I love a good ghost story.
Ever since I was a little kid, I would always gravitate toward the spooky.
Anything supernatural was fair game. Like so many others, I cut my teeth on ghost documentaries and shows like Unsolved Mysteries. Horror movies were one of my main staples, and I read anything even remotely related to the paranormal. My appetite for ghost stories was nigh insatiable.
For me, one of the neatest parts of a ghost story is the story behind the haunting. Allow me to explain.
Often, the consumer of a movie, book, or television show knows that there’s supposed to be something supernatural going on. There’s a ghost, or a booga beast, or a whatever. We accept that. Still, we don’t want a stunt man wearing a white sheet to just wander from room to room waving their arms around.
“I’m spooky! Be scared!” Yeah, right, pal. Go sit in the corner.
No, what we want is atmosphere.
Let’s take a big movie killer guy. We know what to do. Shoot him! Stab him! Drop the bloody house on him! It’s something real, something that we can relate to. The tension is still real, but we feel more capable of dealing with it.
In a good ghost story, we want that feeling of otherness, that feeling that something isn’t quite right in this place. For a ghost story, the consumer is taken outside of the normal, to a place outside of their depth. Beyond our full acceptance or understanding, we don’t have the foggiest notion of how to deal with it.
In Richard Matheson’s book ‘Hell House,’ four investigators are hired by a dying multi-millionaire to discover the truth behind one of the most ancient questions held by mankind – is there truly life after death?
In order to do that, he sends them to the Belasco House, an infamous home where virtually every kind of psychic phenomena has been manifested, and yet no one has been able to disprove any of it there.
With that hook, Matheson draws the reader in. We’re going to a haunted house with an amazing reputation. We know that it’s probably not a great place, but we don’t know any details yet.
A little further in, you discover that one of the people on the team is a man named Benjamin Franklin Fischer. At one time, he was one of the most powerful physical mediums that the world had ever seen. Fischer is also the only one that has been to the house before.
It’s revealed to us that there have been two other teams to investigate the Belasco House. Both of them met with tragedy, with every member having been killed at the house or driven insane. The only exception was Fischer, and he was severely emotionally scarred.
Now we know that the Belasco House isn’t only scary, it’s downright dangerous. Based on previous experience, there’s a good chance that this third investigation could also end in tragedy.
The story progresses from there, using the back story behind the home to season and drive the main storyline. Through it, the tension is slowly ratcheted up until it reaches its final conclusion.
Without the carefully crafted back story behind ‘Hell House,’ it would just be an average horror novel. There’s nothing to enhance it, nothing to drive it. It would be a series of jump scares in a generically evil haunted house. The story is everything.
With true ghost stories, the situation is very similar, although in this case the back story is supposed to be rooted in true events. As a historian, this is often the part that I struggle with the most.
If a place is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of a little girl, and yet no historical record exists that there was ever a little girl having lived or died on the property, I’m going to have some issue with it. The back story – the historical evidence – does not fit the story.
One particular place comes to mind.
Although its actual name is Oakhill Cemetery, many call it Stoneking. Nestled comfortably amongst the rural backwoods of Lucas County, Iowa, Stoneking is, by most accounts, a relatively well-kept and peaceful place. Still, it bears a notorious reputation of being haunted.
People have claimed to have seen the ghost of an old man walking along the rows, and heard disembodied voices. While these seem fairly standard fare as far as ghost stories go, Stoneking Cemetery is famous for one alleged claim in particular – that it is a portal to hell.
To be more accurate, the exact claim is that the headstone of a man named Joseph Stoneking is the portal. According to legend, if someone reads the epitaph written on the stone out loud, then said portal yawns open, sucking the hapless reader into the very bowels of the abyss.
Another, similar legend says that if you walk behind the row of trees planted in the back of the graveyard, about fifteen feet away from Joseph’s grave, then the Stone King will appear on the grave and try to send you to hell.
This is apparently an entity separate from Joseph Stoneking, and is the…what? King of Stone? I don’t get that one, nor have I ever seen an adequate explanation of what it’s supposed to be.
At any rate, walk behind some trees, and the Stone King appears and takes you to hell.
If you couldn’t already tell, I was more than a bit skeptical of these claims. Still, one never knows, so I tried to maybe find some truth behind the stories. I didn’t find much.
