This list is a brief summary of the places to find ghost stories discussed in the article that follows, “Wild Ghost Chase: Tracking the Elusive Ghost Story.”
I’m a person who believes in old-fashioned research in libraries and other institutions (supplemented by online resources); this article and summary covers hard-copy research suggestions.
1) Personal experiences
2) Stories from friends and friends of friends
3) Libraries – regular shelved books or interlibrary loan materials, pamphlet/vertical files, local history collections, and don’t forget the keyword search of the catalog or of Books in Print.
4) Historical Societies – look for county histories and privately printed books
5) FATE Magazine and other “pulp” occult publications – Indexed (up to the early 1970s) in The Geobibliography of Anomalies, George Eberhart. Actual articles at BGSU [Ohio] or through interlibrary loan
6) Word of mouth from strangers
7) Used bookstores. I am happy to run a search for any out-of-print titles you might need.
8) Newspaper articles – many ghost stories appear the week before Halloween, particularly the week-end. Or ask editor to run an appeal for stories
9) Biographies and memoirs of famous people from the state or area.
10) General books of ghost stories – See our list at Alibris.com. The Invisible Ink Collection at BGSU also has an extensive collection.
11) Local historians and folklorists
12) Magazines, including state publications and travel magazines. I’ve also heard that trade publications for the mortuary trade sometimes print ghost stories.
13) Elderly members of the community and schoolchildren
This talk was first delivered at the Hillsboro Storytelling Celebration, August 1997 for an audience of storytellers and educators. Copyright Ó 1997 Chris Woodyard
WILD GHOST CHASE: Tracking the Elusive Ghost Story
By Chris Woodyard
Good afternoon. I’m Chris Woodyard, author of Haunted Ohio: Ghostly Tales from the Buckeye State, Haunted Ohio II, Haunted Ohio III, Spooky Ohio and Haunted Ohio IV : Restless Spirits. I’m here to tell you how to dig up ghost stories. I’ll also discuss some different approaches to telling the ghost story and suggest some resources for research.
First, we have to define what a ghost story is. How many of you read Stephen King? Clive Barker? I don’t read modern horror because it is usually too gruesome for me. I have a weak stomach for gore. I don’t like Stephen King because, while he knows how to tell a good story, he is not a very good writer and he goes in a bit too much for the obvious gobs of flesh. King was once asked why he thought he was so successful. He thought for a moment and then said, “It’s because I have the heart of a 12-year-old boy–in a jar on my desk.” Clive Barker is a superb writer, but I’m not interested in non-human entities or demonic possession or vampires or some of the other tangents he goes off on.
Anyway, King and Barker are not really ghost-story writers, but horror writers. Here’s my ten-cent definition of the difference between the horror and the ghost story. Horror can be about anything dreadful–a possessed car, vampires, werewolves. One of the most unnerving stories I ever read was by Roald Dahl and it involved a piece of priceless antique furniture getting smashed. Horrible, but not a ghost story. A ghost story, oddly enough, must have a ghost. The ghost appears or otherwise manifests itself and then some explanation is found or revealed. Usually the ghost stops after some action is performed. My ideal ghost story writer is M.R. James, a 19th century British writer. Shirley Jackson, who mostly wrote horror, wrote what is to me the most terrifying ghost novel of the 20th century: The Haunting of Hill House. The late Robert Westall and the very much alive Josephine Boyle, are two absolutely superb modern fictional ghostwriters. They both follow the traditional ghost story path I just outlined, which I confess I prefer to the modern “psychological” ghost story, where something happens to the protagonist, but we’re not quite sure whether it’s all in his/her head or not. So keep this firmly in mind: A good ghost story means more ghost, less gore.
Joseph Conrad said that his writing goals were “to make you feel; to make you hear; to make you touch; to make you see…” In the case of ghosts, I’m dead sure I don’t want to hear, touch or see, but I want to put the reader there. The first purpose of a ghost story is to frighten. Not to revolt or nauseate or gross out– it is very easy to gross out the reader— but to scare the socks off the reader. You want to write a story that lingers in their minds long after they’ve read it. Something that will make them look back over their shoulders as they go up the dark stairs. Some people comment that they didn’t think my stories were all that scary when they read them in the daytime, but they had a sleepless night that night. When I hear that, I know that I’ve done my job.
