‘They want to be scared’: A Q&A with a Haunted Murfreesboro tour guide

Graphic by Abigail Potter / MTSU Sidelines 

Our managing editor Marissa Gaston sat down with MTSU Professor of Theater Jette Halladay, who not only teaches a popular storytelling class on campus, but is also a founding member of BoroTellers, a local storytelling group made up of about five people.

Before Murfreesboro had all the trappings of a bustling city — new restaurants popping up on every corner, an influx of new residents and bumper-to-bumper traffic — it was considered a small town. And while the city grows at insurmountable rates, stories of historic Murfreesboro dating back to its founding in 1817 help maintain a small town charm that’s here to stay even as the setting evolves. You could say there’s something about Murfreesboro that hints there’s more to the story.

“We just started the group because people had taken the class and wanted to do more,” said Halladay. “We all have our own lives and careers. This is just done out of love.”

Their annual Haunted Murfreesboro tours, guided walking tours that chronicle some of Murfreesboro’s spookiest stories, are set to kick off October 20. The tours, which last about an hour and course throughout historic downtown for approximately one mile, are a popular attraction this time of year.

Read below for more on the culture of storytelling for which Tennessee is known and a sneak peek at why you won’t want to miss this year’s tour.

Sidelines: Would you say Murfreesboro has a rich history?

Halladay: When you live here, you don’t think about Murfreesboro. “Oh, ugh. It’s just little Murfreesboro, there’s not much here.” But it has some incredible stories. Especially if you include Rutherford County, there’s even more stories. Then, of course, there’s all the fantastic Civil War stories. … If you start with the Civil War stories, there’s a beautiful story out in Readyville  about a ghost that saves a battalion. Then, of course, there’s the stories of Sam Davis and some of the others. One young man had his tongue ripped out because he wouldn’t tell the location of the troops, and he suffered a great deal. Dewitt Jobe, I think, was his name. Then, of course, there’s the general that was on the battlefield who was decapitated. Interestingly enough, a couple years beforehand his brother, who was a minister, basically foretold of that incident. Of course there’s the beautiful stories, too. Like I said, the ghost that saved the battalion or the brothers meeting in the battlefield or slaves saving people who are on the battlefield dying. Stones River Battle was one of the turning points of the whole Civil War because whether or not the Emancipation Proclamation was going to be released was dependent on victory. At first they thought it was a Confederate victory. The Confederate even sent back “We won,” and the next day they lost. Laughs.Then, within our own town itself, just the interesting stories! A retired professor tells about a little girl ghost that lived in her house that we talk about. She has a precious story. There’s a very famous story from Murfreesboro called “The Three Sisters in Black,” which involves demonic worship and blackmail and fraud and murder. Then, of course, there’s things like the old health center that people have said they’ve heard children’s laughter and they’ve seen dolls moving in there and things like that — I know, dolls moving are big. Aren’t they kind of scary? Oh, and then there’s the one that most people know about, the girl who swallowed a snake and it lived in her belly for a couple years.There’s the story of the Human Fly, and actually there is more than one Human Fly-type character. We’ve just found another story that we’re researching that perhaps we’ll be telling this year about that. There’s the MTSU hauntings of which there are several. Here in this building, some particular ones — some benign, others not so much. There’s just odd incidences. The last man in Tennessee to be given death by electrocution, the electric chair, was from Murfreesboro, and his trial was rather sensational as well as some of the circumstances of his crime. He committed murder. There’s some intrigue that hasn’t been solved yet about the possibility of women ended their philandering husbands’ mess-around with other women by ending the husband. There’s funny stories about the first motorcycles in Murfreesboro. There’s odd occurrences that were considered suicide when they were so obviously murder. There were sad occurrences where people — slaves particularly — were hung for crimes they didn’t commit and then later they found out some white man had committed it. Obviously, there’s tons … There’s sad instances of poverty that drove people insane resulting in deaths in their family. It’s interesting telling these stories about the yucky part. People want to hear it, they sort of want to be scared. At the same time I think there’s something precious about an afterlife or spirits. Why do spirits even hang around? Some are unresolved. If you truly believe in this stuff. Maybe some are here to help out. There’s stories about both cemeteries, but the old cemetery definitely, grave-robbing going on. Recent experiences that even we’ve had as we’ve been researching the stories. Things that we’ve experienced and went “Oh my!” because I’m a chicken at heart, I don’t want to have experiences with these haunts!

