Ready to get spooky this season? Writer and ghost-tour leader Stephanie Waters has come out with her fifth book, Ghosts, Legends, and Lore of the Rockies, which offers up hauntings, mysterious deaths, odd happenings and other scary secrets found throughout Colorado (and beyond).
We caught up with the ghost expert to find out more about how she collects these terrifying tales and what lured her to the world of the paranormal in the first place.
Westword:You mentioned a near-death experience launched your writing career. Can you tell us about it?
Stephanie Waters: Well, it’s a weird story and one that I’ve never publicly shared in detail. Here it goes: I got cancer. But the way I discovered that I had thyroid cancer was very strange. You see, I grew up in Colorado and had always heard the old legend about these two gigantic stone sentinels known as Trouble and Truth, which resemble huge, open-mouthed human heads, facing in opposite directions. Trouble and Truth can be found at the base of Old Man Mountain, near Estes Park, and they are talked about in the story called "Truth of Old Man Mountain."
So about ten years ago, I wasn’t feeling my very best. I went to several doctors and all were at a loss. Somehow I knew there was something more, so I hiked to those stone giants and I spilled my troubles. Truth followed after I prayed to God and begged for an answer. Then, like a bolt of lightning, I heard that I had thyroid cancer. So I told my girlfriend about my bone-chilling experience and she was spooked and insisted I give her doctor a call. Her doctor ran tests for thyroid cancer and that’s when it was found.
What made you decide to write ghost stories?
I wanted to write ghost stories to help children not be frightened. I have been seeing ghosts since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I grew up on a remote farm just east of Colorado Springs in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One fateful day I was throwing rocks at the side of our farmhouse when I suddenly became petrified with fear as the figure of a shadow man appeared. He’d crawled out from under the cellar door wearing a long coat with a derby-style hat and carrying a cane.
I was eight years old and no longer believed in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, but I knew this being was not of this world. My body was frozen with fear but my eyes followed him until he glided around the house corner. Anyway, I still feel scared when I remember. I had no point of reference to what I’d seen, and I was very, very frightened.
That night, as my dad was tucking me in bed, I asked what the Devil might look like if he was walking around on earth. Tired and irritated, my dad gave me an annoyed look. And so I asked my dad if the Devil might wear a hat and coat instead of a red jumpsuit and that maybe he also carried a cane instead of a pitchfork. And my dad, obviously not really listening, agreed. That’s when I became really frightened, knowing the Devil dwelled in the creepy cellar beneath our house. Nightmares were aplenty and wickedly awful. My parents gave little comfort.
Finally, my mother's mother told me she could see ghosts, too. She taught me not to be frightened, and she read a poem to me by Robert Louis Stevenson called "My Shadow." Not long after seeing the shadow man, we moved to a conventional cookie-cutter neighborhood in Colorado Springs, but the shadow man followed. He’d knock on my bedroom window at night and I’d scream for my parents. But once they had run into the bedroom, he’d already be gone. Finally, one night when I was about sixteen years old, I heard him again at my window. I calmly arose from my slumber and went to my parents’ bedroom door and whispered that there was again knocking at my window. My dad got his gun and ran outside, and he saw the shadow man, and so did my mom. He suddenly vanished right before our eyes, and that was the last time they ever doubted my word. I have not seen the shadow man for many years, and for that small favor I’m most grateful.
How long have you been writing these tales?
After getting thyroid cancer, I became very depressed. Then one day my prayers were answered when the History Press [run by Arcadia Publishing] came calling. They asked me about writing a book of ghost stories about haunted Manitou Springs. I’d already been doing haunted-history tours of Manitou since 2002, but I’d never done much creative writing.
A writer friend encouraged me by saying to write how I tell my stories, and that’s how my writing style came to be. If you look at other ghost-story books, you’ll find other writers don’t dare to tell the story as it was supposed to have happened. I prefer my style, because it makes the reader feel like they are present as the event unfolds. I think this being-present style makes reading spooky tales all the more fun. I have been a freelance writer for ten years and written five books and several articles for old Western-history magazines.
In your new book you cover the Rockies in general; which stories are specifically about Colorado?
I wrote this book so that every story could be about a place in your own home state. For example, there’s a story about Dead Man’s Gulch. It’s in Colorado, but it could be anywhere. I did this so readers wouldn’t buy the book just to find stories about their own state. That being said, all stories are about public places the reader can visit, including New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona and Idaho, and there is one story about Bishop Mountain in the Canadian Rockies. Since these stories take place during old Western times, it turned out that quite a few stories are about Colorado, and maybe that’s because this part of the Rockies was more populated.
[Fifteen of the forty stories take place in Colorado, including "All the Queens Mirrors," in Denver; "Ghost Riders of Loco Gulch, in Georgetown; "Skin Walker of Devil’s Head," in Sedalia; and "Corpse Candles of Silver Cliff," in Silver Cliff.]