Now let me move on to a section I call “True, False or Folklore? Ghostwriting Ethics.” There are basically three kinds of ghost stories, “true,” fictional, or folklore. People always ask me if the stories in my books are true. I always answer, “They are true–in spirit.” The people who told me these stories believed that they had had a ghostly experience, but there is no way to prove those experiences–even the ones I’ve had myself because I don’t carry a lie detector with me and you can’t get a ghost into a lab and make it perform its tricks. That question aside, I did not “make up” the majority of the stories I tell. And that is what I’m going to use as my definition of a fictional ghost story–a totally made-up story rather than a “true” one.
Whenever I talk about “true” ghost stories, I’m always tempted to put the word “true” in quotes because one thing you must keep in mind is that there is NO SUCH THING as proof for these stories. I don’t care if you’ve seen hundreds of ghosts since you were a kid–The “true–in spirit” line covers it, or they are “as true as these things ever get.”
Writing a “true” story will usually either involve interviewing people about their experiences or telling about something that happened to you. It could also be a story about a famous person–I tell about historical figures like our haunted presidents and the ghost of Johnny Appleseed.
Do promise me one thing: if you set out to tell a true ghost story– you’ve interviewed a person about their ghost story or are telling your own story–resist the temptation to “improve” it, to make it more interesting by having blood run down the walls or having the house invaded by a million cockroaches when nothing of the kind actually took place. It is this temptation to embellish that leads to stories like The Amityville Horror, which was a complete hoax, fabricated for the money. Yet many people still believe that it was a true story of a haunting. Usually even in the dullest story, there are ways to enliven it without resorting to making things up.
In one case a gentleman told me that his house was haunted by a ghostly accordion, which is certainly my idea of hell. I interviewed him and got a paragraph of raw material. When I sent him the final story, which still wasn’t that long, he was amazed at how I had made “something out of nothing,” as he put it, meaning a shaped story out of a simple anecdote. You will often find yourself with a simple anecdote: “In our house a little girl died. Every fall she comes back for three weeks and my granddaughter won’t sleep in her room for those three weeks.” Out of this you shape a story. Hopefully you’ll be able to interview witnesses and get more details, but if not, you can still work with something this short.
If I don’t have enough detail, I find that speculation gets me over the hump. Take, for example, the Ceely Rose story, Ceely poisoned her whole family with arsenic in their coffee. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict her and she lived in the family home alone until the sheriff trapped her into confessing and carted her off to the insane asylum. I don’t know what went on in that house during that period, but I speculated, “It must have been a lonely, haunted life, with the ghosts of her parents whispering in the kitchen where she fixed herself coffee for breakfast. Did she ever have nightmares where their greenish, sweating faces materialized, vomiting ectoplasm in the dark?”
Also, “We know nothing of her own death. Perhaps her parents came for her– smiling with blackened lips, holding out their clawed, convulsed hands. Perhaps the God of Love sent his angels to bring home this simple-minded child of His, who had so conspicuously failed to honor her father and mother.” NOTE that neither of these statements is stated as FACT, but “perhaps” “It must have been” “Maybe” “Did she ever?”
You can also tinker with your interpretation of the facts: I have a copy of a newspaper story showing an engraving of Ceely, who was, apparently, developmentally handicapped. I describe her as “a sullen, depressed young woman, her hair carelessly pulled back, a lock hanging limply over her protruding forehead. She slumps as if she had been hanging her head when they told her, sharply, to look at the camera. Her eyes turn down at the corners–blank, despairing eyes–and one eyelid droops. Her thin mouth, pursed tightly at the corners, is clamped over her secret with the dogged determination of the simple. It is a bitter face, a hopeless face, the face of one driven beyond despair by the loss of the only person she ever cared for.” Someone else might, equally validly, have emphasized Ceely’s mental disability and her lack of responsibility for her actions.
In a “true” story, you must play fair with your audience. If you tell people that these are true stories, don’t mess with the facts. If the heroine’s hair was red, don’t change it to blonde. If you know the night was dark and stormy, don’t make it fair and moonlit. This is cheating.
You may change names as long as it is clearly understood that the names have been changed. I use an asterick * when I change a name at the request of my informant. A noted science fiction writer, Jessica Salmonson wrote a book of supposedly true Washington state ghost stories set in the odd framework of being told by a fictional ghosthunter: Penelope Pettiweather. I don’t know why she did this, but it ruined the book for me because I don’t know whether to believe in these stories or not. It throws me off balance. So these are some of the paths you can take with a “true” story.
