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Central library’s haunted stacks flick is too spooky to be true

The Brooklyn Witch Project: Library’s poltergeist doc debunked

Debunked: The Brooklyn Public Library produced fake articles about a 6-year-old girl who supposedly went missing at its central library
Brooklyn Daily

The Brooklyn Public Library is putting the trick in trick-or-treat.

A group of crafty librarians fabricated news stories, filmed a fake documentary, and lied to this paper, all to make it appear that the central library at Grand Army Plaza is haunted, this paper’s paranormal investigations unit has learned.

The elaborate hoax began in 2011, when the library released a 13-minute documentary about the ghost of six-year-old Agatha Cunningham, who went missing at the landmark book depository in 1977 and whose ghost now haunts the stacks in the building’s sub-basements. Or so the story goes.

The online video features library patrons, workers, a police officer, and even library President Linda Johnson, all testifying about their encounters with the lost girl’s ghost. Faded photographs show Cunningham with her family at different stages in her life — she disappeared just after her birthday and the party is memorialized in a picture — as her mother talks about her disappearance on a fateful field trip to the publication palace.

Agatha lives on as a poltergeist who whooshes around the lower levels, making spooky noises and occasionally throwing tantrums, as she did when the library threatened to empty her haunt of books. The library played off the ruckus and the damaged books to journalists as an instance of raccoons rummaging through the aisles, chief librarian Richard Reyes-Gavilan tells us. Cunningham’s classmate Howard Berman gives an unnerving interview about how he took a job at the library to be close to his missing friend, which is the creepiest episode of the film — creepier even than when two teens have a shaky, handheld camera run-in with the ghoul and are locked downstairs.

But, as online commentators first pointed out, no Agatha Cunningham appears in the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s registry. Fishier still, the only source material shown in the phantasmal flick is a news clipping from the Brooklyn Eagle that archivist Ivy Marvel pulls out of the back of a deep cabinet. But the vaunted Brooklyn Eagle stopped publishing in 1955 and, except for a failed revival in the early 1960s, remained defunct until a science-teacher-turned-publisher picked up its name in 1996, ultimately winning use of it from former Brooklyn Paper honcho Ed Weintrob.

When we first asked Marvel for a look at the clipping, she said it was lost.

“When I went down to double check, the files were gone,” she said. “I don’t know if the documentary has gotten more exposure and someone took them. That’s its own mystery.”

But close inspection revealed the piece to be a doctored version of a New York Times about the 1979 disappearance of six-year-old Etan Patz from the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan.

When this reporter confronted a librarian responsible for the documentary with evidence of the hoax, she readily fessed up.

“There are no actual facts that are involved in it, but we wanted to create the illusion that it could be true,” said Leigh Fox, the Central Youth Services librarian, who screens the movie as part of an event for teens.

So why would the institution’s entire administration help cook up such a creepy tale?

The whole thing was done in the name of fun, Fox said — and fostering healthy skepticism in her kids.

“There’s kind of a side lesson,” she said. That you can’t always believe everything and you have to do your own research.”

We commend the book-minders’ attention-getting efforts (can we really be mad at a bunch of librarians?) but we question whether making up a story about a dead child haunting bookshelves is the best way to promote literacy.

You can weigh the evidence yourself on Tuesday, when the tricksters will screen the documentary and answer Agatha questions at the central branch.

“Agatha Cunningham (The True Story)” at the Central Library [10 Grand Army Plaza at Flatbush Avenue and Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Information Commons, Meeting Room 1, (718) 230–2100, www.bklynpubliclibrary.org]. Oct. 29, 4–5 pm, ages 10 and up.

Reach reporter Jaime Lutz at jlutz@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-8310. Follow her on Twitter @jaime_lutz.

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Reader Feedback

Ingrid from Kensington says:
Hi, Jaime, I'm Ingrid and I've worked on this project. This movie was made by a couple of our teen interns a couple of years ago. Pretty good for a bunch of kids, right? We're really proud of their work.

I think you misunderstood what we were doing here. 1) We're celebrating some awesome kids who went above and beyond as library users and made this great video. You may not approve of the topic and that's fine. You're not a 17 year old Brooklyn boy. 2) We teach about information literacy here at the library, meaning, don't believe everything you read on the internet. We wanted one of the *kids* to out this project. Not you. In two seconds of Googling you've sort of blown up our spot and what we've tried to accomplish.

I get that you've figured it out and I'm proud of you, but this was really an activity for the children, not for a journalist who we would hope would understand it anyway.

I don't appreciate what you've done here and don't really understand why you've honed in our little information literacy project.
Oct. 25, 2013, 12:11 pm
JP from Bayonne says:
you debunked the work of two teens? cool story, bro! great journalism! pulitzer-worthy.
Oct. 25, 2013, 12:33 pm
Alison from Astoria says:
This is journalism? Head. Desk.
Oct. 25, 2013, 1:03 pm
Clarissa from Park Slope says:
Journalist:
"We commend the book-minders’ attention-getting efforts (can we really be mad at a bunch of librarians?) but we question whether making up a story about a dead child haunting bookshelves is the best way to promote literacy."

