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Haunting ExperiencesGhosts in Contemporary Folklore
By Diane E. Goldstein Sylvia Ann Grider Jeannie Banks Thomas
Utah State University PressCopyright © 2007 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Usefulness of Ghost Stories
Jeannie Banks Thomas
When I discuss supernatural narratives with my students, they inevitably ask me, "Do you believe in ghosts?" They're looking for some kind of vindication or refutation of the numinous. Nothing I can say will do either definitively. Sometimes I give them a poetic answer; I say that the DNA each of us carries in our bodies makes us all ghosts. This is the reverse of how we usually think about ghosts. That is, we imagine them as ethereal forms and as those who've died before us-and not as those of us who are alive today. However, our DNA makes us, in part, the ghosts of our ancestors. We embody scraps, fragments, and glimmers of our forebears. We are shadows of who they were.
This is not the answer that my students want to hear.
They want me to tell them unequivocally whether or not ghosts exist. Also, they secretly (or not so secretly) want me to support with tidy, scholarly facts their belief in either the existence or the nonexistence of ghosts. They want me, as the voice of authority, to take up and confirm the merit of their own views. But because of my training as a folklorist, making such arguments about the existence of ghosts does not interest me (see Dégh 1971). Instead, my focus is the stories about ghosts. These stories range from funny to powerful to mundane, but all are evocative. They communicate culturally or personally significant information to their audiences. It's true that belief is powerful in some of these narratives, and regardless of what scholars assert people will go on narrating anomalous experiences and choosing to believe in scientific or supernatural explanations-or some mixture of both. In fact, it is a deep cultural desire to mix both the scientific and the supernatural. To have scientific evidence for the supernatural, the existence of ghosts, and life beyond death would answer some of the most enduring questions of human existence. Folklore research, like other forms of scholarship, cannot sate that desire. From my folklorist's perspective, providing the answer to the question "Do you believe?" belongs to the people narrating or listening to a haunting experience. They decide what to believe or even if they want to engage with the narrative in terms of belief at all. What folklorists do is take supernatural narratives and belief traditions seriously; we pay attention to them and treat them analytically (see also Houran 2004).
In this chapter, I emphasize that there is much more to the realm of the supernatural than questions of belief, and I argue that ghost stories are a useful way to come to a better understanding of the worlds we inhabit. I present several ghost stories and describe a range of ways in which the narratives help us look more closely and analytically at culture, the environment, and the personal. This approach to ghost stories can help believers, skeptics, and those anywhere in between learn more from ghost stories than they might imagine possible. In making this kind of an argument, I am not attempting to explain away ghost stories-that is, to move from culture, nature, and the personal back into the stories to give some indication of their descriptive accuracy and credibility. Rather, I move in the opposite direction: I'm demonstrating how the stories-whatever their level of believability-can point us outward and take us into realms of interest and significance
For purposes of clarity, I separate the realms of culture, nature, and the personal from each other. I do so recognizing that ghost stories, thanks to their varying content, often differ in what they communicate. For example, some stories reveal the personal; others say more about the cultural. However, I realize that the three realms are often deeply intertwined, shape each other in lived experience, and can all be present in a given supernatural narrative. I also do not mean to imply that ghost stories tell us about only these realms. My focus on them is only meant to be suggestive, to provide a starting point for taking ghost stories seriously.