Now to folklore: The further back in time you go, the more likely it is that a story will be classed as folklore. Let me stop dead here and try to make clear the difference between folklore and “true” ghost stories. Folklore can be defined as “customs, beliefs, stories and sayings of a people handing down from generation to generation.” Scary stories to tell in the dark are folklore- never happened anywhere, anytime. The stories I tell in Spooky Ohio, I call “13 Traditional Tales.” These are stories handed down in families and told around the campfire. Most of the stories I tell in the Haunted Ohio series are “true” stories, some of which I survived. I don’t want to get too picky about the line between “true” stories and folklore because some people class all ghost stories as folklore. After all, there aren’t any such things as ghosts, are there?
True or journalistic stories tell the tale in a flat, straightforward way, like a newpaper article without a lot of sensation or elaborate description. A folkloric story takes a kind of “homey-folksy” “aw, shucks” approach. You can play a lot faster and looser with your “facts” if you take this approach, but it should only be used for older hauntings, not modern stories where you have all the facts available.
The fictional approach is close to the folkloric, only it invents pages and pages of dialog and description to bring the stories alive. I usually feel kind of cheated when I read a story like this. If I want to read fiction, I’ll read fiction.
The mixed approach is what most writers chose. I have many different kinds of stories in my books and they each need a different approach: a modern ghost where I’ve visited the house is treated in a more journalistic way, although I don’t mind adding [accurate] descriptions of the house or site and my reactions. If I have an old folktale or an historic haunt that has stopped long ago, with no additional information, I’ll go with the folkloric approach. I did this with a tale I call “The Ghostly Dwarf” It came from an oral history collection from Fairfield County I’ll mention in a minute, and it was pretty much what I call a “barebones story.” Simple, declarative sentences about a couple who were startled by a ghostly dwarf that ran through their house. One night it even jumped into bed with them. Here’s what I did to put some flesh on those bare bones. “The dwarf began to jump into bed with the couple. Ethel awoke with a start to find his wizened baby face a few inches from hers. His eyes were malicious specks of coal. She spent the rest of the night shivering by the fire while Harry patted her hand.
The next night the dwarf burrowed under the sheets between them. They felt him–as cold as a corpse before he scrambled out of bed leaving behind long white hairs that clung to them like spiderwebs.” This is the sort of embellishment that is, in my opinion, allowable in a folkloric type of tale.
Only once have I chosen a fictional approach–this was in “The Headless Motorcyclist,” and even here I alternated a fictional story told from the ghost’s point of view with a verbatim quotation of the investigator’s real story.
I find that telling true stories is much more difficult than telling/shaping folklore or fiction. With true stories, I have to adhere to someone else’s storyline. True stories can also be less scary. I’ve had very young kids complain: “These stories aren’t scary enough—tell us about Candyman or Jason!” Actually, the reverse can also be true: A grandmother told me about her 5-year old grandchild who loved Alvin Schwartz’s books, but when she read him stories from his hometown, he wouldn’t sleep in his own bed. Too close to home.
So the very first thing you have to do when collecting and telling ghost stories is to decide on your approach: Is this story true or completely made up–or somewhere in between? I’ve got a bit of a bee in my bonnet over this issue; possibly because I was a reference librarian in a previous life. My college degree is in medieval and renaissance studies and I still like to pretend that I’m a scholar. Trying to sort out the objective “truth” of things is, for me, at the heart of scholarship.
This may sound a bit strange, to talk about scholarship or research in the context of ghost stories, but it’s how I work. A ghost story is a piece of research like any other. I look at sources, try to track down the historic facts behind a case and then site my sources in my books. Sometimes the facts get in the way of a good ghost story. I had a wonderful tale, told to me by my typesetter’s son, about a house in Columbus where 4 children were shot to death by their crack-addict father. He moved in without knowing the story and, after painting the walls, he found the names of four children freshly scrawled in crayon behind his door (as well as some quasi-ghostly activity). This gave me the absolute willies! But after reading newspaper articles about the killings, I found that a) the children had not been murdered at the house, but were killed at the next house they moved to. and b) the names of the murdered children didn’t match the crayoned names. Another perfectly good story destroyed by the facts.
