Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Glenn Wershing says he believed his house in New Jersey was haunted the moment he moved in with his wife and three children in 1961.

“On the third floor, we would hear footsteps going from the back of the house to the front of the house, then a big thump,” Mr. Wershing explains. “I think I must have run upstairs a hundred times with a flashlight to see who or what was there, but I never found anything.”

Mr. Wershing, 76, and his wife, Jackie Wershing, 71, live in the Thomas P. Hunt house, a three-story farmhouse built in 1835 that runs along Bear Creek, which adjoins the property.

The couple has noted numerous incidents that suggest the lingering presence of a ghost or some unearthly being. One Christmas, for example, Mrs. Wershing took a photo of her three children around the living-room Christmas tree. When the photo was developed, it appeared that the dismal figures of three other children — in shadowy form — were present, as well.

The couple is among the 40 percent of Americans who believe that a place can be haunted. According to a Gallup poll in 2001, this percentage is up from about 29 percent 10 years earlier.

“You never know when these weird things will start happening, but the change in seasons is usually a good indication” Mrs. Wershing said. “It was bitter cold one night, and I awoke at about five in the morning. There, standing in front of Glenn’s dresser was a lady with extremely long hair, wearing a nightgown of some sort. I just barely opened my eyelids, straining to try and see a face, but absolutely nothing was reflected in our bedroom mirror.”

Mr. Wershing suggests that the people who lived in the house prior to them just weren’t ready to go yet: “It wasn’t like there was a murder here or anything like that. Years ago, it was commonplace for people to die in their homes. I’ve said I don’t believe in ghosts, but something is happening in this house.”

The Wershing household is one of dozens of eerie phenomena compiled in “Weird U.S.: Your Travel Guide to America’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets.” The new book collects tales of the unexplained from across the country — including such Washington-area legends as the Goatman and “Crybaby Bridge.”

Joe Nickell, investigative columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer, says this belief in the paranormal taps into the hopes and fears of the American people.

“Psychic power lets us look into the future, aliens and UFOs reassure us that we are not alone in this universe, and ghosts give us the message that there’s something to look forward to after death,” Mr. Nickell said. “There’s no objective or scientific evidence for ghosts. I’ve come to believe that it’s not the places that are haunted. It’s the minds of the people.”

Haunted sites like the Martha Washington Inn in Abingdon, Va., however, continue to attract ghost-believing visitors each year, asking about the haunted history of the Inn, and the supposed ghost of a young nurse named Beth who haunts the Inn’s premises. Pete Sheffey, a bellman at the inn, claims to have seen a lot of strange things throughout his 40 years of employment there.

“Our guests sometimes hear the sound of violins coming from the upper floors, but there is no one playing,” said Mr. Sheffey, 63. “This is the ghost of Beth, who lived here during the Civil War, when the inn was a hospital. Last week, one guest saw [Beth’s] feet moving down the hall … then, they just vanished right in front of her. Some guests don’t believe in the ghost stuff when they arrive, but by the time they leave, they do.”

D.C. resident Steve Cupo, 50, said he had his own personal encounter with a ghost sighting. Mr. Cupo was a lead actor in “Give My Regards to Broadway” at the Circuit 21 Dinner Theatre in Rock Island, Ill., in 1981 when he saw the ghost of a deceased janitor sitting in the balcony.

“It was during rehearsal, and I had just run up to a very high platform on the stage,” Mr. Cupo said. “We had to stop the performance for some reason, and as I was glancing around the auditorium, I saw a strange Portuguese man in overalls sitting in the balcony. I looked away for a minute, but as soon as I looked back, he was gone. One week later, people were talking about this ghost of a Portuguese janitor, who accidentally killed himself in the theatre in 1922, and now he haunts the place.”

“Weird U.S.” also highlights stories of “bizarre beasts,” including the infamous Goatman of Prince George’s County.

The Goatman is described as a half-man, half-goat creature, whom local lore blames for attacking cars left near the road and throwing dogs off Interstate 495 overpasses near secluded areas.

Since the late 1950s, the Goatman has left his mark on the front page of two issues of the Prince George’s County News. The Nov. 10, 1971, edition carried a front-page banner declaring “Residents Fear Goatman Lives: Dog Found Decapitated in Old Bowie” with a photo of the remains of the mutilated pet. The canine victim’s owners reportedly had heard strange noises and saw an “animal-like creature” moving in the dark right before the dog disappeared.

According to some area residents, the Goatman lives near a notorious Prince George’s County site, Crybaby Bridge in Upper Marlboro.

At Crybaby Bridge, passing motorists say they have heard either the shrill cry of an infant ghost — local legend says it’s the spirit of a baby who was thrown over the bridge by her ashamed, murderous mother — or the Goatman, stealthily awaiting his next victim.

Mark Moran, co-author of “Weird U.S.,” said he and co-author Mark Sceurman took about a year to travel nationwide to investigate and research these, and many other, haunted places nationwide, many of which were “tips” from readers. After they published “Weird NJ” — a compilation of spooky tales from New Jersey — in 2003, the authors began receiving letters from across the country, telling them strange tales from their home states.

“What we do is listen to what people tell us is weird about their own hometown,” Mr. Moran said. “I don’t know if these stories are fact or fiction, but what I do believe is that the people who tell us their story truly believe it.”

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