I tell ghost stories. I have been telling ghost stories to anyone who will listen to them for more than 30 years. I reckon that in those three decades, I have told ghost stories to tens of thousands of people who have attended the thousands of live “performances” I have given. I have reached hundreds of thousands more through the printed word in the more than two dozen ghost story books I have written. Untold millions more have heard my tales on networks such as A&E, The Travel Channel, The History Channel, and on radio and television stations around the world.
I like to tell ghost stories. I like to scare people. Any meeting room, library hall, restaurant, or stage becomes my campfire around which I spin my eerie yarns. I don my top hat, cape, and walking stick and try my best to transport my audience into another era and onto another plane. My intent is to continue the time-honored art of live storytelling. Ghost storytelling.
As that costumed, live, ghost storyteller, I may be an endangered species. Endangered by ignorance. Let me tell you a story about ghost storytelling.
At the start of the last school year, I received a call from the Reading Specialist of an elementary school in the Reading, Pennsylvania, suburbs. Would I tell ghost stories to her fifth and sixth graders the Friday before Halloween? Sure I would, I told her. No charge, either, I added. I love to tell ghost stories to 10-12 year olds. I love to tweak their imaginations, tease their sensitivities, and take them to the threshold of their fears. I’ve done it a hundred times — maybe two hundred. It’s Halloween, after all! Hasn’t every generation reveled in the tradition of ghost stories at that time of the year?
Of course, they have. But, that might be grinding to a gruesome halt. The Tuesday before Halloween, I received a communication from the principal of the school, who asked me to provide her with an outline of my talk. She was specifically concerned that I might — get this — mention death when I tell my ghost stories.
After pondering all of those letters after the educator’s name and wondering whether any of that education might have touched on the reality that the prerequisite of being a ghost most certainly involves death, I composed myself and composed a response. I told her that I tell ghost stories. I didn’t feel it required my explanation, justification, or qualification. I had told many ghost stories to many children of that age group in many schools over many years.
And after all, it was Halloween. Or, was it?
Not in that school district. The Wednesday before Halloween I learned that the district was not allowing its children to dress in costumes. No Halloween parties or parades. No Halloween decorations. The word Halloween was not to be murmured. In that district, Halloween was morphed into a “Fall Festival.”
That was all I needed to hear. No Halloween? No me.
With sincere regrets for the children, I contacted the Reading Specialist who invited me to speak and I uninvited myself. Your school is having a “Fall Festival” instead of Halloween? Invite someone to tell corn stalk, hay bale, and pumpkin stories instead of ghost stories.
In my cape and top hat, and with my scary little stories, I would be nothing more than a dinosaur trudging among lemmings.
I had two choices, of course. The gentle one would have been to buckle to the principal, tailor my tales, and honor my agreement to speak. Instead, I stood my ground and refused to dance to that school’s tune of timidity.
Some call all of this “Political Correctness Run Amuck.” Very well, I’ll accept that, but I’m sick of it. It’s not just a P.C. issue. As far as I’m concerned, it digs deeper beyond politics and into the very roots of civilization and — attention Miss Principal — education.
The National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association, and other educational groups recognize and endorse the value of a good ghost story. In a lesson plan called “Teaching Epic Through Ghost Stories,” it is suggested that “Our oral tradition of telling ghost stories, with which students are very familiar, builds a useful bridge to the oral tradition of the ancient epic narrators.”
The outline added, “Enjoying ghost stories, particularly stories about a place they know, helps students to picture ancient storytellers and their listeners as they gather around a fire to hear an epic. Hearing ghost stories also helps them to appreciate a good storyteller.”
Now, I do not profess to be an “epic narrator,” and only hope I’m a fair storyteller. But, I found the NCTE and IRA’s pronouncements interesting and supportive.
So, just how far amuck can all of this run?
Consider Veterans’ Day. I read in my local newspaper that a chorus of fifth and sixth graders from a local school sang at a Veterans’ Day program at Veterans’ Grove, in Reading’s City Park. Picture that. Innocent, impressionable elementary school kids, standing between vintage cannons and Howitzers and memorials to fallen warriors, singing to honor professional military men and women who were trained to kill people and destroy property. This veteran asks, only partly facetiously, if that should be allowed. What are we teaching these children?