I’ve gone over this at such length because I find it important to establish my credibility as a writer and ghosthunter. The field, naturally, is assumed to be filled with crackpots, although most of the ghostwriters I know are pretty normal folks and aren’t actually sensitive to the manifestations: they just write about them. I think I might be overreacting because I see and sense ghosts, which adds an extra dimension, if you will, to the books. I also feel a greater sense of obligation to “prove” my work, which is, as I have said, impossible.
So decide right up front which kind of story you are telling and tell your audience up front too. So, that concludes our short course in ghostwriting ethics.
Now let’s get to the heart of this workshop: Where to find ghost stories. Like any author, I’m often asked, “Where do you get your stories?” First, contrary to popular belief, I do not rob graves. I do however, pick the brains of reference librarians and local historians all over the state. More on that later. Actually, the easiest thing in writing these kinds of books has been finding the stories; it seems as though there is a never- ending supply. When I announced my new book, HOIV, many people said, “Do you have enough stories?” The trouble was deciding which ones to cut!
People often ask me–how do you go about researching ghost stories? How do you track down something you can’t see? When I set out to write the first Haunted Ohio book, I began with my own stories: my haunted antique clothing store, things I saw as a child, stories that friends had told me. This is where you start–in your own backyard. I can’t imagine anyone just waking up some morning and saying to themselves: “I think I’ll write a book of Kentucky ghost stories,” without having some good reason for doing it or some personal experience. A good way to start is to get the word out that you are collecting ghost stories; soon stories will start falling into your lap. Odd coincidences happen when you’re on the trail of a story. I would often hear one version of a story, then several years would pass before I “ran into” the actual person to whom the story happened.
When I was asked to do this workshop, I looked at my own books and was surprised at the wide variety of sources I’d used. Let me give you some examples of how I find my stories and perhaps you can dig up some of your own. Have you got your pencils and paper ready? For example, in Haunted Ohio, I found the following types of sources:
1) Naturally, my own experiences. It runs in our family to see and sense spirits, but since only about 10% of the population can do this, it’s not an essential requirement.
2) My own clippings file. As a child I collected clippings on UFOs, ghosts, bigfoots, archaeology, and strange crimes. My newspaper files have proved invaluable, even though they have a tendency to disappear.
3) Stories from friends and friends of friends
4) Libraries and Historical Societies: I wrote a begging letter to every library, historical society and interesting historical house/site I could find. (Incidently, your reference librarian can direct you to directories of libraries and historical societies) Often all it took was a vague, “I’ve heard they have a ghost over at the Sorg Opera House….” The libraries and societies were wonderful–they sent me clippings, refered me to local experts, told me about local history books. And one ghost story always led to another. People say, ask Mrs. so-and-so. People are always coming up to me at my appearances with stories. I was on vacation at an inn in Amish country when a woman from Toledo told me a story about a haunted sheet!
5) I also used an extremely useful index called, The Geo-bibliography of Anomalies. This is the work of George Eberthart who indexed every issue of FATE Magazine (and a number of other books) by subject, name, dates, location, witnesses, and other data. This is technically out of print (although I have heard that the author has a few copies left) so I have a photocopy. This is invaluable with its state-by-state references. It is available at some libraries and the original FATE articles can be accessed either through Bowling Green State University’s Popular Culture Library or through interlibrary loan.
6) Newspaper articles about sensational crimes sent to me by curators of historic buildings
7) Newspaper articles found in local newspaper indices–rarer than hen’s teeth! I also looked up articles on microfilm or found them in enormous bound volumes at the library. In searching microfilm–which made me totally seasick–I noticed a pattern: if they weren’t reported at the time they actually took place, local ghost stories were usually reported, oddly enough! in the month of October–and specifically in the week before Halloween, even more specifically, the weekend before Halloween. You should scan microfilms of newspapers from about 1970 onwards for the week before Halloween. This is my hottest tip for finding ghost stories in newspapers.