Stoneking is a family name, and the cemetery is called that because there are a lot of Stoneking’s buried there. I reasoned that maybe the legend of a Stone King appearing was really a Stoneking which made a lot more sense to me. Because his grave was central to the legend, I conjectured that maybe it was supposed to be Joseph Stoneking himself who appears.
With that in mind, the next thing that I wanted to find out that if there was someone who’s buried in the cemetery who might be inclined to come send you to hell. I mean, that’s a pretty harsh call just for reading an epitaph out loud, or walking behind some trees.
As it turns out, the Stoneking’s were just ordinary people. There were no horrendous crimes that they committed; no babies drowned in bathtubs or sacrificed to dark powers. They came to Lucas County from West Virginia and lived pretty normal lives, just like you and me. They probably would have been more willing to bake you a pie or to help you change a flat tire than chase you into the open maw of hell itself.
I wasn’t the only one who was a little skeptical of these legends. A paranormal investigator and author named Chad Lewis drove the proverbial nail into the coffin by posting a YouTube video where he challenges each of the legends in succession. It became obvious after a few minutes that there wasn’t going to be a hell portal opening anytime soon.
As Stoneking Cemetery demonstrates, it’s an easy thing to invent stories about a place. Although there is no evidence to support the legend, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the place isn’t haunted or that people didn’t experience things there.
Let’s say that someone came to the cemetery shortly before nightfall to pay their respects to a loved one. The sun is higher in the sky right now, but it’s going to be dropping fast. You carefully park your car, then walk out to the graves that you want to visit (remember to stay out of the trees in back).
You find them, then take some time to visit. By the time you’re finished, the sun has reached the horizon. Things have become noticeably darker, but the sun in still just high enough to cast strange and eerie shadows across the cemetery.
Things are obviously the same, but they can look so much different. You start to realize how isolated you are out there, all alone amongst the dead. Your breathing quickens, and your eyes start playing tricks on you. Did you see something move? No. It was just a bird.
Suddenly, all you want is be gone. You want to get back to lights and paved roads and any signs of civilization that you can get. You don’t run, but you begin walking faster to your car. The already dim light has grown even darker, and your car seems so very far away.
There is no one to help you here, no one to lend you comfort. If there is something out here, what are you going to do, especially if that something is…stop! You force your mind to stop thinking about it, and concentrate on getting out of there.
You’re at your car door now. You left it unlocked, and you practically throw yourself into the lighted haven that it provides. You slam your door shut and jam the key into the ignition. You turn the key and the engine roars to life.
You put the car into reverse and stomp on the gas pedal, jerking backward gracelessly. All that matters is getting out of there and away from…what? What are you running from? You don’t care. Back on the gravel road, you jerk the shifter into drive and hit the gas again, spraying bits of gravel behind you.
A little while later, you’re back in town. There are paved streets and buildings. And light. Lots and lots of lights. Almost as importantly, there are living, breathing people. You start to calm down, and the mind begins to rationalize.
There wasn’t anything out there. Just you, nature, and a bunch of headstones. You didn’t really see anything. There was nothing there.
These feelings tap into our most primitive responses – to fight or flee. It gives us a massive high, fueled by pure adrenaline. Some people love that rush, but they don’t really want to put themselves too far into harms way to experience it. So, they watch horror movies. They read scary books.
If things get too intense, they can stop and cool down. Things even out, and everything is okay again. Obviously, authors and filmmakers use this to their advantage. It’s their job to scare you. However, they aren’t the only ones.
Let’s go back to our creepy cemetery. We know it’s not haunted. We’re local people, living on a farm just a short distance away. Man, we used to go play hide and seek out in that old graveyard when we were kids, Sure, it looks creepy as all get out at night, but it’s safe as anything out there. We know that.
But our little sibling doesn’t. So, we make up some wild story about ghosts or hell portals or whatever else. We then share the story sometime, all with the goal of scaring the pants off them for our own entertainment. They are, and we are more than satisfied with the desired result.
When we get a little older, we can use it a little differently. We finally get a date with a significant someone who we think is very attractive. Personal contact seems like a really cool thing with them, so we tell them a little story. You’re there with your friends, so maybe they get a little creeped out, too. Sure, that’s cool, but what we want is that significant someone to stand a little closer, or to hold your hand, or maybe put your arm around them.
