Folklore: Ghosts

To review: I was supposed to teach a folklore course for a local community college this fall, but it got canceled. Hopefully, I will get a chance to teach it this coming spring! In the meantime, I have been posting occasionally about all the stuff I researched. These posts are basically my lecture notes (not the way I would present the material in the classroom).

Ghost folklore is actually split between two classes, but for the purposes of this post, I will combine the material.

First, the Puritans did believe in ghosts. I had a hard time tracking down this information. I got the impression that there was no official belief in ghosts but neither was there any official disapproval. Increase Mather (see below) collected a lot of ghost stories. Many of them used the following motifs:
The ghost with a message
The poltergeist (yup, the Puritans had poltergeists!)
The portent (somethings about to happen)
Headless ghost
Roadside ghost
Ghost protecting treasure
Ghosts have never really disappeared from American folklore but in the 19th century, they receive a huge burst of energy with the growth of spiritualism. Spiritualism, specifically mediums, was taken very seriously. Scientific American did investigations! It seems hard for us media savvy (and media-inundated) 20th century products to believe but people did honestly accept photographs such as the following:

The woman is spouting ectoplasm. Ectoplasm was supposedly a manifestation of spirits. It looks like a bunch of cloth to modern eyes, and it was, but keep in mind these were the same people who accepted Arthur Conan Doyle's fairies as more than just cardboard cutouts:

The same motifs listed above appear in 19th century ghost folklore. And they show up in contemporary ghost stories! With the help of the awesome Alvin Schwartz--who publishes scary folktales for kids and, even better, includes notes of where the tales came from--and Marcus LiBrizzi (Dark Woods, Chill Water: Ghost Tales from Down East Maine), I was able to locate modern tales about haunted houses and haunted dorm rooms. And I won't forget all the ghost tales that many of us grew up hearing around campfires and at slumber parties.

Literature examples: Possible the most famous "Americana" example of ghost literature is "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" which uses the motif of the headless/roadside ghost. Ghosts also show up (or do they? wink wink) in Henry James Turn of the Screw, Sarah Orne Jewett's work, and they practically drip out of Poe's work. A great example of a classic poltergeist appears in the child's classic: The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.

Popular culture: To prepare for this course, I watched Spielberg's Poltergeist for the first time this summer. I was pleasantly surprised to see Craig T. Nelson, one of my no-hands-down favorite actors.

The movie works as entertainment, not so much as an example of any particular ghost motif. My reaction was that Spielberg collected every single religious/popular culture/folklore motif regarding ghosts in our culture and threw it all at the screen. Being the master storyteller he is, he doesn't lose the viewer because he concentrates on the parents' trials. If I use the movie, I will show the clip of the mom in the kitchen when she realizes that the chairs keep shifting--classic poltergeist behavior! (However, the explanation for the behavior is so confusing, I've forgotten what it was.)

1 comment:

  1. One thing I've found interesting is that the rational for ghosts in popular media has pretty much settled on the "unfinished business" aspect. Granted, this is for dramatic reasons, but I still find it interesting from observationally and boring and predictable when a viewer.

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