8) Privately printed county histories and local historians’ publications. I spent many happy hours at the Ohio Historical Society looking at several hundred of a series called the Ohio Valley Folk Publications. These are stories collected in the 1950s-70s, particularly in the Ross County/Chillicothe area of Ohio, by folklorist Dave Webb and others. At the Historical Society, I requested the Ross County Ohio Folklore Project material. Out came box after box of these purple-mimeographed tales, averaging 6 or so pages, stapled inside crumbling wallpaper sample covers. There were some 200 of them and I never did get through all of them, although I tried to select the ones with obvious titles. This is a wealth of material, yet it has yet to be completely published, and even now is decaying to dust.
Another important local collection I found was that of a mystery man named Harold Igo of Yellow Springs in Greene County, Ohio. I found about 30 stories in a file in the public library. They were mostly tongue-in-cheek stories—like the “Walnut Street Terror”–which turned out to be a squirrel. Nobody seems to know who Harold Igo was or why he was interested in ghosts. Some other privately printed local booklets: Ghosts, by Helen Meredith of Coshocton, Hants and Hangings: Stories of the Odd, the Bizarre, the Sensational in Area Early History and Folklore by F A Morgan, Ohio’s Ghostly Greats, by David Gerrick, which really irritated me because he told old chestnuts like the vanishing hitchiker story as if it really happened to him. More hook man type stories than anything, really. Ghosts and Legends of Bellbrook, Mary Sherman. Haunting Tales from Fairfield County, Lancaster (OH): Fairfield County District Library, 1982. I also found a few tales in the now-defunct Ohio Folklore Society Journal. You may have to go to a State Library or Historical Society to find these kinds of resources.
9) Biographies of famous Ohioans like Presidents Garfield and Harding, James Thurber and Louis Bromfield. I made a list of famous Ohioans, then skimmed their biographies for any hint of the supernatural. Sometimes it was a stretch, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I found.
10) Other general books of ghost stories. I knew that the Rhines–ESP experts from Duke, had spent a lot of time in Ohio, so I skimmed their ESP books and found some interesting tales. Another source was the many books on spiritualism written at the turn of the century and before. Some of the leading lights in the spiritualism movement either came from Ohio or toured the seance circuit here. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, wrote about several famous Ohio mediums. This kind of material is often too dated or “scientific” in tone to use, but I enjoy it. It’s not easy to find, usually in an academic setting. The Wright State University Library, for example, has a complete run of the Journal of the ASPR, which can be viewed on microfilm or copied.
Also useful were collections of US ghost stories like Haunted Heartland, The Ghostly Gazetteer, etc. where stories were divided up by state. These are very easy to use and this is where I tell you how to steal a ghost (story). If a book has any kind of credibility at all, it will list its sources. You may, with my blessing, unabashedly steal stories from these original sources. Note that I said, “ORIGINAL” sources. That means you can take the footnote and run. For example, I footnote nearly every printed source in my notes at the back of the book. Anybody can go back to those original printed sources: newspaper articles, or wherever and re-use that story–as long as they don’t plagiarize my exact words. Sometimes the trail of a source is long and convoluted. For example, I have found a story in a ghost book written for children, which mentions that the story came from a more serious book written by a psychic investigator. I look up that book and find a footnote to a newspaper article from the 1880s. I find the original 1880s article and use it to my heart’s content.
In one case, I retold a story called, “The Rain Drum.” This was listed in Ohio’s Ghostly Greats, but I also found the original version, in a mimeographed history of Williams County without copyright. I took this version, which was seemingly folklore and put in my own touches, like saying that, on a hot day, the main character, who dressed in animals skins, smelled like road- kill. Recently, I found that someone who shall be nameless had plagiarized my story, without going back to the original source, because that telling phrase was used–my own invention.
11) Magazines: Ohio Magazine rarely carries anything ghostly, but there was an article about the folklorist who investigated the Headless Motorcyclist story up in Elmore.
12) My relatives told me stories — this should be one of your first sources. My aunt is a Dominican nun and told me several ghost stories from various convents. My next door neighbors were also very helpful: one hard- headed sales type rather shamefacedly told me about being startled by half a ghost that walked into his real-estate office. People also just called me out of the blue, having been told that I was interested in ghosts.
13) Currently, I have my own reference library/bibliography in the form of this catalog, Invisible Ink, books on Ghosts and Hauntings. I’ve collected over 500 books, audiotapes and videos with the emphasis on “true” ghost stories. We also carry some children’s books and some fiction. We currently either carry or can get (in used form) most of the books published in this category in the last 20 years.
