Time and Place: Ghost Stories at Crown Hill Cemetery

Twilight reigned all day; the sun never showed its face. Day slid into night in a graceful gesture that tinged the sky with dusty pink and outlined the monuments all around us in sober black. Trees whispered in the faint breeze, jostling for position. Stately gravestones, monolithic tombs, and lithe angels all seemed to lean in to hear the stories spun on the crisp October evening.

There really could be no better setting for Storytelling Arts of Indiana’s annual Ghost Stories program than Crown Hill Cemetery. The cemetery itself is one of Indianapolis’ great treasures, holding the earthly remains of some of our city’s most distinguished sons and daughters, while also being a beautiful resting place for many of us normal folk. Though we were there at night for the performance and were surrounded by more than 200,000 of the dearly departed, it’s not a place of fear. Some places are saturated with psychic terror, impressions of people who have left this world in fear. But even in the dark and the chill, Crown Hill remains a place of immense peace. The dead sleep well there.

Not that we didn’t try to wake them up a bit with some raucous stories. Seven Hoosier storytellers came from as far away as Kendallville and Bloomington for the annual event, held at Crown Hill for the first time. The very best of the storytellers remembered to keep their tales rooted in our specific time and our specific place.

That’s one of the advantages to storytelling, after all. Movies are shown in movie theaters, by and large; whether you watch a film in Cincinnati or Shanghai, the experience is roughly the same. While it’s fun to see Julius Caesar in the theater on the Ides of March, it doesn’t really add a new dimension to the story besides a fun serendipity  But with storytelling, location and time can profoundly impact the experience. This same program wouldn’t have the same effect delivered on a sultry July evening; nor would it mean the same thing if it were held at Storytelling Arts’ usual venue at the Indiana History Center. No, by having the event in October, when the veil between the worlds is thin and translucent and in a graveyard filled with the beloved dead, we place these stories into a unique and fixed context.

The evening began with a recounting of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley’s famous “Little Orphan Annie” by West Lafayette storyteller Sheri Johnson. The poem itself is not frightening, except perhaps to very small children–it’s a standard cautionary tale to be good, or “the goblins will get you if you don’t watch out,” as we all chanted together. But when you think that Riley is buried in the very ground upon which we sat, the experience shifted from one in which the long-dead poet became an active participant in the proceedings.

Likewise, Bob Sander’s tale of terror in an Irish cemetery was a world away from us, but it made me look twice at the gravestones as I walked back to my car. The lilting of his voice and the subtle yet well-performed brogue he adopted gave some of the evening’s biggest chills with a classic tale of unquiet dead and feisty Irish lasses. His vividly painted story almost had us smelling the loamy scent of a freshly turned grave.

Indianapolis storyteller Celestine Bloomfield made use of the time of year for effect rather than the location. Her story of horror in a pumpkin patch played on familiar tropes, reminding us all of common October memories: picking out pumpkins on a clear autumn day, the smell of decaying leaves that combines life and death in a single whiff, the excitement of carving into a pumpkin for the first time and the pain of being attacked by an evil pumpkin gremlin. We’ve all been there.

Finally, the last performer of the evening, Lou Ann Homan from Angola, chose to ignore the time, ignore the place, and still come up with the scariest performance of the evening. Even as she chose not to set her story in a graveyard and to have no reference to the time of the year, she instead chose to go straight for fear with her fantastic interpretation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Telltale Heart.” She recreated the hideous heartbeat, made us believe the narrator was mad yet desperately needed to believe in her own sanity. She tapped into the emotion we all wanted to feel that night, that terror that races through your veins but reminds you you’re alive.

If there was one disappointment in the evening, it’s that there weren’t more true ghost stories. Only two of the the seven stories featured ghosts at all, and only Sander’s tale featured them prominently. I would have loved to see more focus on spirits than monsters and murderers. But all in all, it was a beautiful evening, a moment frozen in time and enhanced by the setting and the October night.

Next up for Storytelling Arts? You can catch my favorite performer of the evening, Lou Ann Homan, perform in the Frank Basile Emerging Stories presentation telling tales of Depression-era Indiana on November 3 at the Indiana History Center. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door.

My tickets were provided courtesy of Storytelling Arts of Indiana. I was in no way obligated to write about the event and received no compensation. 

About allisonlcarter

I’m a 20-something native Hoosier living and working in the Circle City. I have a wonderful job in marketing and spend my free time consuming stories–theater, TV, movies, books, you name it. This blog will focus on pop culture of all kinds, with a special emphasis on news, analysis and reviews of things happening right here in Indy. Follow me on Twitter @AllisonLCarter
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5 Responses to Time and Place: Ghost Stories at Crown Hill Cemetery

  1. What a wonderful setting for an evening of storytelling! Many members of my family are buried at Crown Hill. When I was growing up, we would often pack lunch and picnic there among our beloved dead. I attended a family funeral there earlier this year; a doe and two fawns strolled across the road as the funeral procession wound its way to the burial site, and a pair of red-tailed hawks wheeled and called overhead during the graveside service. It’s truly a peaceful and lovely place. Thanks for evoking it so beautifully. (And I can’t imagine a better place for a communal recitation of “Little Orphant Annie.”)

  2. Dear Allison,
    Thank you for such a beautifully written blog. You portrayed the evening exactly the way it was for all of us that night. When I first decided that I wanted to tell the Tell Tale Heart, I made a copy of the story and put it in my file cabinet. Every once in a while I would take out the story, look it over, shiver a bit and then put it back. It took me five years to be able to take it out and begin the story. I did not think I could put my soul and heart into that mindset. Thank you for appreciating it.
    Lou Ann

    • allisonlcarter says:

      And thank you for the story! Very much looking forward to what you have up your sleeve for the performance next month.

  3. Pingback: A Musical Time Machine: Patrick Ball in Celtic Harp and Story | Overly Theatrical

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