Monday, November 28, 2011

Traditional Japanese Ghost Story: Okiku

The Japanese love telling ghost stories. One prevalent tale that has been shared since the 12th century is “The Story of Okiku.” 

This story involves a traditional Japanese ghost called a “yuurei.” Like many ghost stories that have been told from one generation to the next, there are several versions of Okiku’s story.

This story is connected to Japanese religious beliefs. The Shinto belief is that all people have a soul, which is called a “reikon.” When a person dies, their reikon leaves their body and joins the souls of their ancestors. 

The Japanese believe there are exceptions to this. For instance, if a person dies suddenly because they were murdered, killed in battle, or they commit suicide-- then their bodies are often not given a proper burial. 

These misplaced souls sometimes become revengeful ghosts called “yuureis.” Yuurei in Japanese means—the soul of the dead.

Many yuureis are females who in life suffered greatly. Causes for this suffering might be love, jealousy, sorrow, or regret. 

These ghosts usually appear wearing the traditional Japanese white kimono known as a Katabira. For centuries these kimonos were used to bury women in. 

Two more defining characteristics of the yuurei ghost is they have no legs, and they are seen between the hours of 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. 

One of the most famous yuurei ghosts appears in the folk story, Bancho Sarayashiki—The Story of Okiku. As stated above, this story has several versions. 

This story is about a young maid named Okiku, who works for a family whose master Tessan Aoyama is a samurai. One day while cleaning the families’ ten precious ceramic plates, she accidentally breaks one of them. The outraged Aoyama kills her and throws her body into a well. 

Every night, after this, Okiku’s ghost rises from the well, slowly she is heard counting out nine plates, and then she breaks into heartbreaking sobs over and over again. This torments Aoyama, who goes insane in the end. So Okiku gets her revenge.

Most versions of this story have Okiku counting from one to nine, and then she heart- wails and sobs. They also state she was thrown in the well after being killed. 

She is always portrayed as the innocent victim of an unreasonable master.

One variation of the story mentions Aoyama actually wants to seduce Okiku. When she refuses his advances, he hides one of the ten Dutch plates and states he will accuse her of stealing it, if she does not become his mistress. In desperation, she throws herself into the well. 

Yet another version has the samurai’s wife break the plate, then she throws it in the well to hide her deed, she tells her husband Okiku stole it, then he kills Okiku. 

One kinder ending to this story has Aoyama paying a family friend to hide in the well and wait for Okiku to appear. As she counts one to nine, he finishes for her by shouting “ten.” This finally stops the sobbing and allows Okiku to rest.

The Japanese state that the well that Okiku was thrown into after she was killed still exists. The most common location cited is at Himeji Castle, also known as the White Egret Castle. 

This castle located west of Kobe has kept its original form for nearly 400 years. It is considered Japan’s most beautiful castle. 

In Japan’s recent devastating earthquake and tsunami, it was not impacted. 

Another area cited for being the possible location of Okiku’s well is at the Canadian embassy in Tokyo that was established on land bought from the Aoyama family. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thailand’s Spirit and Ghost Beliefs

Thailand is Buddhist but they also have an animistic belief in ghosts. This belief is a hold over from before Buddhist times. So their Buddhism is mixed with a spirit based religion.

If you have visited Thailand you probably have noticed little toy houses near most of the buildings. I have a friend who inquired about the significance of these little houses. He found most of the Thai people would not discuss their Buddhist ghost beliefs with him. It is a closely guarded secret.

The Thai feel that spirits are everywhere; they feel strongly that some spirits can even cause trouble. Because of this belief they feel it is important to appease these spirits so they can live their lives in peace. One way they do this is by building or having a little home built for these spirits. Every day the Thai people make offerings to these spirits by leaving water, food, candles, incense, and flowers for them. They feel this pleases the spirits and at the same time keeps them away.

The Thai also believe that not all spirits are bad. They believe that some spirits if they are pleased and treated with respect will help the living by keeping angry ghosts and unwanted intruders away. They also feel these good spirits can help keep them healthy.

