jack wagner leaning on a desk
Jack Wagner in his work space Credit: Matthew Reamer

When Jack Wagner was 15, he made a documentary about the haunting of Wheaton’s Grand Theatre. Built in 1925, the historic theater went through several identities over the decades (including an aughts-era punk venue where Wagner’s band played). When he showed up with his camera, the owner shut Wagner and his buddies in the empty theater—and turned out the lights. And Wagner swears that he saw something moving as he looked up toward the ceiling—something he couldn’t explain. He recorded the experience, but when he tried to upload the video files, his computer kept crashing. 

“I remember getting myself scared in a way where I sort of left the paranormal behind,” he said. “I just opted out.” 

That is, until he launched the paranormal podcast Otherworld in 2022. Now, researching supernatural stories is Wagner’s full-time job. Episodes chronicle first-person accounts about unexplainable phenomena: ghosts, aliens, cryptids, and beyond. And even though Wagner left Chicago for Los Angeles in 2014, the show has told several Chicagoland stories, including a “Chicago Tales” episode that delves into three stories adjacent to the Windy City.  


Otherworld began as a segment on Yeah But Still, a popular Patreon show that Wagner hosted with Brandon Wardell. In October 2020, Wagner asked listeners to email him spooky stories for a Halloween episode, and submissions came flooding in. 

“I kept doing it every year, and instead of running out of stories from my audience, there would be more—and they would get more extreme,” he said. “My thinking is that, if I treat these stories seriously and try to tell them in a way that I would any other serious story, more people will come forward to talk about these things. Which has proven to be true.”

As Wagner collected more stories and interviews, he realized he had enough for a spin-off series. When he released the first episode of Otherworld in October 2022, he imagined the passion project as a six-episode season. But the podcast blew up, and stories kept overflowing his inbox. The plan had always been to retire Yeah But Still after its 500th episode, which aired in February. Now, Otherworld has aired 29 episodes and has become Wagner’s full-time focus. 

Wagner’s earnest approach to unbelievable stories has been a hit with his listeners. In less than a year since its genesis, Otherworld has taken off in popularity. At one point, it showed up as number seven in Spotify’s top podcasts list. On Apple Podcasts, it has 4.9 stars from more than 1,800 reviews. A Washington Post article called the show the “This American Life of ghost stories,” and delved into the Gen Z fandom spreading across message boards and Discord servers. 

The podcast’s 14th episode, “Chicago Tales,” tells three stories from the area: a UFO sighting in Beverly, a Mothman encounter in Elgin, and a Chicagoland woman who has been haunted by the same ghost since she was a teenager. Sometimes, the podcast is the first time the subjects have discussed their stories in depth. 

Episode 14 of <i>Otherworld</i> focuses on tales from the Chicagoland area.

Wagner says that when something unexplainable happens to someone, they often want to forget it and move on with their lives. It took some finessing to convince the Mothman source to come on the air. “If you saw the Mothman one time, what do you do with that?” Wagner asked. “You just put it away in the filing cabinet.” 

Ultimately, that reluctance made the story more authentic. The source didn’t seek out the unexplainable; the unexplainable found him. “That’s the funny thing about Chicago stories, to me—the power of the Chicago brain to ignore something bonkers right in front of their face,” Wagner said. “It’s the midwest stubbornness, you know?”

Jessi Czarnowski appears in the third segment of “Chicago Tales,” describing a haunting she’s experienced her whole life. When she was a teenager, her family moved into a house in Glen Ellyn where strange things began to happen: odd sounds, disembodied voices, and nights when she would wake up with her sheets tucked tight around her body in bed. She learned that a teen girl named Christina had lived in the house before and had died in a car accident. And ever since then, Czarnowski swears that Christina has followed her through life—perhaps out of yearning for college, romance, motherhood, and the other worldly milestones she never got to experience.

Otherworld is the first time Czarnowski told her story on record, and she’s grateful for the experience. She feels a camaraderie with other subjects who have appeared on the show. “Even if you don’t believe it, this is still such a huge part of our lives,” she said. “It happened to us. We experienced it. Jack does a great job of getting the listener to understand that.” 

Once, a medium approached Czarnowski in public to confirm Christina’s presence. She has spoken to the spirit in dreams. And she finds that the more she talks about Christina, the more things occur. In fact, after she recorded the podcast episode, she visited her parents to listen together. When they were standing in the living room, something strange happened. “There’s this old music box that plays a creepy little tune,” she said. “All of a sudden, it played a few notes. So we go and look, and the little people are just spinning.” Just Christina saying hi. 

Wagner credits Czarnowski’s story as a turning point in his paranormal journey. The further he dives into the show, the more he opens himself up to new beliefs. Now, he records the show with skeptics in mind. “There’s a difference between being open-minded and believing everything you hear,” he said. “But being skeptical is not something to be proud of. It implies writing something off before even learning about it.” 

Chicago historian and author Adam Selzer, who runs tours under the Mysterious Chicago moniker, says that Chicago is no more haunted than any other city. Instead, the ghost stories become a record of the city’s history. “We have ghosts from the Pullman Riots. We have ghosts from the Eastland Disaster. We have ghosts from the Great Chicago Fire,” he said. “In a lot of cases, that’s just how the history stories survive. After the history itself fades away, people remain interested in the ghosts of it.” 

In fact, Wagner’s very first experience with the paranormal ties into one of Chicagoland’s famous hauntings. When he was in high school, a teacher claimed to have been in attendance when a famous ghost photograph was taken at Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery in Midlothian. In the photo, a pale figure of a woman perches on a headstone. The people in attendance claim that no one was sitting there when the camera shutter clicked. The story fascinated Wagner. In fact, that same teacher first told him about the haunting of the Wheaton Grand. 

So what’s next for Otherworld? As the show expands, Wagner has plans for longer, stranger, more intense stories. He has a backlog of interviews from Chicagoland. He’d love to plan more multiepisode arcs and maybe even start reporting in person for certain stories. And he’d like to keep learning about things that, up until recently, he wouldn’t have believed. “There’s no shortage of these stories,” Wagner said. “As I put out better episodes, people continue to come out of the woodwork and tell me things that I never thought I’d be hearing.”

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