To ring in the New Year I have a special treat! I snagged a great interview with Mr. Ken Summers author of Queer Hauntings. Now while ostensibly one might think the fact that after partying away the New Year’s Eve, taking a stroll in a cemetery is a bit morbid but it was all part of my resolution to do more of those fun things on my bucket list. I always loved old graveyards and ghost hunting. A nice long hike amid the stones beats a treadmill any day of the week! So when I found out about an awesome statue from tumblr that is located in the very same city where I was spending the holidays I had to see it in person. In my little online exploration about this eerie angel with eyes stained with a patina of tears (the aged bronze erosion creates the effect but it evokes soul-deep emotion to gaze upon), I also managed to stumble into the wicked awesome book mentioned above and bought it on amazon.
In a way it’s very fitting that the end of one year is but the beginning of the next and so too does life go on. Maybe part of us does as well. These are secrets no one will tell.
From Interview Email:
I wanted to start by telling you about that angel statue in Lake View Cemetery. It’s a 1924 sculpture by Herman Matzen titled ‘The Angel of Death Victorious’ and was used for the Haserot family plot. It just happened that how it was sculpted, as it weathered, the eyes seemed to be weeping blackness, which is the big part of its allure. What some think is a sword in its hands is actually an upside-down extinguished torch, symbolizing the extinguishing of life. The Cemetery was created by Jeptha H. Wade, who was involved in the merger which formed Western Union and served as president for the Valley Railway south of Cleveland (today known as the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad). He and his wife were Spiritualists and contacted a medium repeatedly. Wade Park (where most Cleveland museums are clustered today) was a gift of his to the city. He’s very much a forgotten character from the past.
The shrouded figures of iconic Victorian era women in white, haunted gothic manors both austere and decrepit, endless misty nights on the moorlands plagued by unexplained disturbances are all engrained in our collective consciousness from ghost stories told and retold like endlessly echoing energy imprints. Are there residual spirits recreating their past like a skipping song on a record? And what about other more unique tales of ghosts? As Ken Summers puts it the “lavender spirits and pink specters” of the GLBT community would also have a collection of tales surely if only they could be unearthed and recorded. And he did just that in his book Queer Hauntings. I highly recommend.
First off let me say your integrity in pursing the answers to some of the most complex questions of existence is admirable. I love the open mind, humor, and subversively educational way in which you explore and share the realms of history, culture, lore, and legends of all different localities. In fact, your Queer Hauntings also makes for a great tour guide since it not just showcases paranormal hotspots but many current hangouts that are GLBT friendly and seem like a blast for the living all over the globe. Covering everyone from Oscar Wilde, Liberace, to others hereto unknown and their ensuing stories. Did you ever guess you would become such a pioneer for the paranormal and GLBT community?
Thank you, Fiona, you are too kind! In all honesty, I never set out to be a maverick intentionally. I’ve always been a curious person who loved a good mystery. I started blogging about life and the paranormal a long time ago (https://moonspenders.blogspot.com) and I always gravitated toward the strange, silly stories I’d find. But with ghost stories, it seems like everything you ever read or hear about involves straight, white dead people. So, I set out to find something different. Being gay, I had to look into that possibility, naturally. I started writing “Queer Paranormal Road Trips” weekly, as I’d find these stories. After a while, I thought it’d make for an interesting book. It took a while to find a publisher willing to take the chance, but it finally became a reality. (Of course, I ended up with a very tight deadline, so I didn’t fully explore all research venues and legends I ran across, simply because it’s always far more work than most people every realize.) My idea was to make it into something more than just a collection of stories. I wanted it to serve as a guidebook so that people could visit as many of the places as possible and form their own opinions about it.
Of course it makes sense that people want to have a concise understanding since the quest for knowledge is one of humankind’s greatest asset and at times our own undoing since much of the universe is relentlessly mysterious and incomprehensible. The world so loves broad strokes and concrete answers or neat little labels but it’s not always possible to say something is fact, fiction, true, false etc. Sexuality is very much in that same domain in that it can elude our own logic or reasoning and isn’t always gay or straight but can be a blend which you also touch upon in your prologue.
The fact that you are open to all possibilities is exceedingly rare and refreshing. So often ghost hunts that I have been on recreationally have been with charlatans, dyed in the wool believers or those with an agenda to prove the exact opposite. You mentioned that seems to be your experience often as well. Is this why you tend to do more solo expeditions?
