Of the many ghost stories William Montell has collected, one stands out: "When I was 6 years old, my deceased grandmother came back one night and was looking at me lying there in bed. I easily could see the cotton flannel nightgown that she had on. The following morning, I told other family members what I had seen. My mother turned ghostly white and said, 'Lynwood, you didn't see that. The gown you just described is the gown that my mother had on the night she died, and you can't recall what it looked like, since you were less than one-year old when she died.' She went on to state that grandmother died in the room in which I saw her.
"I firmly believe that I did indeed see my grandmother's spirit that night."
Certainly, that night has held a long influence over the Western Kentucky University professor, as he has collected ghost stories for over 30 years. He and his students gathered them from rural Kentuckians, and he published a collection in 1975. However, the collecting didn't stop, and earlier this year he gathered them all for one volume, titled Ghosts Across Kentucky (University Press of Kentucky). It is a compilation of hundreds of ghost stories, as told to Montell by people in 85 counties, and divided into sections according to the type of supernatural encounter, such as Headless Ghosts, Graveyard Ghosts, or Civil War Ghosts. It is currently outselling all other University Press books.
Montell is quick to attribute the Halloween season for the sales, but is also firmly convinced of the social lure of the ghost story.
He recalls what a former student told him in 1988. "She said to me, 'Even when I was a child, I loved storytelling, whether it be a simple bedtime story, or the type that [were] so scary they caused nightmares. Of all the different types of stories, my favorites were ghost stories. The scarier the story, the better. Ghost stories, really scary ones, can give you the chills and make your skin crawl. They make you feel scared, even though there is nothing to be afraid of.'"
Moreover, ghost stories were a way for the family to both come together and be linked with the past, says Montell. Because ghost stories were passed down through time, they connected the listeners both with their ancestors and the past as well, since many times the stories occurred to a family ancestor.
Montell divides ghost stories into "Boo" or "scary" stories, created simply to entertain, and the "true" stories. "However, the bulk of ghost stories are told as believed-to-be-true encounters, especially when the narrator is the person to whom it reputedly happened," says Montell. "Virtually all stories in my present book fit either into this category, or into the category of personal accounts as told by a family progenitor and passed along across the years to other members of the family who firmly believe what really happened is described in the story."
As Montell points out in the book, Kentucky is a treasure trove of supernatural tales. The statistics on Kentucky ghosts, as determined by William Montel:
Only one of 12 ghosts appears during the day; weather does not seem to be a factor for ghost appearances. Ghosts appear in houses, cemeteries, roads, mountains, and hills, in that descending order. Ghosts usually disappear as soon as they are seen, but don't try to communicate. The gender division of ghosts is fairly equal; but female ghosts tend to be younger and male ghosts older; but most ghosts in fact are male or female, as opposed to being a set of spooky sounds and lights. And, in keeping with tradition, more ghosts scream/yell/cry than make any other sounds.
But that's only traditional, and not meant to disparage ghosts. "To me, ghosts in these stories are neither good nor bad," says Montell. "Ghosts are here simply to do their own thing."
Certainly, ghost stories have been an important part in folklore and entertainment, since people spun them around campfires and fireplaces even from "pioneer times," says Montell. Before the advent of the radio and television, people told stories both to entertain and inform others about previous lives and times. But they are also an important resource commonly overlooked today, says Montell.
"Hearing ghost stories truly portrays a part of what local life, culture, and social activities are all about. To me, these are a certain genre of local legendry, as they are filled with historical detail about people and places that researchers never find in historical documents and history books. In other words, they describe old buildings, old road beds, call people by name when describing the place where they lived.
"True, we can find names on census records, but nothing about what local life is all about. Thus, while the ghost part of the story may not be true, who's to say that the description of houses, etc. isn't accurate?"
Montell gleaned much of the material for Ghosts Across Kentucky from his students at Campbellsville College and WKU (where he moved in 1969), and from the library archives of the university. "I also called professorial friends across the state and asked them if they knew of sources for ghost stories from their parts of the state.
"Otherwise, I simply contacted individuals to see if they had a story that they might share with me. Then, many of them went on to contact friends, who sent their stories to me..." adding that the process took about two years.
Montell has many favorite ghost stories in his collection, but when pressed claims "Ghosts of Crying Babies That Were Murdered" as personal choice. The tale is of two separate babies that were murdered in the same house at different times. Years later, the babies could be heard crying together, even by multiple people. Whenever anyone ventured too far into the woods, the crying stopped. Montell says, "When the lady who told this story to me ended her account with the words, 'I guess I'd cry, too, if somebody had killed me,' chill bumps popped out across my body."
Wiliam Montell will sign Ghosts Across Kentucky on Oct 21, 1-2:30pm, at Joseph-Beth Booksellers (Lexington Green, 271-0681).