I'll fully admit that I'm still pondering ghost stories even though we're coming into the holidays, though maybe that's not as strange as it sounds. According to some beliefs Winter is a time for the spirits have more freedom till Spring comes, and I know that in the Victorian era it was more common to tell ghost stories around Christmas than on Halloween.
But these ponderings are more about the use of ghost stories, and it all began with a fine performance by magician Amy Scharleau at the Springfield Art Association's Edwards Place
The Edwards Place hosted a recreation of a seance, and even the moon was being accommodating as it was full that eve. The Edwards Place is a lovely Victorian manor, and the setting was perfect - a darkened dining room, with large portraits surrounding us. Only ten people were allowed, and we were all settled around the table.
Now I will fully admit I have never been to an actual seance, though I have read enough about them to have some idea of how things are done. And I will happily say that Ms Scharleau not only set the mood well, but she smoothly made it seem that the spirits were responding.
And to do that it was obvious she had had to chose a story from the Edwards' family history that would make for a believable reason for a haunting. The story she chose was a tragic one about one of the daughters of the house, who had not been allowed to marry a loving, but poorer, young man. Of course, the tale did not end well, as he went mad during his pursuit of trying to obtain a proper living - far off in Alaska as a surveyor, and not long after his return home he was committed. Nor was he long for the world as he took his life.
As for the poor lady - she never married; though she lived to over 100.
A tragic tale that is true, and very in keeping with many traditional ghost stories, but I wondered about the rest of the lady's story. To have lived such a long life meant that she experienced many life changes, and probably had many interests, and probably by the time of her death that the tragedy of her long lost love probably had faded to gentle ache in her heart. Would she have continued to haunt because of him? (And she may well haunt, that I don't know, but I'd bet if she does it is probably not because of him.)
And before I continue further I will say that the people responsible for the Edwards Place are very good about telling fuller tales of its occupants' histories, particularly during the Haunted Night of History tours, which offer interpreters doing portrayals of those occupants. This too is an event worth going to see around Halloween.
In truth the re-enacted seance was just gathering point for my thoughts, which have been playing with some questions for a while. Questions often stirred by my travels to Gettysburg, and to other historical sites, and the opportunities to go on some of the ghost tours that have been offered.
Tours by their nature, whether ghostly or not, can only offer snippets of history, and docents have to have short tales memorized so they can offer those tales smoothly. Ideally these snippets might pique the visitors' interest enough so they would want to learn more. But sometimes they freeze history into just one, simplified, form, both in the eyes of the visitors and of the docents.
This seems particularly true when it comes to ghost stories, since the romance of the tale often seems more interesting than the reality of the people's lives.
The use of ghost stories for a historical area can really help to boost interest in a place, which, in these hard financial times, can be quite a boon. And such interest can also help with preservation. And when its done well (as I have seen it done at both the Edwards Place and the Dana Thomas House) the stories are combined in with the fuller history.
However, with the proliferation of independent ghost tours for profit throughout the country, and ghost shows on TV, I suspect that a lot of the tales are "freezing" bits of history into stock molds. Tales that don't really get questioned, which can cause misunderstandings of our past.
Which in my mind doesn't even seem fair to the ghosts where there are true hauntings. (Or to even just the memory of the people - where there are not).How would it feel to have all of your accomplishments and experiences overlooked - and only one episode of your life (and probably death) focused on? And in truth, probably not one of your finer moments.
Granted, in some cases, it would be hard to research some of the hauntings in such depth, but I suspect that it would be best to keep in mind that people, alive or dead, are complicated beings - with many hues to their tales.
I am a Springfield, IL based storyteller with a fascination for how folklore travels, and for history.