GREENVILLE – James Willis started investigating what he calls “ghostlore” in the mid-1980s, working with a succession of groups in different states over the years.
“I grew up in the shadow of Sleepy Hollow,” Willis said, referring to the community in upstate New York that inspired Washington Irving’s famous tale of the Headless Horseman. “That wasn’t a real ghost story, but I started to think, what are the real ghost stories?”
After moving to Ohio, Willis found there weren’t as many ghost-hunting groups as he was accustomed to seeing. So he decided to start one of his own.
Willis’ group, Ghosts of Ohio, is based in Columbus, with “outposts” in Cleveland and Cincinnati. Willis and his colleagues, volunteers and paranormal enthusiasts from various walks of life, offer their investigative services free of charge, and since they deal with a lot of activity reportedly taking place in private residences, they always agree not to reveal any information publicly without the client’s consent. This makes people more comfortable sharing their experiences, according to Willis, because they realize that they can be open and honest.
“I love those investigations where ghost stories and ghost lore collide with actual history,” Willis said. This often means there are sensitive issues to consider beyond a client’s privacy. Some places are alleged to be haunted by the spirits of specific people… people who may still have living relatives in the area. Willis strives to show sensitivity to those people as well.
Members of Willis’ group come from differing backgrounds. Willis himself was an English major in college, and now works as a medical writer for an advertising firm. One of his colleagues, Frank Yensel, holds an MBA and works as a financial advisor.
“A lot of us hold different beliefs about what a ‘ghost’ actually is,” Willis said. “Until we can find one and put it under glass, I think it’s all just theories.”
Willis leans toward the belief that what we commonly think of as a “ghost” is really just energy left behind by past people and events. Most of the time, when we see or hear something inexplicable, we’re essentially witnessing sounds and images from the past being replayed as if on a ghostly movie screen. If apparitions appear to walk across thin air, it’s not because they’re actually levitating, but because we’re seeing them walk across a section of floor that’s no longer there. If they walk through walls, it’s because that wall probably wasn’t there at the time the ghost image was “recorded.”
Both Yensel and Willis feel that a healthy amount of skepticism is crucial to what they do.
“We’re skeptical with everything, I think,” Yensel said. “We try to figure out what something is. But if we can’t explain it, we can’t explain it.”
“What’s missing in this field, I think, is people who are willing to say, ‘I don’t know what this is,’” he said.
Willis has been investigating Ohio ghostlore since 1999. He’s written a number of books, including Ohio’s Historic Haunts, Weird Ohio, Central Ohio Legends and Lore, and The Big Book of Ohio Ghost Stories. Locally, his group has investigated The Inn at Versailles and the Greenville Public Library. Findings from the latter will be unveiled at a public event at St. Clair Memorial Hall October 19.
“Every town has a crybaby bridge, a place where Bloody Mary hangs out, etc.” Willis said. “And the idea of a place being haunted can have either a positive or negative connotation with the general public. Sometimes people are like, ‘It’ll be great. It’ll be good for business.’ While others avoid being associated with haunting activity, since they don’t want to be associated with the idea of evil spirits, people being knocked down stairs, and so on.”
For his part, Willis doesn’t feel that he’s encountered anything “evil” in his years as a ghost hunter, but rather, simply fear of the unknown.
“I’ve always said that if I walked into a house and something kicked me or punched me or said ‘Get Out!,’ I would listen,” Willis said. “So far that’s never happened.”
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