So those were just the sources I found in Haunted Ohio. Here are a few more suggestions:
1) Write or call your local newspaper editor and ask her or him to run a story, preferably at Halloween, asking for stories. People’s minds are on the supernatural then and you may get some calls. Consider whether you want your name, address, and phone number listed in the paper or whether you want to have stories sent to the paper and forwarded to you. There are some very strange people out there and they will often attach themselves to a person who appears in the paper, especially in this context.
2) Go to your local reference librarian and ask what they have in their pamphlet or vertical files on “Ghosts,” “Haunted Houses,” “Houses, Haunted,” “Folklore,” “Halloween,” or “Houses, Historical.” And don’t forget the keyword search of the catalogue using such words as “phantoms”, “legends”, “spirits” “hauntings” “strange”, “supernatural”, or “paranormal. This usually works very well, although, inevitably, you’ll find things like “Phantoms of the Skies,” which turns out to be a book on jets. You can also do subject searches on things like: Ghosts, Ghost stories, haunted houses, historic homes, apparitions, poltergeists, holidays, Halloween, spiritualism, folklore. I am astonished at the number of books that are not listed under the subject headings “Ghosts” or “Haunted Houses.” I am even more astonished at the number of ghost books that don’t have the words “ghosts” or “haunted houses” right up at the front of the title. Some vague titles I’ve seen over the years: Peripheral Visions: Ghost stories from Swan’s Island, Maine; The Mysterious Doom; Past Masters: The History and Hauntings of Destrehan Plantation; Mystery Tour: A Student Guide to North Carolina Ghosts and Legends.
If your library has access to all the libraries in your area, you can probably search their entire collection by key word or subject. The library can then order up the books through interlibrary loan or get copies of materials. I’m amazed at the number of people who don’t know about interlibrary loan and amazed at the number of libraries that don’t publicize this service.
A caveat: Most reference librarians are wonderful, helpful people. BUT there is something about this subject that often brings out the worst in people. People with strong religious convictions may believe that you are looking for something satanic or occult. You might want to approach them about “local spooky stories” “local folklore” “ghostlore” or some other soft-core approach. By the way, when you write someone asking for a favor that only benefits you, it’s best to enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope. You’re more likely to get an answer that way too. Local history societies and local history/genealogy rooms are often understaffed, underfunded, and run by volunteers who may consider the material their personal property.
I once spoke to a group of librarians in northwestern Ohio and mentioned that I had no ghost stories from Van Wert county. Afterwards, a nice older lady came up and introduced herself as the head librarian at Van Wert Public Library. “We have a whole scrapbook of local ghost stories,” she said, “Please drop by and see it.” I couldn’t make it the next day, but the following day I sent my researcher, Curt, up to photocopy the scrapbook. He came back empty handed. “They’ve never heard of the thing,” he reported glumly. “OK,” I said, “I’ll just check the program to find out the name of the head librarian. She probably has it locked up in her desk or something.” When I looked at the program, there was no one there from Van Wert. I’ve never figured out who she was or seen the scrapbook and I’ve often wondered if she was a ghost librarian, sending me on a wild-ghost chase!
3) You could ask a 6-7th grade teacher (after that grade, the kids are too cool to be helpful) to collect local ghostlore stories in exchange for a visit from you to tell your stories. This, again, may have to be handled tactfully if parents object. When you ask schoolchildren for their local legends, be forewarned, you will get Candyman and Hook Man and vanishing hitchhikers galore, but there may be something else of interest.
4) Interview aged relatives or persons living in nursing homes or retirement communities. You could do this in connection with a Halloween party or autumn celebration.
5) Ask funeral directors. I’m told, although I have not personally checked this out, that magazines intended for the funeral trade often carry ghost stories.
6) Ask your local history librarian or local history room curator. If there is a Local History Room at your county library or historical society, ask the librarians the same question. Let them know what you’re doing and they can help you. Skim through county histories for odd stories. Be on the lookout for any publication about your county with the word “Miscellany” in the title; these often contain collections of ghost stories. Another good place to look is in books published during a centennial celebration or other anniversary of a community. Even though I made a list of famous Ohioans, you can skim anyone’s memoirs–published or unpublished–for paranormal experiences. Your local historical society may also be able to suggest someone who knows everything about the county history. I have been privileged to correspond with some delightful folks who are known to be the county expert on ghostlore and local history like Jim Henry of Pike County and Rick Crawford of Clermont, now the official county historian. They have been unbelievably generous with their time and material. Rick took me on a day-long roller-coaster ride through the haunts, hollows and history of Clermont. At every house he knew when it was built, who had built it, who lived in it now and the brand of rat poison a previous owner had used to murder her husband. It was a virtuoso performance!
