Ghost story workshop emphasizes history and folklore
It seems only fitting that one of the most reportedly haunted locations in Tyler County would play host to a workshop on the art of telling ghost stories. That was the case on Saturday when storytellers from the West Virginia Storytelling Guild gathered in a conference room at the Wells Inn Hotel in Sistersville. Although the workshop titled “Seeking the Spirits” marks the third time members of the guild have gathered at the Wells Inn, it is the first time they have met there to discuss ghost stories in particular.
According to event co-presenter Susanna Holstein of Sandyville, W.Va., ghost stories are not the same as horror stories. They are not sensational and full of gratuity, but subtle and mysterious, leaving readers and listeners asking deeper questions; they are not campfire tales meant to make you jump, and they do not require a constant flashlight beam upon your chin, but a more artistic approach. She also stressed the importance of research and historical context, which she referred to as “the meat of the tale” for storytellers.
“You find ghost stories in history,” she said. “Ghost stories are important because they challenge our imaginations. They are a vehicle for passing on history, but in a more entertaining way.”
Co-presenter Jason Burns of Morgantown, who leads ghost story tours of the West Virginia University campus, mentioned how old gossip columns in newspapers are great places to find ghost stories. Many of those databases can be accessed online.
“It’s amazing the things you’ll read about,” he said.
As well as historical relevance, the group discussed the importance of being respectful when telling a ghost story.
“We don’t approach it as a sideshow,” said member Judi Tarowsky, who attended with husband and fellow member Thomas Tarowsky. “It’s out of respect.”
Although the Tarowskys live in St. Clairsville, Ohio, they are no strangers to West Virginia ghost stories. Thomas operates under the Marshall County Historical Society as the Program Director of Cockayne Farmstead in Glen Dale, W.Va., while Judi serves as a volunteer on the Project Committee. During the workshop, Thomas recounted some of the unusual happenings at the farmstead.
As for supernatural activity at the Wells Inn, June Riffle of Fairmont, W.Va., described an experience she had during a previous visit in which her bed began shaking.
“It felt like a train was going by,” she said. “But none was.”
She later found out that she was not the first person to experience paranormal activity in Room 317.
“To me, just walking down that long hallway, you feel something’s there besides you. Whether it’s the feeling of all the feet that have tread the hallways before or the stories that have been told, I don’t know.”
Riffle tells many of her stories alongside longtime friend Jo Ann Dadisman of Independence, W.Va. Dadisman explained what makes “tandem storytelling” so different from regular storytelling.
“Tandem telling is different,” she said. “When you’re working with a partner it changes a lot and opens up performance a great deal. It gives you an opportunity to become different characters. You can do more expressive telling in more than one place at a time. You can also back up your partner if they forget important details.”
Speaking of her friend, she also added, “I think I’m a better storyteller because of her.”
Dadisman was also the person who wrote a grant to the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, which made it possible for the group to present three workshops across the state on three different types of storytelling. “Seeking the Spirits” was the third of the series.
During the workshop, many members of the group took a brief excursion to Greenwood Cemetery in Sistersville to visit the Stocking family grave marker, which over the years has become the subject of supernatural tales. Before going, they recited different versions of the tale. Some stories about the statue suggest that harm will come to those who vandalize it; others say that those who simply touch it will suffer repercussions. While there, however, they remained respectful and commented on the beauty of the monument.
The group also shared books regarding the supernatural in West Virginia, as well as history books featuring such tales and lore. Pamphlets with suggestions about telling ghost stories and lists of reading material were passed out.
The workshop concluded with the storytellers working on their own stories and then presenting them to the group for speculation. Some of their stories were relayed from others. Some were more personal, supernatural experiences. All of them were told with the subtlety, respect, and historical relevance emphasized during the meeting.
“We find that in this community we have a dedicated audience,” said Holstein, speaking of the support they receive from Sistersville, the Wells Inn, Terry Wiley and the Sistersville Public Library. She said that the West Virginia Storytelling Guild was the first group to meet in the hotel after Charles Winslow reopened it.
As well as ghost stories, the members of the group also tell other interesting tales. They are available for events such as festivals, school events, conferences, workshops, museum and library programs and more.
Tall tale teller Danny McMillion of Beckley, W.Va., even taught a class called “Lying for Beginners: The Art and Artifice of Storytelling” to the Rainelle Baptist Church in Rainelle, W.Va.
“Any group who asks, we’re ready to tell,” said Storyteller Sue Atkinson.
A complete list of those in attendance is as follows: Bill and Joy Myers of Columbus, Ohio; Walter Carpenter of Saint Marys, W.Va.; Mikalena Zuckett of Charleston, W.Va.; Sue Atkinson and Danny McMillion of Beckley, W.Va.; Jo Ann Dadisman of Independence, W.Va.; June Riffle of Fairmont, W.Va.; John Mullins of Morgantown, W.Va.; Katie and Otto Ross of Ridgeley, W.Va.; Tom and Judi Tarowsky of St. Clairsville, Ohio; co-presenter Jason Burns of Morgantown, W.Va.; and co-presenter Susanna Holstein of Sandyville, W.Va.