More years ago than I care to admit, I was a campus security officer at Iowa State University. Basically, it was our job to lock and unlock campus buildings. When that was done, we patrolled around and made sure people didn’t do bad things.
Iowa State was a relatively quiet campus back then, so mostly what we had was a lot of time to kill. Of course, one of our favorite ways to do that was to tell each other ghost stories and scare the hell out of each other. The joke was that we patrolled these big, empty buildings by ourselves. Now you’re freaked out of your little mind by all kinds of spooky stuff and have to walk through there alone, letting your mind kick around all kinds of spooky.
For me, it was always one building in particular that got me – Landscape Architecture.
A converted 19th century barn, it was one of the few buildings on campus that was completely dark all night long. Most of the big buildings left at least some of their lights on, so you were okay. But not that one. Oh, no. It was you and a flashlight wandering through in the dark.
Honestly, I probably would have been fine if it hadn’t of been for the supervisor on my first day and my own overactive imagination.
On my first night, my supervisor walked me through the patrol route that I was to follow. He showed me the doors, and what the fastest ways to go were. When he started to tell me about Landscape Architecture, he stopped himself and got quiet. I asked him what was up. He looked at me after a moment, and very seriously asked me if I was superstitious.
“What? Is it supposed to be haunted?” I asked.
He laughed a little, too, and shrugged his shoulders. He then explained that the story was that when the building was still a barn, someone had hung themselves in the loft.
I told him that I would be alright, and we walked on.
I used to imagine all kinds of creepy stuff in that building. Anything from shadowy figures to disembodied voices, it was all there inside my head.
I remember one night in particular where I walked up to the building and, peering into the pitch darkness within, proceeded to scare myself silly. It was so bad that I actually radioed another officer to come over and walk through the building with me. Not my most manly moment, but I sure did feel better at the time.
We as people have a great capacity for both scaring each other and for scaring ourselves. With the mind and the imagination arguably being our most powerful tools for achievement, when we set out to frighten ourselves, we can truly accomplish great things.
Now, at this point, all of you are probably wondering – does this guy, who tells the occasional ghost story, even believe in ghosts? The short answer is yes. Without question.
Why? Because I have experienced things that I cannot fully explain.
A few episodes ago, I talked about a 2002 trip that I took to Mount Carmel Cemetery outside of Chicago. An enormous Catholic cemetery, it’s old, but extremely well-kept, and serves as the final home of both the good and the infamous. A friend of mine and I had decided to go and see the final resting place of several prohibition-era gangsters that are buried there.
The first one that we saw was Al Capone, probably the best known of them all. After that, we found Dion O’Bannon, the leader of the North Side Gang. For me, that’s when things started to get weird.
As you can imagine, I’ve been to more cemeteries than I can think about over the years, from private family plots in rural Iowa to truly massive graveyards with tens of thousands of internments. I’ve been in them at night, and at all hours in between. Cemeteries do not freak me out.
And yet, as I approached the large stone obelisk that marks O’Bannon’s grave, a strange feeling came over me. It took me a little while to place it, but when I did, I was genuinely surprised. I felt…unwelcome. I felt tolerated. I felt like something didn’t really want me there, but didn’t have much choice in the matter. But even without choice, whatever it was didn’t have to be happy about it.
At the same time, I also had this very clear idea that whatever it was also demanded that I be respectful. It may not have been able to force me to leave, but I was going to mind myself while I was there.
Honestly, I thought it was all in my head. For whatever reason, I couldn’t shake that impression no matter what I did. I didn’t want to tell my friend because I felt silly as hell for feeling that way. I was a historian for crying out loud!
We keep the stories of the dead. We share them with the living and remember the lost and forgotten. Cemeteries are part and parcel of that. Why on earth would I feel unwelcome amongst the tombstones when I never had before, anywhere else I had ever been?
I’m always respectful at cemeteries anyway, but that day I was almost formal in my actions. We took several pictures, and everyone that I was in I stood rigid and unsmiling.
