At midnight in a Connecticut cemetery, the dead walk among the ruins. Tribal drums beat in the distance as paranormal investigator and rap provocateur Ryan Bond, better known in New Haven under the moniker Madecipha, strolls between graves, fingering an electromagnetic field detector, searching for the ghost of a bank robber murdered in 1899. Legend has it that one of the crook’s robberies went sideways after a bank was tipped off in advance. The robber was shot by a trigger-happy vigilante and buried in a grave marked only by XYZ on request of an anonymous woman who was reportedly spotted visiting the cemetery in all black for forty years afterwards.
Like the ghosts he hunts, Madecipha is a staple of New Haven folklore. He hunts ghosts, raps, and works out of an underground recording studio rumored to have exotic reptiles, eerily wandering the streets like a Rastafarian Peter Steele (if the Rastafarian aspect had been culturally appropriated by a white dude with an olive complexion). Faded tattoos of the occult cover his body and thick dreadlocks dangle below his waist.
During the investigation, our conversation range from the attractiveness of Marilyn Monroe’s ghost to Freudian musings about how even in death men play dick-measuring contests through tombstone height. Though we don’t find the XYZ gravesite, I do have my first nightmare in months that eerily parallels one my guide also had (what exactly it was I won’t divulge).
Bond became obsessed with the paranormal after reading about haunted folklore in Connecticut. The state has long been a magnet for the occult; the first New England witch hanging occurred in Hartford in 1647. Before the advent of antipsychotic drugs, Connecticut regularly absorbed an overflow of mentally ill patients in state-funded sanitariums. These abandoned insane asylums with histories of abusive practice are scattered throughout the countryside, along with ex-manufacturing plants (such as the former Remington Arms ammunition factory in Bridgeport), village ruins (Cornwall’s Dudleytown) and Native American burial grounds that resurface during construction projects.
Even the Green, New Haven’s historic downtown center, is situated on what used to be a graveyard, with an estimated 5,000 town residents buried there (including Benedict Arnold’s first wife and Yale’s founder Reverend James Pierpont). During Hurricane Sandy, a tree was uprooted with a skeleton intertwined in its roots from colonial times.
In 2001, Bond popped his ghost hunting cherry at Bara-Hack, an abandoned village in northeastern Connecticut. Like a crossover between The Blair Witch Project and A Nightmare on Elm Street, the first-time investigator (allegedly) came into contact with a demon.
“I flipped out and chilled at the Church, all day, every day, raking leaves, studying religion,” reflects Bond. “I had a dream it came to get me. It was like this monster with Freddy Krueger claws. I was sharpening a sword and we did battle. At the end, it went up and I ducked underneath and cut its head off. From that moment on, it left me alone.”
Since then, Bond has been more cautious with his trips. Though he’s hunted ghosts in every Connecticut castle, cemetery, and sanitarium rumored to have them, he abides by certain principles: “Never taunt demons.” “Be respectful.” And, “Have confidence.” He took classes from investigators and recorded his progress in a journal while approaching paranormal investigations as a science. “You can’t be an expert in the unknown,” he tells me. “There’s always going to be something you can’t answer.”
He also channeled his manic tendencies into rap. Drawing inspiration from Wu Tang Clan, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Twiztid, Guns and Roses, and the Insane Clown Posse, he infused his own style of horror-core rap into the alter ego Madecipha, collaborating with Jedi Mind Tricks’ Jus Allah in the process.
To date, he’s put out sixteen albums and three EPs. Although most Madecipha songs involve witchcraft, folklore, and the occasional party anthem, others cut deeper to get to the root of the artist’s traumatic past; one single explores what it was like being locked up in Connecticut institutions as a teenager following hauntings in the wake of his uncle’s suicide.
“I have horror-core roots. I study demonology and mix Bible verses in my stuff.”
Through the money he made performing, and numerous side hustles like selling oddities and merchandise, Bond moved into a massive underground studio to house his independent music label, Spider Bite Records. The space is a kingdom of darkness conjuring every paranormal nightmare lurking in its Emperor’s mind. Past security cameras, and a neighboring methadone clinic, visitors are immediately greeted by kabuki masks and esoteric artwork.
Inside the specimen room, preserved boa constrictors, monitor lizards, eels, two-headed turtles, octopi, scorpions, tarantulas, and albino pythons lay submerged in potion bottles. Painted cow-skulls, deer antlers, and miniature gargoyles align the wall. Hissing cockroaches crawl against a terrarium’s glass as a legless lizard cranes its neck in the neighboring cage.
In another room, a Russian red-foot tortoise walks across the basement’s concrete, dozens of smaller turtles towering over him on shelves filled with ghost hunting books. A hairless rat with bright red eyes scurries across a sofa. At the end of the basement is a tunnel that Bond tells me houses the ghost of Walter O’Connell, a New Haven factory worker who died in 1959 after passing out from paint fumes and falling into a tub of acid. “Okie,” as the ghost is affectionately called, sometimes communicates with Bond.
Practically every rapper is “on the come-up.” But few have put in as many hours or created such a unique persona as Madecipha. The hard work is paying off too: The local television station, Intrigue TV, is giving Bond his own series. Helmed by serial entrepreneur Frank Copsidas, James Brown’s former manager, the show will follow the ghost rapper as he explores haunted sites throughout Connecticut.
Although New Haven once served as ‘the model city’ for urban planners, and is often associated with Yale and the university’s droves of powerful alumni, the reality is far bleaker. It never fully recovered from losing its manufacturing base in the ’50s, and most of the city and its surroundings are segregated on a block-to-block basis; housing projects face Victorian-style mansions near Wooster Square, halfway houses sit next to tenured Yale faculty homes, waterfront properties overlooking the Quinnipiac River have decayed into trap houses.
Recent gentrification driven by twenty-something college grads and empty-nesters from Westchester County attracted to the city’s bustling downtown scene has made the juxtaposition between the haves and have nots even more noticeable. This past year, just as the Brookings Institute listed New Haven as the number one city for income inequality, luxury condominiums started going up next to a homeless shelter on Grand Avenue.
Settled in this nihilistic landscape is Madecipha, blurring the lines between the real and the unknown, reality and the paranormal, the living and the dead. Whether he’s preserving elegant serpents, ghost hunting in desecrated Churches, studying witchcraft, slaying demons, or rapping about his adventures, he casts fantasies and nightmares wherever he wanders. Walking across the Green late at night, above the thousands of buried bodies from the 1700s, I receive a text from the investigator. Not only did he find the XYZ grave, he left the bank robber’s ghost some long overdue treasure.
Davis Richardson is a writer whose work has appeared in Vice, Nylon Magazine, Bullet Media, The New Haven Register, and Wired. Follow him on Twitter.