By James Dungeon
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Karen Murphy, director and playwright of Prescott Ghost Talk. See schedule for event details.]
What exactly is Ghost Talk?
Ghost Talk is basically the reenactment of historic ghostly folklore. A lot of them are based on true stories; some of them are based on legends; and others are based on urban legends. About 80 percent of it’s covered in newspapers or historically factual in some way. Each vignette is different. One might be done like a musical, one might include movement or dance, and there’s some traditional storytelling like a Shakespearian play or melodrama or cowboy poetry. We want to stress that we have a new and different show every year. There are people who like to come every year, so we try new approaches to old stories and add brand new ones, as well.
What’s the history of the event in Prescott?
This is our ninth year. Ghost Talk originally started as Ghost Walk at Sharlot Hall Museum but was still a fundraiser for West Yavapai Guidance Clinic. You walked to different houses on the museum grounds and saw the performances that way. Groups of people were lead around and heard ghosts tell their stories at bushes or buildings. So, anyway, nine years ago Sharlot Hall couldn’t be the venue any more, and West Yavapai Guidance Clinic teamed up with the Prescott Center for the Arts to keep it going. Because of the different venue, it became a more theatrical event that uses lighting and sound in different ways.
That’s quite a transition, in terms of specs for the show.
The hardest thing was figuring out how to take an outside event and turn it into an inside event. I remember at the time, debating about how we’d do it. We decided on a haunted theater, you know, like a haunted house, where ushers brought people to different places. You’re seated, not walking around, but it’s a similar idea. We bumped up the special effects, which is something you can do indoors, and that helps prop up the ghouls and ghosts.
You took on playwriting duties, as well. What was that like?
At the time, several different people had written up stories, but there were no real scripts. Different people had done different things, and nobody could track down all of it. One of the gals from West Yavapai had a list of the different ghosts that had been done through the years, so we had a list of about 10 stories to start with. I just started researching. It was a combination of books and old newspaper articles. I was just looking for something interesting, something that struck me would make a good vignette. For example, there’s “The Deep Freeze Phantasm of Iron Springs Road.” That’s Joseph Condron. It was a story in the newspaper that struck me as being kind of Shakespearian as a kind of a cautionary tale. This guy had been on Whiskey Row drinking and drove his team of horses to Walnut Grove down Iron Springs Road in the 1800s. They found him dead, frozen in a snow storm the next day. He knew the storm was coming and made bad decision after bad decision along the way. I wondered if he were able to really look back and regret his decisions, what he’d say. That’s kind of how the story took form. It has a Shakespearian, dramatic flare. That’s one we’ve done before.
How many of these performances have you written and directed?
I have probably about 35 of these vignettes at this point. They all run three or four minutes, max, and each year we do about eight to 10. We like to mix and match and include ones we haven’t done for a few years. This year we have four brand new ones. I’d like to stress again that every year it’s a completely different show. Sometimes there are different actors taking different roles, and everyone adds their own flair to the roles.
What’s the impetus for you to write more with a stable that large? And would you share a bit about the new pieces?
It’s fun for me. I’m a history buff, and I like researching things. When I see something in a newspaper that strikes my interest, it becomes something fun to follow up on. I also like tweaking and redoing stories, too. It’s fun for the actors and the crew. … One of the new ones this year is about the territorial prison down in Yuma. It was in operation for about 33 years from 1876 to 1909. That’s where all the prisoners would end up at, down in Yuma. One of the prisoners is, of course, the famous, or, rather, infamous Pearl Hart. She was a female stagecoach robber, which was quite uncommon. Out of the 3,069 prisoners housed at the prison during its operation, they only had 29 women, and she was one of them. So she kind of tells her story and there’s a “Stomp”-like rhythm piece with the prisoners. … One of the other new ones is “The Killer Call Girls of Cortez Street.” That’s fun for me, all that alliteration. There are lots of literary things that go into some of these stories. Some are in verse and some are more traditional storytelling. Anyway, this one is a rhythm piece that’s about the old saloon called The Exchange Saloon, which used to be where Gurley Street Grill is, now. It’s kind of a movement piece that tells the story of this cowboy that was abusive and wouldn’t pay up, so the girls that work at the saloon kill him. … Another one is “The Legend of the Chupacabra.” There’s the original story and then there’s the current way it’s depicted as a mangy coyote or a similar mutated creature. When you look back to the first time that name was coined, the story in Puerto Rico, it sounds like she’s describing something more alien. We take people through the whole thing, including how it’s described today, and common denominator of the name, “goat sucker,” because it supposedly attacks animals.
As a skeptic, it’s hard to take that one so seriously once you know the context of that first sighting — that she’d just seen “Species” and description is almost identical to the alien in that movie.
Right? While researching back in Native American folklore, there are some groups of people that had creatures similar to el chupacabra, too. Not that they called it that, but they had something that would shape shift then look like a dog, then look like something else. People have always had elements of it in legends and stories. And we talk about that, too, about how these stories are passed on and how they’re in cultures all around the world. They’ve since had chupacabra sightings in Russia, which is kind of funny.