Consider Thanksgiving. Although kids could not wear costumes at Halloween, several were pictured in the newspaper wearing “Pilgrim” and “Indian” costumes at a Thanksgiving play. Funny, huh? But, do not the Pilgrims represent a deep religious conviction? Is not Thanksgiving a faith-based holiday? And, do not the painted-faces, feathers-in-headband “Indians” represent a deep insensitivity toward Native Americans? What are we teaching these children?
In the news was an item about a controversy in Sarasota, Florida, where an idea to create, decorate, and sell Fiberglas clowns as a citywide art project and charity fundraiser had run into opposition — a “clown-troversy,” they called it. It seems that certain parties felt the placement of the clowns should not be allowed because “some people” believe clowns are “too scary.”
Clowns. Too scary. In Sarasota, the home of the Clown Academy, the Museum of the Circus, John Ringling, and the circus he founded. Clowns. Too Scary. Is it me?
Is it only me who thinks all of this skittishness has teetered into a place we should not be?
I have a friend who is a teacher and a Civil War re-enactor and tells vivid tales of the Battle of Gettysburg. A school district reluctantly allowed him to continue to tell the tales, but requested that he not mention guns when he does so. Talk about a battle, but do not mention…uh…guns.
“What do those people think those men died from out there,” he asked, “fright?”
And, how about the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, school district that asked teachers to refrain from snowman decorations in wintertime. Nothing depicting a snowman should appear anywhere in any Johnstown school. Heavens to Frosty! No snowmen? Correct. And, it’s because a B-list rap “artist” had chosen the depiction of an angry snowman as a symbol of cocaine drug dealing. Tee-shirts with the faux-snowman were hot-selling items among the B-list of the student body.
Johnstown High School Principal Dan Resenic was quoted in the press as saying, “It’s a sad commentary that people can make a nice profit by degrading something that is a holiday tradition.”
Consider this, Mr. Resenic and Miss Principal from the Halloween-trashing suburban Reading school district. Consider not cowering in fear, caving in, and conceding defeat at the hands of a minority of pathetic party-poopers who seek to tread on traditions and emasculate observances.
My Halloween storytelling season concluded on Halloween itself at, ironically, a school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Having been assured that I was there to tell the middle school students — many rather rugged, inner-city kids — ghost stories as part of their Halloween program, I strode into the school well before “showtime” and secreted myself backstage. There, walking stick in hand and top hat on head, I waited until I heard the first rumble of incoming students.
I peeked from behind the closed curtains into the auditorium as it filled. Hmm, I thought, a tough crowd.
But, I knew the storyteller’s garb and countenance would get and hold of their attention as long as I did what I do best — tell ghost stories. I walked confidently on stage and took complete control of their senses and imaginations. For 20 minutes or so, I took them to a place many had never been before. As my make-believe bonfire sizzled and crackled behind me, it fueled my own enthusiasm.
Out in the dim auditorium was a galaxy of wide-eyes. You could hear a feather drop as I let the ghost stories kick in. I could also see that many of the students were wearing costumes. That added even more kindling to the fire burning slowly within me.
For my “grand finale,” I decided to trot out a trick I hadn’t pulled in years. It’s a little device that methodically and mysteriously brings the right kind of audience into the palm of my hand until I shock them with a surprise ending that leaves them shrieking. This was the right kind of audience. It worked like a charm. Shriek they did. And as they shrieked, I disappeared behind the curtains.
It was the right kind of audience, and the right kind of school. The teacher who invited me to speak was dressed as a gorgeous geisha (there are lessons to be learned about that, too, I suppose); and although dressed professionally, the principal sported a tie with creepy artwork and a button that played spooky music when pinched.
I left that school with a renewed spirit. Halloween was still safe, at least in that school.
As I drove home, I felt a little remorse about my cancellation of that other storytelling session in that other school. I couldn’t have cared less about the pusillanimous principal or the timorous district, but I felt bad that due to the extenuating circumstances, I let that reading specialist down. More than that, I would have liked to go there and get face-to-face, imagination-to-imagination with those kids. But, I’m sure the cardboard cutouts of turkeys and pumpkins at their Fall Festival made their Halloween very special.
Who am I kidding? They were probably too busy reading Harry Potter books, engaging in a round of Mortal Combat, or playing The Suffering or the aliens and predators games on their X-Boxes.
Who needs live ghost storytellers when they have all that?
Pardon me as this dinosaur trudges back into the shadows. I hope I don’t tread on any lemmings on the way. There’s a lot of them out there these days.