Danny Robins has been searching for ghosts his whole life. He has become an award-winning writer, broadcaster, and producer by finding and telling real-life ghost stories. His podcast series, The Battersea Poltergeist, became a worldwide phenomenon that combined drama and documentary that will now become a TV show with Blumhouse Productions, which has produced Get Out, The Purge, Paranormal Activity, and more creepy content. Robins has written and created various shows for British TV and radio, including the BAFTA-nominated hit series Young Dracula for BBC1, Rudy’s Rare Records and The Cold Swedish Winter and Uncanny, with five million downloads and counting, for BBC Radio 4. At the end of this month, he will bring his stage play, 2:22 – A Ghost Story, to the Ahmanson Theatre after a smash-hit run in the West End. We spoke with Robins about his fascination with ghosts, what makes a compelling ghost story, and what existential truths supernatural stories can reveal in us all.
How did you first become interested in ghosts?
I was a ghost-obsessed kid, but I think it comes from two places. I think one is being brought up in an atheist household. My mom [was] brought up as a Catholic and then became devoutly atheist. [So] I was brought up in this belief-free household. But I’d visit my grandparents and they would have pictures of the Pope up on the wall and slightly scary pictures of Jesus with his Sacred Heart all over the place. I was intrigued by the idea that there might be something I was missing out on, some magic that I could tap into. Some people would have found God—I found ghosts.
The other key incident was when I was in my early twenties, I had a moment where I thought I was dying. I was sure I was having a heart attack and I was hallucinating angels coming down. It wasn’t a heart attack—it was a panic attack. It was something that a lot of people go through and it’s not genuinely life threatening, but at that moment it felt like it was. I think that fear that it instilled in me and the idea that everything was just going to end—all the fun of living and being a part of the universe and having all these amazing relationships with the people you love would cease, I found that more terrifying than any ghost story.
What is it about ghosts that you find so fascinating?
I’m fascinated by belief and by moments in people’s lives that make them change what they believe. That road to Damascus conversation—where you see something that seems to totally rewire your sense of reality. If you’ve seen a ghost, you can’t undo that. You’ve stepped across this threshold, and you’ve entered another world where the rules are different. Maybe there’s life after death and maybe the people we love can come back...I found that really exciting.
I think there’s a paradox at the heart of ghost stories—they are simultaneously frightening but also comforting. Because if that really is a dead person coming back to life, that means there’s hope for us all and that we might get to come back, or the people we loved and lost might come back.
What inspired 2:22 – A Ghost Story?
It was a conversation I had with a friend of mine who told me she had seen a ghost. I thought, how will people in our friendship group react? There’s gonna be people who laugh at you...who judge you and...who find it annoying...and who absolutely believe you. I was really interested about what would happen if you put that life experience into a couple and what would happen if one half of the couple utterly believed that they’d seen a ghost and the other half totally refused to believe those exist. It was a clash of belief systems and cultures and emotions—where does that go? What do you do if that person you love doesn’t believe you? That’s really what 2:22 – A Ghost Story is about.
You’ve worked a lot with television and radio. What went into the decision to make 2:22 – A Ghost Story a stage play?
I’ve always had this love affair with theatre. I spent all of my teenage years at an amateur theatre in Newcastle in the North of England and I spent my entire adult life not doing theatre, really. A few years ago, I got the chance to adapt a radio series made in the U.K. into a play and I got the bug back. [2:22 – A Ghost Story] just felt like a very theatrical piece. And the way that
Matthew [Dunster] has directed it, it feels very rock and roll and in your face. You’re going to jump a bit, you’re gonna want to talk to your neighbors, you’re going to accidentally send your drink flying. To be in a theatre and feel excited and have adrenaline coursing through you and feel scared—if makes you feel so alive. And coming out of the pandemic, we can have a whole audience packed and to see people grabbing onto each other and whooping and jumping is just amazing.
While this play is a ghost story, you manage to bring in mundane truths of marital struggles, parenting, and coping with loss. How do you balance the mundane and the supernatural?
I feel like a lot of horror lies in the mundane. The more real I could make my ghost stories, the more effective I felt it was going to be. I like to sometimes say I make horror for people who don’t think they like scary things, like gore or gruesomeness. And particularly when you’ve had a kid, I think you lose your threshold for scary stuff. But the fact that [these characters] are so real and recognizable, it draws you in and lets you come into this world where the scares build up gradually and you get to the point where you are scared but can cope with it.