I agree!
Oct. 25, 2013, 1:32 pm
Miriam from Sunnyside says:
There's a best way to promote literacy? We really need to get on that!
Oct. 25, 2013, 2:03 pm
Beth from Astoria says:
Wow, this journalist will likely be reporting on the Pacific Northwest tree octopus next . . .
Oct. 25, 2013, 2:13 pm
Lydia from Ditmas Park says:
I think this reporter is sore that they were confused by student film that illustrating the need for BASIC INFORMATION LITERACY. God forbid something that exists on the internet isn't true! I mean, what would we do then? How will we know fact from fiction? How would we function? Surely society would collapse. Oh, wait, according to some kids over here, this happens all the time and you deal with it by exercising some extremely basic critical thinking skills. Never mind.
Oct. 25, 2013, 2:18 pm
Lisa from Bayridge says:
Brooklyn Witch Project II: Search for the Lost Art of Fact Checking.
Oct. 25, 2013, 2:29 pm
Chris from Sunset Park says:
You know you COULD have done the cool thing here and kept this mystery going at least until Halloween. Regarding "we question whether making up a story about a dead child haunting bookshelves is the best way to promote literacy", I question your sense of fun and wonder if you actually know any kids or have ever read a ghost story.
Oct. 25, 2013, 2:56 pm
VC from Park Slope says:
The only apparition involved in this story is the ghost of journalism past.

Congrats on being easily duped, ruining a project for teens, and for trying (and failing) to manufacture some negativity about the library.
Oct. 25, 2013, 3 pm
Andrea from Waterford says:
Way to go, "story-writer". It's obvious that you did not spend much time during the course of your collegiate education interacting with your library, library staff, and learning how to do proper research.

Instead, you write an article that negatively comments on information literacy, all in a knee jerk reaction because a few teenagers proved they were smarter than you. Way to ruin a great program, take for granted peoples' ability to enjoy themselves WHILE learning, and completely throw aside a professional Librarian's work.

If you are in the business of blowing "holes" in stories, I have a few more beasties that you might want to run articles on:

The Beast of Bray Road
The Yeti
Big Foot
Bloody Mary

and last, but not least...Carmen Winstead.
Oct. 25, 2013, 3:20 pm
BE from Sunnyside says:
"A group of crafty librarians fabricated news stories, filmed a fake documentary, and lied to this paper, all to make it appear that the central library at Grand Army Plaza is haunted, this paper’s paranormal investigations unit has learned." Did any fact checking happen here, with this opening line?

It should probably read, "A group of crafty teens fabricated news stories, and filmed a fake documentary, all to help the librarians teach other teens at the Central Branch Library how to evaluate the validity of information on the Internet."

Speaking of validity on the Internet, I suspect any information literate person could easily track down the exaggerated and misinterpreted information this "journalist" is spewing out for this article.
Oct. 25, 2013, 3:20 pm
Jim D. from Upstate says:
Now that you've broken this story, please turn your attention to the questions surrounding the existence of Santa Claus. Something about that jolly old elf's story doesn't add up, and I think this crack investigative unit is just the crew to crack the case.
Oct. 25, 2013, 3:24 pm
Sergio from Portlandia says:
If you ever come to the Pac NW, could you check on the tree octopus problem thing we have down here? Pesky critters keep taking my laundry off the clothesline.
Oct. 25, 2013, 3:28 pm
Bonnie from River Heights says:
I look forward to the hard questions this paper will ask in December when trickster parents lead innocent young ones to believe an obese man with intimidating facial hair will be taking their names and infiltrating their chimneys.

GOD BLESS YOU FOR THINKING OF THE CHILDREN.
Oct. 25, 2013, 3:29 pm
Andrea from Waterford says:
And let's not forget about that bastard rabbit who completely messes up my house right before a rather important religious holiday I have JUST cleaned for, leaving eggs and chocolate all over my freshly shampooed white carpet, like fluorescent scat. We really need more information out there on how to defeat this rodent menace.
Oct. 25, 2013, 3:41 pm
Roberta from Clinton Hill says:
"Library’s poltergeist doc debunked"? You asked the librarian if it was real and she said no. That's not debunking. Debunking requires research.
Oct. 25, 2013, 3:49 pm
Elizabeth from Greenfield says:
Wonderful, a journalist who is against learning, against libraries, and does not want education to be fun. Especially not at Halloween. Did you go to school, did you get a degree, did you really get paid for this nonsense?
Oct. 25, 2013, 4:02 pm
Shaggy Doo from Mystery Machine says:
And they did it all for a couple of Scooby Snax! Would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for those meddling kids.
Oct. 29, 2013, 9:33 am
Sunnie from the burbs says:
Wow, forget the silly "journalist". I'm so impressed by this programming effort at the BPL!! Can you imagine inviting a group of teenagers to talk about "10 tricks to verifying the validity of what you see on the internet". Yeah, right. Invite them to a screening of a Blair witch-esque documentary screening however, (with the same intent) and you might actually get some teens to show up! GENIUS!
Oct. 29, 2013, 12:42 pm

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