Spinning yarns about ghosts

Storyteller: Author Ed Okonowicz enjoys telling scary tales that contain twists of history and leave eager area fans wanting ever more.

October 31, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's the swinging-corpse stories that Ed Okonowicz likes best.

The creepy, hair-raising tales with nuggets of truth behind them get Okonowicz, such as the one about the sea captain who vowed never to spend eternity with his feet touching the earth. When the captain died in 1827, his shipmates pickled him in rum. He rests, suspended from a marble grave top in the Spesutia Cemetery at St. George's Episcopal Church in Perryman.

Good old-fashioned ghost stories tickle Okonowicz, too. Take the one about the girl in the sequined dress. After trysts along U.S. 40, her dates later find the overcoats they lent her hanging from her gravestone.

Lore? Perhaps. But telling stories like these - ghost tales with twists of history in them - is what makes Okonowicz tick. And it's what keeps his followers asking for more.

"He draws you into [his stories]," said Cindi Beane, executive director of the skipjack Martha Lewis, where Okonowicz spun ghostly tales this month. "I was creeped out a little."

On the road

Okonowicz, a regional storyteller, is touring Maryland with his 23rd book, Baltimore Ghosts. He plans two more similar books in as many years, one based in Annapolis, and one in the Chesapeake region. It will include ghost stories from Harford and Cecil counties.

His yarn-spinning also has landed him gigs narrating lighthouse and cemetery tours and brought him new assignments teaching children and adults the craft of storytelling.

Tonight, Okonowicz will lead a tour at the cemetery beside in the Arsenal at Old New Castle in New Castle, Del.

But Okonowicz, a Delaware native who says he just happens to sleep over the border in Elkton, never intended to tell stories.

He wrote them mostly, on a freelance basis for local newspapers.

And it was on one of those assignments 20 years ago that the former University of Delaware instructor developed his taste for storytelling.

He was interviewing a beekeeper who kept urging the young reporter to interview his wife. She was a storyteller. Okonowicz was reluctant - after all, freelancing didn't pay well, so his time was at a premium. Besides, who wanted to sit on the floor beside a bunch of kids listening to a silly story?

But Okonowicz did it. And he stayed for three hours.

Later, he said, he couldn't shake his amazement at the rhythm, the words, the process of storytelling.

"I had never thought that the craft could be something that would apply to adult audiences," he said.

So he gave it a try.

He hopped on the storytelling circuit, paid his dues at nursing homes and teas, mixing local folklore with humorous snippets.

But everyone always asked for ghost stories.

"I only had three," he said. "I was always running out of them."

Okonowicz bet his wife that he could cull 10 stories out of the Delmarva Peninsula area, so he placed an ad in a local paper looking for local ghost lore. The stories poured in.

Soon, he amassed enough to publish a book. Pulling Back the Curtain was published in 1994, and it was the first of what was to become his collection of almost two dozen books on the region's history, mystery, folklore, culture and legends. They are published by his company, Myst and Lace Publishing, which is run from his home.

He learned the same lesson when years later, he tried to give walking tours of Elkton with Cecil County historian Mike Dixon.

At first, they drew about a dozen people, he said. But when they tested their first ghost tour, more than 100 showed up.

"[Ghost stories] have been part of culture since the beginning of time," he said.

It should not have been "rocket science" for them to have understood the appeal, he said.

Okonowicz strives to find stories in the area's historic sites, from the frigate Constellation to Fort McHenry, in part because they are more interesting, and in part to teach a little history along the way, he said.

`Jumping around'

"When I go into the classroom ... kids are slamming books, jumping around, screaming," he said.

If they knew he was going to teach them a history lesson, he said, their eyes would glaze over. But when they find out they're hearing ghost stories, "for an hour, it is silent," Okonowicz said.

Some of his stories might be a little eerie, and some might explain urban legends. But the best stories, he said, have surprise endings or a historic basis.

His sea captain story, which is to be published in his book on Chesapeake-area ghosts, is one example of a startling tale that chronicles local history, he said.

John Clark Monk, a Briton, is buried in a Perryman cemetery near his wives. His grave, worn with age, looks like any other. But if someone shines a light through the rubble on top the grave, he will see the contraption that holds the casket suspended underground.

"It's not exactly a spooky ghost story, but it is an eerie, fascinating part of history," he said.

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