April 18, 2006

The ghouls of downtown: Mr. Ghost Walker introduces spectators to specters at his weekly storytelling walks

by Jonathan Frank Four years ago, when Robert Parker began leading his walking ghost tours of downtown Louisville as “Mr. Ghost Walker,” the experience took on an eerie ambiance not only because of his creepy stories and useful hand gestures, but also because Fourth Street — the corridor where the walk begins and ends — was a ghost town itself.“This is a dismal failure,” Parker said to himself on the first-ever ghost walk, which took place on a Wednesday with more Corn Island Storytelling Festival volunteers than walkers. However, like the stories he tells, Parker’s endeavor has stood the test of time (four years is a decent clip by today’s ADHD standards), and now the tales about the spirits that haunt downtown Louisville can be heard amidst the backdrop of a buzzing nightlife around the Palace Theatre, the neon blitz of Fourth Street Live and the reverberating bass of custom Caddies and Chevelles on Broadway.“This is pretty entertaining,” noted a couple from New Albany who were taking their first ghost walk. According to Parker, his walk is modeled on similar tours in historic cities like Savannah and Charleston — places with a history of booziness and decadence that lend themselves to good tales in the first place.For the Louisville walk, Parker regales his audience with stories about local legends such as J. Graham Brown and Dr. John Brennan, while also spinning some lesser-known history into each yarn. I was intrigued by the ghost of a diabetic woman whose presence can always be perceived by the stray scent of White Castles and Pizza Hut (which, as LEO photographer Marty Pearl pointed out, was “probably what gave her diabetes in the first place.”). Not surprisingly, many of the legends consist of bag ladies and drunks who’ve been wronged somewhere in their physical lives and have stuck around via the spirit world to “mostly play harmless jokes and pranks,” according to Parker. Other narratives describe dedicated spirits who are simply sticking around to carry out a task they usually performed while alive. I’d enjoy going into more detail, but if I did, Mr. Ghost Walker might turn me into a ghost.The tour itself lasts only about an hour and a half. Parker is steadfast in his efforts to sustain a mood through the inflections of his voice or with photographic aides, but I admit I was distracted at times. However, I attribute that to my own misgivings about ghosts. Just as Parker says, “stories are always better when people can say, ‘This is what happened to me,’” I’ve never had any run-ins with ghosts. Or if I have, I’ve dispelled them as mere fancy.However, for those like Peter Naake and his wife Rebecca Gallion of Crescent Hill, whose home is haunted by ghosts that tend to misplace shoes and get into the liquor cabinet, the tour carried a depth and meaning that, like anything else, can only be fully realized through a shared understanding. “ put the stories in the context of what I’d heard,” says Naake, to which Gallion adds, “He really made it come alive.” For his part, Parker remained skeptical of ghosts until a visit to New Albany’s Culbertson Mansion in the fall of 2004. Again, I won’t bastardize his story by trying to retell it myself, but it ends with him feeling drained of all energy (think Whoopi Goldberg in “Ghost”) and being an unwavering believer.If you think you might have been in the presence of a spirit, Mr. Ghost Walker offers these tips: ghosts are often accompanied by a sudden drop in temperature or a weird noise; ghosts can make batteries go dead, usually a cell phone’s or camera’s, but they can even drain a car’s battery; and specters can leave physical evidence, so don’t be so quick to blame the wind for a curtain moving or confuse someone else’s footprints for your own.Despite my inability to suspend disbelief for long, it’s Parker’s storytelling that is the real treat of the tour — the meat and bones that make it worthwhile. These days, oral histories tend to be embodied in some sort of electronic device, so it’s a wonderful throwback to hear ghost stories straight from the mouth of Parker, or to hear tall tales and “Jack” stories from other Corn Island Storytellers like Bob Thompson and Cynthia Changaris.Last Friday, Fourth Street was abuzz with all manner of nightlife, but it was Mr. Ghost Walker who held the floor. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com