‘Like a horror movie’: Chilling find grounded John Safran
John Safran has just returned from infiltrating the world of witchcraft and Satanism and, while he avoided being cursed, he almost lost a toe.
"My toe is fine but it did take a while to recover because my humanity student background - where I don't think things through - wasn't serving any benefits. I thought if I keep dabbing gin and Dettol on it, it would just be fixed," he told news.com.au.
"I landed in Australia and the next morning went to the doctor. The doctor usually likes to shoot the breeze for 15 minutes - in an annoying way - but this time, for the first time, he met me in reception and just said, 'Come with me', and took me to a part of the practice I'd never seen before with hospital beds and he was telling me this could've been a toe loss."
This is the point where other people might end their story - or at the very least, take a breath - but the writer and comedian rolled on.
"And that would've been kind of annoying," he said before considering the potential positives of a toe loss. "I like getting schtick out of what happens to me … I'd get a couple of TV comedy segments out of it … and (with a toe loss) I could start getting in on Adam Hills' territory. But I'm glad it healed."
OK, let's back it up. How did he almost lose the toe in the first place? Oh, you know. By sailing off to investigate witch hunts in Vanuatu - where laws have been passed to quash witchcraft and disobeying them can lead to public hangings and exile. But the toe wasn't lost because of any witchy magic - this was just a general hygiene and contaminated water issue.
The restless danger junkie is always in search of the next high. Or, in his words, "witches with even pointier hats".
"Once you've been in the (TV) writers' room a few times it's great but you need to go harder, so you hang around with witches to experience that higher creative space," he said, reflecting on a career covering the hot-button topics of extremism, race and religion - subjects that can bring a certain level of danger, depending on how deep you wish to dip your toe. Safran prefers to dive-bomb in, with a running start.
"I find with spirituality especially when you get into occult areas it's, like, high octane creativity," he said. "There's the buzz that I might get from seeing The Joker, but you get into these occult situations and you get a high octane version of that thrill.
"I find it satisfying to suspend disbelief and go along with their logic - I don't find it hard to do it. It's a bummer to go off that high. Then you've got to find the witches with the even pointier hats so you can get that high again."
As well as Vanuatu, the five-episode podcast series took him to Los Angeles where he investigated members of notorious street gang MS-13 who were accused of murdering a teenage girl for disrespecting their satanic shrine.
Most people became aware of the gang when President Donald Trump started banging on about it while demanding funding for his border wall to keep its members out. But it's the gang's history of Satanism - its founders worshipped the devil and heavy metal music - and the case of the murdered teenage girl that compelled Safran to find out more.
"This is like something in a horror movie," he remembered thinking of the case.
"Because this extra layer of murder was involved in it, it just added this extra level of creepiness to it all.
"And the thing that creeped me out the most was, in America, I was talking to police working on the case of the girl who was murdered … they took me to the back of the office and let me pull through the photos and you just see one in particular of the girl lying on the street and she's got a bullet through her throat - and it kind of matches her exposed belly button.
"There was just something about that, I just looked at that and thought, 'Jesus Christ'. You get really grounded. That really brought me back to earth."
Back home, the 47-year-old spent time with a Muslim professional who, convinced she is possessed by spirits, seeks an Islamic exorcism.
"There's a thing in Australia where (we think), 'Let's not talk about religion and let's not bother other people about religion' … and a consequence of that is (we don't know that) interesting things can be happening in little places," he said.
"So most people will be surprised there's an exorcism scene happening in Melbourne and Sydney."
John Safran Vs The Occult is available on Audible on November 19 and will be available for free for a limited time.