Like the other chapters in this book, this one also draws the stories from a range of contexts, including both the oral tradition and popular culture, to highlight the way ghosts materialize in contemporary times. So I present several different genres of ghost narratives-ranging from literary fiction to film to narrative (or memorate) to legend-and discuss the larger issues to which the stories direct us. I end this first section of this chapter with a ghost story from the contemporary oral tradition in order to establish some common characteristics of a story from the folk tradition. Gina, one of my students from Indiana, tells this story:
This ... had occurred just after we had moved into our new home. It was an old two-story home. It was dated back in the late 1800s. Our next-door neighbor was quite old and lived in her home since it was built in 1907. She said our house was there for a long time before hers was built. She remembered that, at one time, the owners had buried a horse out in the backyard. She showed us where, and from the looks of the ground, my Dad said, it was sunk in and in a perfect square-shaped hole. "Big enough to put a horse in," he said. She also told us that the owner's wife had died in that house. They only heated the house with the living room fireplace, and she froze to death one night sitting in her rocking chair. Well, we didn't pay much attention to if what she said was true or not. We went on about our business, until one night my sister and I noticed that as we went up the stairway, the attic doors that were on both sides of the stairs on the landing were wide open. I asked my sister if she had been up there; she said no, and I didn't do it [either]. We asked my brother later on that night, and he didn't do it either. Mom and Dad were not at home that day, so we knew they didn't do it. The next day, the same thing happened. This time Mom was home, so we asked if she had been upstairs; she hadn't. But she told us to make sure we kept those attic doors closed because all that cold air would make it colder upstairs if we didn't. Weeks and weeks went by, and every day we would find those doors opened some part of the day. We closed them; then they would be open again. Dad finally came up to see if the latches were working. Maybe the doors weren't latching, and the draft caused them to come open. The only problem is that the old carpet that was on the floor would not allow the doors to come all the way open. You had to pull hard to get them to come all the way back. One night, while my sister and I were in our room, I was doing my homework, and she was talking on the phone; I thought I heard those doors being pulled open. I told Sue, my sister, to shut up for a minute and listen. I walked to our bedroom door, which was open, to get a better look. That's when I saw the other attic door on the opposite hall wall open. I looked back to see if Sue saw it, and she was sitting there with her mouth wide open. She couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. We both didn't want to run past those doors to get downstairs, so we started screaming for Mom or Dad. Dad came stomping up the stairs, hollering for us to quit screaming. I think he scared us worse with his yelling. He told us that we were seeing things, and there was no ghost in the house. He said it was just the wind. Well, it took both of us a long time before we didn't have to run past those doors. We'd run past them and hurry into our room and shut our door. I'll never forget the feeling I had when I watched those doors being pulled open before my eyes. It did seem that after a couple of months, the doors quit opening. Maybe the lady who died was just trying to see if we would leave her house, and after she found out we wouldn't, she left us alone. Who knows? (ISUFA 1995a)
Gina's story is notable because it's a good example of the manner in which ghost stories from contemporary oral tradition are frequently only slightly dramatic. The drama comes from the subject matter and the manner in which people tell the stories rather than from the extraordinary behavior of the supernatural beings. In the oral tradition, people commonly report merely feeling some type of "presence," a cold feeling in the room, or strange noises and nothing more (Guiley 1992, 13). The supernatural presence often does little beyond making itself known in some manner, such as opening the doors in Gina's story. These mild numinous experiences stand in contrast to most Hollywood presentations of the supernatural, as I discuss later in this chapter.
The oral accounts often reveal the importance of "rational explanations"; in Gina's story, her family speculates about faulty latches and the wind as potential causes of the disturbing and anomalous occurrences. However, for Gina and other narrators of haunting experiences, either the rational explanations are not satisfying enough or the possibility of an encounter with the supernatural is just too intriguing not to narrate. In either case, telling a ghost story marks events that do not square with a narrator's knowledge of the ordinary. Categorization and understanding of lived experience are important and expected components of everyday life. When events evade such analysis, they haunt us, and we try to give them some sort of conceptual frame. In some cases, we class them as ghost stories. To draw on the metaphor used in the introduction of this volume, just as some Southerners trap spirits in bottles, we all use a variety of cultural materials-from commodified forms (such as popular fiction, movies, and the ghost tours mentioned in chapter 6) to oral narratives-both to contain these anomalous experiences and also to keep them tantalizingly before us in hopes they'll impart glimmers of meaning. That ghost stories are still frequently told indicates that understanding all the events of everyday life can be difficult, elusive, indefinite, and sometimes impossible. As a type of narrative, the ghost story reminds us how much is awfully and deliciously indeterminate in life. Just as Gina says at the end of her memorate, metaphorically ghost stories also say, "Who knows?"
