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Spooky Stories for Halloween 2022 on the Folklife Today Podcast

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We’re back with another episode of the Folklife Today podcast! Find it at this page on the Library’s website, or on Stitcher, iTunes, or your usual podcatcher.

A man paints a girl's face
Winston James paints a girl’s face with scary makeup on October 29, 1982, in the Whittall Pavilion, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress. The main event that evening was the lecture by Jack Santino, “The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows.” The collection is AFC 1982/019.  Photo by John R. Gibbs.

It’s October, so it’s time for a new season of the Folklife Today podcast, and a new Halloween episode!  In this Season 5 opener, John Fenn and I talk about the new updated Halloween and Dia de Muertos Research Guide. Then we introduce some of our favorite spooky stories: a witch story told by singer and activist Aunt Molly Jackson from Kentucky, a ghost story told by songster and blues musician John Jackson from Virginia, and the story of Jack O Lantern told by folklorist and International Man of Mystery Jack Santino. And of course we included the stories! Sound good? Very well then…

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As is often the case, much of the material in the podcast is discussed elsewhere on the blog, and other resources are available on the Library’s website. Find the relevant links below!

Halloween and Día de Muertos Research Guide 

We talked about this guide in a recent post, so I’ll just say it’s chock full of links to Halloween and Día de Muertos content!  New additions include: links to notable books to get you started in your Halloween reading; a player to watch the first film version of Frankenstein from 1910; links to lots of new content like the witch tales from Aunt Molly Jackson that I blogged about just last week; and a gallery of classic Día de Los Muertos posters from the Mission Gráfica/La Raza Graphics collection in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division. You can find the Halloween and Día de Muertos Research Guide here.

Aunt Molly Jackson’s Witch Tales

We presented just one of Aunt Molly’s witch tales in the podcast. For more, you can hear all three of Aunt Molly’s 1939 interview segments with Alan Lomax about witches in this previous blog post.

John Jackson’s Ghost Story

We’ll be presenting John Jackson’s “The Preachers and the Spooks” here on the blog on Halloween itself, October 31. You can have a sneak peek in the podcast episode and I’ll add a link here in a few days!

Jack Santino’s Jack-o’-Lantern

A man carves a pumpkin while a boy with a painted face looks on.
Jeff Oshins shows an audience member how to carve a Jack O Lantern in the Library of Congress Whittall Pavilion, October 29, 1982. The main event that evening was the lecture by Jack Santino, “The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows.” The collection is AFC 1982/019.  Photo by John R. Gibbs.

Jack Santino’s version of the Jack-o’-lantern story was part of his lecture “The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows.” You can find audio of the full lecture at this link on the blog, or on the “Introduction” page of the Halloween and Día de Muertos guide. But as a special treat in this post, I’ll present separate audio of just this fun folktale! Find it in the player below, with its transcript immediately after!

Jack Santino’s Jack-o’-Lantern (Transcript)

Art print shows Boy and girl carving pumpkin into Jack-O'Lantern
Boy and girl carving pumpkin into Jack-O’Lantern. Artwork by B. F. Reinhart, 1872. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress. See the archival scan here!

In England and in Ireland and Scotland, the practice of carving Jack-o’-Lanterns exists, as it exists here in the United States, but with a difference. The difference is that in Britain, the Jack-o’-Lantern is considered to be a real person, a spirit, not unlike the ghosts and goblins that we’ve been talking about. A mischievous spirit. Somebody who will lead you astray.

And there are a great many folktales that surround the story of Jack-o’-Lantern. There are many many stories which he plays a prank on a person who deserves a prank played on him.

We in America, of course carve out pumpkins. In England, they didn’t have Pumpkins. Pumpkins were introduced to us by Indians, introduced to the colonists by Native Americans.

In Britain, they carved turnips and rutabagas and other large fruits, which probably comes as something of a surprise to many of us, and it’s probably hard to imagine carving out a turnip in in the shape of a Jack-o’-Lantern. But it’s done. It’s done to this day and it was done before the pumpkin was discovered.

But the story of Jack-o’-Lantern is one I think I’ll tell at this point.

There is a story as to how the Spirit became who and what he is. And it’s a traditional folk tale. So…and there were various versions of it. So what I’ll be telling you is one version of it. It does have other other versions.

