Ghost Tour Review: Historic Ellicott City (Pt. 1)

Pauline is a part-time, amateur, and somewhat lazy ghost hunter who sometimes also publishes a webcomic about adorable ghosts called Grim Fuzzy.

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There is something about historic Ellicott City, Maryland that makes its residents want to stick around after they die.

Corner Building EC

Cozy up to some ghosts

Walking past the granite buildings lining Main Street, it’s easy to imagine the city’s history because it feels like you’ve stepped into the past. Purchased by the Ellicott Brothers in 1772, the area was at one point rife with wheat- and tobacco-growing land and various successful mills. In 1830, a train station was built here as the original terminus of the B&O railroad — a route that would be guarded by President Lincoln’s troops during the Civil War. By the time prohibition rolled around in the 1920s, Ellicott City boasted several bars, bootleggers, and flophouses and developed quite a rowdy reputation. The small town has seen several massive, devastating floods and fires which have not only destroyed homes and businesses, but lives as well.

B and O railroad EC

Original Terminus, B&O Railroad

Needless to say, some serious shit has gone down in this town.

Maryland itself has an undeniably intriguing past, being situated somewhere between the Yankees and the Confederates of the eastern United States. And its historical significance piles up the more you look into it. Maryland is home to both the first site of bloodshed in the Civil War and Francis Scott Key, writer of the Star Spangled Banner. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. See: the internet for more info.

Old Bank EC

Once, a bank

From ocean to farm to mountain, Maryland is like a state with an identity crisis. I spent my childhood traversing its dense, historically-charged and somewhat unwelcoming woods and rivers, relishing the inherent creepiness of the trees. Have you seen The Blair Witch Project? Yeah, I’m talking about those trees. Those trees have witnessed all the sordid things that have happened on this land since the beginning of time. You know it because you can feel it.

I’ve lived in several other US states and there is no place that feels as creepy as Maryland. Main Street Ellicott City takes this spookiness to the next level and when night falls on the weekend, the ghost tours come out.

Envy EC

Someone or something lives on the third floor

Historic Ellicott City is often called “the most haunted town on the East Coast.” I didn’t know that until I moved back here earlier this year. The buildings that remain, old and beautiful in Georgian architecture, have housed tortured and not-so-tortured souls that just don’t seem to want to leave.

Paula EC

Tour Guide Paula

The Ellicott City Ghost Tour is hosted by several different people but luckily our tour guide was Paula. In her black hat, dress, and cape and wielding an old-timey lantern, Paula walked us through the streets of town in the dark, describing for us stories of ghost sightings and postulating whose bodies the ghosts once belonged to.

HIHo Silver EC

Ghost Tour, Oct 2013

She’s an incredible story-teller — theatrical with pointed,deliberate language accompanied by a distinct lack of melodrama — and her stories range from unexplained voices, apparitions, and objects being broken or disturbed by unseen hands, to kid-sized handprints on windows that seem impossible to reach. Many buildings are reportedly haunted by not one but several presences, often a mixture of male and female entities. While a few sounded potentially dangerous, many seemed to be fairly minor nuisances that could be compromised with to establish a peaceful co-habitation. That’s not to say many businesses and tenants haven’t moved out due to fear… because they have. It takes a strong stomach to live in Ellicott City.

Paula is a self-described history lover and has spent her life in the area. She seems to know everyone in town and her tales are sourced from the witnesses/victims themselves, creating an air of authenticity and timeliness.

Antique Store EC

There is an antique hearse inside that building

The most surprising piece of the tour was discovering what some of Main Street’s buildings used to house. A certain popular establishment near the bottom of the hill used to be an extensive and successful undertaking business. This business’s name is still inscribed in stone on the front of the building, and the horse-drawn hearse-carriage they used remains in a nearby antique store. HOLY CRAP.

Another building served as a leeching establishment. Yes, as in leeches. As in, “Oh you’re sick. Let us just drain all of your blood out using leeches; that’ll surely cure you.” It’s no wonder this place feels so weird!

Hotel EC

Once, a hotel

Still another building was once a hotel serving weary travelers that came into town by train. Now apartments, there have been plenty of reports of doorknobs being rattled in the night, for no apparent reason. The stories don’t end there, of course. I encourage you to take this tour yourself.

I can see why people who die in this town want to stay. It’s so quaint, being surrounded by trees, hills, and rivers, and it has more than enough historical memorabilia and people to keep any apparition from any era occupied for centuries. I left the tour wanting more and happily discovered there is a “Part Two” wherein you tour the town again, hearing a whole other set of ghostly tales of past and present inhabitants.

