaining dynamic you can’t find anywhere else.
People often ask me if I’m afraid. If they listen to the show, they remark on the often humorous dynamic that I’m not fearful, even when the comic is. They note my level tone of voice and find it either creepy, endearing, or an odd mixture of both, to hear me giggling in often terrifying settings. I think the reason I’m not afraid when I encounter the paranormal, or find myself in a position where I might, is because I find interactions with the spirit world to be validating and fascinating. Most importantly, I find it to be hopeful.
I absolutely love reaching into the unknown, and I’d love for you to join me. The thing is, I don’t see why we can’t have some fun and laugh while we’re exploring the darkness.
That’s what it’s all about.
You can find Laughing in the Dark anywhere you listen to podcasts, including iTunes, iHeartRadio, Google Play, Stitcher, and Tune In. You can also find Laughing in the Dark on YouTube by searching LitDark Podcast. Check us out on Instagram: @litdarkpodcast.