John E. L. Tenney is a fascinating human being. He's spent the past 27 years researching everything from Bigfoot to haunted houses to aliens. The Royal Oak native hosts a local series called Weird Lectures and is something of an expert on the folklore of regional hauntings. He's deeply interested in all things occult, but he's also reserved and slightly skeptical. He doesn't automatically assume that a place is haunted because of a few bumps in the night, nor does he speak emotionally about helping spirits transition from this dimension to the next.
When we think of Halloween, Tenney's is a name that springs to mind. We thought he'd be a great subject for this particular column and, as luck would have it, the timing was right for Tenney, too. His new show on Destination America aired for the first time last week. Ghost Stalkers finds Tenney, along with his co-star, visiting some of the creepiest places in America. It airs on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. We chatted with Tenney about near-death experiences, Detroit haunts, and his new show.
Metro Times: When we think of you, we think of ghost hunts, but that's not all you do, right?
John E.L. Tenney: I do all things weird. It [runs] the gamut of people who said they've been on UFOs to haunted locations to taking people on Bigfoot hunts. I do any and everything weird, and there's a lot of strange stuff that's happened over the past 27 years.
MT: I've read a lot about your near-death experience. Is that how all this got started for you?
Tenney: My mentor, the guy who took me under his wing when I was a teenager, was a specialist in political assassinations of the '60s and '70s, and that was when I was about 15. So I actually started out as a conspiracy researcher, and then when I died I was 17. After that experience, I just realized that there was too much weirdness in the world that no one was really putting their heart and soul into investigating. Science refuses to research it because science says it's not real. It's strange when you have a scientific community that says, 'We're not going to research something because it's not real.' The point is it could be real, but you don't know unless you research it.
MT: Can you tell us a little bit about your near-death experience?
Tenney: I did not have a traditional experience. Most people have a white tunnel and past loved ones beckoning them into this heavenly, beautiful place. Mine was very opposite of that. Mine was dark, isolation, loneliness, void. And those are words I'm using to describe it, and [yet] it's not describable. It was lacking of all forms, shape, content. My experience and the way I learned to talk about it over the years is you're simply just aware that you're inside of nothing.
MT: Why do you think your experience was so much different from other near-death experiences?
Tenney: I think what's problematic is that, over the years, talking to different organizations that study the near-death experience and the people who have had them, mine is uncommon — but it does happen. The problem is that people don't like to talk about it. They've never really processed it correctly or they just haven't been able to get through the experience. It took me years to be able to talk about it. I didn't talk about it until I was about 31, so it took me years to be able to talk about it. I would start to talk about it and get anxious and scared. I think you hear the good ones because they're easy to talk about.
MT: What is it with Michigan and our weird obsession with Halloween?
Tenney: First of all, Michigan is just about the strangest place. We're very internalized people, maybe because of the winter, and we're very introspective and reflective on ourselves, and we don't really talk about a lot of this stuff. But we're one of the strangest states in the country. We have more boats and planes disappear in the Great Lakes than in the Bermuda Triangle. We have massive UFO sightings. We have tons of allegedly haunted places. We have Bigfoot sightings, we have lake monsters, we have everything, the whole gamut of strangeness here in Michigan. I think we hear about these little stories through our parents and grandparents, and we grow up with that basis in us.
MT: Any theories on why all those boats and planes go missing?
Tenney: The lakes are a very mystical place, Superior is huge. The bottom is immensely deep. Bodies of water have always been likened to a mystical realm. The original aboriginal inhabitants of Michigan thought the lakes were kind of magic. You never know if they knew something we've forgotten.
MT: What are some places you're going to visit on Ghost Stalkers?
Tenney: We're going all over the country. The first six episodes are places that no one has ever seen on television before. We're going to Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Iowa, and Kentucky. We did everything from a residential home, which was in Indiana, to a schoolhouse in Iowa, an old hospital in Georgia, an old mental hospital in Maryland, a plantation that was a slave cemetery, an Indian burial mound on property in Kentucky, and Holmesburg State Prison in Pennsylvania.
MT: What makes the show special?
Tenney: A big hook of the show is that we allow people to see who we are. People see us emotionally go through the rollercoaster ride of putting yourself in a place where you know humans have done horrible things to other humans. My worst experience happens at Holmesburg Prison, later on in the season. I spent my whole life trying to stay out of prison; here I am putting myself into one all by myself, all night long. There's no electricity. Horrible things happened in that prison, and there were horrible people that were in there. It was a very powerfully, emotionally overwhelming experience. I have to be prepared for large numbers of people to see me cry, because that will happen in that episode. — mt