Alum of the Month

August 2021

August 2021
Jeff Belanger

(BA, English, ’96)

Q & A:

  • What was your favorite class, who was your favorite professor, or what is your fondest memory of Hofstra?
    Within the first week of school my freshman year, I joined up with the campus publications. It all started with Nonsense Humor Magazine. I wrote a piece for that first issue in my freshman year and didn’t think too much of it until the publication came out.

    I was walking out of the cafeteria toward the dorms when I saw a student sitting on the wall reading Nonsense and laughing out loud. I couldn’t help it… I crept up behind him, looked over his shoulder, and saw the magazine was open to my page! I had the ability to make this person laugh without physically being there! That moment changed my life.

    I’d go on to write for The Hofstra Chronicle and major in English, where Professor Sam Toperoff taught me a love for writing and storytelling. And I’d learn Swahili and later linguistics from Dr. Robert Leonard.

    Since that moment outside the cafeteria, I have never stopped creating content for public consumption. I’ve authored more than a dozen books, written for many newspapers and magazines, produced audio content for podcasts, told stories in front of live audiences, and helped produce hundreds of hours of prime-time cable television. And it all started with … well … Nonsense.
  • What was your first job after graduating from Hofstra, and what was the most valuable thing learned in that position?
    After graduating from Hofstra, I spent the seven longest months of my life in corporate America, where I learned that I don’t belong in corporate America. I left that job, took all of my savings, and started a biweekly arts and entertainment newspaper in Fairfield County, Connecticut.

    The newspaper made it about a year before we went out of business. In that year, I learned that I still loved the thrill of deadlines and feature stories that could bring communities together, and that my favorite feature story to write was the Halloween/local haunt story in October. (I also learned that a lot of local businesses didn’t care to pay for the ad space they booked with us.)
    I was out of work only one day before a local advertising agency hired me on the spot. I spent a few months there before my tech startup client snatched me away and started sending me all over the world. The money was good, but the travel was great. While on the road, I’d slip off to local haunts and write about them for my website. No matter what I was doing, writing always tugged at me. I landed my first book deal back in 2003 and left a lucrative tech job for a $5,000 book advance on a tome that took six months to write. I’ve never looked back.

    Incidentally, it just occurred to me that 1996 was not only the year I graduated from Hofstra; it’s also the last time I updated my resume. Throughout my career, I’ve earned new work and jobs based on my reputation and the projects I’ve produced.
  • What is your field of specialty, and how did you come to work in the industry?
    Since 2004, I’ve worked almost exclusively in producing content on ghosts, folklore, history, and legends for books, newspapers, magazines, live audiences, podcasts, and television. It’s not a career I planned, but it’s something I wouldn’t trade for anything.

    After my newspaper went out of business, I learned that my Halloween feature was getting more traffic on our website than all the other content combined. So, I took that article and started my own website back in 1999. What started as six webpages eventually grew to more than 50,000 pages of content, and it launched my career as an expert on all things weird.
  • What advice would you give Hofstra students?
    Find your voice. Use it. Leave your mark.
  • In one word, how would you describe Hofstra?
    Impossible to do without hyphens! Opportunity-offering-inspiration-inducing-path-finding-hallowed-grounds-I-even-met-my-wife-there.
  • How did your interest in legends, folklore, and the unexplained begin?
    I grew up in an old New England town. When you’re around old, historic buildings, there are bound to be a few stories kicking around. I had a friend who lived in a centuries-old house who claimed his house was haunted. We’d have sleepovers there and break out the Ouija board. I was intrigued with the idea that this was nothing like a Hollywood horror movie: The haunting was so matter of fact — an old man appears in the upstairs hallway from time to time, then disappears. I never saw the old man as a kid, but I didn’t think my friend was lying to me either.

