So much of the time, the world seems like a boring place. We get up, stumble around for a few hours, eat, make messes, clean up messes, and eventually head back to bed. When we’re in routines, it’s no wonder that people indulge in entertainment like sitcoms, movies, and books to broaden their horizons through imagination. We even make trips of thousands of miles to explore new places just for a sense of an unfamiliar life.
After finishing up grad school and a few semesters of adjunct professoring, I spent the summer of 2009 backpacking around in Britain to escape the humdrum of repetitive lesson plans. I visited friends I’d made while studying abroad as well as checking off just about everything I wanted to do. (The one miss: the Wal-mart Supercentre outside Sheffield. They spell it “r-e!” How cool is that?)
Among my wanderings, I was certain to do was take all of the ghost tours I could find. Being a thousand years old, Britain is chock-full of ghosts from the halls of the Tower of London to the necropolis of Glasgow. Being from Oklahoma, which was settled just a century before, I was bewildered. I’d heard a few stories of ghost cattle drives and a haunted mansion or two, but nothing so ubiquitous. How could people here ever get bored?
On one leg of my trip, I dropped by to stay at a friend’s house on the Isle of Wight. We took her hometown ghost tour, and building after building had ghosts everywhere. A butcher shop was on the corner of a crossroads where hangings took place, and people saw shadowy figures disappear while going inside. The city offices were haunted by a bureaucrat who’d hanged himself. The town river had a ghostly young mother who’d drowned her baby rather than see it starve but soon drowned herself. Now she searches for the baby all eternity.
I was flummoxed. Story after amazing story was attached to buildings my friend walked by just about every day going shopping or to school. Feeling a little ghost-envy, I told her the one ghost story I knew, a little boy ghost haunting the third floor of the old infirmary at the University of Oklahoma. She applauded and said, “You should do a ghost tour of OU!”
I snorted/guffawed. My world wasn’t interesting; that’s why I’d come here in the first place. “There aren’t enough stories for a whole tour!”
The trip eventually came to an end, and I was back teaching Composition that fall. Despite a dozen other distractions, my friend’s suggestion never seemed to leave me. One day during a slow set of office hours, I decided to do a little Googling just to see if there were any ghost stories about OU.
In only a few minutes, I came across a whole set of websites. One was an old student website of someone who had collected a few rumors. Another was a video from a local TV reporter who had a trio of stories for a Halloween report a while back. Still others led me to old newspapers, yearbooks, and all kinds of media I knew the library had, but I never took the time to look for. The campus was swarming with stories!
Eating my previous words, I let my friend know that she was right and, out of penance, I’d start up a ghost tour for charity that Halloween. One of my first steps was to conduct interviews with people who were in the buildings supposedly haunted. Being introverted, I was terrified that they’d roll their eyes at me for wasting their time, but it turns out that people like talking about themselves. In one building, not only did a number of people drop by with stories, suggestions, and cards with email addresses, but the secretary even gave me a can of soda. Everybody has stories, and we don’t get enough chances to tell them.
My research yielded in fact too many stories for a simple walking tour. I edited down to 75 minutes of the best ones, and the OU Ghost Tour began in 2009. First it was friends and family, anybody I could wrangle for interest. The next year, we had extended circles of friends and folks who’d heard word-of-mouth. In 2011, it was picked up by the news, and over three hundred people showed up for a tour. The campus visitor center loved the idea and asked me to do it every month while they took over much of the advertising. We even got a Facebook page.
Each year, people give me new suggestions to follow up on, and I added a whole new story just last month with Whitehand Hall. I’d been in Whitehand just once before to turn in some paperwork, and I did note it had a creepy vibe, but after just stepping in and asking around, I was put into contact with a team of paranormal investigators who had spent a night there collecting Electronic Voice Phenomena from what they described as “the most polite group of ghosts we’ve ever had.”
All I knew about Whitehand Hall before was that it was cold and had a bell tower, yet one morning of looking into it has given me a whole new appreciation and insight. It’s one example of just about everything in the world. Stories are everywhere. Things may seem boring around us, but that’s because we rarely pause to explore around us.
If you’re looking for a story or fodder for a story or simply something interesting, it’s easy to find. Read an old newspaper for adventures. Talk to your neighbors to hear wild, insane drama. Watch people in coffee shops and write character descriptions of their clothes, moods, speech, actions, everything about them. Stop to read through historical markers. Pick up a rock and look under it.
Who knows what you’ll find? That building you walk by every day could well have hosted an exorcism in 1973. I found that out in a newspaper article on microfilm in the bottom of a library, and it became a highlight of the tour. Now when I walk through campus, I can’t help but wonder, “What stories are hidden here?”