Library highlights paranormal history for Halloween


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Fear can be packaged in many forms: the pages of a scary book, an urban legend, a room adorned with fake cobwebs and strobe lights, even a mere bump in the night. From old medical school cadaver photos to haunted dorms to the Black Angel, Iowa City history and culture is punctuated by the scary, supernatural, or just plain creepy, and some local organizations are embracing this tradition for Halloween weekend. While downtown drink specials and dime-store costumes will be aplenty, the streets, structures, and even library books of Iowa City offer a more subtle — and chilling — celebration of Oct. 31.

Browsing ghostly artifacts

Today from noon to 4 p.m. at the Main Library, Special Collections will host the Ghosts in the Stacks, providing members of the community the opportunity to view spooky stories, legends, artifacts and to enjoy free popcorn.

Ghosts in the Stacks began in 2007, and it has occurred intermittently in the years since. Coordinator Kelly Grogg said the event proves the library holds more than tomes and journal articles.

“The collections we have constantly surprise me,” she said. “That we have books on witchcraft, some of the original Nancy Drew books, a vast array of works by Edgar Allen Poe, and a map of all the shipwrecks that took place on Lake Michigan isn’t always common knowledge, but it should be.”

Some of the items featured at the event are decades — if not centuries — old and may have a ghostly undertone.

“[Special Collections] give us firsthand accounts of times that might otherwise be forgotten,” Grogg said. “It’s such a unique experience to hold a document in your hands that has existed for hundreds of years. And while it’s really thrilling to read a letter from a soldier who wrote his wife during the Civil War, it also provides this eerie experience, because you know that person probably never thought people would read the letter more than 100 of years later.”

Not only did Special Collections staff members look for historically meaningful items, but Grogg said they also selected artifacts that were cool and creepy to look at.

“We have plasters of people’s faces, pictures of cadavers from anatomy classes in the early 1900s and a bag of hair that may or may not be Yoko Ono’s,” she said.

Investigating the supernatural

While the UI Main Library is apparently free of apparitions, members of the Iowa City Ghost Hunters — a volunteer organization dedicated to investigating paranormal phenomena — believe they have uncovered real supernatural beings haunting local establishments, from Oakland Cemetery to residential homes. The Ghost Hunters even received national attention after capturing a video of unexplained shadows and falling cups at a Maid-Rite restaurant in Cascade, Iowa.

Contrary to what is portrayed in pop culture, representatives of the Iowa City Ghost Hunters said they do not run into haunted situations with their guns blazing. The group’s president Matthew Doe (who preferred not to use his real name) outlined the typical procedure when the members receive a call about a paranormal disturbance.

“We like to do a lot of research before we go to the location,” he said. “We learn how long it’s been there, how many owners it has had, or if there have been any deaths on the property. From there we do a meet-and-greet with the client. We get some paperwork filled out, such as our investigation release and a confidentiality agreement. At that point, we start our investigation.”

Once the researchers have launched an investigation and begin prodding at the paranormal presence in the house, interesting things are reported to happen. Doe said he has had encounters with ghosts who died on the property, heard footsteps of people who weren’t there, and even experienced a petulant demon.

“We were being bombarded with activity … There was at one point when I was in the basement trying to establish communication with it. I decided to say, ‘I don’t believe you’re real; show yourself to me.’ It then took a 20-foot bent ladder and threw it at me,” Doe said.

The occurrences these ghost hunters experience are largely a result of what happened in the past and how it affects the present. They encounter many properties being haunted by a previous inhabitant of the home. Doe said learning if the ghost died of natural or violent causes is imperative to their understanding of how to deal with the case.

“Iowa City has a lot of history, and going back and looking at that, you can find a lot of places that had some sort of paranormal activity,” Doe said. “Our goal as a team is to discover more places that have it.”

If a local family or business is concerned about a paranormal presence this Halloween weekend, the Iowa City Ghost Hunters can be reached via its website, iowacityghosthunters.webs.com, or Facebook page. Its services are free and confidential.

Exploring local haunts

Indeed, there is no shortage of haunted locations in Iowa City. Many legends are rooted deep in several landmarks, from the ghosts that allegedly roam Currier and Slater Halls to the urban legends surrounding the Black Angel statue in Oakland Cemetery.

However, there are also many places that simply try to perpetuate eeriness in order to invoke the spirit of Halloween. In Iowa, these events often take the form of haunted corn mazes or farms, including Iowa City’s Field of Screams — which completed its season last weekend — and Bloomsbury Farms’ three-tiered Scream Acres near Atkins, Iowa, open Friday for Halloween.

On Oct. 25, the UI Campus Advisory Board hosted its haunted house, transforming the IMU into a scene out of a horror film.

“I am a huge scary move fanatic, so most of my ideas were based on scary movies,” Campus Activities Board Night Hawks Committee Director Jennifer Hollowed said. “For example, there was a Purge-inspired room, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Fourth Kind.”

Despite shortening the event from two days to one, the activities board was able to break its previous record with more than 1,000 people in attendance.

“Although we did tone down the scariness of the haunted house for children coming through, Iowa students were not so lucky,” Hollowed said. “Many people throughout the night came out of the exit screaming and running, which is always fun to see.”

Activities board member Maddie Walker said actors in the haunted house had some problems with the scenery.

“[One volunteer] was acting like a German scientist and spraying people with water and saying it was Ebola with a funny accent,” she said. “Then the strobe lighting messed up his depth perception, and he ended up accidentally punching someone in the face.”

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