Families tour university's haunted history
Published: Monday, October 8, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 8, 2012 23:10
For two old men who believe in ghosts as much as they believe in Santa Claus, Ed Okonowicz and Mike Dixon spend an inordinate amount of time traipsing around graveyards in the dead of night.
Both professors at the university, Okonowicz is a modern day folklorist with 24 novels to his name, and Dixon is a historian who has appeared on the “Today Show” and featured in “National Geographic.” The two have spent the past 15 years together leading groups on their famous ghost tours.
They say the idea originated years ago. Okonowicz says he has already been doing tours for Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island in Delaware City, Del. for quite some time, so when a local historical society fundraiser arose he decided to spice it up, luring crowds with the caption “Ghost Tours.” From there he and Dixon expanded with the local community.
Dixon suggested doing ghost tours Elkton, Md. a location where he previously gave historical tours with low turnout. By broadening the excursion with legends of murder and sightings of phantoms wandering around the area, the two expanded the audience to up to a hundred people.
“This was when no one was doing this, today they are tripping over it,” he says, referencing society’s fascination with the paranormal caused by TV and movies. “Digital cameras, EVP, the electronic voice phenomena, the digital tape recorders, carry-on movie cameras, that’s all they want, to pay the money and wander around the corners looking for ghosts which they’re never going to find anyway.”
Over time, Okonowicz and Dixon gained a larger following with libraries, schools and museums gunning for them to come and put on a show. Now that is just what they do. Dixon and Okonowicz are like a modern day Abbott and Costello, Okonowicz constantly scolding Dixon with his dry wit.
Audience members say they often believe the two are genuinely upset with each other since they bicker like an old married couple, but it is all in good humor.
“He’s always the ghost guy and then I’m the history guy, I pen the truth,” Dixon says. “Half the time it almost gets to be a comedy act, it just depends on the dynamic, how he’s playing it. I’ll poke fun at him and he’ll get after me if I get too serious.”
Dixon and Okonowicz give tours at the university annually though they always receive calls.
“I was slamming the phone down,” Dixon says of one point when he felt bombarded by all the requests.
The campus tour highlights historical events that many students often never hear. For example, Edgar Alan Poe once passed through town, and his experience provided inspiration for one of his most prominent short stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
When he was staying in St. Patrick’s Inn in 1843 around where the Deer Park Tavern now stands, he heard the tale of the “Ticking Tomb.” In 1763, an English man by the name of Mason was working on an invention, a piece of clockwork. One day the son of a local woman selling fish nicked the device right off the table and swallowed it whole. Mason cursed the boy with the task of keeping his device working till the end of time. It is rumored that students can still hear it ticking at his gravesite in Cecil County, Md. Fraternity boys used to make pledges travel to the graveyard at midnight and place their pin on the tomb. However, the tradition was discontinued when one boy ran into a grave after one of his fraternity brothers frightened him and the boy ended up twisting his ankle.
Other stories include the Warner Residence Hall suicide, the story of Newark’s headless horseman, Elmo, a worker who died fixing plaster in Mitchell Hall after a bad fall, not to be discovered for three days, and the notorious legend of Edward Roach, the young scholar whose throat was slit by a fellow classmate—a classmate who perished a year later after a boiler exploded, with a piece of metal exacting the same death.
Okonowicz says people are initially drawn in because of the ghost stories, but they also learn history of the campus.
“They are coming here to hear what they think are the ghost stories, but essentially when they leave, they have a better understanding of why this place originated, how it was connected to the Revolutionary War, literature, the signers of the Declaration of Independence,” Okonowicz says. “It’s all weaved in.”
Okonowicz says he hopes some historical details will also interest students.
“[Ghost stories are the] gateway into getting people interested in history,” he says.
Though their jobs seem fun, Okonowicz and Dixon say a lot of work goes into developing the talks. They both spent time scouring old newspaper articles and interviewing people on campus who have witnessed paranormal activity.
“The challenge is to find decent stories,” Dixon says. “You could turn this into a deadly lecture—it’s not hard, especially if it’s pure history. You have to have an ear for a story—you want it to be somewhat factual.”
Junior Alexis Bigelow says she enjoyed the tour.
“It was really interesting,” Bigelow says. “I would come back. I really like the story of the Roach guy who died here that was crazy. I didn’t know that many places on this campus were haunted.”
The event stills seems to pull groups of a hundred or more and they still get the odd request now and again for personal midnight tours.
Over the years, Dixon and Okonowicz have modified their tours to accommodate listeners and say that people are not scared as easily as they once were.
“The audience here has changed dramatically,” Okonowicz says. “They demand more now. They want to be entertained in a sophisticated way.”