Athens historian and film producer Ray Abraham knows the difference, maybe all too well after viewing the much-heralded "The Scariest Places on Earth" program on the Fox Family Channel on Monday. The mini-series' first segment featured "haunted Athens," and exaggerated, and in some cases, fabricated ghostly tales about Athens, according to Abraham.
The segment featured a group of students investigating the Ridges and a dorm room in OU's Wilson Hall, and attempted to link a bizarre tale from the Ridges (which is based on a true incident) with a female student's suicide in OU's Wilson Hall (which apparently never happened).
R. J. (Ray) Abraham was featured briefly on the program, and has created a documentary about the Fox crew's visit. Abraham came highly recommended to planners of the program as an authority on local legends and hauntings. He is the developer and instructor of "Haunted Athens," a course that has been offered yearly as a community education program by OU.
Abraham also directs the Athens Access 23 series "As Time Goes By." An installment of the show, "As Time Goes By: The Asylum Grounds," airs on Access 23 this week -- today at 4 p.m., Friday at 3:30 p.m., and Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
ABRAHAM WASN'T HAPPY with how the Athens segment on "The Scariest Places on Earth" turned out. After only a few moments of watching, he began to grow displeased. Toward the end of the 12-minute segment, the phone rang. The caller was Athens native Marcia Rose, whose grandfather, Dr. C. H. Creed, was superintendent at the mental asylum on the Ridges from 1932 until his death in 1955.
Rose had called to speak with Abraham about her objections to the Fox Family Channel's depiction of the Ridges. Rose and Abraham frequented the asylum grounds when they were young, to experience the peaceful setting and visit with Athens community members and patients.
"It was just a gorgeous, gorgeous place," recalled Rose.
At that time, the grounds of the asylum extended down to the present site of West Green. Abraham described "beautiful orchards" that stood where the river now flows between the campus and the Ridges. The asylum grounds also had four lakes, and in their youth Rose and Abraham would go there to skate and sled during the winter.
"I'm disappointed in the way the hospital was portrayed," said Rose. "I think a lot was embellished for the story line. There's a stigma attached to the place because it was a mental hospital, and I think wrongly."
The Fox segment included a black and white photograph of a woman, which they implied was an image of Margaret Schilling, a patient who died in the hospital after wandering into a closed wing in 1979.
Rose, who was working at the hospital at the time, was offended. "I don't know where they got that picture they used to represent (Margaret Schilling)," she said. "It wasn't even from the right time period."
"(The picture) looked like it was from the Victorian Era," added Abraham, who also took issue with Fox's representation of the Ridges and Wilson Hall. "A lot of (the patients) weren't crazy," he said. "The people who were crazy were the ones who had them committed; you see, you got 50 dollars if you could get someone committed."
Part of the segment dealt with a room in Wilson Hall, which was once a dorm room and has since been changed into a storage area. The tour guide on the Fox program described OU's efforts to stop blood from oozing through multiple coats of paint, after a female student committed suicide in Wilson Hall, following her visit to the room at the old asylum where Schilling died. This part of the segment apparently was fabricated from thin air.
Abraham doesn't recall any violent deaths ever occurring in Wilson Hall, and certainly not since 1979 when Schilling died. A male student may have died of natural causes in the dorms one time, but that's about it, according to Abraham.
Abraham watched the program as the inspection of the room commenced. Inside this storeroom, the door of which is allegedly adorned with a "demonic figure" (a collection of swirling wood-grain patterns that resemble a face), a young woman on the tour screamed as a cooling fan turned on. The handheld camera jumped erratically, a la "Blair Witch Project," emphasizing the sudden sound. "Of course," Abraham said, frowning. "They have to use the special effects."
ABRAHAM SAID HE HAS always loved ghosts and ghost stories, "ever since I was in the first grade." He has collected stories, documents and photographs about many persons and places in Athens. Not all are ghost stories, as Abraham has a genuine love for the history of his town. He lives in the oldest house in Athens, built in 1806.
Abraham's stories differ from the sort of tale presented by the Fox Family Channel, in that Abraham's stories lack the sensationalistic detail and carry a ring of truth. "My stories are not meant to scare people," Abraham said. "I'm more into the folklore aspect of it." He said he intends to write a letter citing his objections to the program to the Fox Family Channel.
Abraham has gained his information through his intimate life-long relationship with Athens and its residents.
For instance, Abraham has collected photos and information about actor Paul Newman, who attended OU until he was kicked off the football team for rolling a beer keg down Jefferson Hill. After that, he left school and joined the Navy, Abraham said.
During his time at OU, Newman dated a young woman named Isabel Brown, daughter of Millie Brown. Brown and her daughter lived at the top of Jeff Hill, in what is now known as Brown House. Millie Brown was one of the richest women in town, having made her money through oil. "Millie always wore only brown, tan or beige in the summer time," said Abraham, "with a little mink stole sometimes on cool nights, and in the winter, all black," Millie Brown was well liked in town, recalled Abraham, who was a child at the time.
Abraham said that Newman was one of the students Millie Brown really liked, and was one of the few she allowed to use her swimming pool. Brown was careful with her pool, he said, and would not allow children to play in it. Abraham's memories of Newman during the actor's campus days were of him playing "boogie-woogie" on the piano at a Christmas party.
One summer many years later, Abraham was in New York and saw Newman in a play. Abraham wanted to meet him, but the actor sped off on a motorcycle after the show. However, "I stopped at a deli in the Bronx," he recalled. "And I'll be damned, he was in there."
The two talked of Athens and OU, and Newman wanted to know how Millie Brown was and about his favorite restaurants. Abraham had to tell him that Millie Brown had passed away.
A few years later, Newman came to Athens campaigning for a politician, and spoke at Memorial Auditorium. Abraham went to Mem Aud to see him. They met and spoke. Here's how Abraham remembers the conversation:
"I thought you told me Millie died," said Newman.
"She did," Abraham replied.
"No, when they were bringing me past her house, she came to the door, and she waved at me," Newman said.
Isabel Dautel, Millie's daughter, upon hearing the story told Abraham that she would love it if he shared this story with others, because she felt that her mother's spirit still lived in the house atop Jeff Hill.
Ten years ago, Abraham said, one of the secretaries working at the Brown House went back to do some work one night, and took her 12-year-old daughter with her. After some time, she realized that her daughter had wandered off, and began calling for her, searching the house. Finally she found the girl and asked where she had been.
"Mommy, mommy," Abraham said the girl answered. "The nicest woman took me all through this place and, oh mom, she was beautiful. She showed me where this beautiful baby grand piano is..."
The secretary was upset at first, according to Abraham, because she had locked the door when they had come in, and no one else was in the building. Later she tracked down a photograph of Millie Brown, and found a match for the description her daughter had given of the beautiful woman.
Isabel Dautel now owns Millie Brown's piano.