In retelling paranormal experiences, students, teacher debate importance of age, persona, role models in regard to believing in paranormal activity

May 24, 2021

Tiny shells strung on a thin thread, the ends fastened together by a metal clasp. This necklace, while seemingly brand-new, was the first and last object senior Grace Comerford, then a third grader in Chicago, said she received from her friend Hannah.

Senior Grace Comerford holds her hair as senior Amelia Dickson clasps a necklace around her neck. Comerford said the necklace was a gift from a girl she met that did not actually
exist. (Clare Dierckman)

Comerford has vivid memories of Hannah. She said, “She had just moved (to Oak Lawn, Illinois) apparently. She was really sweet, but the one thing (I noticed) about her was she was pale. I’m pale—you can see my veins—but she was worse than me. But she also had this pale bleach blonde, almost white, hair. If you dyed your hair bleach white, that’s what it looked like. She had really big blue eyes, ginormous blue eyes, like they were Photoshopped but in real life.”

Comerford said she remembered Hannah making up stories about ghosts in the girls bathroom and it became a school issue because she told these stories and freaked people out. Comerford said, “But I was the only person who wasn’t scared of her… She liked me for that. She always said, ‘Thanks for not being angry at me’ because everyone hated her for (telling the stories).

“Come to the end of the year… she looks at me and she’s like, ‘Hey, I’m leaving.’ I figured she was moving so I (asked for her number) so I could call her new house phone and she said, ‘No, I’m not moving.’ I was like, ‘Then why are you leaving?’—because you wouldn’t leave a school without moving. She said, ‘You don’t have to worry about that, but I’m leaving. I just want to thank you for being around. You’re a good person. I hope people recognize that, but I’ll be watching.’ And I have this necklace—I still have it—it’s a little shell necklace and she said, ‘Take this. Just remember me, don’t forget me.’ I asked, ‘Will I ever see you?’ and she said, ‘No, you’ll never see me again.’ And then after that day I never saw her again.”

But there was one problem with Hannah. When Comerford recently spoke with her childhood friends over the phone, none remembered the girl. At all. Family friends, too. None had any reColections of this pale childhood friend who told ghost stories about the girls bathroom. With years between third grade and now, Comerford said she is convinced Hannah was a ghost—that she didn’t really exist at all. 

Comerford’s experience is not as unique as it seems. According to LiveScience, 71% of Americans said at some point in their lives they witnessed a paranormal experience. It is commonly hypothesized that most people witness their first paranormal experience in their childhood due to an overactive imagination, according to a study of the University of New Hampshire. However, contrary to the hypothesis, the study findings “support past research that age is not positively correlated with paranormal beliefs.” 

Like Comerford, senior Halle Cole said she experienced her first paranormal experiences during her childhood. It, too, involved a little girl who did not exist, but in Cole’s case, she was the only one able to see this girl. 

Rhea Acharya

Cole said, “(My first paranormal experience) was (with) a little ghost girl and we just would play together. She was harmless and I wasn’t scared of her, but I don’t remember talking to her ever. My mom said one night I said, ‘She used to live in my room,’ as if I knew her or she told me that.”

According to Durham University psychologist Charles Fernyhough, two-thirds of children have imaginary companions, but Cole and Comerford both insisted the experiences they had were not with imaginary friends but genuine spirits. For her part, Comerford said she attributes her early paranormal experiences to the environment of the neighborhood she lived in during her childhood.

“I blame the paranormal (experiences) on the fact that there were very (few) kids in my neighborhood and people constantly (died),” she said.

“Not to sound morbid, but there were plenty of old people (living in the neighborhood) and the houses had been there even before those old people had moved in with their families- some (buildings) were even from the 1920s.” 

Click here to view a guide on haunted attractions in Hamilton County.



Paranormal experiences are not limited to kids telling ghost stories. WHJE radio adviser Dominic James said he is certain he has seen a UFO.

Comerford and Amelia Dickson walk around a park trail as Comerford tells Dickson her childhood paranormal experiences, like the story about a girl she met in third grade who didn’t actually exist. Unlike Comerford, her family friends and former classmates didn’t remember Hannah, but Comerford has tangible proof of Hannah’s existence in the necklace Hannah gave her in the third grade. (Clare Dierckman)

“It sounds ridiculous,” he said. “They did not take me up into the spaceship, they did not strip me naked and do weird things with me and take me to Venus. But I was in Spain on holiday with my family. So, my wife, my daughter and her best friend —my daughter would have been 15 at the time, so this was about 10 years ago—we were having a barbecue on the beach, and it was dusk. 