7) Look for collections of oral histories at schools or historical societies. The library of Congress also has a collection of “Tales of the Supernatural” recordings available. I’ve never used these because they are mostly southern resources. One of my best sources of oral history in Ohio was the Ghost Stories of Fairfield County collection I mentioned earlier.
8) While we’re on the subject of libraries, try visiting libraries outside your own area, particularly local, rural, libraries. I was on vacation in Iowa and stopped into a small local library and found a wonderful book of ghost stories: Legends of the City of Mexico as well as a few other ghost books I’d never heard of. Smaller libraries may not get rid of older materials as a larger library might and who knows what you’ll find?
9) Used bookstores are an excellent resource. I look under three categories: 1) occult/new age/paranormal/metaphysical, whatever it’s called. 2) horror and 3) folklore/mythology. Books with titles beginning “Tales of” or “Legends of” may or may not have ghost stories in them. I find that many books of folklore (Virginia Folk Legends, Maryland Folklore, Sand in the Bag (Indiana folklore), only have a tiny section of ghostlore, if that. Many of them only cover deathlore or superstitions. One caveat: There is something about the Occult section of used bookstores that attracts people who have not bathed since 1964 and will ask you questions like, “Have you seen the Lizard Queen of the Universe?” I was up on a ladder at one such bookstore in New York, engrossed in the ghost section, when I realized that there was a man crouching under the ladder looking up my skirts as well as at the “erotica” section which was directly beneath the “occult” shelves.
10) Then there is the most extensive resource of them all: The Invisible Ink Collection at Bowling Green State University. I started this collection with nearly 1,500 volumes of mostly “true” ghost stories at the Popular Culture Library in BGSU, in northern Ohio. I started my schooling here in library science and I adore the campus and the people. What better place to start a permanent collection of a relatively new and neglected genre? I donate copies of every book in my Invisible Ink catalog plus other out-of-print items. I’ve been able to donate some interesting rarities. I’m working on a bibliography, which looks to be about the size of the Manhattan phone book, thus far.
11) So far I’ve only discussed research approaches for the US and Canada. I can’t resist putting this idea in since I still like to fancy myself a scholar. Two of my specialities in school were Japanese studies, particularly of the 10-12th century and Medieval Europe. I found a wealth of ghost stories in Japanese diaries and in some obscure chronicles and religious works. A monk named Caesarius of Heisterbach, for example, wrote a book of exempla, or moralistic supernatural stories to instruct the young novices under his charge. The book is called The Dialogue on Miracles, and has page after page of ghostly novices returning from the grave to warn the living not to make the same fatal mistake they did–like sleeping in choir or stealing an extra piece of bread. One of my favorite supernatural tales from Caesarius (probably found elsewhere as well) is about a nun who forgot to make the sign of the cross over a piece of lettuce she picked and ate in the garden. Unfortunately, there happened to be a young demon sitting on that particular lettuce leaf. The nun went mad and the prioress was called and cast out the demon. “What? What did I do? How is it my fault?” he protested “She did pick me and eat!”
The Moral? “Lettuce leaf demons alone.”
Froissart’s Chronicles and the Carolingian Chronicles, although centuries apart in time, have reports of death-bed apparitions, vampires, and poltergeists. Saints lives are often filled with miracles and apparitions. This kind of material requires a lot of digging and skimming, but I really enjoy it because I see that the patterns I observe in ghost stories today haven’t changed that much over the centuries.
There are also some interesting books on Chinese ghosts taken from centuries-old bureaucrats’ reports of signs and portents and supernatural stories. One of these is called The Records of Miraculous Retribution. One of my favorite stories tells of a judge who is asked to moonlight, hearing cases in Hell.
12) Ghost stories of other countries are researched in much the same way as I have described. The Worldcat computer index, the Library of Congress Index or Books in Print, if your library has access to these, are invaluable. Again, use both the keyword and subject search.
