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Legendary cemetery in Stull, Kan., inspires Halloween visits

Supposedly, there are seven gateways to hell.

I was thinking eight, with one reserved for politicians and those in my line of work.

But no, it’s seven, and one is said to be in the cemetery in Stull, Kan. Almost everyone in neighboring Lawrence has heard the story.

“It’s kind of taken on a life of its own,” says Tim Miller, who teaches religion at the University of Kansas.

So it may be entirely too late to perform with any hope of success the exorcism I’ve scheduled for today.

But we’re going to give it a whirl on this Halloween. For if any place deserves to rid itself of its demon, it is that little country graveyard alongside a ribbon of blacktop a few miles west of Larryville.

And by demon I mean the legend that bedevils the residents of the unincorporated village surrounding the cemetery. The belief that Lucifer himself appears in Stull’s cemetery at midnight every Halloween.

“STULL CEMETERY! ONE OF THE SEVEN GATEWAYS TO HELL?” asks one Web site.

It’s all over the Internet. And even before the advent of the Web, the legend attracted legions of frat boys, occult aficionados and others.

Some just show up and go “Eek!” But many break bottles, tip over tombstones and otherwise create a nuisance.

This is why the cemetery is now surrounded by a fence with “no trespassing” signs.

And it’s why the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department will stand guard tonight, like every Halloween, with strict orders to arrest anyone who tries to climb the fence, which happens often when the cops aren’t around.

“They go under it, they go over it, they go through it,” caretaker Phillip Vannicola said.

Just this past summer, a headstone went missing for eight weeks before being returned.

“The kid’s mom turned him in,” Vannicola said.

It is a shame.

And all because some college kid wrote an article that appeared in the student newspaper a couple of days after Halloween 34 years ago.

Yeah, once again it’s all the media’s fault.

“I don’t remember very much about it,” says University of Illinois journalism professor Eric Meyer, who was editor of

The University Daily Kansan

when that article by Jain Penner appeared on Nov. 5, 1974.

“It’s nice to think people pay attention to what you do,” Meyer said, “but maybe not necessarily that way.”

Also having no recollection of the article is the photographer who took the spooky picture that appeared on the front page that day.

“Sorry. Can’t help you,” said Joyce Mendelsohn, who now works for the

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

.

Naturally, I also tried to track down the author of the piece, who has since changed her name for reasons probably not related to any of this. But we never connected.

Therefore, we may never know what she and her editors had in mind all those years ago, or whether they were simply reporting on what was already a local phenomenon.

But anyone reading the original article can infer that it was probably meant as a bit of fun and might even have been intended for the paper’s Halloween edition, but was held back.

“We were having paper shortages at the time,” Meyer said.

Stull and Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow had things in common, the piece began.

“Both are haunted by legends of diabolical supernatural happenings,” it explained.

But no evidence was given, other than some college students saying the cemetery was creepy and they had memory lapses after visiting it.

No mention of how much beer they might have guzzled before blacking out.

But it doesn’t take much to start a myth.

“Just the idea fascinates people, so they start making up stories,” said Heide Crawford, an assistant professor of German at KU whose own writing credits include a book about vampires and an article in the

Journal of Dracula Studies

.

Yet once a legend does get going, even a stake in the heart won’t kill it.

Just last weekend, some Washburn University students climbed over the fence and were cited for trespassing, Vannicola said.

And it’s anyone’s guess how many carloads will show up tonight.

But for those who do, Sheriff’s Lt. Kari Wempe promises a Halloween they’ll never forget.

“Anyone who trespasses will be arrested,” she said.

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