Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Enter Ghost: A Twice-Told Tale

My collecting of ghost stories started in 1978 when the editor of "The Wedge", our neighborhood newspaper in Minneapolis, asked me to do an article on local haunted houses. At first I laughed at her request. But when she offered to give me names and contact info, I agreed to do it. And therein lies a tale--hundreds of tales, in fact.

After the stories of apparitions, shaking chests, levitating beds, and spooky footsteps appeared in "The Wedge", the editor of another newspaper called and asked me to do a story of hauntings in that neighborhood. After that, my story-collecting quickly snowballed. I became the local go-to person for ghost stories, either to tell or be told to. I've heard hundreds of stories from Minnesota and Pennsylvania, from all around the U.S., from Europe, even from Tibet.

One of my favorite pasttimes: telling ghost stories in the parlor of a Victorian house.

I couldn't resist putting a ghost story in Darkness Visible. I intentionally made it open to interpretation: Does Emlyn see a ghost, or is it a dream, or a mental projection? The reader can decide.

Much has changed about public attitudes since I started collecting stories. Twenty years ago tellers usually asked for anonymity for fear that people would scoff at them or think they were nuts. Today that fear has been overshadowed by an even scarier prospect: Paranormal investigators turning up on their doorsteps with gadgets and cameras, pleading to enter.

Forgive me, true believers, but I am skeptical about stories that have been told so often they wind up on numerous websites and sometimes on TV. For example, consider those about the Carnegie Library of Homestead. Some sites about the alleged hauntings warn you about entering the spooky library and music hall. You might see a steelworker in a hardhat or (horrors!) Andy Carnegie himself stalking the stacks.  Hmm.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter the Homestead library without a valid library card.
If a ghost of a steelworker is hanging out there, he's there to take out books. The mill gate was over a mile away, and no worker would be so goofy or disrespectful as to go the library wearing a hardhat. However, the good part of these stories is that they have boosted fundraising for the Homestead library.

My daughter Ceridwen captured this scary blue-shirted apparition going up the staircase in the west wing of the library building. 

The ghost of William Jennings Bryan reenacts his "Cross of Gold" speech that he delivered in the library music hall over a century ago. Oh, wait. That's me reenacting my part in the Franklin School 6th grade musical performed on that stage.
In this post I'd like to retell one of the ghost stories told to me by my father, Ed Busch. An avowed disbeliever in the paranormal, Dad, a born actor, loved telling stories. This one involves Woodlawn Avenue School (its official name), where Dad was librarian, science teacher, and drama coach for nearly three decades. The story involves strange events that took place in the auditorium, where my father directed and produced dozens of plays from the 1920s through the 1950s.
Ed Busch as the Giant trying to swat Jack in a rehearsal of "Jack and the Beanstalk", Woodlawn auditorium, 1940s?. (Photo by Erwin Koval)

As a child, I witnessed the climatic event in the haunting and didn't even know it. This is what happened: It was a winter evening in the early 1950s. I was sitting in the middle of the empty auditorium watching the dress rehearsal for "The Skull," a 1937 murder-mystery drama that Dad had produced several times before. The actors were reaching the conclusion of the play, where on the darkened stage, the actor playing the Skull appears in a skeleton costume glowing in the ultraviolet lights and is shot at by the detective who has pursued him.  The Skull leaped out, but before the other actor could fire the revolver (with blanks, of course) a thunderous boom reverberated throughout the auditorium. All action stopped. Dad jumped out of his place in the auditorium, and the stage hands turned on the lights. Everyone was momentarily stunned into silence, followed by excited speculation about what caused the explosive sound. There was no reasonable explanation. After ten minutes or so, action resumed and the rehearsal finished without incident.
Woodlawn auditorium shortly before demolition.

Dad didn't tell me the whole story and the background to it until I began collecting stories many years later.  He said that the doors to the left of the stage as one faced it would occasionally swing open and shut. Dad didn't pay it much attention at first, but one time when they opened and shut as he was approaching them from backstage, he did. Some students noticed it, too, and did some experimenting with opening outside doors and other doors to the auditorium to see if that would affect the movement of those particular doors. It didn't.

What Dad didn't tell the students is that he thought he knew the cause of the presumed haunting.  At the turn of the century, a man had been hanged from a tree on the knoll where the auditorium was built.  When the mysterious explosion occurred, Dad didn't mention this to anybody, partly because he didn't want to scare them, and partly because he didn't want them to think he was daft.
Woodlawn in happier (and smokier) days--from the 1939 Munhall yearbook.

I wonder if the site is still haunted.  The school sat vacant for a couple of decades before it was wrecked several years ago.  If I lived in the area, I'd go over on Halloween and check it out. Maybe some of you would like to take on that task.

But, a final word: In my experience as a collector of ghostlore I've found that a) ghosts don't perform on cue, b) ghostly activity is usually sporadic, with long periods between events, and c) the activity frequently fades, then disappears over time. Also, it's very easy to fake paranormal phenomena on digital video and images.

OMG! This image was captured at a ghost-storytelling. Get out the EMF meter! (Photo by Richard Mueller, Software Engineer/Web Designer)

In an ironic twist, this is a photo of the foyer in an 1898 mansion that was wrecked in 1935. The ghost, my granddaughter, has been Photoshopped in at right. (Image by Richard Mueller)

I've nothing against the popular and numerous paranormal shows on TV and the investigators searching for ghostly evidence. But my personal preference is to do as folks have done for centuries---sit around a candle in the dark and listen to--or tell--tales of specters, spooks, and spirits.

". . .suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door."
   Happy Halloween