Fall gives me back to school fever, and when I found out that Michael Kleen’s new book combined my love of ghost stories with my longing for school days, I had to get a copy. One of the themes of the book that really struck a chord with me is the importance of legend-tripping in college. Some of us outgrow it, I guess, but even if we do, I think we replace it with another form of travel or even possibly another thrill-seeking activity.
From haunted libraries and theaters, to even your very own dorm room, any area of the campus might have an associated legend. I caught up with Michael and he very kindly entertained my questions below:
I love your explanation of legend tripping as a form of escapism. “By confronting the imagined horrors that await them at their destination, participants expect to be changed in some way.” What are your thoughts on the importance of continuing this tradition into our adult lives?
Legend tripping, like all rights of passage, is important during adolescence and early adulthood. These trips to “forbidden” locations, confrontations with real or imagined danger, and proving one’s bravery to his or her peers can have a lasting impression on individuals and groups of friends. I recently read an insightful argument that ghost stories are intimately tied to nostalgia. Many adults who engaged in legend tripping during their formative years probably retain very powerful memories of those events. I know I do.
Continuing to seek out mysterious places in adulthood is a way to reconnect with those memories, perhaps even to reconstruct them with a new group of friends, or to share that part of your life with someone new. We can develop very real emotional connections to these places, even physical connections (such as writing your name on a wall, for example). Revisiting an abandoned building or bridge where you wrote your name as a teen allows you to encounter a visual reminder of your past.
Do you find the idea of a haunted library unsettling or oddly comforting?
I love libraries and old books–places where you can literally smell the history. When I was a kid, I used to enjoy looking in books to see the last date they were checked out. Sometimes that was several decades ago. I like the idea that something of the past remains, like a spiritual manifestation of a custodian of this collective knowledge. So to answer your question, yes, I find it comforting.
What legend do you think is the most far-fetched or hard for you to believe, and which do you find the most believable?
I treat all legends as equally believable and far-fetched, because I’m not very interested in questions about the truth or falsehood of legends. All legends are acts of creative storytelling. You could have one legend about the ghost of a suicide victim at college and it be completely made up, or you could have a legend that was based on a real suicide, but elements of the story are fictional. You have to, at some level, assume all these stories are false. However, there is a legend about a dorm that was designed to fly safely off its foundation in the event of a tornado, and I think that’s pretty far-fetched.
When I was reading the stories of the librarian ghost in Williams Hall, I was thinking to myself: “Wait a minute. That sounds likeGhostbusters!” Then you wrote the exact same observation a few sentences later. Do you see this type of phenomenon often when conducting interviews, as far as witnesses seemingly being influenced by popular culture and the media when they are reporting their stories? If so, do you think it is an innocent happening, or do you think people sometimes just mirror what they think they are supposed to say they saw based on what they’ve seen in the movies and may have already read in print?
I think media is very influential when it comes to legends and ghost stories. Let’s say someone actually sees a ghost, or encounters something they can’t explain. How do they describe something that may have only happened for a few seconds out of the corner of their eye? There may not be words in the English language suitable to describe what the person encountered. So they pull examples from popular culture–movies, TV shows, newspaper articles, stories they heard from other people–to fill in the blanks. People do this when describing crimes as well, and that involves an actual physical event! It’s been shown that reports of encounters with ghosts and UFOs increase when articles in the newspaper or TV news reports focus on those subjects. It’s not clear, however, whether people just feel more open to talking about those experiences, or whether the media somehow influenced them to be more susceptible to having those experiences. I do know that when a legend in one part of the country becomes popular in the media, it has been known to spread to other parts of the country. Those are called migratory legends. The crybaby bridge and vanishing hitchhiker motifs are just two examples of that.
Speaking of interviews, have you ever come across a participant who seeks payment in exchange for a story? If so, how do you handle this?
I have not encountered that, but I would not be opposed to paying for a story if it was something that was really crucial to my research. Some people just need that extra motivation. You always have to be careful, however, of people who are just coming forward with a story for financial gain. You can find someone to say anything for the right amount of money.
It’s a dark and suddenly stormy night and you find yourself trapped outside alone in the elements on your way back to your dorm room. Do you seek shelter in the archives of the haunted library or run for cover into the tunnels?
Hm, I would definitely seek shelter in the haunted archives. That sounds a lot cozier and you’re less likely to run into jumbo sized sewer rats.
I’m captivated by the Capital Hotel. Any news or tales you can share that didn’t make it in the book?
Yes and no. Pretty much everything I know about Vishnu Springs and the Capitol Hotel related to its importance as a legend tripping destination for students from Western Illinois University is in the book, but there is a lot of history I left out because it was just meant to be an overview. So nothing new to report, unfortunately. I would like to know when WIU intends to open it back up to the public.
In the beginning, it is explained to the reader that the legends are retold as a way of explaining strange occurrences and are passed on in order to warn or inform others. And yet, the most chilling truth of all is presented later in the form of the fate of Shannon McNamara. “As Shannon McNamara’s murder taught a whole generation of my fellow EIU alumni, you can be intelligent, popular, athletic, and happy, and evil might still find you.” This sentence stuck with me, and still covers my entire body in chills. This is the scariest story to tell in the dark because it is real, and there is really nothing you can do to guard against it other than stay strapped, I guess. This isn’t really turning into much of an interview question, but I guess I just want to listen to you talk about this theme/truth some more.
We like to think of the college years as carefree. For most people, it’s a time to party, experiment, and reinvent yourself before moving on to adulthood. It is definitely all of those things, at least in contemporary American society. But there is the flipside of the coin. Some students experience loneliness, social rejection, disappointment, failure, and broken hearts. Most of the legends and ghost stories on college campuses focus on these unfortunate individuals. Ghost stories tell students, “this could happen to you if you’re not careful,” which is an especially poignant message among people who are still in denial about their mortality. But as you point out, this turns out to be a false hope. In reality, tragedy also befalls normal, happy, and well-adjusted students. Sometimes, there is nothing you can do to prevent a killer from striking, or a tragic accident befalling someone. That is the real horror. It is a reality almost too horrible to face, so we tame it by turning it into a story with a neat little moral at the end.
Any upcoming announcements? Any updates on the witchcraft in Illinois book?
I’m currently deployed overseas, so I don’t have any upcoming events. My book on the cultural history of witchcraft in Illinois is still in review at the publisher. It is an academic publisher, so the editing and revision process is especially long. Even though it can be discouraging at times, in the end, I think this process will make it a much better book. As for right now, I’m continuing to try to promote Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges and Universities as best I can.
Tell us how to keep up with you.