Ghost stories will be the spirit of Halloween 2020
From as far back as I remember, Halloween was my favorite holiday. If I had to pick out a specific event or memory that implanted this obsession into my being, it would have to be the Annual Halloween Fling at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in Oregon City. The Halloween Fling was an amazing annual event that took over the majority of the school with a costume contest, pumpkin decorating contest and a gymnasium full of the old-fashioned Halloween carnival games we all remember such as apple bobbing, the fishing game and the highlight of the entire event was the cakewalk. And as epic as the Halloween Fling was every year, it was just the opening act to the trick-or-treating that would take place on Halloween night. Trick-or-treating was for me, and many other kids in my neighborhood, the best night of the year.
I remember very vividly the day that the Halloween fun could have easily come to a crashing end. I was in sixth grade at Mt. Pleasant school and as the Halloween Fling approached my parents, as well as the parents of my neighborhood friends, told us that as sixth graders we were soon going into middle school and we were getting too old and that we would not be allowed to go trick-or-treating. As you can imagine this idea did not sit well with us kids. I was determined to save Halloween. At the end of school each day, as Halloween approached, my friends and I would go to their house and spend many afternoons listing to the Disneyland record called "Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House." Side one contained "10 stories in sound in which the narrator sets up the situation and the sound effects take over and tell the story."
It was while listening to that record that we reenvisioned what Halloween would be. We came up with a plan that would fill the gap of not being able to trick-or-treat. We would build a haunted house! We could still dress up, still decorate and still enjoy Halloween, and if our haunted house was good, surely kids would drop their trick-or-treat bags full of candy and run for the hills. At the end of the night we would celebrate and accept the abandoned candy as payment for a job well done. It was a brilliant idea. Playing that record over and over created an environment in which our imaginations ran wild and allowed us to realize that even though Halloween wasn't going to be the same as it had been in the past, it didn't mean it couldn't be as great.
I feel that this October is similar. Trick-or-treating will be at a minimum, and Halloween parties will be nonexistent. The large crowds normally waiting in line to go through Halloween attractions will now travel in cars and drive through the scenes. Halloween of 2020 will be different for sure. Sometimes it just takes a good story to transport you to a different place or time, something we could all benefit from in 2020. So, this Halloween let's bring ghost stories back. I don't know anything else that can bring the true spirit of Halloween like a ghost story.
The chilling stories from that childhood record I listened to as a kid stuck with me into adulthood. Creating my first successful haunted house in the sixth grade was a renewal of Halloween for me. Those stories came to life in the scenes we built in that first haunted house. As years went on my haunted houses got bigger and more elaborate and eventually, I was doing haunted houses for Doernbecher Children's Hospital. That experience led to working on many other well-known Portland-area haunted houses. The haunted houses I worked on raised tons of money for charities over the years, but there was a huge overhead in expenses, it was a challenge to find locations from year to year and the amount of work to build, operate and tear down a haunted house is enormous. Most of those huge events were eventually discontinued.
Being from Oregon City, I had always had an interest in local history. In fact, over the years I had been building haunted house attractions I was working at various historic places and museums including the Ermatinger House in Oregon City. It was while working in these historic places that I began to be introduced to the paranormal. Many paranormal investigators and/or psychics would visit the locations where I was working and would frequently have paranormal experiences. They would share some of their experiences, but since they had little or no knowledge of the history of the place, their experiences had no context. I started using my knowledge of the history of these places to help paranormal investigators understand their experiences and how it relates to the events of the past. I was frequently able to connect their experiences to the history of the place. It seemed to me that this may be a new opportunity for me to continue to bring life to stories.
Unfortunately, over the years I noticed that people outside of the paranormal world are typically reluctant to tell ghost stories for a variety of reasons. I found that local museums and historic places feared telling ghost stories due to the negative connotation of the word "haunted" and not wanting to label historic sites as haunted places. I think that museum managers and staff of historic sites are hesitant to get into the topic of ghost stories and the paranormal because it is so difficult to discuss it without dealing with the question of what a ghost is, because that question also has the potential to touch on visitors' belief systems. Staff at museums and historic places typically don't want to get into religious or philosophical conversations with their visitors.
I really felt there was a need to try and change the negative connotation of the word "haunted." I was really surprised how many of the local museums and historic sites in the region were reluctant to talk about ghosts or the paranormal, even when there was paranormal activity occurring in these places that could be traced to the history of these sites. I found it weird that, even when the mission of these historic sites is to educate their guests about the history of the place, they tended to completely ignore talking about the paranormal experiences or activity when they knew that it was completely tied to the history of the place. This issue became such an interest to me that I felt compelled to continue to tell the stories of the spirits of the people who once lived in my city. There were times where it felt like the spirits knew I was trying to tell their stories and so the stories just started coming. It was then that I decided to create a ghost tour in Oregon City. It felt like the perfect opportunity to merge my love of Halloween and my interest in history and the paranormal. In doing so, I would try to take a different approach.
As a high school art teacher, I have always believed it is my job to teach. It has always been my goal to teach the guests on my tours the history of a particular building or place and to share the stories of the people, both dead and alive, who once were connected to them. By sharing the historic facts along with the folklore and myths, I can tie the paranormal experiences that people are currently having in these locations to my stories. I have never felt it was my purpose to try to explain or define what the word "ghost" means, and I have never felt the need to try to explain how that connects to each individual person's religious views.
I have noticed that people who attend a ghost tour are more comfortable telling the guide about their experiences than they are telling their own families or friends. There is a feeling that someone leading a ghost tour is probably going to listen and not make any judgments about them when they share their experiences. I want to let the guests on my tours define the word "ghost" for themselves. I want them to think about the material I have presented and let them decide for themselves what is really happening in these places. And I want them to feel comfortable talking about it with others. Years ago, I was talking to someone on my tour who told me that they sometimes see a little girl at night in their back yard. I asked them if they had talked to their neighbors about it and they responded, "Oh of course not … why would I?" I said, "because they see her, too."
That is why I strongly encourage everyone to share their experiences or to at least write them down. Working and living in the same city my whole life and doing tours for almost 15 years, I have found that there are some houses and places where I have known three to four different families who have lived in the same houses. Families who have never really talked to each other about the ghost stories or investigations but have shared the stories with me. Many times, the stories are the same, or the families have the same experiences. Some of the same houses are up for sale every year or two, a family moves out and another moves in, time and time again. It is so important to share our stories and experiences.
So, as we make plans for Halloween 2020, remember this Halloween will be unlike any that we have experienced in the past, but it can still be great. Let's bring back the good old ghost story, whether you are telling stories at a bonfire on the beach with friends or while sitting near the fireplace with your family at home. But if you want to hear one of mine, I welcome you to join me on one of my socially distanced ghost tours this October. I will also be hosting a special virtual event presented by the Oregon City Public Library at 7 p.m. on Oct. 22, when I will be sharing stories from "Oregon City's Haunted History." For information, dates and times for all my events and tours this October, visit hauntedoregoncity.com.
Oregon City Commissioner Rocky Smith originally published this article in the Paranormal Insights newsletter.
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