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TV, tech take ghost stories into mainstream

If you think there's more talk of ghosts in Kansas, you're right.

The number of ghost stories has been rapidly growing in the past decade.

Ghosts and their voices have been recorded all over the state, including in Atchison, Wichita, Topeka and Concordia.

Whether the ghost population is growing or even exists is up for debate. But with high-tech gadgets with sensitive audio and video features, Twitter, Facebook and popular ghost-hunting shows on TV, stories of ghosts are almost, well, commonplace.

Like never before, there are orbs and whispers being recorded.

Kansas has about 20 paranormal groups looking for the supernatural.

"I think the fascination with shows on television has really brought it out into the public," said Shane Elliott, founder of the Wichita Paranormal Research Society.

"What people didn't expect is that the majority of individuals all have their own story but were uncomfortable telling about it — until television made it so public," he said. "Now, with social networks, there are so many more ways to communicate. People are discovering what they have in common and are more readily talking about it."

Often those ghost stories are old folk stories refreshed and renewed every year they are told.

Rooted in folklore

"Ghost stories are a part of folklore, a type of folk tale or legend," said Jim Hoy, director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University.

Every state, every county has varying tales of overlapping themes.

Often those stories are based on an actual event that becomes embellished through the years.

According to Lisa Hefner Heitz in her book, "Haunted Kansas: Ghost Stories and Other Eerie Tales," ghost stories may serve as ways to express social concerns and parental control.

For instance, don't go to Lover's Lane or the man with the hook may grab you.

They can also serve as a way to bring a "mystic sense of place," Heitz writes. One example is Theorosa's Bridge near Valley Center.

Theorosa supposedly was the name of a pioneer family's baby killed by Indians. Her mother, crazed with grief, fled the wagon train, trying to find her child. At night, it is said, her ghost wanders near Theorosa's Bridge, along Jester Creek, three miles north of Valley Center, calling, "Theorosa! Theorosa!"

Some of the tales can be based on personal experiences.

"I was (and for the most part still am) a ghost skeptic," Heitz writes. "I have no reason to believe in ghosts but really no reason to disbelieve. I simply have not seen any, nor have I witnessed any direct personal proof of the paranormal, ghosts or otherwise... My experiences by and large bore out my belief that the stories keep the ghosts alive, not vice versa. 'Do you believe in ghosts?' I am often asked. I believe in ghost stories, I usually respond.' "

Indians' stories

Throughout history, people have been fascinated with the otherworld.

Long before Europeans walked on Kansas soil, Native Americans told stories as the days became shorter and the nights longer.

Winter was when the Plains Indian people would break into small family units and the hunters would go on the hunt for bison, leaving the rest of the family at home.

Grandparents told stories that taught the ways of the world and entertained the children left in their care.

The sky took on great significance, along with the positions of the stars and planets.

Each generation would embellish and shape what the next would hear.

"With Lakotas we believe ghosts are spirits who walk among us all the time," said Carrie DeLaHoya-Morehouse, a Lakota Sioux living in Wichita. "People say they see ghosts at night. We believe they are around us even during the day."

Many Native American tribes believe the signs of nature can often reveal what the spirits are saying. For example, in some tribes a whirlwind is believed to be ancestors walking past.

The Lakota, DeLaHoya-Morehouse said, tell the story of lightning beings who came from the stars and intermarried with humans.

Her grandparents taught her the constellations in the Lakota language.

Eugene "Louie" Stumbling Bear, a descendant of Kiowa chiefs, recalls hearing as a child the stories of the Deer Woman.

"Several tribes tell versions of the story," Stumbling Bear said. "I don't know how it started but someone spots a woman at a powwow. She's wearing a buckskin dress.

"If you look at her feet, she has hooves. She's like at the outskirts of certain powwows. And, as a kid, if we went to powwows, you would be certain never to stray out and leave where the lights were."

Across cultures

Each culture often shares a fascination with the heavens and the otherworld.

"I think we love the idea of ghosts," said Jay Price, director of public history at Wichita State University. "We are all curious about what happens when you die."

Victorians, Price said, had a particular fascination with ghosts because of the Civil War. They often took great interest in spiritualism.

And while people may have always had "otherworldly" experiences, Price said, the manner in reporting them has changed dramatically.

"If somebody saw a ghost in 1936, you could write your friends, send a postcard," Price said. "If it was really spectacular, the newspaper might have written about it. Today, you can post it on Facebook and within moments it can go viral. Not only do you have pictures, video and sounds — you have the mechanism to be involved in conversation with others and linked to a hundred sites on the web."

Enter the current popularity of zombies and vampires, and Halloween becomes one of the most popular times of the year.

Folklorists call the zombies, the ghosts, the vampires "revenants" — meaning returners, Emporia State's Hoy said.

"It doesn't matter the age of a place or whatever your religious or personal belief is," Hoy said. "We don't know what is beyond life. We don't know what will be there. Almost all cultures have a fascination with returners. The need to believe in some kind of afterlife is instinctive."

And perhaps, Hoy says, people also have an instinctive need to be scared — to have their senses heightened.

"We like to be scared and then reassured that everything is OK," Hoy said. "We tell ghost tales to spook ourselves, daylight comes and everything is fine. We sometimes want to invoke the supernatural."

Recording proof

At the Murdock House in the Old Cowtown Museum complex, Shane Elliott's paranormal group picked up the recorded voice of a man having a conversation from inside the house.

According to Elliott, as the group entered the house and walked upstairs, a man's voice screamed at them, "Get out! I warn you!"

"It was the loudest recorded EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) we've heard," Elliott said.

For the past four years, the group has investigated Cowtown six to 10 times a year.

The Wichita group also has investigated the Orpheum, the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence and the Windsor Hotel in Garden City, Elliott said.

At the DeVore farmhouse at Old Cowtown Museum, the group recorded sounds of what they believe to be heavy furniture being moved across the floor and saw a tablecloth moving mysteriously.

And, at the Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum, they recorded electronic voice phenomena of phrases, such as "She killed me" from where the men's jail was once located.

"There's a difference between ghost stories and folklore and what we do," Elliott said. "To me, we have some kind of evidence to back it up. The research of the paranormal in another 5 to 10 years may not be paranormal anymore. We may have more answers as to why we are getting these voice and video tracks.

"To me, folklore is simply talking to anybody with a story. The research of the paranormal is looking at things from all angles — and interpreting what we see and hear."

And if the paranormal experiences aren't explained away by science, perhaps they may be retold by the next generation.

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