This is an extended version of our interview with Amelia Cotter that we featured in the May 2010 issue of the Legends and Lore of Illinois. Download the entire issue by clicking here.
Amelia Cotter is a writer, author, and translator. Her works range from the novella, “This House: The True Story of a Girl and a Ghost” to a children’s series, “The Adventures of Oskar and Atticus.” She loves animals and lives with her dog, Oskar, and her snake, Atticus in Chicago, Illinois. Her hometown is Bel Air, Maryland. www.thishousebook.net
The subtitle of your book is “The True Story of a Girl and a Ghost”; is it based on your own personal experiences?
Yes, “This House” is based on my adventures in an abandoned haunted house when I was a child. The main character, Nora, is a teenager in the book, because in many ways this is more accessible and easier to handle for readers than the musings of a little girl who, in a way, becomes infatuated with an adult male ghost. I was 11 at the time most of this occured. The house, known as “Walter’s House” and named for the ghost who allegedly haunted it, was part of My Lady’s Manor in Baltimore County, Maryland, a large plot of land founded in 1713 by Charles Calvert, the Third Lord Baltimore, for his wife.
The property is very interesting because it spans many acres, but there was a row of abandoned houses, an occupied house, and a busy restaurant (the Manor Tavern) that all stood in a line close to the road. A virtual playground for a young ghost hunter. My dad worked at the Manor Tavern and my mom would supervise as I explored Walter’s House. It was mostly safe. Mostly.
Do you feel there is a cultural difference between the way Chicagoans view ghost stories/haunted places vs. people in your home town in Maryland?
This is an interesting question. There are some primary differences between what I’ll call ghost lore here and ghost lore back home in Maryland. One major difference is that haunted places in Maryland are often much older than haunted places here, sometimes by hundreds of years. Yet in Maryland there is not as much Native American influence or legend to go with a lot of the stories. This is not always true–Harford County is steeped in Native American ghost lore–but is just a general observation.
In Maryland, you also get a lot of slave lore, especially in the southern part of the state, and a vast number of Civil War sites and ghost stories. In Illinois there seems to be a pattern of gangster tales, ghost stories involving foreigners and immigrants, and lots of “monster” sightings,, i.e. Bigfoot. The other major difference is that a number of infamous urban legends originated in the Chicago area or Illinois in general, and visiting many of the haunted sites here, like Bachelor’s Grove or Resurrection Cemetery, is for a ghost hunter as good as meeting your favorite celebrity. At home, you’ve got tons of exciting history and ghost stories, but many of the most famous haunted places are known simply by word of mouth, over internet forums, and local legend. You get a lot of real gems that way.
As for the difference in attitude or approach, as I said, most everyone in Illinois knows the stories, but in Maryland there are a lot of well-kept secrets. People cherish their midnight adventures just as much in both places, and I find both states equally fascinating.
What would you say was the most defining experience for Nora in the way she looked at the paranormal?
Nora grapples with the idea that this ghost, Walter, has reached out to her, but she doesn’t know what he wants from her. She isn’t sure if she should, or can, help him, or what it is about her that has opened this door to their communication (mostly via photographs, EVPs, and a series of vivid dreams and visions). There are many implications on both an ethical and a metaphysical level that make this an uncomfortable situation. Yet Walter never tries to hurt her and certain coincidences make it seem almost like their meeting was predestined, but for an unknown purpose. Walter even appears in her, well, my life years and years later. Nora also goes back and forth, at first, wondering how much of what she is experiencing is fantasy and how much is real.
When she finally encounters the ghost in full form, her notions about who he might have been, when he lived, and her romantic attitude about it come screeching to a halt as she processes that although he is human, he is very DEAD. Funny, because many ghost hunters start the other way around–yes, the ghosts are dead, but it’s easy to forget that they’re also very human.
You have had a lot of positive reactions to your book; what about it do you think readers identify with the most?
This book really serves a two-fold purpose; as a chronicle of extraordinary paranormal events, and as a tale of the heartbreak of first love. It is very rare in the world of the paranormal that an intelligent haunting could communicate with a person on such a level, and so anyone, adult or young adult, who takes interest in paranormal research or ghost stories would find this book intriguing. At the same time, Nora is a 15-year old with a vivid imagination, and she inevitably develops romantic feelings for both the house and the ghost–not in a cheesy or sexual way–but she really grows to love them and this is an integral part of the story. In many ways, Walter and his house symbolize the mystery of love and the almost unattainable adventure that always lies just around the corner as a young person struggles to grow up. I also think that it’s often hard for people to admit that there is a romantic aspect to ghosts.
Yes, I know there is a whole world of ghost erotica out there, but this book does not go down that road. It is, however, very raw and honest, and people might see their own child- or teenagehoods reflected in the characters and events. Even in such an unconventional context.
Why do you think Chicago is such a “haunted city”?
Chicago is such a haunted city because it’s like a sandwich, a really big fat sandwich that you can barely fit your mouth around. You have layer upon layer of people from all over the world, technological advancement, poverty, crimes and tragedies, political triumphs and failures, tourism, the coming and going of daily life, and battles between man and nature, land vs. lake, all in this one relatively small space. You have a very intense history in a short period of time, along with drastic physical change to the landscape of the area.
I feel like the energies that swirl and collide here are very charged. It makes sense for this city to rank high on the list of haunted cities. Chicago has presented me with a wealth of opportunities to expand my knowledge and understanding of the paranormal, and aside from my old friend Walter, I really have a lot of ghosts here to thank for it.
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