As some of our readers may remember, tomorrow is the second anniversary of Folklife Today, and our very first post was about Halloween. Last year, we did a series of posts about collecting Halloween and Day of the Dead photos through a special hashtag. You can see some of the results here and here and here. We’re going to make it a tradition on Folklife Today to post something scary, supernatural, and fun around Halloween, and this is our current offering!
Seeing a ghost, the spirit or image of a person who has died, is one of the commonest of experiences we often call “supernatural.” It’s especially common to see the ghost of person you know, and such sightings frequently occur shortly after the death or on the anniversary of the death. Ghostly sightings happen around the world, though the ways they are interpreted may be different in different cultures, or even within the same culture, depending on the circumstances. The sightings may be seen as a psychological part of the grieving process, as misinterpreted natural phenomena, as loved ones saying goodbye, as spirits of the dead who cannot move on as they should, as omens, as messengers, or even as encounters with demons impersonating loved ones. An example of the problem of interpreting the meaning and character of a ghost is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as Prince Hamlet must decide if the ghost he speaks to at the beginning of the play is the spirit of his father or a demon impersonating him.
Folklorists and anthropologists are interested in ghost stories because they provide information about beliefs in a culture and because they form part of the body of tales in a culture. Linguists studying dialects ask for various kinds of narratives to study natural speech and to gather vocabulary on different topics, including ghosts. This article will look at some examples of ghost stories in the American Folklife Center’s collections that are available online, collected by folklorists and linguists.
Sometimes the problem faced in a ghost story is determining whether the person is truly dead. For example, listen to this ghost story told by Mose “Clear Rock” Platt to John and Ruby Lomax in Taylor, Texas in 1939. Fears of being buried alive were so common in the 18th and 19th centuries that coffin makers created devices so that a person trapped in a coffin could ring a bell or otherwise alert mourners that they were alive.
A deceased loved one speaking through a dream is a common experience for those who are grieving. The ballad “Sweet Mary Weep No More for Me” (also called “Mary o’ the Dee” and “Mary’s Dream”) tells the story of such a dream. This version is sung for collector Sidney Robertson Cowell by George Vinton Graham, who sings it to a different tune than the one most commonly used. One story about the origin of this song is that it was written by John or Alexander Lowe in the late 1700s. He was a tutor to a family named McGhie. One of Mr. McGhie’s daughters was engaged to a man who was lost at sea, and Lowe wrote the song in response to this tragedy. There are other theories about the source of this song, but it does seem to come from Scotland or from the border of England and Scotland.
Some stories about encountering a spirit have great importance in the history of a people. An example is found in the origin story of the Hethu’shka Society of the Omaha Indians. The Hethu’shka Society is an exclusive group of elite warriors. In addition to having experience in battle, they serve to help protect and keep peace among the people. The story tells of traveling warriors who encountered a ghost of a warrior who told them to form the society to honor the deeds of warriors, living and dead. This “Hethu’shka Song” relates to that story. In this interview with Alan Jabbour, Rufus White explains the encounter with the spirit and the importance to it to the Hethu’shka.1
In an interview for the Center for Applied Linguistics Collection of U.S. dialects, Donna Christian asks an unidentified seventy-six year old female in West Virginia about ghost stories. She tells a story about an encounter with a headless female ghost when she was young. Neighbors tell her that it is the ghost of a woman killed “by rebels” in the Civil War and that many people have seen the ghost, but no one has been harmed by her (“rebels” in this region may be used to mean fighters on the Confederate side but not part of the Confederate Army, often blamed for war crimes).
Among the most powerful ghost stories are experiences of people we know or stories handed down in families as true experiences. In the first four minutes of this interview made in 1972 for the Center of Applied Linguistics in Mississippi, two African American girls, ages eleven and twelve, talk about some mysterious happenings told to them by their parents and talk about belief in ghosts (the female interviewer is not identified). One of the girls believes in ghosts while the other says she does not. Both say that they are more likely to believe stories their parents say happened to them, but are doubtful of ghost stories about something that happened to someone else. This is quite common, as we want to believe our friends and family are telling the truth. Also, ghost stories and other supernatural tales are often told to start the kind of debate these young women are having — do you believe it was a real ghost in the story, were the events caused by something else, or is the story fiction?
In this recording by linguist Joseph S. Hall, an unidentified elderly white man in Tennessee tells a story of a frightening experience a friend of his had, meeting with a Civil War soldier’s ghost (no date, ca. 1936-1969). Notice that the sighting is preceded by the sound of an explosion, perhaps the sound of the battlefield in the past.
