As if on cue, when the door to Spider House opens, the theme to Ghostbusters is pumping through the speakers. Despite being noon, it's dark and gray and frankly creepy inside the old house. And despite spending almost every afternoon here as a UT graduate student, sipping coffee and writing, I am absolutely petrified.
A few days earlier, trolling for new podcasts, I came across The Night Owl, a paranormal investigative series that spends most of its first season diving into Austin's haunted past. Instead of the traditional ghost tour hot spots — The Driskill, Moonshine Bar & Grill, etc. — host Stephen Belyeu and his team resolutely decided to tell less famous tales. Foregoing my usual true crime and new age-y genres, I listened to the first episode about Royal Legion Tattoo, a parlor nestled on the Spider House property.
This is the part where I explain that I live very close to Spider House. So close, in fact, that if a ghost wanted to, it could march (or float?) right over to my house. I had this realization at 3 am the morning after I first listened to The Night Owl, when I awoke from a fitful sleep convinced that a spirit had abandoned the tattoo parlor to come live with me.
Despite my middle-of-the-night terror, I tore through the rest of the episodes in a matter of days, learning the spooky histories of The Tavern, the Clay Pit, and other local haunts. Equal parts history lesson, paranormal investigation, and study in human behavior, The Night Owl is a narrative-driven podcast that rivals any in its genre and does so without the backing of a powerhouse radio station like WBEZ or a production company like Gimlet Media.
Visit from lechuza
It's unsurprising that Belyeu can spin a yarn. His penchant for narrative led him to filmmaking, and his debut feature, Dig, won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature during the 2010 Austin Film Festival. But his obsession with the supernatural harkens back to his childhood in South Texas and his family's personal lore.
"I’m an only child; I grew up with a mixed culture. My mom is Hispanic, and my dad is white," explains Belyeu. "I grew up … around my Hispanic side of my family. I am rooted deeply in the South Texas and Hispanic cultures."
Growing up in the small town of Pawnee, Texas, where his graduating class of 14 was the then-largest in school history, Belyeu spent his childhood drawing, playing in the wilds of South Texas, and listening to his grandparents tell stories of Mexican folklore such as La Llorona and shapeshifting barn owls called lechuzas.
"My grandpa told me that when you're out in the woods by yourself at night and you hear three distinct very clean, crisp whistles, and you whistle back, [the lechuza] can take you," he laughs.
It was an encounter with a lechuza-like barn owl that eventually served as inspiration for the podcast's name. According to Belyeu, he was a young boy, 8 or 9 years old, and was playing in the woods near his home when he heard those distinct three whistles.
"I look up in the tree and see one of these [birds]. It was beautiful though. I wasn't scared, I was just captivated," he says. The incident was so captivating, in fact, that Belyeu later had a barn owl tattooed on his forearm.
Whereas the barn owl bewitched, it was another (far more upsetting) experience that occurred a few years later that sparked Belyeu's interest in the paranormal. It's a story he wouldn't share in detail, only to say it took place in his childhood bedroom, but he teased it would be the focus of an episode of the upcoming second season of The Night Owl.
Lifting the fog
Belyeu's interest in the paranormal continued into adulthood, and in 2008, he co-founded the Occult Sciences Society alongside his friend Alexis Arredondo. (Fans of the podcast will recognize Arredondo from The Night Owl's "The Restless" storyline, a series of episodes investigating a barber's haunted house in New Braunfels.) Under the umbrella of OSS, the pair focused on paranormal research, conducting investigations, reviewing historical documents, writing articles, and archiving materials.
As his film career took off, however, Belyeu switched his focus towards filmmaking until a freak accident left him in near chronic pain. Unable to focus on his craft, it took nearly four years of physical therapy and painful injections before the pain started to subside and the fog to lift.
Belyeu says that as his pain subsided, his clarity returned, and so did his desire for a project. At the urging of his wife, a local photojournalist, he started to play around with audio and eventually ended up at Spider House, a place infamous for its spooky stories.
After a serendipitous turn of events, one that partially plays out on episode one of the podcast, "Ink, Coffee & Spirits," Belyeu teamed up with Sara, the fake name of a local clairvoyant who now accompanies the host on most episodes.
The second flight
The Night Owl's first 12 episodes follow a loose but similar format — history of the space, interviews with employees or residents, reading by Sara that usually validates the first two acts — but the formula doesn't make it any less compelling. As host, Belyeu is so earnest, such a believer, there is no sense of irony. Since there is no joke to be had, the listener can allow herself to be swept away by the narrative without feeling foolish. Whether you believe in the supernatural or not doesn't matter, it's a good story — and people love a good story.
The Night Owl returns with more of those stories in 2019 with the launch of season two. Until then, the team will continue to host paranormal-themed events, including a Halloween night of ghost stories on October 31 at the Stateside at the Paramount.
In the next batch of episodes, listeners can expect a few changes, namely leaving Austin behind, at least partially, as the team investigates other stories around Texas (and we'll finally learn what happened in Belyeu's childhood bedroom). What will remain unchanged, however, is the host's measured, systematic approach to understanding the unknown, something he says is motivated, naturally, by fear.
"One thing that scares me, the one fear I have, is the paranormal," Belyeu says. "Some people are afraid of spiders and snakes … that doesn’t bother me. But this one [gets] me.”
Judging by the buzz around this spooky homegrown podcast, it appears he's not alone.