My earliest memory of a ghost story was borne in a summer camp in the panhandle of Texas where my brother and I spent several summers. Not far from the camp was a deserted house that was rumored to have been built on an ancient Indian burial ground that was haunted by several ghosts. One evening, the camp councilors set up a field trip to the haunted house. From the nearest road, the house was about a mile away, so the kids followed the counselors in single file during the hike in. We were about halfway to the house when the line suddenly stopped. The people in front had stumbled across the carcass of a steer that had been brutally butchered and was laying in the arroyo which we were using as a path. I recalled hearing one of the adults saying something about hiking back to inform the police and after a short discussion, he left, heading back towards our parked bus. Meanwhile, the other adults continued the hike, leading us up towards the deserted structure.
We soon arrived at the abandoned old house. It was a dilapidated two-story building with a covered porch. Some of the windows were broken and the evening breeze caused the drapes to flutter and move. The councilors paused to do a head count to ensure everyone was present before leading us into the house. We were taken upstairs into one of the old bedrooms and told the ghost story of how a family was murdered one day by a group of Apaches. According to the tale the ghost of the mother still wanders about the place searching for her lost children.
From what I remember, a door on the other side of the room opened by itself. One of the counselors walked over and opened the door the rest of the way, perhaps to see if anyone was inside. The next thing I knew, all of the kids were screaming and we were being rushed out of the room, down the stairs and out of the house. The adults were quickly grouping us together, counting to make sure all the children had gotten outside. I was looking at the house when I noticed the drapes of one of the front windows being held open. As I watched, a face peered out of the window of the deserted building and then quickly pulled the drapes closed again. I can recall that the face was that of a wide-eyed man who had a full bushy beard and that his stare seemed somewhat menacing. He looked quite crazy to me.
Meanwhile, the counselors completed the headcount and confident that all of the children were accounted for, began marching us back to the bus as quickly and safely as possible. The strangest thing is that I noticed that the adults appeared to be scared as well. The change in their attitude was quite apparent. What was happening was real. That was a little disturbing to me.
Once we got to the bus, we were loaded up and driven immediately back to the camp. Within a few minutes all the children, including the smaller kids who were not a part of the field trip, were gathered into a large storage building. The adults armed themselves with 22 caliber rifles from the camp’s shooting range. Though some of the memories have faded with time, I do recall the police arriving soon afterward. The red and blue lights from their patrol cars illuminated part of the storage structure through the open door and windows. A short time after that we were all loaded back onto the buses and driven back into town where our parents picked us up.
Ultimately this macabre event affected me in several ways. First of all, it created an interest in horror movies and the supernatural. I collected books on ghost stories, Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines and anything to do with classic horror films. Secondly, it sparked a curiosity about what had actually happened that night as the camp counselors and my parents never told me. So I became fascinated by unsolved mysteries and the people that investigated them. I collected anything I could find on Sherlock Holmes and read every detective novel that I could find.
So why do I love ghost stories? Because like horror movies they provide a temporary sort of terror, yet you know that you are safe. People go to horror films because they want to be frightened or they wouldn’t do it twice. You choose your entertainment because you want it to affect you. I can watch a horror film like “Nightmare on Elm Street” and enjoy the movie; even though I know that Freddy Kruger isn’t real. The same is true with ghost stories. I really do appreciate them, especially if there is some historical element that is attached to the story. However, like horror movies, if the conversation changes to a discussion about if the stories are actually true, that is another matter.
One of the characteristics that distinguish paranormal narratives is that they emphasize mystery and the indeterminate, which invites interpretation of various kinds. From my perspective, the answer to the question “Do you believe” belongs to the people that are telling or listening to a story of a paranormal experience. They decide to want to believe or even if they’re going to engage with it concerning any type of belief at all. What I do is take the paranormal narratives seriously. I pay attention to them and treat them analytically. It is that love of ghost stories that gives me additional insight. I become fascinated by the elements of the stories themselves. How were they created? Why do some last while others are forgotten? How do they morph over time as they pass from one storyteller to another? It is the combination of these interests that drew me into the hobby of ghost hunting and eventually, my own ghost hunting team, the Southwest Ghost Hunter’s Association (SGHA) in 1985.