Tuesday, July 23, 2024

We Want to Believe

Haunted Ohio chronicles the paranormal activity of the Buckeye State

Ghosts, monsters, UFOs, vampires and poltergeists— you can travel to every corner of the world only to find that we all make an effort to explain the unexplainable, to make sense of the difficult questions about the nature of life and death. Charles A. Stansfield Jr., a retired geography teacher who has published 15 textbooks, found that every U.S. state has myths and legends that correspond to the cultural geography of that place. Ohio is no exception.

In Haunted Ohio: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Buckeye State, Stansfield writes about historical figures from the assassinated President James Garfield to the characteristically pleasant spirit of Bob Hope; however, there are some truly grisly stories in the collection about monsters that are all too real (for example, the story of Cleveland murderer and rapist Ariel Castro was added to this second edition). Whether you are a true believer in the paranormal, or consider yourself to be “an open-minded skeptic,” as Stansfield does, Haunted Ohio is a telling book of folklore that speaksvolumes about our culture, our values and our fears.

Universal stories

Stansfield, who began his Haunted series with New Jersey, has written books about eight states. All of his collections begin by consulting Works Progress Administration guides. “They recounted these old stories,” he says. “The state guide bibliographies give me more references for old history books and, eventually, people started telling me ghost stories. Some of them did come from people who lived in or traveled through Ohio.”

He finds strong ties between the historical and geographic background of the states and their ghost stories, but what might be most fascinating about these tales is their universality. “Every group of humans out there— it doesn’t matter what race, ethnicity, or continent— tells ghost stories,” Stansfield says. Collecting them for more than 17 years, he has come to see patterns that help him categorize them. There are allegorical stories, guardian angel (or guardian ghost) stories. Then there are stories where we try to explain diseases or disasters.

“We can speculate on the nature of life and death in a sort of arms length way,” Stansfield says of the purpose of these paranormal stories. “It’s a semi-joking approach. Part of it is a romantic belief that we don’t know everything that there is to know.”

Though he considers himself a skeptic, he thinks it’s his ability to listen without judgement that enables people to share their own ghost stories with him. No one wants to be accused of lying or being mentally unstable, so they often keep these stories to themselves for years.

Our region’s haunts

Haunted Ohio has a section devoted to Columbus and the Western Heartland, where readers will find stories of Black Swamp monsters, UFOs, Confederate Army spirits and a Westerville witch whose farm was tended by the Devil’s cohort of sinners. There’s a little something for every reader, even if you don’t “want to believe.” Written by a teacher of geography and a history buff, the book is a reminder of Ohio’s rich history, one of the main reasons that Stansfield wanted to explore it in the first place.

Though Stansfield has never seen a ghost (and doesn’t want to), he doesn’t discount the possibility that there are truths in some of these tales.

“It’s a philosophical conundrum— the absence of proof isn’t proof,” he says of the existence of ghosts. “Just because I don’t see them, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

You can find Haunted Ohio and other books from this series at Rowman.com.

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