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The Nature Corner: Ghost stories

By Ernie Marshall

The Coastland Times published an essay in the Sunday, October 25 issue entitled “Do You Believe In Ghosts?” written by columnist Danielle Puleo — just in time for Halloween. It was a great article and certainly enticed me to think about the topic.

Since my chosen bailiwick for this newspaper is the natural rather than supernatural world, I feel rather like an ancient mariner consulting his map which ends short of terra incognito and the inscription “Beyond this point there be dragons.” However, here is my offering.

My late wife Dr. Karen Baldwin taught folklore at East Carolina University and from her I acquired a fascination with this area of legend and lore. So unless I can conjure her ghost to share in the conversation, I will share what I remember of our “ghost encounters.”

Old houses, and other buildings, often get a reputation for being haunted by a ghost. Cotton Hall, one of E.C.U.’s original women’s dorms, had its ghost legend. As the story goes, or at least one version, a female student hanged herself from a shower head, and has on certain nights wandered the halls of the dorm ever since.

A couple of Karen’s folklore students (dorm roommates at Cotton Hall) phoned her late one night, convinced they were being haunted by that ghost. I could only hear Karen’s end of the conversation, except for the girls’ pleading gasps and sobs.

Karen said to them: “Grab your toothbrush and whatever else you need and get out of there, and find another place to stay tonight.”

I asked Karen “Do believe in ghosts?”

She answers “That’s beside the point. At this moment these two girls do, and are terrified. They need to be out of that situation.”

The incident makes the point that whether or not ghosts actually exist, they can be very real in the minds of some people. Karen did not think it was her job as a folklorist to pass judgment on such beliefs.

I had heard of the tale of “the vanishing hitchhiker,” and asked Karen about it.

She said “It goes like this. A young man was returning home from his high school prom late one night. It was pouring rain and the road was difficult to see, but his headlights fell on a slender young woman in a long white dress beside the road. The man stopped and ushers her out of the rain and into his car. He tried to engage her in conversation, but all he gets is that her name is ‘Lydia’ and directions to her home. Arriving, she stepped out of his car and into the gloom, presumably disappearing into the house.

“Because she was wet and cold, he had given her his jacket to wear. Several miles down the road home he realized he forgot to retrieve the jacket. It was a birthday present from his grandmother.

“So the next day he returned to the house where he let the woman off, goes to the door and knocks. When an older woman answered, the man explains about bringing the woman home but forgetting his jacket.

“The woman said ‘Young man how could you be so cruel. You have described my daughter, who died a year ago last night. She was returning from her high school prom with her boyfriend. They had a fight, and he put her out beside the road. She was walking home beside the road. It was a rainy, foggy night like last night.  A car was speeding down the road, she tried to wave him down.  A drunk driver behind the wheel, he swerved and hit her and killed her. If you don’t believe me, she is buried there in the family cemetery. Go see for yourself.’

“So he did. As he searches among the tombstones he sees his jacket. It is draped over one of the tombstones. He reads the inscription. It says ‘Our beloved daughter Lydia,’ the date of death exactly a year ago the previous night.”

A chill went up my spine like ice water. What a tale! Karen adds that the Lydia version of the story is local, from Gilford County, but also worldwide. It also goes far back into history (in various versions) maybe two thousands years, deriving from stories of people meeting Jesus on the road after his death and resurrection. Another chill up my spine.

Karen became quite interested (and so did I) in a local ghost legend, from Lucama, eleven miles from Wilson, NC. Volis Simpson was a World War II Air Force Veteran who had a farm there, and also repaired farm machinery and moved farm buildings. During the 1970s and 1980s, he constructed an amazing array of gigantic kinetic sculptures, commonly called whirligigs. There were at least a couple of dozen of them, and some were forty or fifty feet tall. These were erected in a pasture on his farm next to a five-points intersection of dirt roads.

Volis had decorated most of his whirligigs with pieces of reflective road signs. So as you came down the hill to the intersection at night, the effect was startling and indeed spooky. Your headlights catching the whirligigs made them appear as if lighted by some mysterious source and the random motion of the sculptures and their groaning and creaking in the wind made it an unworldly experience, perhaps as if you were on an “acid trip.” The display became known as “Acid Park.”

Folks sought an explanation for why Volis created these marvelous works. So this legend emerged, a ghost legend.

Volis’s teenage daughter was driving home from her prom or other such event with her date. They were speeding and both drunk or high on drugs. The narrow country road is hardly safe at high speeds. They careened off the road into a pine tree and were both killed. Volis then built Acid Park as a memorial to his deceased daughter, and her ghost has roamed the place ever since.

Volis was annoyed by the notoriety of the legend. His daughter was meanwhile alive and well, and the rusting away car embracing a pine tree was acquired by Volis for parts for his Whirligigs. The tree just happened to grow up through its rotting floorboards.

So this is a ghost story debunked? Not quite.

Karen’s take on this legend — and many similar ones — was that it expressed some of the deepest of our fears, especially a teenager’s fear of the tragedy that can come with youthful folly, such as mixing drugs or alcohol and reckless driving.

The ghost is still quite real as a phantom of our minds.

[The Volis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum is now the home of the wonderful wind sculptures, located in downtown Wilson, NC. Information available at: wilsonwhirligigpark.org. Volis Simpson died in May 2013 at the age of 94.]

Ernie Marshall taught at East Carolina College for thirty-two years and had a home in Hyde County near Swan Quarter. He has done extensive volunteer work at the Mattamuskeet, Pocosin Lakes and Swan Quarter refuges and was chief script writer for wildlife documentaries by STRS Productions on the coastal U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, mostly located on the Outer Banks. Questions or comments? Contact the author at marshalle1922@gmail.com.

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