W&J professor collects, publishes ghostly tales

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When he was about 10 years old, playing hide-and-seek with friends near his home in St. Louis, James Longo said he saw an androgynous figure with a light emanating from within.

"I was incredulous even as a kid; I had never seen anything like this," said Mr. Longo, now a professor of education and chairman of the education department at Washington & Jefferson College.

Shocked by the apparition, he ran home. But he soon developed an interest in what happens to those who don't run from a paranormal experience.

He began collecting ghost stories, but it wasn't until he wrote his first article for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the funeral of the Rev. William Bowdern that he saw the market for stories on the paranormal.

Father Bowdern had been the lead exorcist in the 1949 exorcism of Roland Doe, a 13-year-old boy, whose case became the foundation of William Peter Blatty's novel, "The Exorcist," which was made into a movie in 1973.

"Father Bowdern had just died [in April 1983], and the paper immediately bought the story I wrote on his funeral," Mr. Longo said. "The piece was formatted and ready to go but never ran because it was considered too controversial. I did get paid and still have the check."

He decided to publish a book on the ghost stories and paranormal activities he'd collected, all of which had occurred within a 100-mile radius of St. Louis, where he lived at the time. "Haunted Odyssey: Ghostly Tales of the Mississippi Valley" was published in 1986 and got a lot of attention. After its publication, people inundated him with their own ghost stories.

As more and more reports of ghost sightings and paranormal activity came in, he traveled up and down the Mississippi Valley from St. Paul to New Orleans. Usually he took one of his students, a photographer who was a skeptic.

"He'd ask questions and tried to find holes in the storyteller's account and come up with a logical explanation for the paranormal experience," Mr. Longo said. "This actually made the stories better. I never took an advocacy position on the paranormal but do feel that the storytellers believe their experiences are true."

As a result of his researches, Ste. Anne's Press published "Ghostly Tales Along the Mississippi: Haunted Odyssey II" in 1995. Mr. Longo wrote the book while he was a graduate student at Harvard.

"In my research, I look for certain patterns," he said. "Most people think of ghosts in terms of haunted houses, but they can also be connected to a road, a cemetery or an object, such as a necklace. In my research, I first try to figure out if the experience is about a place, a person or a thing."

The third book in the trilogy, "Favorite Haunts: Haunted Odyssey III," covers ghost stories from California to Maine and was published in 2000 while he was a professor at Washington & Jefferson.

"There's about 20 stories in each book," he said. "All have an American setting, but I aim for diversity of geographic location, gender and race. For every story published, I probably have seven or eight that remain unpublished."

Contrary to film depiction of ghosts as often violent, vengeful and unhappy, Mr. Longo said most of his are love stories in which the apparition is attracted to someone, something or some place that's deeply loved.

"Many stories are scary," he said. "All begin with one of the senses with someone seeing something, touching something or hearing something. However, I find that, once I get into the story with the teller, they become less frightened. When all is said and done, I ask the teller if they intend to move, but most come to terms with the experience and decide to stay."

Mr. Longo keeps in touch with many of the people he has interviewed. Some report never having another paranormal experience; others continue to have them.

"Many ask me if I'd like to spend a night in their house," he said. "But I'm not into that -- I'm a writer of tales, not a ghostbuster."

Mr. Longo said he has had only one other paranormal experience since his youth: Several years ago while visiting friends in California, he said he was in a guest bedroom and saw a spiritlike woman with a glaring look. When he mentioned the apparition to his friends the next morning, they said they also had previously seen her but had no explanation.

Mr. Longo's books are available at Amazon.com.

Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com

First Published October 31, 2013 6:04 AM

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