    After exploring hundreds of haunts and legends around the world, I realized ghosts —whether you believe in them or not — are a direct connection to our past. It takes an entire community to keep a legend alive, and they keep it alive because there’s some inherent lesson from the past we still haven’t learned. Whether that’s an unsolved murder, a child who went missing and was never seen again, or a significant mark left on history. Those things will haunt us for centuries.
  • What inspired you to branch into the paranormal side of media?
    Beyond intrigue in the subject, I found early on in my writing career that articles related to the paranormal received a lot of views on the internet. I guess paranormal fans were early adopters of the web. Plus, I loved the mystery aspect of the subject. In the paranormal, we get to ask the biggest questions humans have ever asked: What happens after we die? Are we alone in the universe? Do we know every creature who walks the earth with us? Through exploring folklore and legends, we get to ask these questions without the walls of religious dogmas or preconceived notions getting in the way. If you want to believe the stories are just campfire tales, there’s still value in the story.
  • What is the most rewarding part of being a paranormal podcast host?
    The New England Legends podcast was born from the New England Legends television series on PBS and Amazon Prime. I have been hosting, writing, and producing the series and related segments for PBS since 2013.

    When we produce the television series, we’re limited by budget, resources, and locations. For example, if we want to film a reenactment of a Civil War battle scene, we could literally spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make that happen. Audio productions require much less budget because it’s theater of the mind.

    In a podcast, we can throw in some 99-cent sound effects of cannons thundering and muskets firing, and boom, you’re in the middle of a Civil War battle. Our podcast is short and scripted to include voice actors and sound effects. It’s been a blast to produce each week. We’re coming up on our 200th episode and have garnered millions of downloads.  
  • How did your most recent publication, The Call of Kilimanjaro: Finding Hope Above the Clouds, challenge you as an author?
    My 2017 climb to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro changed me as a person. Writing about the experience for my latest book changed me as an author. I’ve made a career out of finding and telling other people’s stories. But this one is my story. Memoir writing is a different animal.

    I wrote this book in nine drafts over the span of close to two years. It’s the kind of project I had to walk away from for months at a time. Plus, an experience like Kilimanjaro takes a little time to fully soak into your soul. My goal was to be honest and vulnerable.

    The inspiration behind the climb came from losing my brother-in-law to cancer back in 2015. His diagnosis took us all by surprise. Losing someone too early like that has a way of forcing you to face your own mortality. His death served as a wake-up call to stop putting off big plans for a future that may not arrive. The best time to climb a mountain is today. In the process of climbing Kilimanjaro, I was able to raise over $17,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to help in their fight against blood cancers.

    When I took Swahili at Hofstra way back in 1994, I recall my mother asking me two questions: Where do they even speak that? (Spoiler alert: eastern Africa, including Tanzania and Kenya), and my mom’s second question: When the hell will you ever use that?! (Spoiler 2: 2017 on Mt. Kilimanjaro.)

    One never knows what seeds will get sown at Hofstra.
Jeff Belanger

Jeff Belanger is an author, podcaster, storyteller, adventurer, and explorer of the unexplained. He has a passion for mysteries and legends.

Always one for chasing adventures, Jeff has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa; explored the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru; searched the catacombs of Paris, France; faced his lifelong struggle with basophobia on his birthday by going skydiving; and explored haunts all over the world – from a former TB sanatorium in Kentucky, to medieval castles in Europe, to an abandoned prison in Australia.

Jeff has written more than a dozen books that have been published in six languages. He is the Emmy-nominated host, writer, and producer of the New England Legends series on PBS and Amazon Prime, and he’s been the writer and researcher for every episode of Ghost Adventures on Travel Channel. Jeff also provides programs and lectures to audiences all over the world and has been a guest on hundreds of radio and television networks and programs, including History Channel; Travel Channel; Biography Channel; Reelz; PBS; Living TV (UK); Sunrise 7 (Australia); The Maury Show; CBS News Early Show; CBS Sunday Morning; FOX, NBC, ABC, and CBS affiliates; National Public Radio; BBC; Australian Radio Network; and Coast to Coast AM.

His latest book is The Call of Kilimanjaro: Finding Hope Above the Clouds.