Haunted stories inspired Danny Robins’ play – ‘I found ghosts’

2:22 A Ghost Story 

Television shows about paranormal activity tend to veer into near-hysteria. Witness Living TV’s Most Haunted from the early noughties when Yvette Fielding screamed her way around a series of spooky manor houses.

Which irritates Danny Robins, the award-winning writer of the Laurence Olivier-nominated West End play 2:22 A Ghost Story, which has starred Lily Allen and Cheryl Cole, and the popular BBC podcasts, The Battersea Poltergeist and Uncanny. Indeed, this go-to ghosts guy is intent on returning balance to the conversation.

But when supernatural investigations create spectacles rather than finding spectres, they fuel the idea that people who see ghosts are, well, crazy.

“For a long time, we haven’t talked about ghosts in a respectful way,” he says. “People who had things happen to them or UFO encounters were dismissed. They were laughed at, mocked and maybe had their mental health questioned.

“So for people to feel there’s now a community that will listen and not judge – I’m so pleased and proud to have created that.

Robins came to prominence thanks to 2021’s The Battersea Poltergeist, chronicling the real-life ghostly happenings in a south London home. It clocked up millions of downloads during lockdown.

His follow-up, Uncanny, telling stories of paranormal encounters, has notched up 10 million listens on BBC Sounds, with a UK tour and a TV version arriving this autumn.

Robins’ boyish enthusiasm is infectious, but it is his balanced tone that underpins his success.

His interviewees are generally “hardcore rational sceptics” or people who have been “blindsided” by a chilling experience.

Uncanny’s most popular story involves an “evil” spirit that terrorised a geneticist and his roommate in 1981 at a Belfast University student residence. Other people later came forward with accounts of apparitions and loud noises before the building’s demolition in 2004.

“It’s well on its way to becoming a classic British haunting,” the 46-year-old smiles.

Uncanny tours UK venues from October 10 to December 1 with tickets available via uncannylive.com

But don’t mistake ghosts as entirely a thing of the past. There was a rise in sightings during the pandemic, which Robins believes was a reaction to a sense of mortality not felt since the Second World War.

“Now we’re faced with this existential threat of climate change and war in Europe,” he continues. “You can draw parallels with the earlier wars when people got interested in the supernatural to explain societal chaos, uncertainty and death.”

He relies on instinct to decide which tales to debate.

“Does it send a shiver down my spine? Does it surprise me? The stories that make my heart race are the ones where somebody begins: ‘I don’t believe in ghosts’ – after they’ve seen a ghost.”

While he’s not found the “definitive proof” yet, he would love to believe they are real. “I love the idea that there is magic out there – another layer of existence – and that death is not the end.”

During his early twenties, he had what he believed was a near-death experience when he mistook a panic attack for a heart attack and envisioned angels. Afterwards, he developed a profound fear of death. “It was a scary, horrible moment that haunts me until this day,”

“Literally every second of every day I thought I was dying. That still resides in me.” He first became hooked on ghosts growing up in Newcastle.

His mother, raised by devout Catholics, was an atheist and his fascination with faith was ignited by his religious grandparents. “Some people found God, and I found ghosts,” he reasons.

For years, he saw them as fun figures, like Jedis or hobbits, until a friend told him her convincing ghost story, which inspired him to write 2:22 A Ghost Story.

Lily Allen launched the show in the summer of 2021. It’s set in a haunted Victorian home, with four characters, including a sleep-deprived new mum, arguing about faith, love and class as the clock ticks inevitably towards 2:22am.

After its record-breaking five transfers in London, it lands on Broadway next year. “It was such a huge risk: the producers were putting on a new play with a new playwright with an actress who had never acted before – Lily Allen,” Robins recalls.

“And it was a ghost story, a genre critics can be sniffy about. There were so many things set up for it to fail.”

After performing in a university sketch group with comedian Marcus Brigstocke, he spent two decades as a jobbing comedian so he’s enjoying his new fame as Britain’s go-to ghost guy.

He works mainly in his garden shed because his Swedish wife Eva and his two boys, Leo, 10, and Max, seven, all hate ghosts.

“There was an eight-year-old at one of my conventions. I told my kids, ‘He loves ghosts and my podcasts – why can’t you?!”

Now he’s writing a book about the paranormal and is excited to bring Uncanny to BBC Two. His devout fans have warned him: “Don’t screw it up!” He’s unlikely to… as long as he keeps satisfying the believers and the sceptics.

“No one else out there is bringing those people together,” he adds. “I’m just excited about telling properly scary ghost stories in an intelligent way.”

2:22 A Ghost Story is at the Apollo Theatre and tours from September 1, visit 222aghoststory.com

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Stevie Flavio
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