Staircase EC

Famously haunted staircase

As for the rest of Maryland, well, I’ll be back to tell you about the other ghost tours and haunted sites around the state. So hold on to your corsets and grab your smelling salts because dammit, I will see a ghost one of these days.


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Many thanks to Chris Judge for the photography.

Retro Review: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Ahh, The Blair Witch Project. Today was the Scholar’s birthday, and as such I got to pick a movie for us to watch, and it was this one. Huzzah. (There was also wine, so consider yourself warned.)

I can’t think of a more polarizing horror film–honestly, I’m hard-pressed to think of a more divisive American film in any genre. Love or hate, all or nothing. It scared you, or it made you puke.

I happen to think BWP is a brilliant movie, and I feel that way independently of its status as a “groundbreaking” film in the found-footage subgenre. The three characters–that’s all there are, aside from a few extras at the beginning–are sympathetic and totally believable. The events are conceptually terrifying, if not “scary” in the way cinemagoers have come to expect from horror films. It is a good movie.

If you don’t know the story (such as it is) by now, here it is in a nutshell: three student filmmakers decide to shoot a documentary dealing with a local legend in rural Maryland, near the town of Burkittsville. They meet up, interview some locals, and head into the woods to uncover the key locations in the story of the Blair Witch. Their hike goes sour, with each night bringing increasingly spooky events, until one of them disappears. The remaining filmmakers wind up in an abandoned house where their documentary comes to an abrupt and iconic end.

You can see why the Scholar is so into this: folklore, supernatural stuff, and Maryland (my home state)? What’s not to like? (Actually the whole thing is eerily similar to the real legend of Moll Dyer, a witch who supposedly haunts the woods not far from my own alma mater.) The bare-bones storyline is almost incidental: all you need to know is that there’s a witch, and the ridiculous-seeming legend the students set out to document turns out, of course, to be true.

This is interesting to me on a number of levels. First, as a film,  BWP is compact, tightly orchestrated, and truly innovative. The actors improvised most of their acting, and the effect is a famously claustrophobic, anxious mess–exactly the way I, as an undergraduate, would probably have acted in this situation. More importantly, to me, is the central role of a local legend, and the ultimate discovery that the legend is not just a silly story, but is literally true, and deadly. I’ve talked before about how folklorists generally approach the legend genre. BWP (and most horror films) take the “told-as-true” formula to its logical conclusion: it is not only a story told as true. It is true, horribly, terrifyingly true. And that is so freaking cool.

But there’s a whole extra dimension to the Blair Witch experience which, depending on your age and nerdiness-factor, you may have missed. If, like me, you were a total dork in the late 90s (in 1999 I was 17, working a crappy job at a pet store, and spending most of my time playing video games and listening to Metallica), you may have happened to see the promotional mockumentary, Curse of the Blair Witchwhich ran briefly on the SciFi Channel when the film was in theaters. This short film was what really made the Blair Witch Project for me; without it, I may have developed a totally different opinion of the film.

The premise of CotBW was quite simple: it was a Discovery or History Channel-style documentary about the “real” events of the Blair Witch Project. The theatrical release was framed as the recovered footage of the student filmmakers; CotBW was framed as a conventional documentary about the legend itself. And holy god, it was terrifying. It featured “woodcuts” depicting the titular witch, Elly Kedwards, that stand out in my mind to this day as among the creepiest of the “ancient-scribblings-depicting-scary-stuff” horror film tropes. It fleshed out the story of the witch–practically nonexistent in the theatrical release–and featured “real” film footage of the trial of Rustin Par, the child-killer from the 1940s whose MO influenced the end of the feature film. I’m not embarrassed  to admit that 17-year-old me bought it hook, line and sinker, somehow missing the little disclaimer saying it was all fictional, and really believing, for a time, that this stuff really happened (as many people did). That made it all the more fun.

Now that the found-footage/mockumentary subgenre is utterly played-out, it can be hard to revisit early entries in the genre. I know this. But BWP deserves its status, and is still good. It’s not like other “groundbreakers,” first of its kind and therefore deserving of respect, but not actually that great on closer inspection: this is a film that showcases the very human anxieties that would inevitably surface in the face of very inhuman threats. But do yourself a favor and watch Curse of the Blair Witch first. Knowing a little more, in this case, is a good thing, and will heighten the experience of the film.