Hans Holzer at 100: America’s First TV Ghost Hunter Still Haunts Paranormal Community

(Originally published at Den of Geek)

Born in Vienna on January 26, 1920, Hans Holzer was like many children, fascinated by the ghost and fairy stories he heard in his youth. But those tales, told by his Uncle Henry, which he retold at school to the disapproval of adults, stayed with Holzer. Ghosts became his life’s work as one of the world’s most famous figures in the paranormal field.

Before his death in 2009, at age 89, Holzer authored nearly 140 books on the paranormal, extraterrestrial life, witchcraft, and more, beginning with 1963’s Ghost Hunter. During a career that famously involved the “Amityville Horror” house case in 1977, Holzer also taught parapsychology at the New York Institute of Technology, and both appeared on, and consulted for, Leonard Nimoy’s late 1970s show In Search Of… And interestingly, actor Dan Aykroyd claimed an obsession with Holzer, which inspired him to write Ghostbusters.

The paranormal subgenre of reality television exploded around 2005 – a trend that continues today with numerous series on networks such as Travel Channel, and A&E, and which has expanded online. Four decades prior, Hans Holzer was one of America’s first famous ghost hunters, preceding Ed and Lorraine Warren.

“He was the king of all paranormal media,” says Dave Schrader, lead investigator of Travel Channel’s unscripted series The Holzer Files, which re-examines Holzer’s cases, and host of the popular paranormal radio show Beyond The Darkness. “He was like the Howard Stern of his time, and was on TV, wrote for movies, and wrote books.”

“He became our first multi-media spokesperson for the paranormal,” says Jeff Belanger, author of more than a dozen books on the paranormal, co-host/producer of New England Legends podcast, and longtime writer/researcher on Travel’s Ghost Adventures. “He had the personality for it; he had the storytelling ability, and he was putting himself out there at a time when no one else was.”

“He was one of the very few here in the States to have been able to publish most of his findings into digestible books,” says daughter Alexandra Holzer, who authored the 2008 book Growing Up Haunted. “He also could write fiction, poetry, sheet music and compose; he wrote, produced and directed some of his own projects, and even recorded two songs on a ‘45 record entitled ‘Ghost Hunter’ (of course).”

His status exploring “the other side” (a phrase he claimed to have coined, and did help popularize) was an impressive development considering he left Austria—and his studies of archaeology and history at the University of Vienna—with his family in 1938 before the annexation of the country into Nazi Germany. Re-settling in New York City, he continued studies at Columbia University, eventually earned a master’s degree in comparative religion, and a PhD in parapsychology from the (rather dubious) London College of Applied Science. In his personal life, Holzer married the Countess Catherine Buxhoeveden in 1962, and had two daughters, Alexandra and Nadine Widener, before the marriage ended.

Holzer’s work impacted the paranormal field in significant ways. Most notably, the way he spoke about it was thoughtful and scholarly. He eschewed words such as “supernatural” because it suggested phenomena was outside of scientific definition. Rather than using “belief”—which he called the “uncritical acceptance of something you can’t prove”—he said he focused on evidence.

His approach was almost journalistic, yet sympathetic; Holzer viewed ghosts (and their spiritual cousins, “stay behinds”) as “a fellow human being in trouble.” He felt strongly that tragedies would ensnare unfortunate souls, and trap them between the spirit world and this one, “unable to proceed due to the inability to free themselves from emotional turmoil.”

Belanger says he understood the power of storytelling in trying to connect his audience with the hauntings.

“He combined some aspects of journalism, but at the end of the day was definitely about trying to capture the story, which is kind of really what all of us are trying to do … there’s obviously varying objectivity when it comes to every single case, but at the end of the day he tried to capture a haunt as objectively as he could to take you, the reader, listener, viewer into it so you can form your own opinions.”

Holzer developed a unique take on how the other side was structured as well, detailing a bureaucratic process that involves a queue, and checking in with an afterlife clerk for another shot on Earth. In 2005, he told Belanger’s Ghostvillage that people would be free of disease after life, but otherwise, things looked pretty similar to this realm with houses, trees – just “maybe a little nicer.”

Holzer’s books and media appearances helped bring ghosthunting into people’s homes. Less than a year after his first book was published, he appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in January 1964. By 1965, it was The Merv Griffin Show and the Today show in 1967. He would continue to make television appearances throughout the rest of his life.

“We’re all standing on his shoulders to some degree,” says Belanger with regards to Holzer bringing paranormal investigation to television.

“There were only a few names of people that were out there really consistently looking into this, and his was arguably the biggest when I was growing up, so I think that he sort of set the tone for what paranormal investigation is supposed to look like for my generation.”

Belanger adds Holzer understood the media, and used it as a way to further discussion.

“He’d say ‘Okay, laugh at it if you will, say there’s no such thing as ghosts, but here’s something I found’, and that cracked the door to get other people talking about it, and that door has just been cracked more and more ever since the 1960s thanks in large part to him — now, we’ve got all these tv shows that have really blown that door wide open.”

For his part, Schrader – who dedicated his book The Other Side: A Teen’s Guide to Ghost Hunting and the Paranormal to the researcher — remembered the “slow indoctrination” of Holzer into his life.

“Growing up, my mom and aunt were avid readers, and they really had a wide fascination with the paranormal, and there were always books laying around by Hans Holzer at one of their houses.

But Schrader says Holzer also “made it okay to talk about these experiences.”

“He didn’t treat people with disrespect, he didn’t roll his eyes at people; he went, heard their stories, and did what he could to help the spirits.”

“He cared about the cases and the people no matter what,” says Belanger. “That’s the business he was in: having people welcome him into their homes to talk about something deeply personal, deeply profound, and he captured those stories.”

