Last year, we peeled back the layers of hauntings, spirits, and demons to explore what lurks behind the legends. From scientific explanations for eerie sights and sounds at a haunted penitentiary to a psychoanalyst’s unconventional theory for one man’s belief in a supernatural mongoose, our stories examined the why behind each bump in the night and whisper in the rafters.

We met the Bell Witch, the Dybbuk, and the Donkey Lady, and along the way learned that sharing and having paranormal experiences actually has value in helping us feel more excited, curious, and connected. The latter was a lesson gleaned from—where else?—a haunted Norwegian grocery store. But you don’t need to head to the Scandinavian countryside to get a healthy dose of the supernatural—just check out a few of our favorite ghost stories from 2023.

The Modern Resurrection of the Dybbuk, Demon of Jewish Folklore

By Anya Gruber

An ancient demonic spirit enjoyed a recent resurgence and it’s all thanks to a wine cabinet. The owner, who had listed it for sale on eBay, noted that his cabinet had been possessed by the spirit of a Dybbuk. What followed was a viral sensation of TikTokkers exposing or debunking their own “Dybbuk boxes,” a trend that even led to a 2012 horror film. But what is a Dybbuk, exactly? Writer Anya Gruber dives into the history and revival of this malevolent spirit of Jewish folklore, whose origins can be traced back to the Talmud.

Why Are There So Many Female Ghosts?

By Nathaniel Scharping

“There is no conclusive database of hauntings to reference, of course…But browse through lists of haunted places and famous ghosts, and you’ll notice a distinct bias,” writes Nathaniel Scharping. That bias, paranormal scholars say, skews female. From the ladies in white to the specters of scorned brides, women dominate supernatural tales and sightings. But why? Scharping unpacks the intersection of gender roles and the paranormal, from Victorian social mores to the rise of spiritualism and beyond.

The Bell Witch continues to scare us today: <em>The Blair Witch Project</em> was partially inspired by her story.
The Bell Witch continues to scare us today: The Blair Witch Project was partially inspired by her story. ANNA SOROKINA FOR ATLAS OBSCURA

The Elusive, Maddening Mystery of the Bell Witch

By Colin Dickey

In 1817, a strange series of events befell a family in Red River, Tennessee. What began as sightings of mysterious animals and women dangling from trees turned into unnerving noises and eventually the sounds of a woman’s voice. It became clear that this female specter had a vendetta against the family’s patriarch, John Bell. After years of torment, Bell died—a casualty of what became known as “the Bell Witch.” Why did the spirit pursue Bell? And why does the story of the Bell Witch exist at all? Dickey journeys back to the American frontier to examine the unique cultural context that may have birthed the story of this mysterious malevolent spirit—and why it continues to enchant and terrify today.

At a Haunted Grocery Store, Trying to Explain the Unexplained Has Consequences

By Kate Golembiewski

In 2018, sociologist Lars Birger Davan embarked on a research project. His subject? A haunted grocery store in rural Norway. For years, strange happenings—from electrical mishaps to shadowy figures to flying potatoes—had plagued the store. Davan interviewed customers and employees, trying to glean how experiencing and sharing supernatural phenomena affects people. While coming forward with strange experiences can lead to judgment or ostracization, Davan learned that, when in a welcoming environment, it can be reassuring and helps people feel less alone. But it’s more than connection; there’s a distinct thrill that comes with paranormal phenomena. As one researcher put it, the supernatural injects some excitement into a monotonous life: “And suddenly now, you’ve got a ghost in your house. Well, that is really friggin’ interesting.”

Eastern State Penitentiary's design makes the perfect setting for haunting sights and sounds.
Eastern State Penitentiary’s design makes the perfect setting for haunting sights and sounds. OGphoto / Getty Images

Bump in the Night: The Rackety Reason People Think This Prison Is Haunted

By Fayge Horesh

America’s earliest experiment in solitary confinement, Eastern State Penitentiary has the kind of dark history that leads to haunted tales. But, as writer Fayge Horesh reports, there are plenty of scientific explanations for the eerie creaks, footsteps, and sightings at the now-defunct Philadelphia prison. First, there’s the architecture: Built in 1829, the gothic-style structure consists of vaulted ceilings that are perfect for casting creepy shadows and carrying sounds. The prison’s radial design, with corridors branching out from a central surveillance hub, are also excellent at transmitting sounds long distances. So what some ghost hunters may deem the whisper or tread of a ghost is likely just a conversation or scurrying critter elsewhere in the penitentiary. Though it may not be as exciting as the ghosts of past prisoners, Horesh’s story is a fascinating investigation into how a building earns its haunted status.

The Bizarre, True Story of Gef the Talking Mongoose

By Steven Tucker

As far as poltergeists go, Gef is a standout: He was a mischievous mongoose who could speak, play catch, and dish out solid burns (he told one man his head “resembled an onion”). Gef’s story began on the Isle of Man in the 1930s, when a family heard growling coming from the attic. The home’s owner, James Irving, reported that he taught the supernatural creature to speak English and learned that he was the ghost of a mongoose named Gef.

Gef’s story took a fascinating turn when a Hungarian psychoanalyst showed up to investigate. The doctor theorized that ghosts were manifestations of a person’s subconscious and, after failing to make contact with Gef, concluded that he was a projection of Irving’s bored mind. Whether or not Gef was a mongoose, a psychic projection, or a hoax, he continues to fascinate: Last year also saw the release of a film about the talking mongoose spirit.