“And it was on the south coast of Spain. Not directly next to an airport, about 50 miles away from Málaga airport, which is quite a busy airport, but the planes didn’t fly close to where we were. As it got dark, our attention— not just mine (but) all of us, all four of us—our attention was drawn to a bright light in the sky. And it was suddenly moving across the sky at an incredible speed—(a) warp-speed kind of thing, much faster than any domestic airline and much faster, I think, than any jet fighter I’ve ever seen. It was completely silent. And it moved right across the sky. It was a bright light, (and it) just went ‘bam’ across the stars, really, really fast. Then it just suddenly stopped and it hung in the air for a couple of seconds, and then it went off in completely the opposite direction. So it definitely was not a meteor or a shooting star or something like that. It was mechanical, and it was many, many miles away. It couldn’t have been an insect.

“Again, I have no explanation of it at all. We did actually go online to see if anybody else had seen it… but we didn’t find anything.”

James said he’s normally skeptical about paranormal events, though he said he does think it likely that extraterrestrial life exists. He’s not alone. According to a 2017 survey conducted by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, about half of adult Americans believe in the existence of alien life, with about 16% to 17% of respondents saying they have actually seen a UFO.

Senior Grace Comerford looks into a mirror to recreate one of her paranormal experiences. She said when she was younger she had an incident where she had a bloody nose and looked up from the sink to the mirror. She said she saw a tall figure above her and when she looked back down, then up again, the figure was no longer there. (Clare Dierckman, Kiersten Riedford)

“I think there must be the opportunity for further life forms to exist in the universe,” James said. “I am not of the belief that God created earth and men and that was the only thing that has been created, or (that) created itself. We know there are millions and millions of stars out there, so it seems extraordinarily arrogant of us to suggest that there’s no other life form out there.”

A much smaller percentage of American adults—about 18%—say they have seen or felt a ghost, according to a Pew Research survey from 2015. 29% of Americans surveyed said they have felt at least in touch with the dead. According to Gallup, about 47% of Americans, 28% of Canadians and 40% of Britons believe in the existence of haunted houses.

So why do some people believe or not believe in the paranormal?

James said, “I suppose we were brought up on (it). Most people in our culture—well in fact most cultures—(are) brought up believing there’s more to life than this existence we currently are in. In America, a majority of people are part of some church. And even if you aren’t now, you were probably brought up to believe that either by your parents or you feel very influenced by school as well. Whether you’re an atheist or not, people still stand up in the high schools and talk about the pledge and all this kind of stuff so you can’t escape. Whatever you might actually believe. I actually think (this is) affected by the fact that people believe there’s more to existence and justice.”

Comerford said she agreed, saying her recent adoption of Buddhist ideology as opposed to her parents who believe in Christianity allowed her to believe in the paranormal more than those who don’t. She said contrary to the Catholic teachings of it being one versus the malevolent spirits, her ideology allows her relationship to be co-existing with spirits rather than fighting with them.

She said, “(Buddhist ideologists) not only have the mindset of having peace and tranquility and having a calmer mind, but also that you coexist with everything. Through their yoga practices, they say that there is no such thing as a negative thought, it just exists. And for me that kind of transferred over. To me (spirits) just exist. (Spirits are) just another thing that exists and you can’t be angry at (them) for doing that.”

Click here to read a story about students who practice Wicca and Paganism as their primary religions.


While an individual’s belief in the paranormal depends on various aspects of their background, those that do believe in the paranormal are left with the question of whether they should accept that spirits are interacting with them, or if they should fear it and try to rid it from their lives. Cole and Comerford both said their family members had a large influence in their decision. 

Emily Sandy

Cole said her mother helped in overcoming the fear of the paranormal in her life. Cole said because her mother also had experiences with the paranormal, “it was easier to deal with because it seemed common and made it less scary.”

For Comerford, she said her grandparents played a big part in helping her overcome her fears of the paranormal because she said they too had their own paranormal experiences. Both Cole and Comerford agreed having someone to talk to about their experiences not only made it easier for them to accept that the paranormal exists, but also allowed them to set aside their fear of it.

Comerford said, “Don’t be scared of things all the time. The unknown is commonly intimidating, but it shouldn’t be because it doesn’t matter; ultimately, (whatever is going to happen) is going to happen. I like these ghost stories because as much as they were creepy, they were essential for me to be comfortable with things happening and changing all the time because that’s how (life) went for me.”

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