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.