This story is third hand, a story of a man’s encounter with a ghost of his aunt told by the African American educator, business woman, and philanthropist, Eartha M.M. White, that was witnessed by her mother, who was a slave at the time. The event disrupted a dinner where her mother was serving the food. Recorded in two parts: part one, and part two.
These stories tell something of the traditional beliefs about ghosts. The elderly woman’s story of a headless woman is one of many tale of people dying violently who cannot rest after death. The girls tell of mysterious happenings possibly attributed to ghosts, and it is common in many cultures around the world to attribute unexplained happenings to supernatural causes. In the story of the ghost of the Civil War soldier, the man escapes by crossing water, and there is a remark that a “haint,” or ghost, cannot cross water. In the story told by Eartha White, the horse is disturbed by the ghost and at the end takes off, ending the interaction with the ghost. Animals are often said to be sensitive to ghosts and often it is a horse or a dog that brings attention to the presence of a ghost. The man is very frightened by the ghost of his aunt and says that he will not meet her again as requested. Today it may seem surprising that he would be so frightened of a ghost of a relative, many of us would even welcome such an experience. But in the 19th century beliefs about ghosts, even relatives, were mixed as such experiences might be benign, or the ghost might be yearning for the living and could cause the death of people they encountered, or might even be an evil spirit in disguise.
Animals as well as people might be seen as ghosts, as one of the girls speculated in the interview above. In this 1996 interview in the Coal River Folklife Collection (an American Folklife Center field project in West Virgina), Jim Wills tells folklorist Mary Hufford about a cliff on Rock Creek, a tributary to the Coal River, where phantom horses are said to be seen. The horses are said to have killed their owner by knocking him off the cliff when they were alive.
There is another type of ghost story, often told by and to children, that is purely for entertainment and the fun of getting scared. Sometimes it is a ghost looking for something, perhaps a wedding ring or another object taken from them. An example is “The Golden Arm,” where a greedy husband takes the golden artificial arm of his dead wife. The end of a version of “The Golden Arm” told by storyteller Jackie Torrence can be found in the American Folklife Center: An Illustrated Guide sound recordings at the link on the title. A similar story of the ghost of a man looking for his artificial leg is told by Evelia Andux to Stetson Kennedy and Robert Cook in the Cuban American community of Ybor City, Florida in 1939. Evelia, age eleven, gives a summary in English and then tells the full story in Spanish. Her friend Tony Lopez, also eleven, prompts her at one point and comments at the end of the story.
One of the reasons ghost stories persist and are enjoyed by people who believe them, people who do not, and people who are not sure, is that we all deal with the issue of mortality in various ways throughout our lives. Also, we all owe our lives, and the things in life we enjoy, to the actions of many other people who came before us. Those people deserve to be remembered, and ghost stories can be a way of honoring ancestors and other predecessors. Some stories help us to laugh at what frightens us, others may remind us to respect the dead, while others may promise reconnection with loved ones after death. The mystery of death is a topic that never grows old, as the playful ghosts and ghouls of Halloween night and the rituals of Día de los Muertos remind us.
1. Learn more about the Hethu’shka Society in “Omaha Hethu’shka Society Songs and Dances,” by Stephanie Hall, Folklife Today, November 26, 2014.
Allen, Erin. “Let’s Take a Spooky Road Trip,” The Library of Congress Blog, October 30, 2015.
Feikert-Ahalt, Clare. “The Case of a Ghost Haunted England for Over Two Hundred Years,” In Custodia Legis: Law Library of Congress, October 30, 2015.
Finefield, Kristi. “A Ghostly Image: Spirit Photographs,” Picture This: Library of Congress Prints & Photos, October 31, 2011.
Sayers, John: “10 Stories: Scary Stuff! Chronicling America,” The Library of Congress Blog, October 29, 2015. This article includes links to newspaper articles on ghosts and other scary reports from the historic newspapers found in Chronicling America.
Winick, Stephen. “Welcome to Folklife Today,” Folklife Today, October 30, 2013. This first article in Folklife Today provides a brief history of Halloween.
Winick, Stephen. “FolklifeHalloween2014 is Underway!” Folklife Today, October 22, 2014.
Winick, Stephen. “#FolklifeHalloween2014 Rolls On!” Folklife Today, November 3, 2014.
Winick, Stephen. “Submit Your Día De Los Muertos and Halloween Photos! #FolklifeHalloween2014,” Folklife Today, December 3, 2014.