Ghost-Guided Tours Explore Connecticut River Folklore
Connecticut River Museum Executive Director Christopher Dobbs steps into the role of ghostly guide, waiting to take visitors on a tour of the Connecticut River’s best haunted tales via Haunted River: Ghostly Tales and Valley Lore. (Photo courtesy of Chris Dobbs)
Everyone has heard there might be ghosts along the Connecticut River, or heard tales of grisly murders and odd deaths and hauntings. These pieces of legend and local lore are part of what makes the particular culture of the Connecticut shoreline.
But what if the ghosts and spirits could be brought out of the shadows of speculation to tell their own tales? On Friday and Saturday, Oct. 28 and 29, visitors to the Connecticut River Museum will be able to witness just that.
Haunted River: Ghostly Tales and Valley Lore is a pilot theatrical production written and produced by the Connecticut River Museum and Flock Theatre, a theater company based out of New London.
Simultaneously a guided tour and an interactive performance, attendees will be guided through historical buildings—and back in time—to hear five scenes worth of stories that highlight not only the folklore that exists on the Connecticut River, but also explore the history of the community at different points in time. The show draws on the research conducted by resident folklorist Dr. Stephen Olbryss Gencarella, a professor of folklore at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
The inspiration for the production came from the museum’s Executive Director Chris Dobbs’s 20 year experience at different museums. Familiar with the structure and the success of both the Lantern Light Tours at Mystic Seaport and the West Hartford Hauntings produced by the Noah Webster House, he saw an opportunity to offer a new experience focused on the history of the river and its communities in an interactive way.
“It really immerses people in history and cultures,” said Dobbs. “Theater can bring the past to life, allowing us to explore and experience different things. We thought, ‘This is an opportunity to really bring these stories to life and share them with our visitors.’”
Haunted River grew out of a larger research project, “Myths and Legends of the Connecticut River Valley,” the now-three year old brainchild of Dobbs and Curator Amy Trout. This project conceptually explores the entire length and watershed of the Connecticut River, extending into parts of Maine and Canada.
“A lot of big rivers—the Hudson River, the Mississippi River—they have these books written about their folklore. The Connecticut River is missing that,” said Dobbs. “So here was an opportunity to do research and collect original stories. We were lucky early on to find Stephen Gencarella, who has donated his services to really explore all of the ins and outs of the copious amounts of stories that exist in this area.
“A lot of these stories have volatile parts, culturally insensitive parts, but also culturally important parts about how do you pull people together, how do you create a common culture,” continued Dobbs, “and there is a lot to be said about that. Rivers are great places to witness that.”
Gencarella also noted the importance of examining folklore when it comes to understanding how communities develop and create identities over time, saying, “We can’t have a full history without examining folklore. It calls awareness to the fact that both good and bad occurred, and makes us more responsible to the history, and to the future.”
When Gencarella came on board to the “Myths and Legends” project, he was already tentatively considering his own project based on a similar idea, and has found the project very satisfying.
“It’s a chance to look at what people think is well-known, and dive in much deeper,” said Gencarella. “The tourist market and contemporary impressions complicate things, and only give us one version of the stories. I’ve uncovered some interesting things, and some ugly things, but we’re getting a closer look at a lore that has been buried for hundreds of years.
“There are all sorts of figures—ghosts, vampires, witches,” continued Gencarella. “There are many interesting individuals, some fascinating, some fantastical, a real cast of eccentrics.”
Dobbs hopes that eventually these stories, and the fruits of the research project, can be incorporated into a traveling exhibit, school programming, online resources, and, eventually, a book. The research project thus far can be explored at www.ctrivermythsandlegends.org.
The 50- to 60-minute show is staged by volunteers from across the Connecticut shoreline, with the exception of Flock Theatre and professional musicians, who are commissioned participants. Volunteers range from 11 to 80 years old. The content for the Halloween-themed show, and the corresponding exhibit, focuses on the stories that feature historic and supernatural “powers of darkness,” though there are many different kinds of stories unearthed by the larger research project.
The theatrical tours run from 6 to 8:40 p.m., leaving every 20 minutes from the Lay House, located next to the museum at 57 Main Street, Essex. Tickets are $13 for adults and $9 for children, and can be purchased online at www.ctrivermuseum.org, by calling 860-767-8269, or by visiting the museum’s front desk. CT Humanities is also a sponsor of the event.