Beware walking by Mason Pond, or you might be beckoned by the resident ghost.
Local lore tells of a heartbroken student at George Mason University who walked into the campus pond and drowned. Now his ghost beckons unsuspecting passersby into the water.
“Only at night,” reassured Debra Lattanzi Shutika. Lattanzi Shutika, professor of Folklore Studies at the university, said this tale has become a perennial favorite at the program’s annual Halloween storytelling night.
This year, “Spooky Stories” will be held from 8 to 10 p.m. Wednesday in the Gold Room at the Johnson Center on George Mason’s Fairfax campus. While the free event is hosted by the student-led Folklore Roundtable, all are encouraged to come, armed with their own scary tales.
Of course, some prefer just to listen, but most attendees decide to share, according to Lattanzi Shutika. Some tell well-known short stories by authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, but most weave their own, whether based on a local legend or a more personal supernatural encounter.
Fairfax County locals enjoy sharing the story of the Bunny Man, which has been retold at every Halloween event. However, each year brings a different twist, according to Kerry Kaleba, a native of Burke and 2012 graduate of the master’s program in folklore.
“It’s the one thing that Fairfax County has, and it always comes up,” Kaleba said. “It’s something that I remember from high school, and no one seems to keep the story straight.”
People usually agree that the Bunny Man lives by an eerie railroad overpass in Clifton often called “Bunny Man Bridge.” But the legend earned his moniker in different ways, depending on the teller. Some say he leaves dead rabbit skins by the overpass; others say he wears a large bunny suit and wields a hatchet.
However, while stories such as the Bunny Man or the ghost of Mason Pond may have a tenuous — or nonexistent — basis in reality, that does not stop people from telling them.
“It might not be completely true, or true at all, but to the community it makes sense and people accept it,” said Kim Stryker, a current student in the folklore master’s program. “It’s not about whether something is true or correct or accurate in some empirical way. It’s about for the person telling the story.”
Getting together to tell scary stories has a rich tradition, according to Stryker. When people would stay out late reaping the harvest, or churning apple butter at orchards, they often would stoke bonfires and take turns spinning yarns.
These events connect with people, according to Joy Fraser, a professor in the Folklore Studies program, because it allows them to test the boundaries between the real world and the unexplained. But whether the attendees talk about a dorm room poltergeist or a specter of a deceased relative, they also are taking a risk.
“It’s quite a brave thing to do, because you don’t know how people are going to respond,” Fraser said. “What do people think? Do they look at you like you’re mad? But usually at the event, other people are quick to jump in with their own experiences.”
“Spooky Stories” often becomes an interactive, collaborative experience. Rather than have one person in the role of storyteller, here the audience chips in.”
Because of the unique atmosphere provided at these storytelling events, Kaleba has not been able to stay away, even after graduating.
“You want something other than pumpkins and candy around Halloween,” Kaleba said. “It’s really nice to have a moment around Halloween to talk about things that are actually scary.”