There’s always that fear whenever you’re looking into a story. Even with some of the Haunted Murfreesboro stories (Sidelines) has done, we’re all kind of creeped out a little bit. One of our editors is going on a paranormal ghost hunt tonight.

Theirs is a little different because they look at the orbs and the pictures and the energies. We have the stories that may explain what they’re seeing so, in a way, it’s good to do both tours.

Tell me a little bit about how the tours work.

Actually, we’ve changed them a little bit in the last year. We meet at Sugaree’s, which also is haunted. (We’ve got) just a little table in front of there. And then we do a walk, and it’s about a mile walk. In that walk there are some different stops where there are storytellers. Now, the guide on the walk also tells stories, but the people at the different sites also tell stories, so you get a number of different tellers. Truly, you’re never quite sure which stories you might be getting. You may go on the tour one night and come back the next night and get different stories because we’ve got so many and, you know, we get bored. Or we’ll ask our audience if there’s a particular story they want to hear. Different tour guides actually sometimes take different paths. I know I’ve got a certain path I like to take because it walks by some places I can actually mention (specifically, rather than speak generally). What’s really fun is, some of the stories we’ve gathered because people have come on the tours and said, “Let me tell you about my house.” So there’s always new stories coming in.

Wow.

Two of my students in the storytelling class told me about their homes, and they were very anxious to tell me about who was living there before they were. Laughs.

Do you have favorite stories?

Yeah, I do. I do like the MTSU stories a lot. I like the little girl ghost story because I think it’s a precious story. I enjoy the Civil War stories — of course now I’m starting to name them all! Yeah, I guess I do have some favorite ones. The MTSU stories, I think, are my favorite because they came from a young man who used to go to school and work here. Ever since the age of 5, he says he’s been seeing ghosts kind of like “Sixth Sense.” He’s been seeing them and communicating with them. I interviewed him myself about three different ones that he encountered here. He said only one of them really terrified him, it’s the scariest one in his whole life that he could remember at that point. I won’t tell you about it right now. Laughs.

Good to know!

But I encountered, actually, one of them when we were having late night rehearsals (in the BDA). I guess that’s why I’m drawn to the MTSU ones. They’re very connected both to the student who told me and to my own experiences.

Aside from the one during rehearsal, have you had experiences? Do you have any from your childhood that you remember?

No, I don’t remember having any experiences with those on the other side that I recall at all.

What are some of your favorite stories outside of Murfreesboro?

It’s hard. I’ve been on some (ghost tours) down in Florida. I’d like to go on some in New Orleans. Oh, Williamsburg — Williamsburg had a good one. There’s a lot of ghost tours through Williamsburg but there’s a lady who did it independently. She did a really good job, but most of them are just kind of factual stuff, and they’re not storytellers. We’ve made ours storytellers so that it’s not just relating factual events, but it’s actually crafting a story for entertainment as well so that the people who tell them have crafted them specifically for an audience to enjoy. Not just to walk around and get spooky facts.

And what other storytelling events do you have throughout the year?

Sometimes we’ll have something in November called (Tellabration). It’s around Thanksgiving, and it happens all over the nation. We sometimes will do Christmas ones. Oftentimes we’ll do it at Uncle Dave Macon Days, we’ll tell stories. Haunted Murfreesboro is the only real regular one, the others come and go depending on what people want us to do. Of course, Jonesboro, Tennessee, is the mecca for storytellers in the United States and actually in other countries as well.

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you want readers to know about the tour, or about the community of storytellers here?

Stories are how we make meaning out of life. Articles have been published stating that young people who know the stories of their families, their families’ stories, are more resilient, more able to get through hard times, more willing to take risks, to get through struggles. I think there’s a sense of identity that comes from knowing your family’s story. So I encourage parents and uncles and aunts to share their stories, to make storytelling a family tradition. And actually, occasionally, to put down the phones and the TV and gather with people and just start telling stories to each other.

The Haunted Murfreesboro tours will run Friday and Saturday of the last two weekends in October and depart every half hour, beginning at 7 p.m. The last tour departs at 9 p.m. The cost to participate is $5, and the proceeds fund storytelling events and workshops throughout the year. For more information, click here.

This story originally ran in MTSU Sidelines’ September 2017 print edition. For more information, contact Editor-in-Chief Brinley Hineman at editor@mtsusidelines.com.

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