Scary but true

Kathy Kelly examines the past through the lens of the paranormal.

Three years had passed since Kathy Kelly first opened Paranormal Books & Curiosities in Asbury Park, New Jersey, when she stumbled upon something extremely offensive in the summer of 2011.

To be sure, the shop was doing very well. Drafting off the burgeoning revival of the formerly beleaguered shore town, Kelly had managed to coalesce her lifelong passion for folklore and paranormal phenomena into an experience that catered to a diverse demographic that included die-hard believers, incredulous skeptics, and everyone in between. Not only did she specialize in selling an extremely varied collection of more than 4,000 books concerning all manner of supernatural experiences, but she also curated a second-story Paranormal Museum comprising dozens of haunted and historic artifacts from around the world, and hosted regular ghost tours of downtown Asbury and its storied boardwalk.

“Asbury Park was just such a unique place back then. Such a Wild West of a town,” recalls Kelly from the cozy confines of her dimly lit shop on Cookman Avenue, which feels like an ancient, whimsical village library from a fantasy novel. “If I hadn’t stumbled upon Asbury Park at the time, I don’t know that I would have been inspired to open this anywhere else. Because back then, you could still see all of Asbury Park’s scars, and no one thought twice about a paranormal shop opening downtown.”

Life, in short, was good. But then Kelly came across an article written by someone from the Monmouth County Historical Society wherein the author claimed ghost tours were “the prostitution of history.” And that was something Kelly simply could not abide.

“I was just so offended by that,” says Kelly, leaning into the sentiment with signature animation and impassioned articulation. “Look, I don’t care if you’re a believer or not. That isn’t the point. Ghost tours are storytelling tours where you are trying to inspire people to think beyond dates and facts and this notion that history is some kind of linear movement through time—because it’s not. I thought they were a good thing, and that’s what made the article so profoundly insulting.”

Missy the doll is one of the more popular artifacts in Kelly’s museum. “She giggles and moves and is known to scare the daylights out of people,” says Kelly.

And in the context of Kelly’s ethos as a lifelong student of paranormal history, her ire makes perfect sense. As one who admittedly “sits more closely with the skeptics than the believers,” Kelly has never been interested in professing or proselytizing a belief in the supernatural. Sure, she’s been aesthetically drawn to hauntings, Gothic literature, ghost stories, and paranormal artifacts for as long as she can remember, but her fascination with these things is less about reaching beyond the veil of the physical world and more about exploring the uncanny and unexplained in an effort to better understand this strange, shared aspect of our humanity.

“Ultimately, I always saw myself as an historian. A folklorist. It’s just another facet through which we can look at history,” says Kelly. “It’s no different than the way you might look at art or religious or military history. It’s just one more way that people link different times together.”

And Kelly opened her shop and museum as an attempt to share that philosophy with the rest of the world. So when she stumbled upon the disparaging quote about ghost tours, she immediately took action and enrolled as a graduate student in Monmouth University’s history department in 2013, eventually earning her master’s in 2017.

“Part of it was to legitimize myself, sure. But getting my master’s degree also afforded me a certain confidence in how I communicate this subject matter,” says Kelly, who also hosts a weekly podcast called Paranormal Tales from the Tower. “I do think there’s a certain amount of bullying or intellectual elitism  when it comes to the paranormal. There’s this idea that you’re some kind of hillbilly if you believe in this. But just because you have an interest in something that other people aren’t interested in is not an indication of your intelligence or value. And I want to make that clear to as many people as possible.”

From Poe to Poltergeists

Whenever Kelly is asked to pinpoint the moment she fell in love with the paranormal, she often winds up saying, “I was born this way. But growing up across the street from a graveyard certainly didn’t hurt.”

When Kelly was 6, she and her family moved from a modest apartment in Jersey City to a sprawling farmhouse in Glen Ridge. As the sixth of eight children, Kelly could often be found with her face buried in a book of Edgar Allan Poe stories or writing her own works of fiction, which included a play written when she was seven about a little boy who befriends a spooky gang of ghouls living in his attic. It was simply called Monsters.

“I still say that’s the best thing I’ve ever written,” says Kelly with a laugh. “I just had a really wild imagination, which was kind of a necessity when you have seven brothers and sisters. But I also had this constant sense that there was so much more to this world than what we see, and those possibilities were so amazing to me.”

The family’s move to Glen Ridge was foundational to this budding sense of expansive awe. During her early childhood in Jersey City, Kelly recalls that her “whole world was a single city block,” which couldn’t have contrasted more starkly with the rural sprawl of her new farmhouse and its property, which included countless trees, a Revolutionary War–era cemetery across the street, and a yawning backyard overgrown with tall weeds and grass, under which, Kelly dreamed, forgotten gravestones were hidden from the world.

Interestingly enough, Kelly never considered making any sort of career from her paranormal passions. She hadn’t even considered attending college until she found out her Glen Ridge High School guidance counselor had submitted her name for a four-year scholarship to Ramapo College.

