It’s September 2019 and Johnny Christmas is getting ready to enter an abandoned children’s hospital in Berlin’s Weissensee neighborhood.
In a video uploaded to YouTube, the Chicago resident emerges from a thicket of underbrush and slowly makes his way into the hulking, heavily graffitied ruins of what locals call the “Zombie Hospital.” As he works his way deeper into the warren of small rooms and passageways, the daylight begins to fade and he switches on a flashlight. In an otherwise empty room, he spots something on the ground—a small children’s figurine. He puts it in his pocket.
After years of accumulating these strange and potentially haunted artifacts on their journeys through abandoned structures—from old Chicago housing projects to vacant Chinese “nail houses”—Christmas and his friend and fellow urban explorer Matt Jakubowski decided one day it was time to start paring down their collection.
They founded Ghost Express in early 2018 with a simple premise: anonymously mail a ghost to anyone, anywhere, for just $9.99 plus shipping. With each order, they send off one of the many relics they’ve collected, along with a card describing the type of ghost the object contains (i.e. poltergeist, orb), as well as its date of death, mood, and likes and dislikes, which they decipher using a Ouija board.
“We weren’t ghost people, we weren’t Wiccans in junior high,” Christmas says. “Even now, when I speak of them, I say 'the ghosts' and 'they,' but then also try to claim I don't believe in them. It’s this weird internal conflict.”
“But we’ve had too many strange things happen to us for it to be just a coincidence,” he says.
The two friends met on the urban exploration scene in Chicago in the 1990s. Rubbing shoulders with ghost hunters and various fringe elements, they climbed and crawled through abandoned buildings as a hobby, occasionally collecting small items along the way that caught their eye. As their storehouse of artifacts grew, however, so did the number of the seemingly ghostly incidents they were experiencing—paintings falling off walls, lights burning out, things going missing.
“We’d joke about it, but it’s like that half joking,” says Jakubowski, who goes by Jaku. The two serial entrepreneurs invented Ghost Express as an elegant way to disburse their collection. Although, given the business’s unexpected popularity, they’ve since had to start collecting anew.
The objects in Ghost Express’s inventory vary from old jewelry to children’s toys and even teeth, although keys seem to be especially prevalent.
“My own personal theory is ghosts were once human, and they’re probably lost and confused and want to get back home,” Christmas says. “They remember a key is what they used to get back into their house. All we can do is speculate.”
While the spectral properties of the objects are ultimately open for interpretation, Christmas says the idea of anonymously sending someone a ghost is also just plain fun.
“Even if you don’t believe in ghosts and you think it’s just a dumb box, you’re still eaten up by the fact that someone tried to send you a ghost and you don’t know who it is,” Christmas says.
The concept has caught on. All told, the two say they’ve shipped nearly 250 ghosts over the past couple years. October is typically their busy season, although with more people stuck at home and aimlessly browsing the web these days, demand has been higher than usual in 2020 overall. They’ve also recently added a “deluxe” ghost offering, which comes in a box featuring hand-etched Icelandic symbols and sealed in black wax, and sometimes offer specialty items, like artifacts fashioned into holiday ornaments.
While things have gone relatively smoothly, they have learned a few key lessons along the way. For instance, someone in Toronto once ordered 12 ghosts for their family members as a Christmas present. Instead of arriving in Canada, however, the package inexplicably landed in Thailand. Jaku double checked the shipping address and tracking information. Could there be another reason for the snafu?
“We go to Asia a lot . . . and we visit a lot of old temples and creepy places and bring stuff back sometimes,” Christmas says. “We wondered if some ghost had figured out how to try and make its way back home. It was super weird.”
“We have a rule now: we don’t ship more than four ghosts at a time,” Jaku says.
Ghost Express has also improved its spirit containment facility. After consulting some classic occult tomes like grimoires and The Necronomicon, Christmas says they’ve been able to better contain any potential ghostly emanations. He carved ancient signs into the doors of the cabinet housing their collection and also surrounded it with a circle of salt.
“If the salt has been disturbed for a while, weirdness comes afoot,” says Christmas. “Every now and then . . . I’ll go retouch it just in case.”
One thing that they still haven’t quite figured out, however, is how the ghosts feel about all this.
“I try not to think too hard about the idea of kidnapping ghosts,” Christmas says. Maybe they liked where they were. Or, then again, maybe they were trapped and welcome the chance to escape. At the end of the day, he says he hopes things work out for both the object’s new owner and the ghost.
“I hope someone puts it on a shelf, walks past it every day and says, ‘Hi, ghostie,’ even if they’re kidding,” Christmas says. “I mean I don’t believe in ghosts, but here we are.” v