Chris Woodyard, a native of Ohio (midwestern United States) is the leading authority on ghosts and haunted places in the state. Chris calls herself a “fortean” researcher: an explorer of paranormal phenomena. One may be a die-hard skeptic or believe unequivocally in ghosts; either way her thoughts on the subject are provocative and insightful. Chris is the author of the Haunted Oho series; Spooky Ohio: 13 Traditional Tales; Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Haunted Ohio; The Victorian Book of the Dead, and others. For more information about Chris, visit www.hauntedohiobooks.com.
Below is an interview I recently conducted with Ms. Woodyard. Please be aware that the opinions expressed are not necessarily a reflection of my own.
PT: Perhaps we should start with a definition of “ghost.” How would you personally define that word?
CW: I think there are several types of what we might call ghosts. Generally I define a ghost as the spirit of a dead person either stuck here or lingering for some specific reason. Some “ghosts” seem sentient and interact with the living. Others act more like a loop of video tape, doing the same thing over and over or going about their business without seeming to notice the living. Some “ghosts” seem to be residual hauntings where there is just a memory or an implication of what happened at the site.
CW: The knockings and moving objects usually associated with poltergeists are, I believe, caused by a living person in the household, usually a child or a teenager. The stresses of adolescence can cause a polt; so can an unhappy or troubled person. I’ve found that people with issues they can’t fix or solve can generate poltergeist manifestations.
PT: How did you get started investigating haunted places?
CW: It runs in the family to see and sense spirits. My great-grandfather, grandfather, and daughter had/have the ability. I was asked to write a book about haunted places in Ohio by some local librarians, then it took off from there.
PT: What place does skepticism have in all this? Do you think it’s important to be skeptical while ghost hunting?
CW: It is vital. It may be the most important part of the ghost hunter’s tool kit! It is easy to get caught up in the moment and want to find “proof” of the paranormal, which leads to people seeing ghostly activity everywhere or interpreting ordinary events as hauntings. And a person living in what they think is a haunted house may be so frightened that they don’t think of alternate reasons for what is happening.
PT: In one of your books you wrote, “The line between folklore and actuality may be very finely drawn.” I’m fascinated by the way people’s mythologies (either personal or collective) help to create their reality. Do you have any insights into this?
CW: I have no explanations, but as a fortean researcher I try to collect as much information as possible and then look at the patterns.
An excellent example of a change in paranormal realities would be the case of the fairies. They were originally terrifying figures with powers to harm or help and who needed to be placated and respected. But in the 19th century there was a shift to the “cute” fairies we think of today—caused mostly, I think, because of depictions of fairies in art as tutu-wearing, gauzy, flower-hugging creatures. This is a very concrete example of popular culture/mythology influencing how people thought about supernatural beings.
Another example from today’s “reality” ghost hunting shows is the proliferation of “demons.” This may be a manifestation of our collective anxiety about today’s world. Or it may be just a symptom of TV producers upping the ante for paranormal excitement.
I find it disheartening and, frankly, dangerous to focus on that part of the supernatural. I’ve seen people labeled “possessed,” when they were actually mentally ill. The rise of the amateur exorcists horrifies me. These people have NO idea what they are doing and are making any real problems worse.
PT: What is the most shocking thing you’ve ever encountered while ghost hunting?
CW: Some of the most shocking moments have happened when I’m not officially ghost hunting. Like the time I was staying in a hotel in Williamsburg, Virginia, built on the site of the Civil War Battle of Williamsburg where 5,000 men died in 3 days. Some of the earthworks are still visible in the courtyard.
The first night I was there, I woke up feeling like somebody was looking at me. I rolled over and found a very young soldier standing there, staring at me with dead eyes. His head was tied with a bandage like the ghost of Jacob Marley and his arms were tied at the elbows, as they tied bodies for burial at the time. Half of his face had been shot away. I usually do not see mutilated spirits and it was horrifying. I kept saying to him, “Please go away or go to the light.” But he came back for several more nights. Not what I had in mind for a vacation.
PT: What do you think humans on this plane can learn from the spirit world?
CW: Many people have told me that a beloved relative, often a grandparent, would come and put a hand on their shoulder, telling them that things would be all right. That is a good thing that we can learn: that love does not die.
However, I think that going into the spirit world, in search of knowledge, is a mistake. Some take everything from the spirit world as gospel truth. Yet being dead doesn’t make you right or grant you supreme knowledge. I’d say be discriminating when listening to messages from beyond. While we are in this world, I think we ought to do the best we can, because we do not really know what happens after death.