While Halloween is still several months away, Obies will be sharing ghost stories Tuesday when senior Matt Stinchcomb presents his documentary on the campus' supernatural side, Ghost Town, U.S.A.: The True Story of Oberlin's Haunted Buildings.
As a senior, Stinchcomb wanted to do one last big film project about Oberlin before he left. "I needed to go for the more sensationalist route," he said. "I was going to do this whole Gibson family scandal thing, but that didn't pan out so well."
Stinchcomb got his inspiration for an alternative plan from Unsolved Mysteries, which he admits to being a big fan of. "It's kind of the base of the film; that's kind of the way it's organized," he said. Similar to the show, "Ghost Town" is comprised of interviews and dramatic recreations under Stinchcomb's direction.
Additionally, Stinchcomb plays host with junior and co-director Seth Jacobs as a side-kick narrator named Johnny Float Face. "It's just this floating head," Stinchcomb said of the character. "When I can't come up with a clean cut into something, I'll just have a quick cut of Johnny Float Face going like, 'Wooooo!' just so the movie flows a little bit better."
While the Johnny Float Face character may add comic relief to Ghost Town on the whole, the subject matter is sincerely spooky. And with some of the tales Stinchcomb has compiled from students' personal experiences, even skeptics would agree that Oberlin has its haunts. "One story that I heard about Warner sparked my interest, so I just started asking around if people had stories," Stinchcomb said. "It turned out later that it seemed like everyone had a story, so I decided that a movie should be made."
Stinchcomb wrote the proposal and sought funding for his film last semester, as well as doing research on both the structural and biographical histories of Oberlin. He went through archives of old Oberlin newspapers to get a better feel for the history of some of the buildings, as well as the people that inhabited them. "I went through obituaries, trying to find out who might be haunting these buildings," he said.
The news of the film spread by word of mouth, so much so that Stinchcomb had to turn some stories down. In addition to focusing specifically on Warner, Tank, Johnson House and a few off-campus houses, Stinchcomb had originally planned on doing several other profiles, but decided to limit his footage after he passed the eight hour mark. He said that, in total, about 25 interviews were conducted with both students and faculty.
"By the end, I was turning people down, almost, since I had so much stuff and couldn't take on new stories," Stinchcomb said. "But there's some crazy stories. I've had some weird things happen to me while I've been filming, too."
Stinchcomb said the oddest experience he had while filming happened a month ago during a dramatic re-creation of the infamous 1899 Johnson House legend. According to newspapers of the time, Johnson had been killed in a railway accident while on the job at the large, midwestern railway corporation fo which he was head. When a telegram with news of her husband's death reached Mrs. Johnson, she went mad. In a rampage, she went back to the stable behind the couple's large house and murdered their seven horses. Then, she killed herself in the house.
Stinchcomb was alone on site at behind the house with one actress, playing Mrs. Johnson, when his strange encounter occurred.
"We were setting stuff up and all of a sudden, five or six vultures or turkey buzzards - I don't know, I'd never seen them around Oberlin before - started circling over my head." Stinchcomb had originally thought that the birds might have been circling over a dead animal in the Arb, located next to Johnson House. He decided to add the birds to the film, but he explained, "As I ran to go get the camera equipment, the vultures followed me. They were specifically circling right over my head." Even more strange, once the camera was set up, Stinchcomb looked up to find the birds vanished, even though neither he nor his companion had seen them fly away.
Several other bird-related incidents shroud Johnson House's mystery. Stinchcomb interviewed one student for his film who shared an experience she had while living there last year. The student was conducting a photo shoot in the building and left temporarily while setting up her equipment to go get something. "When she came back," Stinchcomb said, "there were two dead blackbirds in the room so she got freaked out and left." When the student returned, however, the birds had vanished.
Ten years ago, the Review reported similar incidents occuring to inhabitants of Johnson House. Daniel Crompton, a senior at the time, told of an experience he had heard of concerning two residents of the building. "[They] retuned to their room. The doors had been closed and the windows had been locked, but there was a small black bird in the room."
A short time after, Crompton experienced the same thing himself. "About three weeks later, I returned to my room," the Review reported. "The doors were locked, the windows had been closed, and once again there was a small black bird in the room."
Stinchcomb also encountered weird experiences, several of which occurred while shooting in other featured buildings in the film. He and one crew member were alone in Finney over Spring Break wrapping up a scene and had closing up for the night. "I had double checked to make sure all the lights were off and everything was locked," he said. But when the pair was driving away, Stinchcomb saw all the lights in the abandoned chapel fade up again. "It was sort of startling, so we got out of there pretty quickly," he said.
Oddly enough, that was not Stinchcomb's first supernatural experience with Finney. A previous time, the director was in the building at 1 a.m. with no one else around and was shutting off lights to close down for the night. He had turned off one lobby's lights, then the house lights and finally shut off the last lobby's lights to leave. But as he did so, he noticed that the light he had just turned off was back on again. "I went back across [to the first lobby] and shut off the light, and walked back across to leave, and the same light popped on again," he said. Stinchcomb quickly left after that.
While the cynic may blame Stinchcomb's encounters on faulty electrical outlets or possible absent-mindedness late at night, the believers can choose for themselves to attend next week's video showing. And, as the popular phrase for all the Gen-X prime-time addicts goes, the truth is out there.
The film Ghost Town, USA: The True Story of Oberlin's Haunted Buildings will be shown in Mudd 050 next Wednesday at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.
Slaughterhouse seven: The barn behind Johnson House holds the story of Mrs. Johnson's seven horses, all of whom were murdered by Johnson before she commited suicide. (photo by Laren Rusin)
Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 24, May 9, 1997
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