We really do love to fit everything into neatly-labeled categories, even ourselves. But people are too complex, especially when it comes to sexuality. And history is a far deeper story than most of us ever really learn about. Every historical fact you read about is filtered, boiled down, and told from one perspective. As Oscar Wilde himself once said, ‘Truth is rarely pure and never simple.’
I started investigating ghost stories at around 16 years old (though I’d been reading Loyd Auerbach and Hans Holzer since age 10). I didn’t start collecting local stories until my freshman year of college, around the same time I started joining paranormal groups. I even had my own short-lived group once. This was long before television shows made it popular; you never admitted to being a ghost hunter to other people because it meant you were a freak. Just like being gay, the paranormal was its own closet. But in being such a small community, the people you met all seemed to fit the same basic mold: die-hard believers, devoutly religious, and mostly conservative. But making matters worse, everyone thinks they’re an expert and they know the truth, so there’s chronic in-fighting. I worked at a gay bar for a few years, and there was less drama there than in the groups I belonged to! So, as time went on, I distanced myself from actively being in groups. Being a loner freak all my life, it wasn’t exactly a major change.
To me, what’s important is truth with an open mind. And I’ve tried to carry that across in not just my writing but investigating and ghost tours. Instead of trying to make things creepy, scary, or blown out of proportion, I always focus on getting to the true history behind everything. To me, ghost stories are a way of keeping history we’d normally forget about alive. And finding the real history can be a big challenge, sometimes. We tend to create so many myths, even in the form of famous last words, that I focus the bulk of my energy on trying to get my facts straight instead of scaring the pants off people.
Your inspiration that initially acted as a catalyst into pursing the paranormal is quite a beautiful story. Do you still feel a strong pull to ghost hunting from those origins or has it taken on it’s own energy and impetus?
Well, the true origins of my interest in ghosts is probably the fault of Walt Disney. The animated story of Sleepy Hollow captivated me as a child and attracted me to anything weird, paranormal, or unexplained from ghosts to the Bermuda Triangle. Of course, many people have influenced me throughout my life and my ideas and views are always in flux. Like many others before me, I think I started off thinking I could prove things exist, but after almost 20 years, I started to realize that we don’t know exactly what we’re trying to prove in the first place. People have so many theories and beliefs based on assumptions that no one bothered to realize we still don’t know what thing or things ghostly phenomena actually are in the first place. It’s a huge mystery with dozens of mythologies written around guesswork. I have dozens of theoretical ideas myself, naturally, but I keep most of it to my own thoughts and just try to enjoy the interesting stories and inexplicable experiences without the skeptic/believe battling ruining it for me.
In reading your collection of stories I am also struck by your respectful renderings of the spirits and places as you preserve their past. You did a masterful job bringing to light how often it’s easy to forget that the pursuit of the paranormal lies in the past lives of real people and give voice to the GLBT communities of other generations that were often haunted by the prejudice and narrow scope of the times in which they lived. Hopefully acceptance and understanding that may have been unseen in their lifetime is becoming more widespread.
Which stories in your compilation are your favorite or linger with you the most?
I think most people forget that ghost stories are stories involving people who once lived lives just like you and I. So I felt it was important to tell their stories and not just focus on the spooky haunted house parts. Famous or not, these people often have an interesting tale to tell. And just like all of our lives, there’s hardship, hope, survival, happiness, and humor scattered throughout.
It would be a challenge to pick a favorite story, really, since there are so many wonderful things I found in my research. Sometimes, it’s the horrible ugliness of humanity as with the Corpsewood Murders and the Upstairs Lounge arson fire in New Orleans, but then there are the wonderful little juicy or silly bits like Elizabeth Bathory cursing her accusers to be killed by cats or Liberace spending his final days watching The Golden Girls in bed with his dogs. And who can forget the Rose & Crown Guest House in Ptown with its late owner still putting on a drag show for guests?
You could say I do have a personal favorite in some ways, though. The Popobawa, Africa’s bat demon. It was covered in so many sources, but no one bothered to talk about how it would advantage of male villagers. Being described as a large human-like bat with a gargantuan penis, it’s hard to get that mental image out of my head. Call me a size queen, if you will!
If you could come back as an untethered being do you think you would? Would you be a friendly ghost or a more mischievous one? I myself think I’d be a bit of a brat; not malicious but teasing the living maybe like the Bottom’s Up ghost pinching a few cute booties here and there.
I would definitely choose to come back! I’d be a chameleon of a ghost, being many things to many people. But mischief would be too hard to resist. I would have a blast haunting ghost hunters, trying to make them think I was Satan, and probably a bit of a voyeur as well! But I’d only go after those who richly deserved it. I couldn’t attack the downtrodden, since I’m just not the type of person who could get any pleasure out of doing mean things to society’s castaways.