[With 2:22 – A Ghost Story], there is this naturalism that you feel like you’re watching a slice of real life in these characters’ lives, so when scary stuff happens it’s particularly scary because it feels like it could happen to [you].
There are also many funny moments in the play. How do you manage to mix both horror and humor?
throughout the production? If you put the words “comedy” and “horror” together, that’s often something that has you running for the exits. [Scary and funny] are bedfellows, though. It’s interesting to look at how many people have moved from comedy into horror. I went to see a stage production of Woman in Black and what I noticed was every time it was a big scare, the reaction of the audience was to laugh afterwards. You try and make yourself feel better after the scare and bring yourself back into the real world and feel normal again. So, in 2:22 – A Ghost Story, we mix comedy moments and scary moments.
Especially in the United States, horror was originally seen as a cult-like medium, a niche genre that was very fandom driven, that has now become more mainstream with popular shows like Black Mirror or Stranger Things and films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Nope. Do you feel like there’s a reason why horror and supernatural stories appeal to a wider audience today?
We live in an age of chaos and uncertainty. Even before the pandemic, you were seeing in the U.K. the rise of Brexit and in the U.S. the rise of Trump, society was changing, and traditional structures were being torn up. Whatever side of the divide you fall onto, society looked quite different. And now we have war in Ukraine, the pandemic, this rising death toll, and the existential threat of climate change. There are different things that are making us confront our mortality in a way we haven’t had to for a long time.
You can draw parallels with just after the first World War or the second World War or even a link back to Jacobean times. When you have real horror in society the stage and the screen reflect it back at you. If we are surrounded by death, we want to know if there is any hope. Society feels a bit hopeless at the moment. So, I think ghosts weirdly do offer that. As much as [ghosts] are going to scare us, they do offer that little beacon of hope.
Another aspect of our rapidly changing society is the adoption of new technologies. Voice activated AI is a new technology that plays a role in 2:22 – A Ghost Story. Do you feel there’s something supernatural about the way we are becoming more of an automated and technological society?
I’m really interested in telling contemporary ghost stories [and] how ghosts can survive and thrive in the world we have now. Traditionally, ghost stories take place in dark castles, moody train stations, gaslit streets. How do ghosts exist in a world of Facebook and Spotify and Amazon Alexa? You can control the lights in your house talking to a little box. The idea of talking to a thing that is not human has that disembodied, almost ghostlike quality is incredibly affecting. Also, there’s this nature of tech that it’s constantly pushing us to be solitary...the more that we exist in the solitary way, the more we are in a place where we are vulnerable.
The home and town that the play takes place in plays a major role in the story. What has it been like to adapt this show to an American audience?
It has been a brilliant journey to go on. I recently spent some time in the States, traveling around a few different American cities, trying to find where my setting was. In Britain, the play is set where I live, in Walthamstow in East London. I know it intimately; I live and breathe it every day. It’s basically in a house like mine, an old, Victorian house that I moved into anddid up. So, the challenge was to find my equivalent Walthamstow in a world that feels real and accessible to an American audience. I did a lot of research and went to a lot of people’s houses and spent ages asking about their heating systems and things that are little plot points in the play and speaking to people who have been affected by gentrification, which is one of the themes of the play.
Now, the play is set in Boston, and I think, hopefully, it feels authentic and real. Massachusetts is rife with ghost stories and it’s a place that exudes history. It’s important that the house feels old and has had these layers of people living there, different layers of a community, which is something that happens a lot with gentrification.
I love the fact that [theatre] is never finished. There’s that moment that you have in any recorded medium where you have to walk away. [But] every night a play is evolving and living and breathing and it’s been beautiful to watch each [production] evolve and adapt. The U.S. version is very much the same play, but I think it has actually grown in many ways. I’ve taken everything I’ve learned from the British version and put it into this.
Anecdotally, there’s a huge rise in ghost sightings and accounts during the pandemic. And I think we can understand that...we spent a lot of the last two years cooped up in our houses...where your house starts to go from feeling friendly and comforting to feeling claustrophobic and that you are trapped in it. I think we relate to haunted houses and that sense of people feeling the house shift into something alien and threatening and unfamiliar.
Most ghost stories happen to people when they are alone, that moment where your senses are heightened and where you are cut off from the world and you’re maybe susceptible to all of those little noises and shadows on the walls. An interesting aspect of the rise in ghost sightings during the pandemic is that they’re taking place at a time when we are very disconnected from our support structures. We’re not around our friends and families as much, and maybe ghosts fill the gaps.