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.