Direct Quote: Ghost Busker at the Driskill Hotel

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Ghost Busker
Jen Reel

By day, Monica Ballard is a marketing and advertising consultant for small businesses, but nights and weekends she leads walking-tour groups through the haunted streets of Austin. She has spent the last year researching local ghost stories and is currently finishing her third book, True Haunted Tales of the Driskill Hotel.
“I auditioned for Austin Ghost Tours one Halloween season about nine years ago because they needed extra help. I looked on it as storytelling and you move around from place to place and that’s pretty much it. But right before I started giving tours, a bunch of us tour guides were having pizza together and someone pulled out a photo and said, ‘oh look what someone snapped on my tour,’ and there was a figure in a window of a building that no one should have been in, listening in on the tour that was taking place out on the porch. It was then that I realized, ‘Wait a second, this is an interactive tour.’ So I took it as a tremendous responsibility and much more seriously. It became no longer the flighty little static storytelling that I thought it was.

“One of my most favorite stories is one of the few sightings we’ve had of Colonel Driskill. One of his favorite rooms in the Driskill overlooks 6th Street & Brazos, and there was a consultant in town who woke up one night to see a gentleman standing in his room, looking out the window about three o’clock in the morning, puffing on a cigar. He sat up in bed and said, ‘hey fella, what the hell are you doing in my room?’ He said the guy looked at him and gave him this look, like, your room? But he didn’t say anything. The consultant leaned over and snapped on the light by the bed and when the light came on there was no one standing by the window, but the curtains were still swaying and there was a cloud of cigar smoke in the air.

“Energy can’t be created or destroyed, science tells us that much. So I think there is more to the science of hauntings than there is superstition. We just don’t understand it yet. I would very much like to visit Gettysburg one day. Austin is so haunted because of its life, because of its party atmosphere, but to have a place where so many were taken from this world quite suddenly, I would like to see what that feels like. I felt something like it when I went to the Titanic exhibit when I was in the room with what they call the ‘big iron piece,’ which is just the big side of the ship. It has to do with the metal holding that vibration. All of these things act as recording devices. For here, it’s recording the celebration. For the Titanic it was recording a tragedy. It’s called the Stone Tape Theory. Science!

“My first real [supernatural] experience was when my husband passed 10 years ago. There was a lot of activity when he first passed. We never said, ‘til death do us part,’ so he kind of took that to heart and stuck around, really kind of bumbling around my household for a good year and a half or so. He would break appliances and then feel bad about it and fix them the next day. He was always kind of an electronics geek, so I think he was just exploring: ‘ooh, what would it be like to do this or that or be inside the car or the tv’ or something like that. We were married for 18 years, but people had a hard time guessing how long we’d been together because we always acted like newlyweds.

“It’s just comforting to me to know that this isn’t all there is, that we do continue in some form. And I think [ghosts] want me to know it’s the amount of life that sometimes draws and holds them here. It doesn’t mean they’re stuck. Maybe they loved it here, they love coming back. They’ll stop by and then go somewhere else to learn something else. But sometimes it’s the amount of life they lived, not how they died.”

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Jen Reel was an Observer intern before joining the staff in July 2010, first as Web Editor, and most recently as Multimedia Editor. She received a Masters in Journalism with a concentration in Photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was co-chair for the student chapter of the National Press Photographers Association. She has worked in the non-profit sector for the Peruvian-American Medical Society and has been published in Utne Reader magazine, the Village Voice and Pitchfork Music.