THE HAUNTINGS of Ellicott Mills, begun last year by the Howard County Tourism Council, has been sold out almost every Saturday night since May.
The tours in Ellicott City, along Main Street and Old Columbia Pike, point out the residences of ghosts. Tour guides tell about the old gentleman in a white suit who wove yarns for young boys on the porch of the Howard Hotel; the guardian angel who protected Bill Sach's shop on Main Street from a fire; Aunt Lena, who mixed potions to make people well; and others.
Guides Cindy Hirshberg, Cliff Hughes, Gaby Parks and Janet Loughren were recently recognized as Outstanding Tourism Professionals of the Year by the council.
Ellicott City resident Melissa Arnold, marketing manager of the council, organizes the tours.
Arnold came to Ellicott City from Iowa 3 1/2 years ago with her sons, Daniel and Adam.
She came to Maryland without a job, hoping to obtain medical treatment for Adam, then 7. Dr. Dror Paley of Kernan Hospital in Baltimore was one of the few physicians who performed the surgery that Adam needed.
On her first day in the Baltimore area, Arnold visited Ellicott City and fell in love with its historic buildings. Within a week, she was offered a weekend job at the Visitor Center.
When the council decided to run ghost tours last year, Arnold collected stories from residents who'd had ghostly experiences.
Daniel, now 17, overheard some of the interviews.
"It was spookier hearing it from the person who experienced it," he said. "You know that it's real to them."
Arnold wrote down the stories and trained guides to lead the tours. Some of the stories tell of friendly spirits, others of angry ones. Still others tell of tragedy. The tours last 75 to 90 minutes.
The most interesting thing about the tours, Arnold said, is that people are drawn to them for such different reasons.
"Some people think it's a whole lot of hokum, but it's a whole lot of fun," she said. "Others are true believers who are here for a personal experience of the spirit world.
"Then there are others who have not made up their minds. They feel there is something going on, but are not sure what."
Some tour participants are surprised that the tours are not as theatrical as they expected -- nobody grabs them, Arnold said. Others are deeply affected by the stories. Many stay after the tours and tell the tour guides about their experiences.
"Spirituality is such a deeply personal thing," Arnold said. She believes that, as the end of the millennium looms, people are seeking "the root of who we are."
"I don't devalue anybody's stories," Arnold said. "They are real to them."
But, she added, she won't go on the tours.
"It conflicts with my religious beliefs. I believe in the unfailing goodness of God. I don't want to encounter a deceptive or dangerous spirit."
A plastic candy dish near Arnold's desk sounds an electronic laugh as movement in the room trips its light sensor. The dish is in the shape of a white ghost rising from a pumpkin patch with jack-o'-lanterns. The ghost's red eyes blink.
On Saturday nights, the dish is filled with candy and greets tour participants at the Visitor Center.
Ellicott City resident Hughes, 78, says he dresses in black for the ghost tours -- including a black seaman's cap he got in Greece years ago. Hughes says he loves talking about the Ellicott City ghosts.
An accomplished tour guide, Hughes carries a lantern -- a replica of candle lanterns used during the Civil War.
He said that people always ask, "Well, are these true stories?" He answers that they are based on actual accounts.
The council offers tours at 8: 30 p.m. Saturdays from May through November. Private tours are available by appointment.
The tours are not recommended for children through age 5. The cost is $7; $5 for seniors and children.
This year's most unusual ghost story is about a ghost cat that inhabits the new digs on Old Columbia Pike of envy! -- a hair salon run by Leeza Ennis.
When Ennis bought the 200-year-old building from Dodie Gaudry last year, the former owner mentioned that she never had problems with mice because of a cat that lived outside the building, Ennis said.
Gaudry even showed Ennis a hillside where the cat lived.
Since Ennis opened the shop, she and her staff have repeatedly heard the low meow of a cat in the salon's waiting room but have never seen the cat.
Ennis says she imagines a "big fat tabby cat" like the one her parents own.
The staff cleans what appears to be cat hair off the runner that leads from the door to the receptionist's table every day.
"I was hoping to have a person hanging out with me," Ennis says of the ghostly presence. "I have a cat."
Receptionist Susan Dykes explains to puzzled customers, "You heard our ghost cat."
The fifth "Ghosts of the Patapsco Female Institute" walking tour will be from 6: 30 p.m. to 8: 30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Oct. 29 and 30.
Visitors are invited to come in costume and should bring a flashlight.
The tour begins at the Mount Ida Visitor Center, 3691 Sarah's Lane, Ellicott City. The cost is $4.
Proceeds will go to the institute's educational projects.
The Friends of Patapsco Female Institute will sponsor a Haunted Hills 5K Road Race and a two-mile Fun Run/Walk in the historic district of Ellicott City. The events will begin at 8: 30 a.m. Oct. 31 at the Patapsco Female Institute Park.
Haunted house, hayride
The Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks and the Elkridge Adult Athletic Association will sponsor a haunted house and hayride at Rockburn Branch Park in Elkridge. The scary stuff will take place from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fridayand Oct. 29, and from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Oct. 30.
The cost is $6.
Hayride for children ages 2 to 7 will be from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday and Oct. 31. The cost is $3.
Registration is not required. Information: 410-313-4721.
"We don't do spooky," said Cheryl Nodar, manager of Cider Mill Farm in Elkridge.
Instead, Cider Mill focuses on a harvest theme. Its grounds are decorated with cornstalks and Indian corn.
Community groups often come to the farm on Friday and Saturday nights and tell stories around a campfire, Nodar says.
Recently, 240 13-year-old Girl Scouts enjoyed an evening of square dancing.
For Halloween weekend, costume contests are planned and professional cloggers will perform.
Cider Mill is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week. Information: 410-788-9595.
Pub Date: 10/18/99