When can we read more stories and collections from your work? Currently you are writing a new book correct?
Queer Hauntings is available from most booksellers, and it’s available as both an ebook and audiobook, so no matter how people want to read of hear it, they can. I still write articles now and then for Week in Weird (https://www.weekinweird.com/author/moonspenders), and I’m finally working on a sequel to Queer Hauntings as we speak. I have a ton of work to do to try and have it out for September 2016, but it’s my goal. It’ll have plenty of new stories and some updates to places from the last book. Some of the places have changed ownership, and a lot has happened in the past few years. I can tell you that the Manila Film Complex no longer hosts female impersonators, but I have learned that there’s a ghost there few people want to talk about. She was a drag queen who was robbed and murdered there many years ago who still to this day tries to get taxi rides to the hospital.
Your website highlights lots of great places in Cuyahoga county. Do you still live in the Ohio area? There seems to be quite a strong pulse of GLBT culture there and hotspot for all sorts of fun vintage stores, nightlife, clubs as well as a rich past to seek out for possible ghostly encounters. Any new faves you’d like to mention?
I have a love-hate relationship with Ohio. I constantly try to escape it, but end up back here against my wishes, usually. (I should have stayed in San Diego, but I couldn’t afford it anymore.) Cleveland tries to be hip–and it does have massive amounts of potential–but it’s a bit like your father trying to fit into a crowd of teenagers. Spend enough time in different cities all around the world, and coming back to it feels very lackluster. But I think part of that is its indifference toward its own past. John D. Rockefeller made his mark here, the Torso Murders brought Elliot Ness here, and the river caught fire about a dozen times, just to name a few things. But these aren’t always things we want people to know about us, which is a shame since they’re pretty iconic things.
Ohio is definitely one of if not the most haunted states there is. It’s hard to drive down any street without finding another ghost story. And there are definitely some really interesting places. Lonesome Lock near where I live is haunted by the headless woman in white murdered there over 150 years ago. Post Boy Road is haunted by a young mail carrier gunned down in the early 19th century who still follows his mail route. Places like Mansfield Reformatory have become famous everywhere after being on paranormal TV shows repeatedly. There’s even a story from Mohican State park of an Indian still wandering the woods in search of the hundredth tongue of a white man to cut out and add to his gruesome necklace. Dozens of books have been written about Ohio hauntings, and none of them cover everything!
The parallels you draw in your intro and prologue are so poignant. You mention how we are haunted first and foremost by our own hidden selves and subconscious thoughts, drives and desires which are just as powerful as tangible beings. Thanks for being a conduit and preservationist of the past to the great beyond whatever it may be as well as a reminder to give time and credence to our own inner restless whims and needs of the spirit.
Exceedingly Important Question (heehee): What are your thoughts on the possible Ghostbusters reboot?
Oh, dear. haha I worry about it. So much time has passed and things are so very different now. I’m not sure this is the right climate for Ghostbusters, what with all the paranormal shows everywhere you look. In order to be both good and profitable, it’d have to be massively overhauled to the point of being unrecognizable. Now, X Files, on the other hand,… that will never go out of style. I’ll choose Mulder and Scully over Venkman and Spengler! But it is worth noting that Dan Aykroyd has always been big on the paranormal in real life, crystal skull vodka aside. His father Peter even wrote an interesting book on ghosts and Spiritualism.
You even have a tip section for fellow ghost hunters in your book. Is there anything else you’d like to share, say, or advise your readers about?
There’s an interesting story from my early days in writing the book. I was on an author’s forum seeking advice on query letters, and I mentioned casually that I had a “unique nonfiction book unlike anything ever written” I was trying to pitch. One author responded, saying everyone made that claim, and asking me to tell him what this “unique” book was about. When I told him, he was taken aback by it. “Well, that’s the most unique, original book idea I’ve ever heard. Good luck with it!”
Above all else, reserve any judgements on anything until you know more about it. (And that goes beyond ghosts.) We live in a fascinating world full of fascinating things. No matter what you may think, there is always something new to learn, and you’ll never know everything. But that’s part of the fun. Life is exceptionally short and unpredictable. Whatever you decide to do, believe in, explore, etc., just make your life an interesting one and never try to make everyone else happy. And no matter how far outside “accepted society” you might feel like you are, being what others consider normal is completely overrated.
What a wonderful way to revere and remember our past which is after all a foundation to our future. And isn’t that a great outlook on life as much as it is on the afterlife? Thanks so much Ken!