Human beings are more than just ambulatory bags of meat. We are ambulatory bags of meat with stories to tell. In fact, deep down, that’s what’s really separates us from other mammals. No matter our language or technology, we transmit wisdom through stories.
That’s evident in the oral tradition of early humans. The mythology of ancient Greeks was just another kind of story. Indigenous Americans transmit vast cultural understanding through stories. And we still do, if we’re being honest.
Every time we gather with family we tell the stories of our shared past. Grandma dropped the pot roast. Grandpa set the garage on fire. Cousin Billy climbed the water tower.
When we meet up with old friends we invariably return to old times. We mesh our memories together to test the accuracy of our recollections. If we’re lucky we collect enough detail to reassemble the past. More often our stories become something different than reality, perhaps even better than reality.
And that gets at something else, something both amazing and disturbing. We respond to stories even when they’re not true. Our memories can be molded like clay. The cause of some major event can be attributed to anything, so long as it feels true. And this has always been so.
No more is this more true than when we speak of horrors, the stories that serve as warnings and cautionary tales. This came to mind as I conversed with a local filmmaker about his upcoming project.
Northern Minnesota director Keith Hopkins spent last year developing “Gravedigger Dave’s Halfway House,” a quirky blend of documentary filmmaking and narrative storytelling. It explores paranormal tales, spooky stories and local legends, all filmed in short snippets featuring locations all over the Northland. Some sites include the Duluth Depot, the William A. Irvin ore ship, and the Ely Steakhouse.
“I’ve always loved short ghost stories, especially as told by my dad around the campfire when I was a kid,” said Hopkins. “This informed my approach to the film a great deal. The movie is a bit like listening to a series of spooky stories around the fire, and that was very deliberate.”
The movie also includes a vignette set in the ghostly environs of North Hibbing. At the Gene Nicolelli Bus Origin Center we experience the eerie story of a ghost seen both inside and outside the museum.
In the dead of winter, Hibbing police officers report seeing a young girl in a dress walking near the museum with no coat. But when the approach, she disappears. Paranormal researchers detect something similar inside the museum.
If you’ve ever been to the Greyhound Bus Museum you know that it can be pretty spooky in broad daylight. It’s almost certainly due to the mannequins dressed in period costumes. Their dead plaster eyes stare through you, out the door and directly into space.
But is the story true?
The twist of “Gravedigger Dave’s Halfway House” is that some of the stories are true while others are fictionalized. So the audience is not only drawn into this series of fantastical tales, but must also consider whether or not they’re real.
“The underlying message of the film is that ghost stories are important to our history and our culture,” said Hopkins. “Whether or not a particular story can be proven to be true is almost irrelevant.”
Here we must consider how much value people place on stories; sometimes they mean more than facts. In this we see how political and cultural messages can take hold even when they’re divorced from reality. The only way to defeat a story is with a better story, one that at least rhymes with reality.
“Gravedigger Dave’s Halfway House” will premiere on March 1 at the Zeitgeist Zinema theater at 222 E. Superior St. in downtown Duluth. You’ll be able to stream it on Amazon after that date.
Aaron J. Brown is a Northern Minnesota author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com. He’s working on a book about Victor Power and early 1900s Hibbing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.