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Scary times in Ellicott City this October

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They say historic Ellicott City is haunted. Maybe it's the granite, the underground water or he flow of electricity.

Things are about to get a little spookier. Howard County Tourism and Promotion offers three different ghost tours, leading visitors along Main Street to hear about paranormal sightings — or inside a local pub for a longer tale. 

For the first time, writers of paranormal fiction — authors who focus on vampires, ghosts and other such other-worldly beings — and their fans will gather for HallowRead, a weekend conference in town at the end of the month.

And above it all, through the month of October, Dracula will reign in the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute when the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presents a classic play about the world's most famous vampire.

Now don't be scared, but here is more freightful information about the upcoming events:

Ghost tours

Ghost experts who visited historic Ellicott City have said the town's granite, electricity and water make it hospitable to spirits. "Ellicott City has all of those — with sprinkles on top," said Rachelina Bonacci, chief executive officer of Howard County Tourism and Promotion. "There's a reputation now."

And at night, she said, when the moon illuminates thin clouds stretching across the dark sky and spider webs glisten in the corners, Bonacci sees why its a good ghost town. "The town can definitely have a different vibe at night," she said. 

Bonacci admits she was skeptical. But then one Sunday morning when she was alone in her office, she heard someone walking around on a wooden floor above her — where all the floors are carpeted.

"All of us in our office have had an experience," she said.

Two walking tours, the original, Ye Haunted History of Olde Ellicott City Ghost Tour, and a second, the Double Dare, are offered two nights a week from April through November. 

A third, the Spirits of Ellicott City tour offered once a month all year, takes visitors inside local restaurants and bars for a drink and longer ghost stories.

Marty Schoppert collected the stories — such as the tragic tale of an accountant — by talking to residents and shopkeepers who readily told him about things they couldn't explain. The eyewitnesses live in the 21st century but the ghosts come from as early as the mid-1800s. There were ghostly apparitions, furniture that moved on its own, strange sounds. "I was very surprised and very pleased when people volunteered the information," he said.

He helped weave these eyewitness accounts into scripts for all three tours, as well as a new one at Savage Mill.

"We have quite a few entities we talk about," he said.

Schoppert, who dresses in a top hat and cape when he leads a tour, recalls a young woman standing nearby as he told the story of Confederate soldier. When he finished, she surprised him by confirming that all he said was true — she had lived in that building and seen him.

Schoppert, who is retired from both the U.S. Army and the police department, used to do historical interpretations for the U.S. Park Service. He and his family have also taken part in Civil War reenactments for years. And he was often asked about ghost stories. 

Now he tells them in Ellicott City. "I don't mind being the center of attention — as long as it isn't a hanging," he quipped.

Does he believe in ghosts? He remembers driving his patrol car on Route 1 and seeing a bewildered man standing on a driveway. After driving past, Shoppert worried the man was in trouble and turned around. When he got back to the spot, the man was gone but Schoppert continued down that driveway, where he found a graveyard. And a newly-dug grave.

"Did I see a ghost?" he says in a warm tenor voice. "I don't know."

But apparently there are enough ghosts in historic Ellicott City that Schoppert said he he's thinking about a possible fourth ghost tour.

Ghost tours have their merits beyond a few thrills and chills, Bonacci said. "It really is a way to tell the stories about the town," she said. "We've got great history," she said.

And they've got great story tellers too. Bonacci praised the guides who engage their listeners without any special effects. "They are captivated by the art of story telling," she said.

'Dracula'

While mortals stroll the streets of Ellicott City in search of ghost stories, one immortal will come to life above them all amid the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute.

Bram Stoker's "Dracula" will be staged 18 evenings in October.

"I don't think there's been anything more suited to that space at this time of year than Dracula," said Michael Sullivan, who plays the vampire. 

Sullivan, who appeared in two other "movable productions," — "Our Town" and "Julius Caesar" — said the setting enhances their production.

Quoting one of his lines, "the battlements are broken and the shadows are many," Sullivan said, "It's very true of the space we're performing in."

"It's kind of creepy there at night," added Scott Alan Small, the director. He described the scene as they finish for the night: crumbling walls, deep shadows and resident bats swooping around them. "You don't want to be there."

The setting is perfect for the classic horror story— although Small said they'll add other elements to set the mood, such as a cemetery, fog, cape and fangs.

Fangs have proven to be one of Sullivan's challenges. He has worked hard to learn to speak with them, and with an Eastern European accent. In addition, his wife, who is terrified of all things vampire, has banned the fake teeth from their house.

"Dracula" is Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's sixth "movable production," according to Ian Gallanar, CSC's artistic director.

Audience members can expect "some stage magic and surprises that will be fun," he said. So don't expect lasers or hydraulic lifts, or even a lot of blood. "We think it's more fun to have it suggested," Gallanar said. 

Small noted that everyone knows the story of the famous vampire — "some version of it anyway." This show is adapted from a 1970s Broadway production that starred Frank Langella.

It's an "old-school" production, Gallanar added. "It's Count Dracula."

HallowRead

Ellicott City's reputation for spookiness led a local novelist to choose the town for a convention of writers and fans of paranormal, SteamPunk and horror writing. They will swoop into town Oct. 25-27, gathering at local restaurants for panel discussions while partaking of ghost tours and a production of "Dracula."

Rachel Rawlings, a Howard High graduate who co-owns Salon Marielle with her mother, decided this region needed its own horror convention while she was attending similar gatherings in New York.

"We don't really have anything like this," said Rawlings, who is at work on her fourth "slightly dark and action packed" novel. And the big conventions she has attended don't have the intimate settings Ellicott City offers readers and writers.  

Apparently it was an idea whose time had come. Rawlings invited 13 of her writer friends, and now 28 have signed on, coming from as far as Seattle and Georgia. And Fangoria, a New York-based horror fan magazine, signed on in mid-September as a partner, giving the conference national exposure. Owner Tom DeFeo is expected to join one of the panels. Local and nationally-known writers, including authors of The New York Times and USA Today bestsellers, are expected, as are several visual artists.

"It's definitely a strong list of people," Rawlings said. 

Ticket sales are brisk, although space for a few more readers still is available.

"It's an opportunity for them to engage with the authors they read," Rawlings said.

Rawlings admitted she looked at other places — towns with a hotel big enough to hold all the events. But she ultimately chose Ellicott City and found rooms in local restaurants and hotels, including Cacao Lane, Diamondback Tavern, Trolley Stop and the Howard County Historical Society museum. Participants have an option to see "Dracula," take a ghost tour or enjoy a Steam Punk Tea at Tea on the Tiber.

"I do love the town," she added. "The town becomes itself a feature of the convention."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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FictionAuthorsDining and DrinkingTheaterJazz (Music Genre)
  • Rachel Rawlings
    Rachel Rawlings

    Rachel Rawlings, a graduate of Howard High School and co-owner of Salon Marielle in Ellicott City, has organized HallowRead, a conference that will take place in late October for writers of paranormal fiction and their fans.

  • Marty Schoppert has been involved in writing the scripts for all three ghost tours in historic Ellicott City. Schoppert dresses in a top hat and cape when conducting a tour.

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