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Ghost Tales for Halloween

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As is likely true for you, too, Halloween in my neighborhood will look different this year. In place of trick-or-treating there will be tables of treats at the end of driveways and activities that can happen at a distance. As my family and I make our plans for a safe experience we can create for our neighbors, I began thinking of audio—not just Halloween music but also recorded ghost stories.

I was reminded of my favorite storyteller from childhood, Jackie Torrence, whose “Legends from the Black Tradition” was a record (yes, record) and then cassette that my sister and I played on repeat. It includes stories of Brer Rabbit and John Henry, but also the legend of Annie Christmas, a tall tale from Louisiana. Annie is a riverboat captain and a woman of enormous size who wears a necklace made of ears and noses. When she dies, her body is set adrift on a barge on the Mississippi, and as Torrence says, “sometimes you can still hear the water…lapping…on old Annie’s coffin barge…” While not a ghost story exactly, the memory of Torrence’s version of it still gives me chills.

“The Haunted Lane,” an 1889 stereograph, purporting to show a ghost scaring a man and a boy. Photo: Melander. Prints and Photographs Division.

That record is hard to find today, but it exists in the Library’s collection, and examples of Torrence’s storytelling are available on the Library’s website through the American Folklife Center (AFC), including her retelling of “The Golden Arm.” This version was featured in a blog post from the American Folklife Center that includes a full transcript. As AFC staff member Stephen Winick notes in his post about this story, “’The Golden Arm’ is an old folktale of wide distribution, classified by folklorists as ATU 366. It is known in Europe, and in American tradition was told by both white and black communities. It is one of the most famous ghost stories in American tradition.”

It’s a good one to broadcast through your window during a kid costume parade, if you are so inclined, or to reinterpret for yourself and tell with your kids…with a flashlight under your face like we used to do at sleepovers in the long-ago days! You can find more “Tales of the Supernatural” from the American Folklife Center on the Library’s LibGuide to resources for Halloween.

Happy Halloween!

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