How the L.A. area creator of 'Otherworld' made the breakout podcast of paranormal encounters

"Otherworld" podcast host Jack Wagner in his recording studio in Alhambra.
"Otherworld" podcast host Jack Wagner in his recording studio in Alhambra. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The podcast "Otherworld" spotlights firsthand stories of paranormal encounters with demons, sasquatch, malevolent spirits, haunted houses and dark forces in need of exorcism, but the scariest thing for host Jack Wagner is the act of finally making something earnest.

At nearly 60 episodes, "Otherworld" marks its first anniversary this month. Since premiering, the podcast has become its own phenomenon. It charted in the iTunes and Spotify top 50, drawing hundreds of thousands of monthly listeners through word of mouth. The host, a 35-year-old who records from his guest bedroom in Alhambra, is an unlikely character in the saturated world of paranormal content. "Otherworld" is the first time Wagner, who is neither an outright skeptic nor a believer, has made something truly sincere.

Wagner moved to Los Angeles a decade ago with a film degree. To get his foot in the door with agents and managers, he built an audience posting “dumb content” to his Instagram alias, Versace Tamagotchi. The snarky jokes grew his account to more than 100,000 followers. He began directing music videos for rappers and serving as creative director for ad-agency campaigns. In 2018, he created the web series “Like and Subscribe,” about the manager of a Hype House-esque influencer dorm for Verizon’s defunct streaming service Go90. (The show was resurrected by Funny or Die.)

Wagner found a flow with “Yeah, But Still,” a podcast he co-hosted with comedian Brandon Wardell. For five years and 500 episodes, the duo interviewed a diverse group including Lizzo, Finn Wolfhard and Taylor Lorenz with the type of bro banter that carries most two-dudes-and-a-microphone shticks. The gig was easy and raked in real cash via Patreon, he said, declining to provide specifics. Once a year, Wagner would produce a scary story episode for Halloween. The episodes took 10 times the amount of production as his other episodes, but he looked forward to releasing them every year.

“I really wasn't into the paranormal at all," Wagner said. "I would watch scary movies on Halloween or whatever, that's it. I didn't really believe in any of this stuff. I was never an astrology person but I always liked hearing people's ghost stories."

Jack Wagner sits in his guest bedroom, which serves as his recording studio.
"I just started doing it for fun," Jack Wagner said, adding that he soon realized how many people had had paranormal experiences that they hadn't discussed with anyone. (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

This curiosity, paired with his interview skills, created what would eventually become "Otherworld." To find these stories, Wagner put out a call on Twitter and was shocked by how many people reported having a personal experience with the paranormal. These were regular people, he said, not just “woo woo” L.A. hippies.

“I'm a super curious person," Wagner said. "That's probably the theme with everything I do. So I obviously wanted to talk to these people, and I just started doing it for fun and I started realizing a lot of people had never told anybody about this stuff."

The stories on "Otherworld" have to be heard to be believed. And even if you don’t believe them, they’re fun — and make for scary-as-hell listening. One woman, thanks to a warning from a psychic, saves her father from death by poisoning at the hands of her stepmother. A married fortunetelling couple is haunted by a demon after a suspicious customer enters their store. A no-nonsense librarian conjures something evil after doing a Goop-approved meditation ritual. A woman survives a murder attempt after three ghosts intervene.

Throughout the hour-ish episodes, Wagner’s voice is nearly nonexistent. Occasionally he’ll pop in to define a phrase, but outside of the introduction, the floor belongs to the storyteller. This approach is different from other supernatural shows, in which hosts play an all-knowing emcee.

“Who cares what I think? Because I don't know anything,” Wagner said. “This is nonfiction and I treat it that way. That's part of the reason why you won’t hear me as much. If it was a fiction show, or pure entertainment, then I could do that. But I'm not telling campfire stories.”

