http://www.dispatch.com/features-story.php?story=dispatch/2006/01/22/20060122-H1-02.html Creepy, weepy stories fill book about odd Ohio Sunday, January 22, 2006 Tim Feran THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH TOM DODGE | DISPATCH Jim Willis in a sewer drain, at Arcadia Avenue and N. High Street, from his book Who knew that the Gates of Hell stood in Clintonville? Jim Willis. Willis is one of the authors of Weird Ohio, the latest entry in a popular book series that has uncovered cursed roads, unfriendly ghosts and off-thebeaten-track oddities in states throughout the nation. The cultural mix in Ohio — part East Coast, Midwest, South, urban and rural — has stirred a veritable witch’s brew of tales. ‘‘People are surprised to learn that a lot of the stories are fairly recent," said Willis, of Hilliard. The old and new are especially present in a particular genre, he said. ‘‘I don’t know for sure, but I think Ohio has the largest percapita number of headless motorcycle ghosts." Willis became interested in bizarre phenomena while growing up in the Hudson Valley area of upstate New York — ‘‘Sleepy Hollow, basically; Rip Van Winkle country." ‘‘It was founded by the Dutch, and there were a lot of creepy abandoned windmills. My father would tell me stories, and I could see how stories mutate over time just by the different ways he would tell them." In 1999, after a move to the Columbus area, he founded Ghosts of Ohio, a paranormal research group with a Web site (www.ghostsofohio.org). With his Weird Ohio coauthors, Andrew Henderson of Columbus and Loren Coleman of New England, Willis spent about a year exploring oddities such as crop circles in the Miami Valley, a Loveland castle built by a conscientious objector and stuffed albino animals at the Allen County Museum. "It was a blast," he said. "The most exciting part is hearing a story, driving to the location and finding out that — dear Lord — it exists." Sections of the book are devoted to ghosts at Ohio colleges. "I have yet to come across a university in the United States that isn’t haunted," he said with a chuckle. At Ohio University in Athens, "Students and faculty love to throw out the term ‘the 13 thmost-haunted town in the world,’ " he said. "They’re actually misquoting something that the British Psychical Society called it (in the late 1800s) — ‘the 13 th most spiritually active town in the world.’ " Part of the reason for the title: the Ridges, a mental asylum converted into university buildings in the 1980s. One weird story from the Ridges begins with the death of an inmate and continues with the shadowy impression of her body forever stained on a concrete floor. "The urban legend is, if you touch it, the ghost will follow you," Willis said. "Well, I didn’t just touch it; I lay down on it and rolled around." No ghosts have pursued him, even when he visited the Gates of Hell. The site — also known as the Blood Bowl — is actually an ominous-looking sewer pipe in a North Side ravine. The spookiness is enhanced by the ever-changing graffiti, the voices that bounce back in the darkness and a mysterious black silhouette painted on a wall. Willis often takes a lighthearted approach to hunting ghosts. He noted with relish that he lives off Cemetery Road, "in the last house on the right." And, as a former English major with minors in communication and psychology, "I joke that I write about it, talk about it and then analyze it afterward." Every so often, though, an experience gives him pause. On a snowy day about a year ago, Willis visited Beaver Creek State Park in East Liverpool to gather information about the sad tale of Gretchen’s Lock — a long story about a daughter mourning her dead mother. He arrived with friends, walking around the abandoned locks and wandering away to a wooded area. When they returned to the locks, they saw written in the snow: "Help me. I want to be with my mother." The words mirror those repeated by the daughter, Gretchen, before her death. More than a mile from the road, the group didn’t find any footprints near the letters. "It seems kind of far to go," Willis said, "for a practical joke."