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Ghosts Roam 'Most Haunted Area in U.S.' : Hauntings: New England boasts the oldest tales of the supernatural and has become a foundation for folklore.

October 26, 1989|DEIRDRE WILSON | UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL

Dudleytown, Conn., is a cursed village in the northwest corner of Connecticut. It has been deserted since horror and misfortune struck its early settlers in the 1700s.

People went mad, were struck by lightning or fell ill.

The Penobscot Indian reservation in Maine is haunted by an evil white man who married and intimidated a small Indian woman a century ago as he tried to govern the area.

In Warren, Mass., a farmer named Maurice Theriault was once possessed with superhuman strength, was levitated and suffered bleeding when some spiritual being carved messages into his back.

New England is a ghost story waiting to be told. The nation's oldest settled region boasts the oldest tales of the supernatural and has become a foundation for folklore.

"You are living in the most haunted area of the United States," said Lorraine Warren, who together with her husband, Edward, has made a 40-year career out of smoking out the spooks that haunt New England's homes, land and other relics.

"It is the old that brings about the ghost syndrome. The older the area, the more chance of a tragedy. And tragedies often bring ghosts," Warren said.

Stories like Dudleytown, the Indian reservation and Theriault are just a few of the countless ghostly tales the couple have recounted in five books. Their most recent work is "The Ghost Hunters" (St. Martins Press).

Backed by a team of researchers, clergymen and scholars, the Warrens are considered among the foremost authorities of ghosts and the supernatural in New England.

The late Edgar Rowe Snow of Massachusetts was famous for lectures and books on ghosts, pirates and shipwrecks that plagued New England--stories of both fact and fancy.

Many New Englanders who never investigated or put pen to paper about their experiences have tales to tell about hauntings: A woman who died in childbirth at Salem Hospital in Salem, Mass., haunts a delivery room there; a ghost ship, the Palatine, capsized off Block Island two centuries ago and occasionally reappears off the Rhode Island coast.

Linda Degh, a folklore professor at Indiana University in Bloomington who has researched supernatural tales for a book on folklore, believes ghost stories--real or fantasy--are a part of America's culture.

"You see the same phenomenon coming up again and again," Degh said. "In old abandoned houses, there are noises, voices, smells. . . . They are the same stories: some restless spirit comes back. It can be benign or it can be evil.

"Whether there are ghosts or not, I don't know," Degh said. "It is as unscientific to say there are no ghosts as it is to say there are ghosts. There are no scientific experiments to prove either. We know that people are not liars when they feel something or hear something. Culturally, they are rational, even if they are irrational."

One of the more celebrated New England ghost stories took place in a mansion in Stratford, Conn., where a minister and his family lived.

Newspaper accounts from the period reported that on March 10, 1850, the Rev. Eliakim Phelps was returning home with his wife and two children when the family noticed black mourning cloth draped across the front door.

When the family entered, they were horrified to find a corpse shrouded and laid out in the parlor. The body was that of Goody Bassett, a woman hanged in 1661 as a witch.

By the time Phelps could summon a witness, the apparition had disappeared. The mystery had not.

The phenomenon at the Phelps mansion became known as the Stratford Knockings, a series of mysterious happenings that included rappings and thunderous knockings heard by witnesses who traveled long distances to confirm the clergyman's story.

State newspapers carried daily accounts and reporters came to investigate.

The Warrens were called in to investigate in 1971 after two of the town's police officers chased an apparition of a little girl up the stairs of the abandoned mansion while investigating a report of vandalism.

"They were both joking about the ghost. They went in through the back door and could hear something near the huge staircase," said Edward Warren, who is also director of the New England Society for Psychic Research--a network of researchers of the supernatural.

"They could see a small figure--like a child--dressed in a lace dress. When it ran up the staircase, they chased it to the third floor. It ran into a room and the officers saw a closet door closed. Thinking it was kids playing pranks, they opened the closet door. Nobody was there."

Warren said a photographer, using special equipment, was able to record on film a picture of the child the officers saw.

True or false, New England's ghost stories can capture the most skeptical audience here for nothing else but the enjoyment of a good yarn.

Degh says the stories may be a way of explaining death and the beyond.

"It's based really on the existential problems of humanity," she said, "that people are dying, life is very fragile and it is a hope that the dead can return.

"It's a kind of philosophy between life and death based on our ignorance of the final solution--finding out what will happen to us."

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