Do you have a favorite ghost story in the book?
Hard question to answer, but my favorite funny story is the chapter about Truth or Consequences and the Spanish Fly. I laugh out loud at the silly tale, no matter how many times I read it.
My favorite true ghost story is verified by historical facts. When I was in high school, I read a story in the Colorado Springs Gazette that blew my mind. It's now the "Fountain of Secrets," which is about this carpenter in Fountain who found a secret murder confession hidden inside the walls of his haunted mansion. The confession now sits under glass at the Fountain Valley Historical Society and Museum, and the old haunted mansion is now spook-free. This story has been written like it happened, and it’s very, very scary. I had the pleasure of interviewing the owner of the formerly haunted Hovena House, too.
Is there another?
You might think I’m a little crazy to write a ghost story with Christian overtones, but then I guess Jesus was a ghost for a short while before he rose to heaven. And so it was with Baby Doe Tabor, who formerly haunted the Tabor Opera House in Leadville. As the introduction [to "Phantom of the Opera"] states, I really did get an emergency phone call from the Colorado Alarm Company, about an intrusion signal going off at the Tabor Opera House. This frantic message was left on my home landline number on August 8, 2016. I was in the midst of writing a ghost story about the Tabor Opera House, which I’d only been to one other time, 35 years ago. I truly believe with all my heart that I was called upon to help set the story straight about the formerly haunted opera house. Especially once I found out that Baby Doe Tabor and I were both born Irish and on the 7th of October. Yes, I believe I was contacted by a ghost who helped me to write the first story in the book, and that’s why I dedicated this book to the Phantom of the Opera.
In your opinion, what's one of the most haunted spots in Colorado?
I would say without a doubt that the most haunted hot spot in Colorado has always been Manitou Springs, my home town, which lies on a paranormal ley line. In fact, I can go into my back yard and watch my compass spin without ever finding True North. Of course, these magnetic anomalies were well known to the local natives, who revered Manitou Springs as their holy sanctuary. Serbian-American scientist Nikolas Tesla noted crazed birds swan-diving over Manitou that were like kamikaze pilots on a suicide mission, as they were crashing into trees and buildings. He noted that the magnetic disturbance was the problem, because the magnetic fields interfered with the bird’s natural, innate ability to navigate, something our coy tourism board will never ’fess up to.
Of course, this magnetic problem lures ghosts to our town like bees to honey. It’s a big problem. I’ve got dead birds piled in my back yard, and there’s nothing I can do about it but cry and get the word out. It’s my mission in life to help folk better deal with life’s little innate mysteries.
What's the best way to scope out a place you think is haunted?
I’m like the American Indians in my belief that every rocky place is haunted, simply because the rocks have memory. So the Rocky Mountains certainly have more than their fair share of ghosts. If you’re interested in doing a true ghost hunt, then I’d suggest hooking up with any one of Colorado’s many fabulous ghost-hunting groups. Did you know that Colorado has more independent ghost-hunting teams than any other state in the entire country? And we outnumber all the other states by at least half. Yes, we have a lot of crazed ghost hunters in Colorado, as the chapter "Ghost Riders of Loco Gulch" will clearly inform anyone with a lick of sense.
How do you find your stories?
I find true and historically accurate ghost stories from actual newspaper archives. They didn’t have fake news back in olden times. Sometimes I’ll interview local yokels in the know, like I did for my haunted walk of Manitou.
When did you start your haunted tours?
I started my haunted walks of Manitou Springs back in 2002, though my journey into the haunted business actually began in 1999 when I bought the first openly haunted bed-and-breakfast in Colorado [the Onaledge House].
There I hosted haunted wine-and-cheese parties along with ghost hunts. However, I never liked living there because it was so terribly haunted with poltergeist activity. In 2014, my former home, the Onaledge House, was listed by both the Huffington Post and USA Today as being number six on a list of the top ten most-haunted homes in America. I wrote about my harrowing experience at Onaledge in my first book, Haunted Manitou Springs for a chapter called "Seance at Onaledge." And it’s ironic that with only 4,000 residents in Manitou, out of my four previous books, Haunted Manitou Springs remains a bestseller. Manitou Springs's reputation as a haunted hot spot is truly legendary.
When are your tours?
During the month of October I often host special events like cemetery crawls and haunted-mansion ghost hunts. With my new book release, I’ll be doing a very special tour of Manitou since there is a chapter about my home town. We usually do tours every Friday and Saturday night through Halloween.
Tours led by Stephanie Waters start at 9 p.m. and last 75 to 90 minutes; rates are $15 per person or $40 for a couple, which includes an autographed copy of Haunted Manitou Springs. Book a tour by calling 719-291-2409; find more information at manitoulegends.com.