Mt. Lebanon native Jim Towns shares Western Pennsylvania ghost stories in American Cryptic | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Mt. Lebanon native Jim Towns shares Western Pennsylvania ghost stories in American Cryptic

click to enlarge Jim Towns - PHOTO: MARA RAGO
Photo: Mara Rago
Jim Towns
Most kids spend summer vacations at amusement parks or beaches, swimming pools, or playgrounds.

But Jim Towns’ mom took him to historic landmarks and cemeteries.

“My mom was in the Daughters of the American Revolution,” says Towns, a Mount Lebanon native. “And some of my earliest memories on trips with her are of standing in graveyards in a place like Fayette County as they were putting wreaths on a Civil War grave or a Revolutionary War grave, and being surrounded by these old folks, and I’m six or seven and just wandering around looking at the tombstones.”

Towns’ American Cryptic (Anubis Press) is a byproduct of those childhood adventures, albeit with a twist. A filmmaker and writer currently living in San Pedro, Ca., Towns has an innate fascination with legends, ghost stories, and other strange experiences, especially those in his native Western Pennsylvania. He writes about the mysterious appearance of a babushka-clad woman on Pittsburgh’s T, strange happenings at the Dixmont State Hospital, the former insane asylum in Kilbuck, and a six-toed man that supposedly roams campgrounds in the Laurel Highlands, including the Boy Scouts’ Heritage Reservation.

While these stories are unique to Western Pennsylvania, there are similar tales in almost every populated region that Towns says are attempts to understand the nature of existence.

“Our human nature is that we’re all storytellers, and human nature makes us form a historical narrative into a story, into a folk tale,” Towns says. “And sometimes history is very complicated, and a historical narrative has a lot of moving parts and a lot of things that make us uncomfortable. Our tendency is to mythologize this. We take a complex story with complex characters that are not all good or bad, they’re a mix, and we take that and we rarefy it, we cook it down into a basic narrative, what is needed to tell it, and we form a myth.”

Those myths, Towns adds, sometimes lack factual elements due to their simplicity. But the minimalism of these stories enables them to be passed down through generations.

“Everyone can bring their own iteration that way,” Towns says. “I think that’s how we propagate history and that’s how local areas end up with their own myths.”

Sometimes the myths are used to scare children about dangers if they roam far from home. Other times they exaggerate the dangers of specific populations, such as the legend of Indian Peter, who was sighted wandering the Brownsville area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Towns himself has witnessed some inexplicable events — he says he saw the babushka woman between the South Hills Junction and Dormont T stops — and has experienced other strange phenomena. He’s not quite sure what is real or what is imagined, calling himself an “optimistic cynic” regarding supernatural occurrences. But like Mulder in the X Files, he wants to believe.

“I would love the idea that there’s more out there,” Towns says. “If you think about it, how boring would the world be if we realized we know everything. I don’t feel like I’m actively out there looking for weird stuff, but I also think that some people for one reason or another, do seem to attract these kinds of things.”
More about Jim Towns’ films:

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