Read more: Demons, killer sloths, analog terror: The 13 best new horror movies to stream this Halloween

Wagner originally envisioned "Otherworld" as a six-episode miniseries. He began working on it seriously in summer 2022 concurrently with his regular podcast gig. He pitched the concept to networks, but none bit. On an undercover research visit to a clairvoyant (who would go on to become a repeat "Otherworld" guest), she brought up his not-yet-released project and urged him to do more than six episodes. (He recorded the session and included it in an episode.) As Halloween approached, he decided to drop the miniseries as an independent, self-funded project.

In less than two months, the show’s audience exceeded that of his five-years-running podcast. By March of this year, Wagner and Wardell closed up shop on "Yeah, But Still" (Wardell now hosts “The Brandon Jamel Show”) and Wagner began to focus on "Otherworld" full time.

“I was like, you know what? I am going to have no income. I'm just going to do this," he said, adding later: “It’s really scary to make something you want to be actually good.”

The weird thing about film school, Wagner said, is "you pay all this money to learn to do this, and then when you actually go and make something, you have to basically hold a gun to somebody's head and make them watch it. Even your friends, nobody wants to watch it, which is weird because it's supposed to be entertainment.”

The mass success that he had long dreamed of, however, did follow — quickly. Wagner’s ghost show earned him representation by United Talent Agency, and the show is part of the podcast network Audacy. Wagner hired a full-time producer, a recent college graduate and "Otherworld" fan. A new episode drops once a week and exclusive episodes on Patreon (where monthly subscribers pay $5 to $30) are released several times a month. An art book collaboration and merchandise have sold out.

Fans connect in a Discord chat room for "Otherworld" listeners. Sarah Roberts, a 32-year-old former school lunch server in Arizona, recently took on a volunteer administrator role.

“Without the fans, there is no show,” Roberts said. “[On Discord] we are all a bunch of very curious people from different places in the world. This podcast is helping people feel connected, fascinated, and that it has sparked this sense of wonder and curiosity that has always been there. There just hasn’t been a place to really explore it without all the hocus-pocus theatrical stuff people throw in front of real people’s experiences.”

This difference in approach is what draws many fans.

“The thing that makes 'Otherworld' stand out to me among paranormal media is the decency and humanity given to those telling their stories. Some paranormal media can feel very exploitative,” said Austin Hayes, 28, a listener in Washington who works in state government.

Otherworld" host Jack Wagner in spooky green lighting.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

“I like that 'Otherworld' approaches these topics by interviewing people who actually seem like they've got their head on straight, avoiding the sensationalized tactics that you can expect from shows like ‘Ancient Aliens’ or ‘Paranormal Investigation," said Jack Feldman, 26, a copywriter in Florida.

Similarities in stories centered on complete strangers are what drove New York resident Maddie Hickey, 27, to subscribe to the "Otherworld" Patreon (her first).

“I've long loved paranormal stories told in first person, but this is the first podcast where the host is really creating a thread throughout all of the episodes," she said. "Although we may never really uncover what is going on, the questions that Jack asks and the connections that he makes really makes me feel like we're getting closer to some kind of 'otherworldly' understanding."

It’s not a coincidence that "Otherworld" is a project born from pandemic closures, when many found it hard to imagine something other than their realities. “A lot of people are cooped up or in a place where they're not happy," Wagner said. "Maybe it's as simple as hearing the show and thinking, maybe tomorrow something interesting will happen to me. This person saw Bigfoot out of nowhere. Maybe I won't see Bigfoot, but maybe tomorrow something unique will happen to me. When I see that happen with people, that makes me happy. The worst feeling is when you think that's never gonna happen.”

As the show moves into its second year, Wagner hopes "Otherworld" will expand to a television show or to more books, while still focusing on the humanity of the storytellers.

“I'll occasionally get a comment saying, ‘Bro, why did they talk so much in the beginning? Just talk about what happened,' " Wagner said. "To that I say, go read a 'Goosebumps' book. This isn't a show about describing a ghost. That’s gonna get boring real fast. This is a story about people.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.