One of the last graves we visited that day was of Sam Giancana, who headed the Chicago Outfit for several years. He had a reputation for being a violent and bloody man, and was definitely not someone to be trifled with.
When I started to approach his burial place, I stopped cold. What was an uncomfortable feeling before was now a sensation of outright hostility. For the first -and only- time ever in a graveyard, it took a conscious effort of will to approach the tomb, and then to turn my back on it for a picture. Even now, almost twenty years later, I still clearly remember that feeling.
A week or so later, I was back at my home at Iowa State. The feelings, while still disconcerting when I thought about them, were easily dispelled in the full daylight of my home six hours away from where I had them.
A friend of mine was visiting, and I was telling her about the trip. I hadn’t been through the photos yet, so we decided to look through them together. Everything was fine until I reached the second picture that I had taken of the Genna Brothers mausoleum.
The Genna Brother’s were Chicago bootleggers during prohibition, and used to pay people to make booze for them out of their own homes. Although it was a lucrative endeavor for them, a few of the brothers still came to violent, bloody ends during that time period.
It was bright, sunny day in February when the picture was taken. There was no mist or rain that day at any point. Everything was perfectly clear.
Still, there was an anomaly in the photo.
There are two benches outside of their mausoleum, one on either side. My friend decided to sit on one while the picture was taken, and the other was obviously empty. Well, at least it was in the first picture.
In the second, there is a mist on the second bench, roughly the size, but not the shape of, a person.
I started, shocked into silence. I knew what I was looking at, but I wouldn’t allow my brain to form the thought into words. My friend, fascinated, did it for me.
“Oh! Looks like you got a ghost picture,” she said, matter-of-factly.
The spell broken, I replied weakly, “Yes. Yes, it is.”
I have no explanation for either my feelings that day or the picture. Could it have simply been my imagination and some kind of mental fatigue? Possibly. Or was it what I mentioned earlier, something other, something that I still can’t explain to this day? Maybe the spirits of such violent men who, in life, demanded respect from those around them, were still doing so from beyond the grave.
I’ve never been back to Mount Carmel. I’ve driven past it on the way into Chicago a time or two, but I’ve never quite gotten up enough nerve to go back and visit.
Sometimes, we believe what we want to believe in order to explain our own feelings. We get scared, and we convince ourselves that something really was watching us. Others, understanding the power of those feelings, manipulate them to their own ends. A place was never haunted, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make up a really cool story that says it was.
Other times, however, we touch on something else. We brush up against something beyond our understanding, something that we can’t begin to explain. It requires no back story, no reason for being.
As Halloween 2019 rapidly approaches, I’m not here to preach you a sermon, or to wow with scientific splendor. I’m a simple historian and storyteller. Maybe you’ll believe what I experienced that day, and maybe you won’t. Maybe you have a valid explanation where I have none.
Whatever you believe and however you feel, the stories are there. Either way, I hope that this has helped make your Halloween season just a little bit weirder.
You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please stop over and have a seat at the table every other week to hear new stories of true crime, disasters, the paranormal, and other weird and dark stories from America’s Heartland.
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‘Stoneking Cemetery.’ Supernatural Dares, http://www.youtube.com
Myers, Frank D. ‘Tombs With a View II: Stoneking.’ http://www.lucascontyan.blogspot.com, 12/31/12
otherdpaulson. ‘These 10 Haunted Cemeteries in Iowa Are Not For the Faint of Heart.’ http://www.onlyinyourstate.com, 8/7/16
4 thoughts on “My Ghost Stories – Real and Imagined”
Weird indeed! Thanks, John.
I like your attempts to try to investigate the “why” behind ghost stories. I also find them much more satisfying if they at least make sense historically, and the cultural reasons why they come about are interesting too. Have you read Colin Dickey’s Ghostland? He basically tries to break down the reasons why ghost stories about particular places exist.
Thank you! I absolutely loved Ghostland! To me, that is when of the best books when it comes to using the actual history behind a location to lend credit to a ghost story. His investigation into the Myrtles Plantation and the Winchester Mystery House were both incredibly enlightening. Honestly, while I would still like to visit both of them one day, I haven’t been able to look at them the same way since.
I feel the same. I was dying to visit Winchester Mystery House and now that I know the much less spooky truth behind it, I’m less keen, though I would still go see it.