It’s perfectly reasonable to be skeptical about the whole notion of ghosts. However, if you’ve heard a few perfectly reasonable, otherwise reliable people describe their own true-life ghost encounters, and you remain steadfastly a skeptic, well, then maybe you just lack imagination.
Michael Norman has listened to hundreds of ghost stories from all over the Midwest, and compiled them in five regional collections, including the new “The Nearly Departed: Minnesota Ghost Stories and Legends” (Minnesota Historical Society Press) but he still hasn’t seen a ghost himself. However, he’s talked with enough people who were also thoroughly skeptical — until they suddenly weren’t — that’s he’s (mostly) convinced that ghosts exist (sort of) and he’s ready and waiting for one to appear.
“I’d say the credibility of many of those I’ve interviewed over the years has led me to be more open-minded,” says Norman, a retired journalism professor who published his first set of ghost stories, “Haunted Wisconsin” (co-written by Beth Scott), in 1980. “In many cases, the ghost sighting was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So what was that? What happened in that moment in time? Not every one can be explained.”
Norman did hear some unexplainable ukulele music in a haunted theater once. But he’s just not that excited about the experience. “I’ve been in plenty of haunted houses over the years, but so far nothing extraordinary,” says the writer. He’s open to seeing anything, but he’d most like to see the ghost of Abe Lincoln that haunts the White House, “Especially if I could converse with him.”
“Minnesotans seem rather unexcitable when it comes to ghost sightings,” says Norman, and that sense of calm acceptance pervades this collection of sightings. In fact, many of the people he interviewed during his research live fairly comfortably with the ghost that haunts their property or workplace.
The apparition known as Ben, who haunts St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theatre, doesn’t seem to trouble any of the many employees who have seen him. A variety of spooks at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts seem no more notable than any other item in the permanent collection. The Pipestone County Museum’s most popular ghost (the building has several) is extremely friendly, and chats up the staff like a regular visitor.
There’s even a suburban ghost story in here, about a suspenders-wearing former resident of the Turtle Lake area who looks after the modern, high-tech family that lives on his old homestead. Good neighbor.
Of course, we are talking about dead people here, and genial though they may be, the collected impact of these stories is … spooky. Especially when read at night, alone, in a quiet old house, even one that isn’t haunted. Or probably isn’t. I don’t think.