W&J master storyteller shares spooky tales
James Longo, education professor at Washington & Jefferson College, shared ghost stories for a class of students last week.
Courtesy of Washington & Jefferson College
James Longo’s voice grew faint and methodic, punctuated by long pauses, as he neared the suspenseful end of his ghost story.
“So when she turns around, there is this figure, and she is so stunned she wants to scream, she wants to yell, they all do, but nothing would come out,” Longo said, his voice more frantic now. “The only thing that came out was …”
Longo suddenly screamed, startling his audience, a group of Washington & Jefferson College students in a children’s literature class last week.
“Well, they did scream a little bit,” he said, while the students laughed.
Longo, education professor and chair of the department, had been invited to share a cautionary tale he had written, similar to Hansel and Gretel, and to discuss the ingredients of a good children’s story. A campus legend in his own right, Longo also shared a few spooky tales from the collection of “true” ghost stories he authored between 1986 and 2000.
Longo’s storytelling has a way of captivating listeners, and his writing style is no different.
“The author writes in an easy style that made me feel like he was sitting across from me in a comfortable, overstuffed chair while telling me all the accounts he heard about ghosts in and around St. Louis,” one Amazon reviewer wrote about his book “Haunted Odyssey.”
That is because all three of Longo’s books stay true to the original storytellers. He has traveled across the country searching for people with authentic ghost stories – the rare “three to five percent, or whatever that small percentage is, that cannot be explained away” by reason or psychology, Longo said.
Longo said his goal is not to prove that ghosts are real. All that matters is that the storytellers are sincere, and he said he can always tell. He has approached these interviews as a storyteller and ethnographer, but also as a historian, to preserve family legends that have been passed down for generations.
One in four people have experienced a supernatural event, according to Longo.
So, what happens when you cross paths with a ghost? That’s the question that sparked Longo’s curiosity as a child after he ran from a frightening “experience,” and he has been collecting other people’s ghost stories since.
“What happens if you stay?” he said, pondering aloud. “That’s where the stories come from, and so I was always curious. I never regretted running, but I did wonder what happens when you stay.”
The ghost story that Longo told education students last week had suspenseful elements, but was not a scary story at its core. It began when a father in St. Louis shared with Longo the strange things that had happened to his family in their new condominium. Furniture had moved on its own, and his high school-aged daughter, on a whim, started digging in their yard and found three marbles and a diamond necklace, which later mysteriously disappeared.
When the daughter and her friends summoned the spirit with a Ouija board, it was then that the father realized the spirit was his mother, who died just a few weeks before his daughter was born. After displaying a photo of his mother in the house, the strange events stopped.
Longo said his ghost stories may be scary to some, but a more common theme is loved ones who don’t want to be forgotten.
“It’s the unknown,” Longo said. “People fill in the blanks, and people who see dark stuff there, I think that says more about them. These storytellers don’t see these things as dark.”
Longo said people still send him their ghost stories, but he no longer looks for them. Patricia Easton, education professor of the class in which Longo shared his stories, said her students thought the stories were wonderful.
“They are going to be telling stories, too,” Easton said. “They are future elementary school teachers, so it was important for them to see it mirrored. They enjoyed it, and doesn’t everyone love a good ghost story?”
To hear a story told by Longo, search YouTube for the titles “Good Food & Spirits” or “A True Ghost Story” accompanied by the words “a ghost story from Washington & Jefferson College’s master storyteller.”