And, in that way, you’re not just a storyteller but also a folklorist. That’s got to be curious seeing how these symbols and ideas pop up again and again within and across cultures.
That’s been the most interesting thing. When you go back and do research, you see how these people lived, the ways they died, and the ways they killed each other. Human nature hasn’t changed very much. Everything we think is so shocking — that the world seems so crazy now — has been going on a very long time. People did very similar things and died very similar deaths. One vignette is about someone shot in a saloon over 25 cents. Yeah, that was a lot of money back then, but it’s not enough, you’d think, to kill someone over. One of the stories we already discussed is about someone who got drunk, made a bunch of bad decisions, drove, and died. People lived and died in the same ways. It just shows you human nature. There are certain things that are part of being human and the human experience that we all share in common. That’s one of the biggest things I get out of doing “Ghost Talk.” I love that it goes with Week of the Dead and Día de los Muertos. There are a lot of ways to honor the dead, and death is part of the natural cycle of life. That idea goes so well with “Ghost Talk.”
How did all of these events get tied together?
When we got the committee together this year, we talked about how to promote this bigger and better. Several years ago we realized there were other nonprofits doing fundraisers in October, so we finally pulled our resources and marketing together and, first, it was Weekend of the Dead, but, as more things started coming together, we realized it was a whole week of events. We’ve got the Ghost Talk, a gallery show and workshops at the PCA, the event at the Smoki Museum, and the tours via the Cemetery Association. Next year it will probably have to be a Month of the Dead. We’ve joked that Prescott may be known as Arizona’s Christmas City, but there’s so much happening in the fall, and especially October, it’s Arizona’s Ghostly City, too.
The “Week of the Dead,” Oct. 20-30, is a week of events and workshops promoting the art, culture, history, and folklore of Arizona. It benefits five nonprofits: Prescott Center for the Arts Theatre, PCA Gallery, West Yavapai Guidance Clinic Foundation, Yavapai Cemetery Association, and the Smoki Museum. Find out more on their respective websites.
James Dungeon is a figment of his own imagination. And he likes cats. Contact him at JamesDungeonCats@Gmail.Com.
5 things about the … ‘Day of the Dead’ art exhibit
With Sukey Jones, exhibit lead curator at PCA Art Gallery
• This is the fourth year of the annual “Day of the Dead” PCA art gallery show.
“It started out because we wanted to support ‘Ghost Talk.’ … Some of the Prescott artists really get it and some are still learning. They interpret the iconography in their own way in a wide range of mediums. One wonderful mixed-media piece last year was the artist’s interpretation of Mictecacihuatl, the goddess, so to speak, of the Aztec’s Day of the Dead. … We even had a curator at the gallery, when we started, who didn’t want anything to do with it. She’s since read up about it and really embraced the feeling and sentiment behind it.”
• The skulls aren’t supposed to be morbid or grotesque.
“Skulls and skeletons have become a big part of it, but they’re more whimsical than scary like with Halloween. It’s a celebration of death as part of the cycle of life and a celebration of the people who’ve gone before us. … It (the imagery) draws on a pre-historic Aztec ritual. When the Spaniards came and tried to convert the people to Catholicism, they introduced All Souls’ Day, and the locals incorporated their own traditions and icons.”
• The floral imagery isn’t just because it’s pretty.
“On the actual holiday, in Mexico, there are flower vendors outside the cemetery with marigolds. The strong odor of the flowers is supposed to bring the spirits of the loved ones back. They follow the odor the same as they follow the light from traditional candles or papel picados (decorated tissue paper) blowing in the wind.”
• Art from Caborca, Prescott’s Sister City in Mexico, is part of the show, and, for some Mexican artists, this is an education in culture, too.
“It’s been delightful, the past three years, to have our Sister City involved in the show. … Northern Mexico didn’t get into Day of the Dead as much as the central and southern regions of the country. When a city was closer to the border, people were usually more into Halloween. So, in parts of Mexico, some people have been introduced to part of their own cultural heritage as Mexicans through this celebration in more recent years as the holiday’s grown in popularity. The same is also true for some Mexican-Americans in Arizona.”
• The “Sugar Skull Decorating” workshop is an all-ages event suited to several temperaments.
“We thought of it as a something for families to do, which it is, but I have to say that last year there were some adults who spent a lot of time decorating really ornate sugar skulls. … Some people give them as gifts or dedicate them to loved ones and put them on altars.”
5 things about the … ‘Historic Cemetery Walk’
With Julie Holst, chairperson of the Yavapai Cemetery Association
• This is the ninth year of the “Historic Cemetery Walk.”
“We started it as a way to raise funds for different things. We’re trying to raise money at this point to complete the fence around the cemetery. The part that’s already on the east part of the cemetery was funded through donations, membership dues, and other fundraisers. … There are six reenactors this year. We tried to get new people this year but a lot of times we have the same people who want to do it, so we try and find new stories that represent the population that Prescott had.”
