Sunday, March 3, 2013

Yesterday's Workshop: Seeking the Spirits

Yesterday's workshop in Sistersville was just what I hoped it would be: 12 storytellers and 2 workshop leaders telling, exploring, discussing, working on and listening to ghost stories. I was one of the workshop leaders; with my friend Jason Burns we plumbed the depths of a good ghost story: what makes it compelling, where to find material, resources for research, framing the story, finding the universal meaning of the story, and finally telling the story.

Despite the advice of many websites on telling ghost stories, we did not hold flashlights under our chins. We did not make the listeners jump. We did not suggest something was going to get them, was creeping up behind them or any such things. To me, those are campfire stories and the techniques used when the goal is to scare people. I consider ghost stories those tales of inexplicable events that leave people wondering what could have happened, why did it happen, and if there really is such a thing as ghosts or spirits, if you prefer that term (I do).

How many of you reading this post have had such experiences in your life, or have heard of such things happening to someone you know and trust? I would bet that probably one in five are raising their hand, particularly if you live in the mountains or in a rural area. Many people keep such experiences to themselves lest their friends and family think they're crazy or weird. But the truth is, many people have had something happen to them, or seen something, that they cannot explain. I wish I had a count of the number of people who have told me stories about seeing or feeling a relative who has passed, or a beloved pet, or who have been in buildings where the sense of being watched or even touched was overwhelming.

Are these stories true or just overactive sensitivities? I do not attempt to answer that question; that is for each person to decide for themselves. What I do is research the background, particularly of historic stories or legends recorded somewhere in a book or other source, and occasionally one I have collected as an oral history. I provide the context for the tale and tell what I have learned, and then it is up to my listeners to decide on what is "true." And that, to me, is what makes these stories so intriguing-they leave us thinking, wondering, and occasionally, watchful.

Part of our day was to be a field trip, but that did not turn out as I had hoped. The weather was cold and snowy with a chilling wind and overcast sky.

Still, we ventured up the mountain to the Greenwood cemetery, a historic cemetery that holds the remains of many of Sistersville's most illustrious citizens and their families, along with those of the merchants, workers and farmers who settled and cultivated the land around this pretty river town. Our intent was not to ghost-hunt; that is not part of what I do as a storyteller. Our intent was to see the place as it once was, to pay respects to those who rested there and to get a feeling for the place and the history of one small town.

We also visited a grave that has been the source of many stories and legends. This family monument is a beautiful granite stone standing probably 8 feet tall, with a stunning woman bending over the stone with her arms stretched out protectively--or at least they used to. Vandals have broken the arms and disfigured her face, sadly, and the rumors of her vengeance on them make a compelling story. True or not, I can't say. I simply tell the story and provide the background of this hard-working family that became wealthy through their efforts and the foresight to buy mineral rights just before the first oil and gas boom in the late 1800's that made Sistersville one of the richest places in the world for a time.

(Storyteller Katie Ross stands beside, but not touching the statue, in the photo. You might wonder why.)

This is the stone of Philo Stocking, who moved from New York state to Wheeling, VA (at that time) and later to Sistersville to establish a flour mill and to attempt to drill (unsuccessfully) the first oil well. He became a wealthy, prominent man in the town and his son George carried on the family business later on. The inscription on the stone says much about the man it commemorates:

"Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble."

The key to telling ghost stories or historical stories about people of the past, I believe, is respect. Respect for the deceased and for their descendants. That is important, especially when visiting graves and other reportedly haunted sites. These people lived and loved; the places they lived still belong to someone (or at least the site does, if the structures are gone).

And the key to a successful workshop is not only willing and active participants who will trek out in less-than-ideal conditions, but also a place that is welcoming and supportive. Terry Wiley of the Gaslight Theater made huge efforts to make our concert there successful and we were glad to see some familiar faces in the audience; our storytelling guild seems to have a small but loyal group of listeners in the area. The Wells Inn also made our stay comfortable and it's like coming home to be greeted by Ann and the staff, to get messages from the owner letting us know that arrangements for our stay were in place, and to enjoy the good food and service.

How was this workshop funded? Through the generous support of the WV Commission on the Arts via a grant written by guild member Jo Ann Dadisman. It takes more than willingness to present or attend; it takes people like Jo Ann, and like Terry Wiley and Charles Winslow (of the Wells Inn), and guild supporter John Mullins who arranged our lodgings and food and even made homemade cheesecake, to make it work.

We told and heard many stories during our stay in the town, and I hope each person there went home thoughtful, inspired and ready to dig into their stories with new energy.

Copyright 2012 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


JoAnn ( Scene Through My Eyes) said...

I've not heard of such an event on the west coast - at least not where we've lived. The Native Americans have their ceremonies and if you are fortunate enough to get an invitation (they are very open and accepting of those who might be curious - and they are always always courteous) you can experience some wonderful things. Mostly the people in our area are interested in new, fast, shiny, expensive - it is a shame that a city can grow to be so big and so cold. There is a fabulous cemetery in the middle of town - a very old one - (well, mid 1800s is old for this area) and I've often seen spirits wandering about - some happily - some not so. Once I even saw a spirit ship in there on a good and foggy day - and wondered if it was a ship lost at sea in this area. I've found no one to ask - though I've tried.

Your area is fortunate to have people to carry on the stories.

Granny Sue said...

Jo Ann, you may want to google storytelling and your community's name. I think you might find something going on there; I have storytelling friends in your area and they would know. Your experiences in the old cemetery are really intriguing and I bet there's a storyteller around you who'd like to hear about it :)

In WV we seem to have a keen sense of history. Perhaps because many people have been here all their lives, and their family before them the same--like Walter, one of class attendees, who was 95 and still living in the house he was born in, and so full of stories and memories.

Missie1 said...

I wanted to go to this sooo bad. Maybe I can catch the next one. Was looking forward to meeting other writers from WV who write Paranormal. :D

Sue said...

I think you've got exactly the right take on ghost stories. I am not into the flashlight-under-your-chin variety.

Wonderful graveyard photos, by the way. I love a cemetery, for some reason. I feel so much history there.


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