By Paula R. Stiles
Jenkins, Greg. Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore, Volume 1: South and Central Florida. Sarasota (FL): Pineapple Press, Inc., 2005. xvii, 268pp. $14.95 ISBN: 1-56164-327-0.
This is the first in three books about Florida legends and ghost stories. They’re laid out according to region. This one, as the title suggests, is about stories from south and central Florida. The second is about north Florida and St. Augustine (the oldest city in North America). The third is about the Gulf Coast and Pensacola. Jenkins also goes into detail about his being a mental health counselor and a member of two psychic research societies. He includes a bibliography, a glossary of terms, a guide for ghost hunters, and indices for research societies and ghost tours at the end of the book.
The history of the area and Jenkins’ background affect the layout and nature of the stories in Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore. Yes, you get the usual stories of haunted hotels, restaurants, museums and cemeteries. You’ll find those anywhere. And yes, the conclusions to each chapter, where Jenkins burbles on like a tour guide on crack about the touristic wonders of south Florida, do get annoying.
However, there are some unusual features and herein lie Jenkins’ strengths as a writer (and I don’t just mean his beginning the book with a paean to H.P. Lovecraft). One is Jenkins’ lack of interest in sea stories – very surprising, considering Florida’s colourful, piratical history and the plethora of such tales from the Outer Banks and Cape Cod farther up the coast. Instead, you get stories of phantom trains (in the Keys) and phantom buses, catastrophic air crashes in the Everglades (Flight 401) and haunted aircraft parts (similar to the stories about James Dean’s car, Little Bastard). Normally, I’d be bothered because I like sea stories, but Jenkins’ creepy landlubber tales make up for the lack.
Jenkins is also keenly interested in stories related to weather, especially hurricanes. This makes a lot more sense. The Atlantic Seaboard has a long history of bad storms with tragic results. And tragedy is always a magnet for the supernatural, especially ghost lore and miracle stories. The legend of the phantom train, for example, dates back to the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane when a train sent to evacuate people from the Keys left for the mainland too late and derailed into the ocean, drowning those inside. Some islanders also tried to leave by car, but were drowned in floods. Such was the devastation that the Hurricane wrought in the Keys, that Jenkins is able to give us a whole cluster of unsettling legends surrounding it: the doomed train, horn blasting, light blazing, as it sails out over the long-abandoned tracks into the water; a host of zombie-like specters stumbling through the mangrove swamps, headed north for a safety they never found; eerily-silent black cars, lights shining through early-morning fog.
Another unique feature of Jenkins’ book is that he tells some stories related to places with which he has had personal history. For example, some of the stories he tells about a psychiatric facility where he once worked, Old Princeton Hospital in Orlando, make Waverly Hills Asylum in Kentucky sound like the set for a Disney flick. The subtitle of the chapter, “Dead Eyes on the Third Floor”, refers to a recurring phantom that appears in one of the “de-escalation” or “restraint” rooms on the now-abandoned third floor. As you can guess, this was a room where out-of-control patients were confined for an hour or two until they calmed down. Some staff have reported seeing a face with “dead eyes” peering back out at them from inside the room. Even worse, sometimes, the face doesn’t have eyes.
Jenkins has a knack for finding other places that have stories, but are not open to the public. He has a chapter on the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, where he attended school, as well as one on the Boca Raton Resort and Club, where a friend of his once worked. Someone complained on the Amazon.com page for the book that some of Jenkins’ stories did not match known historical facts. However, someone else pointed out that Jenkins is mainly interested in recording the folklore for the area, which wouldn’t necessarily match the actual history of a place.
An aspect of the book that is very much affected by the area and its history is that of the various tales of shadow people that Jenkins has picked up. The ruins of the Sugar Mill and Ancient Fort in New Smyrna Beach, for example, appear to be haunted by shadow people who lurk in the trees, flicker across the ruins and show a malevolent interest in visitors. Some visitors claim that these shadow people look like Native Americans. Dark shapes have also been reported at Cap’s Place Island Restaurant at Lighthouse Point.
Unlike some other authors of ghost books, Jenkins is not averse to discussing Native American myth and legend (such as the Seminole history for Interstate 4 in Sanford), on top of the five centuries of American and Spanish history in south Florida. But he seems uncertain as to where these figures come from (the concept of “shadow people” is a bit new to account for these tales). Some research in Native American history in south Florida brings up a possible source. When the Spanish first arrived in the area, it was dominated by the Calusa. The Calusa felt no interest in contact with Europeans and possessed the military might to back up their wishes. Unfortunately, this reclusiveness did not save them from the epidemic diseases spread by the Europeans. By the 18th century, they had died out.
The Calusa had a mythology in which they believed that humans each had three souls, ensconced in the eye, the shadow, and the reflection. The eye soul was immortal and stayed with the body. The Calusa made offerings to the dead soul. The shadow and reflection souls went into the bodies of animals after death, gradually devolving into lower and lower life forms. This mythology might have come down to the present day, at least in this area, as stories about shadow people.
Aside from some clumsy writing (such as the above tourist-brochure rhapsodies), Jenkins spins a very good yarn. I’ve found other books on ghosts and legends creepy in parts, but Jenkins keeps the creep factor on high throughout his book. I’m definitely saving my pennies for the other two.
You can buy Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore, Volume 1: South and Central Florida on Amazon.com.