Unfortunately there are few good collections of strictly European ghost stories, in English. I don’t know about you, but I’ve let my Lithuanian, Italian, and Ukraine language skills completely go. Occasionally I run across something Scandinavian, German or Japanese, in the original language, but my German and Japanese disappeared about two years out of college. This scarcity of tales. I hardly need say, does not apply to the UK–I will need a separate bibliography for England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.
You are more likely to find foreign ghost stories in collections of folktales. But they seem to be rather rare and usually are true folktales rather than “I saw a ghost” type, although I’ve run across “true” collections from Tasmania, South Africa and Singapore. Whenever I find a collection of “ghost stories from around the world,” inevitably they mix in other supernatural creatures like witches, loup-garous, bunyips, the golem, or the wendigo–not really ghosts.
A few examples chosen at random:
Welsh Ghostly Encounters, Jane Pugh, 1990
Are You One of Us? (Icelandic) Stanford Dingley, 1963
Ghosts and witches aplenty: More tales our settlers told, Joseph and Edith Raskin, 1973
Phantoms and Fairies From Norwegian Folklore, Tor Age Bringsvaerd, Translated by Pat Shaw, 1979
Chinese Ghouls and Goblins, G. Willoughby-Mead, 1928,
Chinese Ghost and Love Stories, Rose Quong, 1946
The Almost Complete Book of Singapore Ghost Stories, Russell Lee
Mystics, ghosts and demons in Modern India
Italia a mezzanotte: Storie di fantasmi castelli e tesori
Bermuda’s Favorite Haunts, John Cox, Mac Musson, and Joan Skinner, 1994
13) Once it becomes apparent that you are seriously interested in this subject and will not make fun of the teller, you will get letters and phone calls, particularly after one book comes out. I have my publisher’s phone number listed in my books, but people still call me at home. Be prepared to get phone calls from a variety of people–like the person who calls at 2 a.m. “Hi, I’ve read your book and I have a demon in my house.” Or a couple of giggly teenagers who call just as you are going to bed and want to hear a ghost story. Or the person who wants you to tell him every haunted place he can visit in Franklin County. An author becomes public property.
Also, when I am speaking at libraries or historical societies, I am often approached by persons who want me to go through their house. Occasionally, I will, such as the time the head of security at The University of Dayton invited me to visit Liberty Hall, a building he assured me he would not visit after dark alone. Naturally I don’t normally visit private homes alone.
Now, a quick note on copyright, on using other people’s materials, and some niceties. Generally, anything printed before 1920 is in the “public domain” and you may use it freely. But it is nice manners, as well as good scholarship, to tell where you got the material. Newspapers of any date may be quoted as long as you give credit. If material does not say “Copyright, a date, and a person’s name”, it is not copyrighted and you may quote at will. Again, please give proper credit. And I always send an autographed copy of the finished book to anyone who shared a story. Just the promise of a book often encourages reluctant witnesses to open up.
I often recommend anonymity for my sources, or at encourage the use of the first name alone. Never list addresses of private homes. Their respect the privacy of your sources or leave the story alone. I had a dandy story about a ghost that was brought into a house with an antique rocking chair. But the husband got nervous, even though real names and locations need not have been used and I dropped the story. On another occasion, a couple’s lawyer contacted me. Their nephew, who told me the story of their haunted house, had told me they were dead. They were very much alive and embarrassed by their “crazy nephew’s lies.” Of course, I took out the story in the next edition.
I once contacted a museum in Cincinnati, which had had a newspaper article printed about their ghost. The PR director begged me not to do a story in my book because the docents were offended by people asking about the ghosts. I was happy to oblige. The last thing I want to do is embarrass someone. On the other hand, the USAF Museum has never been particularly happy about my ghost stories. They know they can’t stop me from reporting what I personally see. It is a government building, maintained at taxpayers’ expense and open to the public and I felt that no individual was being embarrassed by the stories. The Museum apparently doesn’t realize how many people ghost stories draw. “There’s No Such Thing as Negative Publicity,” is my motto. In fact, The Buxton Inn called me the day HOII came out and was thrilled to report people calling for reservations in the “haunted” rooms.
So there you have it; some of my ghost-story-hunting secrets revealed. Not much mystery, just a lot of hard work, rather like a treasure hunt. I’ve had good fortune with my ghost stories and I hope your researches will take you on just as wild a ghost chase!