Ghost tours take a walk through Delmarva past

Guides: A historian and a storyteller take guests to some favorite haunts -- cemeteries -- to share true stories as well as legends.

October 19, 2003|By Lucie L. Snodgrass | Lucie L. Snodgrass,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For two men who spend a lot of time in cemeteries, Ed Okonowicz and Mike Dixon are surprisingly cheerful. They have reason to be: Okonowicz, a master storyteller, and Dixon, a historian, joined forces five years ago to lead what have become nationally known ghost walks and graveyard tours throughout the Delmarva Peninsula.

Their often-sold out walks are based on a combination of genealogical and historical research by Dixon, and local ghost stories and folklore that Okonowicz has chronicled over a 20-year period.

"At first, I wasn't quite sure [about the partnership]," says Dixon, Cecil County's official historian. "You know these people who do ghost stories: The tall tales get taller as the night gets darker. It's not something we [historians] do."

But Dixon overcame his misgivings when he took one of Okonowicz's walks for himself. He saw that the tours provided a largely unexplored way of educating as well as entertaining. Soon thereafter, Okonowicz and Dixon began exploring the intersection of their respective vocations and the possibility of collaboration.

"Even with the ghost stories there is a historical connection," Dixon says. "People want to know what a purported haunting is about."

Some who have taken their tours say the two men are good foils for each other. "There's a funny chemistry between the two of them," says Karen Quinn, a librarian at the Corbit-Calloway Memorial Library in Odessa, Del. "Mike has a cane and wraps it around Ed's neck to make him stick to the facts."

Okonowicz and Dixon's tours draw diverse audiences. There are semi-professional ghost hunters who arrive with special cameras, hoping to catch the specters on film; military history buffs who enjoy hearing stories of valor; and regular people interested in the lore and legends of the area.

The Delmarva Peninsula, with its history, old houses and centuries-old burial grounds, provides perfect fodder for Dixon and Okonowicz. And it is fairly close to Cecil County, where both men reside. Dixon usually makes about three visits to a cemetery in advance of a tour, searching for interesting tombstones, unusual epitaphs and families of particular note. He then devotes substantial time to researching as much background information as he can, while Okonowicz draws from his wellspring of folklore and regional ghost stories.

Throughout the year, and every weekend during October, Okonowicz and Dixon can usually be found in a cemetery somewhere in the region. Gathering as the afternoon light fades and the air acquires a chill, the men, dressed in dark suits and carrying lanterns, transport their audiences.

"Ed and Mike are wonderful tour guides, and they're funny, very entertaining storytellers," says Kerry Rafferty, executive director of the Cecil County Arts Council, which recently hired the men to conduct a ghost walk of downtown Elkton. Asked whether she found the tour scary, she pauses and says, "It's a little creepy. But I think the majority of people on the tours believe in ghosts. You want to see something. ... "

Okonowicz agrees. "Research shows that 47 percent of all people believe in ghosts," he says. He, however, isn't among them. The part-time writing instructor at the University of Delaware, who has created something of a cottage industry out of selling ghost stories, demurs, saying only, "I believe that there is some type of spirit."

Dixon isn't much of a believer in ghosts either, preferring to rely on more conventional forms of communication - like letters and deeds - for his research, rather than voices in supposedly haunted houses. But while both men say they've never had personal encounters with ghosts, they are respectful of the many they've encountered who say they have.

Okonowicz and Dixon concede they've heard stories that were hard to explain by conventional standards.

Okonowicz mentions a woman and her child who stayed late after a book signing to plead for his help getting three ghosts out of their house. The spirits, the woman said, were driving them crazy.

Neither Dixon nor Okonowicz ever imagined themselves as purveyors of haunted history. Okonowicz credits his foray into ghost stories to an interview he did with a storyteller in 1993. It sparked something in him, he said, which led to his eventual role as a part-time raconteur. But there was a problem.

"Everyone always wanted ghost stories," he explains. "And I only knew two or three."

Okonowicz placed an ad in a local circular, asking people to share their ghost stories with him. Some local newspapers ran stories about the ad and letters poured in. Eventually, the stories led to his first book, Pulling Back the Curtain, which Okonowicz and his wife, Kathleen, self-published. Since then, there have been 13 more, with a 14th book in the works.

Does Okonowicz ever want to leave the ghosts behind? "Excitement this week is a little rough to generate," he concedes, mentioning 10 performances in the span of a week and a sore back. Just before Halloween is their busiest time. Then, too, there is a feeling of being "ghosted out" at times, especially with the pressure to continually publish new books and come up with new stories.

"It's a job," he says.

It just happens that he's frighteningly good at it.

The next cemetery walk is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Saturday in Earleville. For more information, call 410-275-1291 or visit Okonowicz's Web site at www.mystandlace.com.

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