Ghosts and Culture: Bathrooms and Debts
One of the most common ways that the public encounters ghost stories is in the form of a movie or a trade paperback book; these modes of presentation frequently emphasize the entertainment value of the supernatural. Along with the prevalence of science as a means to explain away ghost stories, the packaging of the supernatural as entertainment has helped perpetuate the notion that ghost stories are trivial-that is, all they're primarily good for is generating a few goose bumps. This idea is so ubiquitous that it overshadows ghost stories' other significant functions and uses. However, one of the useful things that ghost stories do is communicate to us about culture. Like any form of folklore, supernatural narratives directly or indirectly tell us about culture. However, one of the characteristics that distinguishes supernatural narratives is that they emphasize mystery and the indeterminate, which overtly invites interpretation of various kinds. Unlike other folk narrative forms-such as a folktale that is recognized as a fiction-ghost narratives are more slippery. For instance, one person hears a ghost story as truth, and a different person hears the same narrative as fiction. Ghost stories reveal how culture manifests itself in a twilight world that makes copious room for uncertainty and possibility. Thus, supernatural narratives often encourage debate about issues such as reality, fiction, and perception, which are often assumed to be a given in other forms of narrative folklore. That is, the claims to truth or fiction in other types of folk narrative are seemingly clearer.
The veracity of a ghost story is not a prerequisite in order for Cultural meaning to be apparent in the narrative. Scholars, including Gillian Bennett (1999) and Jean-Claude Schmitt (1998), have provided historical views of ghost stories, which also illuminate the culture of particular eras. Believers and nonbelievers alike tell ghost stories because the narratives contain cultural issues relevant to their audience. If the content of a narrative ceases to be interesting to its audiences, it ceases to be told. What ghost stories indicate about the culture of the living can be discerned through attention to narrative detail and storytelling context. When seeking the cultural "truths" revealed by a ghost story, the following are useful questions with which to start:
1. Cultural Values: What cultures does the story reflect? What cultural values or "truths" (historical or contemporary) can be discerned in the narrative? Does it reveal or reinforce cultural values? 2. Cultural Stresses and Conflicts: Does the story present issues about which there is fear, stress, or conflict in the culture? How are these issues handled in the narrative? What views of trauma, death, and the body emerge from the story?
To demonstrate what can be learned about culture from spectral narratives, this section discusses two types of ghost stories: narratives about haunted bathrooms and stories about ghosts and unpaid debts. Haunted bathroom narratives are ubiquitous, although there is little scholarly discussion of this type of story. That this kind of ghost story is common indicates that even a ghost story that seems especially trivial and easy to dismiss still functions for people, and therefore can yield cultural insight.
Many of my students relate accounts of haunted bathrooms; some of them focus specifically on a haunted toilet. These stories, like other ghost stories from the oral tradition, are deceptively simple albeit memorable. Sometimes told as a memorate, the stories focus on either the bathroom hosting a supernatural presence or on a toilet that is haunted. Narrators of the latter stories describe anomalous toilet-flushing sounds. The home's occupants go to the source of the nocturnal noise only to find that no one is in the bathroom and that it would have been impossible for any of the occupants to flush and leave without detection. In short, an unseen hand seems to have flushed the toilet. A discussion of such narratives with my college students in Indiana prompted one male, Scott, to describe an anomalous experience he had while trying to use the toilet at a party he was attending in an older home. His account was a bit more unusual than the run-of-the-mill metaphysical flushing experience: this time the haunting appeared to be located specifically in the toilet paper itself. Apparently, the roll of toilet paper took it upon itself to unroll without assistance, which startled Scott.
Scott's toilet paper memorate led to a lively, classwide discussion on the physics of toilet paper (How many squares of tissue hanging down will generate the momentum needed for the roll to start to unroll?); toilet paper holders (Was the holder level? Was it mounted in a way that could prompt its unrolling?); and the veracity of the narrator (Was drinking involved?). Scott said that he'd been drinking at the party but was not impaired. He speculated on the role of gravity in the situation, but he concluded by maintaining that nothing fully explained what he had seen in that bathroom. His narrative again follows the pattern that I outlined in response to Gina's story: the account acknowledges the importance of rational or scientific explanations while simultaneously finding such approaches inadequate in fully accounting for the events experienced by the narrator.
Excerpted from Haunting Experiences by Diane E. Goldstein Sylvia Ann Grider Jeannie Banks Thomas Copyright © 2007 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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