Just in time for Halloween, this month's issue of "MySpace Dark Horse Presents" features a story of true horror as writer Joshua Dysart and artist Ron Wimberly recount their experience in a reputedly haunted lunatic asylum on the Ohio University campus. Together with Dark Horse editor Scott Allie, Dysart and Wimberly had been invited to give a presentation on graphic novels at Ohio U., and there discovered the disquieting story of The Ridges, a mental ward in which a woman forty years ago laid down to die and left her mark permanently upon the asylum's floor. CBR News spoke with Dysart and Wimberly about the story behind the story of "The Stain."
Being the sort of story that seeps into campus lore, one might expect that the Dark Horse crew heard as many different versions of the legend as the number of people they asked about it. But Dysart said the stories he heard were "not so much different as just incomplete." "Most of the students hadn’t even seen the stain. But everyone knew about it," Dysart told CBR. "The Ridges, the old insane asylum we had to explore to find Schilling’s stain, has a rich and disturbing history and the students and faculty of OhioU are very proud of it."
To get the full, accurate story, then, the writer would need to do a bit of research. "I certainly had to track down the real story," Dysart said. "No one we spoke to on the Ohio University Campus knew Margaret’s name or the particulars of her situation. But Schilling’s story, or at least the story of how she left her very literal mark, the stain, is pretty well documented on the Internet. An afternoon of clicking was all that was needed."
The MDHP strip takes place in the context of a visit to the Ohio University campus, where Allie, Dysart, and Wimberly were scheduled to speak to students of aesthetics about graphic novels. "Everyone was so excited to have us," Dysart said. "I was the one that was originally invited, but I knew I couldn’t justify a whole program to myself so I invited Scott and Ron. It was so wonderful to be surrounded by art students. I mean, these kids are fierce. We talked to graphic artists, painters, photographers, and kids from OhioU’s world-class pottery department. I’ve since bought pieces of art from some of these kids. The whole experience was just wonderful. And the work that the people at the A.T. lab are doing, which is concerned with artistic experiences inside online communities, is absolutely ground breaking, futurist stuff. It all makes me want to go back to school.
"The story of the stain first came up within a few hours of being in Ohio. Nina, our handler, had picked us all up at the airport and we were heading back to Athens when we stopped for a late dinner. That’s when she told us about the Ridges, the asylum that overlooks the school, and about the grad students who work inside the Asylum. That’s also when we heard about the woman who, almost 40 years ago, died on the upper floors and left a permanent mark. Scott and I were immediately lit up by the story. It was captivating. Exactly the kind of thing that turns me on, you know? I think Scott and I pressured Nina throughout the weekend to take us to see the stain."
While Dysart and Allie were eager to enter the asylum, Wimberly said he was "just along for the ride." "I'm a city kid, so, actually, the empty town feeling was more uncanny than the stain, I think," the artist joked, before adding, "that's a lie." Wimberly acknowledges that weird and inexplicable happenings do take place, but would rather not think about them. "When I travel, I am more interested in the living and the lives of those that died rather than the lives of the undead, feel me? I am a pragmatist at heart... but strange things have happened to me in the past, so I believe in the paranormal," he explained. "That said, I'd rather not invite these sort of things to happen again. Maybe it's a little predictable, but imagine if gravity just glitched in your crib one day. For the rest of your life, you'd be a little fucked up -- like, 'damn, I hope gravity doesn't glitch when I'm trying to jump over this chasm'--Does that make sense?"
Wimberly's uneasiness plays out briefly in "The Stain," but readers also discover that Dysart's reaction to seeing the stain was quite different from what he had expected. Writing about an experience shared by his editor and the artist who would be illustrating the story, Dysart played a complex role in crafting this version of the tale. "I pulled back a lot while writing 'The Stain.' I didn’t want to come off too touchy-feely, and also, though I was writing from my point of view, it wasn’t my experience alone," he said. "I didn’t want to speak too much for Scott or Ron. But the truth is, I was surrounded with absolute, overwhelming serenity.
"Bear in mind, she is perfectly etched into the floor. You can see the waves in her hair, everything. It is un-fucking-real. There is no doubt that a human being died here, released her breath here. I wanted to lay down with her there on the cold pavement. I wanted to spend the night alone with her. I can’t explain it, but there was nothing sad about that room. Nothing angry or crazy or lost. There was just peace. I’d like to go back some day and spend some more time in that room."
Wimberly, conversely, reported thinking, "Maaaan, I hope something weird doesn't happen, 'cause I was getting used to things being normal again" and "Why do people like to do this stuff? We could be having drinks and kicking it with the kids in the town right now...."
Unlike Wimberly, Dysart has long been fascinated with haunted locations in his native South Texas and southern California, where he now resides. "South Texas has a very rich history of hauntings," he said. "Sharing cultural DNA with Mexico, it has a great Latino-gothic flare about the place, lots of local stories of witchcraft, demonology and especially… especially ghosts. So it was a big part of my upbringing."
The MDHP comic mixes history with personal anecdote, all in eight pages. "I was already having a problem with the density of it when Scott convinced me to put the story of the bat and cat fight at the end," Dysart said. "I was going to write a separate comic about that event, but he felt it was all part of this one night, this Athens-goth experience we had. And he’s right, it was. But it wasn’t easy getting it all in. It’s a testament to Ron as an artist that it reads as well as it does considering the density."
Even with the amount of material contained in "The Stain," Dysart feels there is more to say about the Ridge asylum in Ohio. "I’ve continued to write about it. There will be more about the stain coming out from me in some form in the future," he said. "So, yeah, I was pretty deeply moved by the whole thing."
Though Wimberly said he had less of an interest in the history and legend of the stain than his companions, he did indicate a desire to convey the eerie mood of their experience. "I actually thought it would be cool if I could project the creepiness of that image into people's homes," the artist said, mentioning that he used an image of the actual stain in his art. "Every artist wants his art to evoke something powerful. What if I got into some kid's head with this comic? Dope!"