Alexandra echoes this sentiment when speaking of the way her father dressed when in the field, which she says has inspired other investigators to wear a fedora-style hat, buttoned shirt, and jacket.

“He was dressed comfortably but always with something of taste and décor; he felt it set the tone of respect and care in dealing with so many.”

That care and respect may have been influenced by his first visual paranormal experience, which took place after he moved to New York City. He described seeing the ghost of his mother in a white nightgown, pushing his head back upon a pillow to prevent him from getting one of the migraines that plagued him.

“I said, ‘Oh, hello, Mama,’ and she disappeared,” Holzer told Belanger.

Holzer also led tours, and highlighted the geographic sprawl of ghost stories with books such as The Great British Ghost Hunt, The Lively Ghosts of Ireland, Haunted Hollywood, The Ghosts of Dixie, Ghosts of New England, and Hans Holzer’s Travel Guide to Haunted Houses, among others.

Paranormal researcher Peter Underwood, a contemporary who wrote Holzer’s obituary for The Guardian, said his colleague told him, “There are thousands of houses, if not hundreds of thousands, all over the world where stay-behinds, and ghosts, and memories that won’t fade, keep sharing the apartments with flesh-and-blood occupants …”

And that meant an endless supply of material for investigations and books. Impressively, during a time before reality TV ghost hunting shows populated the landscape, Holzer’s writing, lectures, and appearances provided a living for his family. But Holzer was remarkably progressive.

While the predominant methods seen in paranormal television today are influenced by Judeo-Christian theologies, Holzer viewed traditional organized religions as profit-making corporations. He was something of an elder statesman in Wiccan communities and other pagan traditions, and prominently contributed to the mainstream education of such philosophies via books The Truth About Witchcraft, and Inside Witchcraft. He ascribed to reincarnation and was convinced he had previously lived during the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands. And though demons and demonic possession became fashionable, he didn’t buy into devils, monsters, or other supernatural beings.

And rather notably for the time in which he lived, he was a vegan.

“We used to go out to eat but back then finding a vegan restaurant was quite the challenge,” says Alexandra. “You don’t want to go to a place with him without enough choices; it could get ugly!”

Although the modern paranormal investigative community has become known for a plethora of gadgets, meters, ghost boxes, and so on, Holzer preferred looking to the past for his work. During field research, he utilized a “trance medium” where a spirit would use a medium’s mind to convey messages. Trance mediums were popular during the Spiritualism era of the late 19th century. Along with a pen and paper, camera, and audio recorder, this was enough for Holzer.

“He was never keen on technology,” says Schrader. “He always believed the basics.”

Paranormal researcher, and “Weird Lectures” speaker John E.L. Tenney recalls a time in the 1990s Holzer saw his equipment he planned to take on an investigation.

“He asked me, ‘What are you going to do with all that stuff? I said, ‘Maybe find a ghost?’” says Tenney. “He laughed, and said, ‘Someday you’ll throw all that stuff away, and you’ll allow yourself to have an experience.’”

“He was right.”

Holzer also possessed a level-headed approach to investigations, not appearing to be easily shaken. Indeed, he said he had never been frightened on a case.

According to Schrader: “When he’s hearing some of the most chilling things from the spirit world, he always remained even keel, even-tempered, and tried to control the conversation and to bring some peace to the spirits—instead of winding them up or making things worse, he was always the calming influence.”

Holzer remains associated with well-known cases such as the Whaley House in San Diego—which he decided was the most haunted home in America—and the Barnstable House in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. But the Dutch Colonial house in Amityville, New York, became the location for his most famous, and likely most controversial, case.

Following the 1974 murder of six that occurred in the structure on Ocean Avenue, the Lutz family moved in in 1975, and only stayed 28 days before they left, claiming they were tormented by evil entities. This became the basis for Jay Anson’s 1977 book The Amityville Horror: A True Story, which was then adapted into a film. Holzer investigated the home that same year with medium Ethel Johnson-Meyers. Johnson-Meyers claimed she channeled the spirit of a Shinnecock Native American chief who revealed the home was built on a sacred burial ground (despite the Amityville Historical Society noting it was the Montauk tribe who would have been on that land).

Holzer’s investigation, as well as photos he took from the scene, became part of the Amityville lore, and he wrote multiple books about the case—Murder in Amityville, Amityville Horror, Amityville II: The Possession, The Amityville Curse and The Secret of Amityville—two of which became the basis for movie sequels.

As for Hans Holzer at 100, Dave Schrader says he believes the investigator would now embrace technology.

“Now you’ve got real engineers, real scientists that are putting effort into creating tools and equipment that will test the theories,” he says. “He might have been reluctant to move into it, but I think he would have begun grasping some of this as well and utilizing the technology because I think he would see that it might be even less fallible than a medium.”

Meanwhile, Alexandra believes her father would be back in Europe, tackling the subject matter of UFOs, writing, and composing more music. She says he grew weary of reported hauntings, and would say, “There’s more to life than a ghost who refuses to move on! There are other worlds and beings here and out there!”

Alexandra adds that, on her father’s birthday on January 26th, her family will reminisce of the moments they shared, and she will make his favorite cold salad, “a Russian recipe from my mother’s mother, Rosine Buxhoeveden, who was very close to father.”

“And in the wee hours of that morning, after the coffee is brewed, I’ll toast to him while all are still asleep as coffee was his go-to choice of beverage brewing in our home at all hours of the day and night.”

And though Holzer passed away 11 years ago, Belanger did ask him about his centennial, and what he might be doing on his 100th birthday.

“Looking forward to my 101st,” he told the author. “I do what I’m meant to do. A man who takes himself too seriously, others won’t take seriously, so I’m very careful about that. I want to be factual and to be useful – and I try to help anybody who wants help.”