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Learning to tell the tale

The Baltimore Sun

There's more to a good ghost story than its words.

The dozen people in Havre de Grace who have signed on to give tours and tell stories about the quaint, historic town have learned that it's all about the presentation.

"You have to be able to grab the audience's attention, hold it, and then deliver the punch line," said Bill Price, 53, who directs the rehearsals for the novice storytellers. "You have to paint a good story and paint a good picture."

In preparation for the Havre de Grace Haunted History and Ghost Tours, which started this weekend, people of all ages and walks of life met with Price to learn the fine points of storytelling.

During each two-hour rehearsal, the novice storytellers met at the parish hall of a local church where they learned how to build suspense, evoke good responses, embellish stories and select a costume.

So what kind of person does it take to tell a good tale?

Well, in this case the storytelling cast includes a sales manager, a drama teacher, an activities director for a senior center, a father and daughter, and two brothers.

Recently, some of this year's cast members shared their experiences on how they learned to spin yarns about local haunts.

Jocelyn Mearkle joined the group because she was looking for an evening activity, and the tours involve the history of her hometown. A member of the Silver family, one of Havre de Grace's oldest families, she said she felt she had something to add to the tour.

"I've spent 24 years acting and telling stories every day," said Mearkle, 49, who works as the activity director of the Citizens Care Center in Havre de Grace. "My family has been here longer than almost anyone else, so I know a lot of the history of the area."

However, telling stories in the senior center to make the patients laugh is different than telling stories on the street, she said.

"People see you out walking around with a group of people and they look at you like you have three heads," said Mearkle, who wears a black dress and a cape that comes with an over-sized hood and a bottom that is 180 inches around. "But I like being able to put the stories in my own words, they fall off your tongue easier. And I love dressing up in old costumes. It's fun."

Kenneth Unruh signed on to be a storyteller because he wanted to do something with his daughter, Lisa Ryan. At 68, Unruh, a retired government employee, gets a kick out of telling people the stories about things that happened when he was growing up, he said.

"I tell stories by personalizing them," Unruh said. "I like telling people the story of the woman who poisoned her family..."

Unruh said he grew up reading old horror stories. He even wrote some scary stories of his own.

"These stories are just fairy tales," he said. "I try to turn them into something else. I was born the day before Halloween, so I've always been interested in scary things."

Gay Lynn Price, 60, who earns a living as the drama teacher at C. Milton Wright High School, signed on to help because her husband, Bill Price, was doing it, and because it seemed a perfect fit, she said.

"I know that to tell a good story of any kind, you have to be animated," she said. "And you can't be self-conscious."

She has also implemented personal experiences into her storytelling.

"I tell stories and then tell people that I know the story is true because it happened to me," said Price, who wears a black velvet skirt and top, a cape and a hat. "My birthday is on Halloween, and I had a lot of costume parties and told a lot of ghost stories."

Sometimes even people on the street contribute stories, Bill Price said.

One evening at the conclusion of a tour last year, a man pulled up and asked Price what he was doing. Price told him that he was giving a ghost tour, and the man asked if they wanted to hear his story.

They agreed and the man told his story, Price said.

The man and his sister grew up in a house in Havre de Grace where they had bad dreams about an evil man who came up the stairs bouncing a ball. Their mother heard them screaming and came up to their room, and saw a ball bouncing down the steps. When she approached the ball, it moved by itself, and the cabinets started rattling, he said.

Then later, his mother, who worked as a counselor in the middle school, had another woman tell her that her children were having bad dreams. She asked what the dreams were about, and the woman, who was living in his old house, told his mother the exact same story, Price said.

Price added the story to his repertoire, along with stories about the moaning lockhouse bridge, an incident on the third floor of the American Legion, a blender that starts itself, sightings of apparitions, and bodies floating in the water at the local water treatment plant.

During the rehearsals, Price allows the storytellers to use their own style, but gives them hints on how to emphasize what's important in the story, he said.

"I tell them when they have places in a story to use their surroundings, they should emphasize it," he said. "When a storyteller is telling a story and there is a part where something happens by a window, I tell them to point to a window in the house. It adds to the suspense of the story."

The biggest problem he sees when he works with new storytellers is that they tend to read the stories from the script, rather than telling them.

This year, two brothers, Ben and Andy Sepulveda, are giving tours together, he said. When he asked one of the brothers to tell a story, he read it verbatim, Price said.

"I told the brothers they needed to have one act serious and one act as a comedian, and play off one another," he said.

Perhaps the thing that makes the haunted tales the most appealing is that they are all based on real-life accounts, Price said.

"These stories are real," he said. "They really happened to someone. Many of them are oddities that come from newspaper headlines."

The Havre de Grace Haunted History and Ghost Tours will be held on Oct. 17, 18, 25, 26, and 31 and Nov. 1, at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Reservations are required. The tours last 1.5 hours, and cost $12 per person. For information or to order tickets, call 410-939-1811.

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