• Citizen’s Cemetery was founded the same year that Prescott became the Territorial Capital.
“It was founded in 1864 and, at that time, became the very first public cemetery in the state and was the first official post-settlement cemetery in Arizona. … The PCA covers the legends and folklore of the area, as well as some the history, but these reenactments we do here are a real history lesson on the area.”
• The cemetery is owned by Yavapai County.
“Even though it’s in the city limits of Prescott, it’s owned by Yavapai County under the jurisdiction of the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors. … That’s why we’re called the Yavapai Cemetery Association. We were born in 1995 and, at the time, the cemetery was in a pretty dilapidated condition. Today the group has 100 people and a seven member council that oversees everything.”
• One of this year’s reenactors, Patrick McDougal, tells his side of his character’s murder.
“One story that’s particularly interesting and new this year is about Sheriff John M. Murphy, a deputy sheriff who died in 1885, shot by Dennis Dilda, a Walnut Creek ranch caretaker who was pretty infamous for his life and hanging on the courthouse square. Dilda was buried in an unmarked grave in the potters field. And, it’ s a little ironic because Sheriff Murphy is buried in Citizen’s Cemetery, too. I believe the whole story is in Parker Anderson’s new book, ‘Wicked Prescott.’”
• Another reenactor, Lynn McDougal, talks about family graves.
“It’s the Jones children. It’s fairly typical to find a gravestite with the names and ages of two to four children who all died fairly close together. Often it’s because of circumstances like the Spanish flu or malaria. … Mr. and Mrs. H.L. Jones lost four children over the period of nine years — three of them taken in just one month, two of those from diphtheria. … Another similar plot is for the Miller family, whom Miller Valley Road is named for, who have four children in one plot in a three or four year span. It’s a typical kind of story.”
Schedule of the (Week of the) Dead
The “Week of the Dead,” Oct. 20-30, is a week of events and workshops promoting the art, culture, history, and folklore of Arizona.
Events benefit five nonprofits: Prescott Center for the Arts Theatre, PCA Gallery, West Yavapai Guidance Clinic Foundation, Yavapai Cemetery Association, and the Smoki Museum.
“Day of the Dead” art exhibit
• Sept. 26-Oct. 30: Art show featuring Día de los Muertos-themed pieces. Artists reception is 5-7 p.m. Oct. 7 with special recognition of artists from Prescott’s Sister City of Caborca, Mexico. Exhibit open late during Oct. 21 & 22 “Ghost Talk.” (PCA Gallery, 208 N. Marina St., 928-445-3286, free admission)
• Oct. 11 & 12: A dinner-theatre-inspired evening of tapas and “Ghost Talk” teasers on the El Gato Azul patio. (El Gato Azul World Bistro, 316 W. Goodwin St., 928-445-1070, $30, RSVP)
“Tech Talk ”
• 6 p.m. Oct. 20: A technical theater workshop for local scout troops and students featuring a full dress tech rehearsal for “Ghost Talk,” a Power Point presentation, and a panel discussion. (PCA Theatre, 208 N. Marina St., 928-445-3286, $5)
• 6 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21; 6 p.m., 7:30 p.m., & 9 p.m. Oct. 22: Period costumes, creepy props, mood lighting, eerie sound effects, spooky sets, special effects, and more adorns a series of vignettes in this multi-genre ode to Arizona history and folklore. Directed by playwright Karen Murphy. (PCA Theatre, 208 N. Marina St., 928-445-3286, $12-$15)
“Historic Cemetery Walk”
• 10 a.m-1 p.m. Oct. 22: Dearly departed spirits from Arizona’s past tell their stories on this hour-long guided tour through the gravesites of Yavapai County pioneers. (Citizens Cemetery, 815 E. Sheldon St., 928-713-8807, $5-$15)
“Sugar Skull Decorating” workshop
• Noon-3 p.m. Oct. 23: Decorate a sugar skull, fun for all ages, family-friendly event, supplies provided. (PCA Gallery, 208 N. Marina St., 928-445-3286, $3 per skull)
“Glass Skull Pendant/Earrings” workshop
• 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:3o p.m., & 3 p.m. Oct. 29: Four sessions with Tucson artist Laurie Schock crafting glass skull pendants and earrings. (PCA Gallery, 208 N. Marina St., 928-759-8869, $15 pendant, $25 earrings, RSVP required)
“Día de los Muertos Celebration”
• 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Oct. 30: Experience Arizona’s Southwest and Spanish influences with mariachis, ballet folklorico, authentic foods, children’s craft booths, art, music, drinks, and a rousing cemetery procession. (Smoki Museum, 147 N. Arizona Ave., 928-445-1230, free admission)
Tags: and the Smoki Museum, Caborca, Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos, El Gato Azul, Historic Cemetery Walk, James Dungeon, Mexico, Prescott Center for the Arts Gallery, Prescott Center for the Arts Theatre, Week of the Dead, West Yavapai Guidance Clinic Foundation, Yavapai Cemetery Association