Stanly County author Sara Pitzer has penned more than a dozen books, mostly dealing with travel and/or food. She spent last year and part of 2013 writing “Haunted Charleston: Scary Sites, Eerie Encounters, and Tall Tales,” which was published this summer ($14.95, Globe Pequot Press).
The weeks before Halloween seemed like a good time to interview her.
Q. Many books have been written about supernatural places and events in Charleston; how is yours different?
A. As far as I know, nobody else has incorporated the Gullah stories into a Charleston ghost book. There’s a 1946 book called “Doctor to the Dead,” which was a lot of old African-American stories collected by a man named John Bennett who went around and talked to people who remembered stories. More recently there’s Roger Pinckney’s “Blue Roots: An African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People,” published in 2000. Pinckney is a South Carolina native who pretty much devoted his life to learning the story of the Sea Islands.
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The Gullah tales are important – they’re black people’s stories in what had been a hugely white-oriented community.
And the Internet is making a huge difference. People used to get stories from oral culture or from books, and retold them. Now in Charleston, people go and stay at places that are advertised to have ghosts – or reputedly have them – just for that experience. …
Q. Why is Charleston such an active place for spooky stories?
A. It’s not the only city with that kind of reputation. But ghosts seem to be where bad things have happened, and lord knows, a lot of bad things have happened there that go back to its settling, the slave trade, the Civil War …
Some of the tour guides in Charleston use this line there: “What do you have to have to have ghosts?” The answer is, “Dead people.” I would add, “Most of the time, they had to die in some bad way.”
The very age of the city may have something to do with this: There’s more time for more things to have happened.
Q. How did you select the stories you retell?
A. I wanted a storytelling approach.
My two favorites are Gullah legends: “Don’t Let the Boo Hag Ride Ya” and Jimmy Beats the Plat-Eye.”
I like them because they use two standard Southern concepts. The boo hag is a creature that looks like a pretty girl but isn’t ... when she leaves her skin. The plat-eye is a shape shifter.
Q. The places you’ve visited in Charleston with the spookiest vibe?
A. I’d say the Old City Jail and the Provost Dungeon. Horrible things went on there; slaves died and so did Patriot prisoners during the Revolution. The conditions were inhumane. Even some of the professional tour guides don’t like going through these two places.
Q. If you had time for one Charleston haunted site, what would it be?
A. The half-head cadet, at the Embassy Suites on Meeting Street, for two reasons: It’s an absolutely gruesome ghost with only half a head – the top half is gone. Also, some very reliable people have had very frightening experiences with it.
In some stories, the ghost gets into the bed of a female hotel guest. In other cases, it just materializes and scares the hell out of the guest.
This is a building that goes back to 1829; it served various military purposes before opening in 1843 as the South Carolina Military College – the Citadel. There were probably suicides and hazings of new cadets who weren’t liked.
When The Citadel moved in 1992, the old building was restored and renovated as the Embassy Suites. The hotel staff has had so many ghostly experiences.
Q. You retell 25 tales in your book. How long would it take to see them all?
A. To do it properly, on your own, it would take weeks.
Q. The book has a list of tips. Which are most important?
A. Don’t go alone, and tell people where you’re going before you go. Here’s why: Some people have experiences that are scary. Another reason: You never know if you’ll get arrested for some kind of trespassing. You might run that risk if you’re looking at graveyards at night.
And take your cellphone. If something happens in the dark – maybe break a leg in a fall – you may need help. Have everybody take a cellphone. Places that are haunted are said to frequently drain batteries of devices, but I don’t know why.
Q. Did this happen to you?
A. Oh, no. I don’t go to those places after dark. I’m not crazy.