But the story goes that there was a blacksmith at one point named Jack.

And he made a deal with the Devil, a Faustian sort of deal with the Devil, in which he promised the Devil his soul in return for great powers and abilities, particularly to be known as the best blacksmith on the face of the earth. So the Devil gladly granted him this boonin return for his everlasting soul, and left it that he would return in seven years to collect his end of the bargain.

Jack the blacksmith then held a sign—hung a sign up in front of the shop, which said, “Herein Lives the Greatest of all Masters.”

Head and shoulders portrait of Jack Santino.
Jack Santino. Image courtesy of Jack Santino.

Well the story goes that in heaven, St. Peter brought this to the attention of Christ, who felt that maybe the blacksmith was getting a little uppity with his claim. So one day Christ and St. Peter visit the blacksmith in his shop, and challenge his claim that he is the greatest of all masters, and that they go back and forth, each performing miracles trying to outdo each other. And the blacksmith never does quite as well, but he never accepts the fact that he’s not the greatest of the great.

Finally in exasperation, Saint Peter turns to him and says, “If you had three wishes, what would you wish for?”

So the blacksmith said, Well, he thought about a little bit and he said,

“Well, the first thing I would wish for is that if I invited somebody to sit in my chair, that they would be unable to get out of it until I gave them permission.”

He then wished that if he invited somebody to climb his pear tree or his apple tree, that they’d be unable to climb down until he gave him his permission. And finally, he said, if anyone ever get…put their hand into my purse, that it will be stuck there. The person will be unable to get out of my purse until I allow them to.

Peter turns to him and says: “You wish very foolishly, because you could have wished for everlasting peace in heaven.”

But the blacksmith says: “No, I know what I’m doing.”

So dejectedly St. Peter and Christ leave.

Seven years passes and the Devil comes to collect his due, and the blacksmith is working on a piece of iron and he says: “Well just go ahead and have a seat and I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Well, of course, the Devil can’t get out of the seat and, and the blacksmith tells him he’s not going to let him out of the seat until he gives him another seven years of immortality.

Three boys on porch steps cutting faces in pumpkins.
Three boys on porch steps cutting faces in pumpkins. Copyright deposit 1917 (Copyright not renewed). Find the archival scan here!

Gladly granted. Seven years goes by, Devil comes back. Sends him up the tree to get him a piece of fruit while he’s waiting. He goes up the tree, same story, right? Cannot get down. Another seven years.

The third time he comes back. He says “You’re not going to trick me this time!” And they go off and they start walking the road to hell. And as they’re going they come to a tollbooth and the blacksmith’s…. [Audience laughter]

Right. The blacksmith says…he’s tied. The Devil was…tied him up because he wasn’t going to take any chances with him.

He said, “Well, perhaps you could shrink down and go into my purse and get the money out.” Which of course the Devil does, and finds to his dismay that he cannot get out of the purse.

And at this time, the blacksmith frees himself and take some of his tools and starts beating the purse with his tools. The Devil screams and yelps and finally says: “Look, I’ll give you complete freedom from your original promise. I will never ever come back for your soul.”

So the blacksmith tricked the devil out of his out of his original promise.

Some more time went by, and eventually the blacksmith died as everybody must, and he went up to heaven. When he got to heaven, St. Peter says “No, I’m sorry. You had your chance. But you made a deal with the Devil. You did not live an honorable life and you’re not allowed into heaven.”

So Jack decides “Well, there’s only one place left.” He decides to go down to Hell.

As he approaches Hell, the Devil spots him and immediately starts locking all nine bolts to the gate of Hell. And as the door is closing Jack runs and says wait, wait, I have no home. I must…you must let me in.

And the Devil said, “I’m sorry, you gave me too much trouble while you were alive. Frankly, I never want to see you here again.”

And as he was closing the gate, Jack, who happened to be eating a turnip, scooped out a coal from Hell to light his way.

Because he was not able to get in either to hell or to heaven and he was doomed to wander the earth as soul without a place of rest.

And that’s the story of Jack-o’-Lantern.

As always, thanks for reading and thanks for listening!

In case you need that podcast link again…here it is!

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