Artist Tony DeBartolis’ interpretation of H.P. Lovecraft’s monster Cthulhu is one of many oddities visitors will behold in Kelly’s museum.

“I wound up winning the scholarship but hadn’t even applied to the school,” says Kelly, whose parents were both first-generation Irish immigrants who hadn’t given their daughter’s college education a second thought. “So I kind of had to work backward, which is sort of indicative of how so much of my life has progressed.”

After earning an undergraduate degree in literature in 1991, Kelly went on to work for her father, who had launched a satellite company out of East Orange that rebroadcast news and sports for U.S. immigrants living in New York and New Jersey. For nearly 20 years, Kelly was in charge of market development, specializing in the sport of cricket. But by 2007, the company had been sold to a larger corporation, and Kelly felt as though she’d reached the pinnacle of her broadcast experience.

“So I decided to leave,” says Kelly. “And I didn’t have a plan. I was kind of adrift. But it was a friend of mine who said, ‘Whatever you do, you have to do something with the paranormal.’ And that made sense. It really was the only thing since my childhood that was a lasting passion for me.”

Taking a page from her broadcast marketing experience, Kelly pulled ratings data on basic cable shows that year and discovered that there were more hours of original programming devoted to the paranormal than anything else except Major League Baseball.

“I realized that there were a lot of people out there consuming the paranormal like me, so I decided to give them a destination that would appeal to their passions,” says Kelly, adding that she originally wanted to call her shop House of Spirits. “But the marketer in me was never happy with that. It felt like too much of a statement or a belief. So at the very last minute, I changed it to Paranormal Books & Curiosities, and this place was pretty much the first of its kind.”

Supernatural, Super Serious

It may come as a surprise to most, but Kathy Kelly has only ever seen one ghost in her lifetime.

It was the summer of 2010, and Kelly was visiting the historically haunted Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia as a member of a small paranormal research group. As midnight approached, Kelly and her colleagues gathered their equipment and prepared to leave. Just then, with the moon shining brightly through an enormous skylight, Kelly looked up to a second-story catwalk and saw an immaculately dressed female figure duck under a doorway to stand on the walkway for a few seconds before she disappeared.

“It’s very difficult for me to even tell this story as a skeptic, but at the end of the day…I think I saw a ghost,” says Kelly, whose remarkable talent for storytelling is as integral to her success as her exhaustive knowledge of all things paranormal. “I don’t like to even say it out loud because it moves me from one category to another, but I would be a liar and a coward if I didn’t.”

This is the essence of the fascinating space Kelly occupies with her work—a delicate balance between competing forces of rational skepticism and agnostic wonder about the possibilities of all we do not yet know. Sure, Kelly’s shop contains all the requisite tomes one might expect on topics like past life regression, hauntings, and communing with the dead. And yes, the museum comprises all manner of creepy and unnerving artifacts—a shrunken head, unexplained ghost photos, a wall of supposedly possessed Ouija boards, a witch’s cauldron passed down through several generations, and a piece of Abraham Lincoln’s hair along with a shred from the flag that was draped over his coffin. And indeed, the cumulative effect of it all can bring a chill to one’s spine. But for Kelly, it’s all just a conduit for those who want to experience the past in unique and oftentimes perplexing ways.

“There’s an inevitability to our experience as humans,” says Kelly. “We will know whether we exist after death or not, but we’re just biding our time. It’s literally the only question that matters, individually, and it’s the only question that we will 100% eventually get an answer to.”

“She really is like an historian, but she’s also an entertainer and she tells such captivating ghost stories with a really good sense of humor,” says Monmouth lecturer Brooke Nappi, who teaches a course called Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion. “I particularly love that during her ghost tours of the boardwalk and downtown she talks about the way places can sometimes hold memories if they’re important to people. It feels very magical, but at the same time Kathy works very hard to avoid any kind of ‘new age’ label.”

To be sure, Kelly doesn’t shy away from deep dives into heady conversations about the broader existential implications of supernatural phenomena. For instance, she’s fond of saying that everyone, to one degree or another, is drawn to the paranormal because “there’s an inevitability to our experience as humans. We will know whether we exist after death or not, but we’re just biding our time. It’s literally the only question that matters, individually, and it’s the only question that we will 100% eventually get an answer to.”

In a world where popular culture seems increasingly intent on constructing binary boxes into which one must fit his or her identity, Kelly’s elusiveness of classification is an exceedingly refreshing and stimulating quality. Because for her, whether or not someone holds supernatural convictions isn’t nearly as important as the fact that the entirety of human history has been undeniably shaped by countless encounters with the uncanny, the creepy, and the unexplained.

“Don’t the actions of the past continue to haunt us in a certain way? Isn’t there something profoundly wonderful  about that?” says Kelly. “I’ve never seen Lincoln’s ghost, but I still feel his presence in certain places. And to me, that’s history. It’s not dusty and old! It’s that welling up of emotion you get when you realize you’re just a drop in a stream. I think we need more of that. And to me, this shop and museum are the perfect way to help others experience it.”