These spirit houses are not only outside Thai homes they are often placed outside hotels, hospitals, and office buildings. They can be seen throughout Thailand. They are placed on a post that is at eye-level or slightly higher. When a new house is built the average Thai has a Brahmin priest find the best location for their spirit house in their garden. These houses are always placed facing north or south--north preferably. The Thai people before improving their own homes will improve and enlarge their spirit houses.

The Thai routinely pray or ask these spirits for better jobs, greater wealth, good relationships, and protection. They feel as long as they treat them with respect the spirits will be good to them. In the same vein they feel if a person ignores these spirits they better be on their guard.

Most Thai people in general fear ghosts because of the ghost stories that their parents told them when they were little in order to keep them away from certain places. In Thailand spirits are considered higher in rank than ghosts. They belief ghosts can do horrible things to you: they can make you lose your money, or even your wife. They also can make you sick and even physically accost you.

The Thai believe that when a stranger comes to stay at their home this visitor must first ask permission and protection from the spirit in their spirit house. The homeowner then rewards the spirit for doing them this favor by offering them duck, chicken or a large coconut. If this is not done it is believed their visitor will have really bad dreams and the evil spirit "Phee" will sit on their chest making it hard for them to breathe.

Many Thai say they have seen these ghosts and the Thai media often report on these sightings. Again people from Thailand do not like talking about this but they feel in essence that a war is going on between spirits and ghosts. When questioned about this they evade answering. Despite this it is well known that every village has what they call a “spirit specialist” who looks for just the right spots to place spirit houses. This specialist conducts a ceremony where he chants the proper mantras in order to establish protection for the living.

“These Buddhist ghost beliefs still play a big influence in the lives of the Thai.”                                                                              
                                               --Buddhist Ghost Beliefs

Spirit Houses
Sino-Thai Tower

The only exception are the young Thai of the latest generation who live in large cities. This portion of the Thai population is the first to ignore this tradition.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

New Mexico Legend: The Miraculous Staircase

In 1610 the Spanish founded Santa Fe, today the capital of New Mexico. Santa Fe was originally called the “Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi,” in Spanish-- La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi. 

Santa Fe remained under the control of the New Republic of Mexico for 25 years. In 1848 with the U.S. victory in the Mexican War the southwest was ceded to the United States.

Loretto Chapel
At the end of the Old Santa Fe Trail in the capital stands the Loretto Chapel. In 1850 Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy was appointed by the Catholic Church to New Mexico territory. 

Seeking to spread the faith and bring an educational system to the territory he sent out a plea for priests, brothers, and nuns to come preach and teach.

In 1852 the Sisters of Loretto founded in 1812 in Kentucky responded to Lamy’s plea. They sent seven sisters but only five arrived in 1852, their journey to Santa Fe was very difficult. 

Their Mother Superior died in a cholera epidemic as they traveled by wagon and another sister became too ill to continue and returned to Kentucky. 

These sisters opened the “Academy of Our Lady of Light (Loretto) in 1853. In 1855 several more sisters joined them. Their school grew to over 300 students with a campus that covered a square block with ten buildings.

Despite the challenges of the new territory, which included: smallpox, tuberculosis, leaky mud roofs, and a brush with rowdy Confederate Texas soldiers during the Civil War the Loretta Sister’s school thrived. Their student’s tuitions were paid through donations, and from the sister’s own inheritances from their families.

Bishop Lamy brought architect Antoine Mouly and his son from Paris, France to Santa Fe to build what is now St. Francis Cathedral. It took them ten years to complete the construction. 

During this time Lamy encouraged the Loretta Sisters to have the Mouly’s design and build their dream chapel as well. The sisters again pooled their own inheritances to raise the $30,000 required to build the chapel.

Work began on the Loretto in 1873. The Mouly’s fashioned the chapel after the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. The stain glass used was purchased from the DuBois Studio in Paris. It traveled to Santa Fe by sailing ship, paddleboat, and wagon. Construction on the chapel was completed in 1878.

During the time the Loretto Chapel was completed it was standard practice to use a ladder to get to the choir loft in churches. The Loretto Sisters found their long habits prevented them from climbing this ladder. 

Carpenters were called in to address the problem, these craftsmen all stated that a staircase would take up too much floor space in the small chapel.

Legend states the sister’s in an attempt to find a solution to the seating problem, made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a man appeared at the chapel with a donkey and a toolbox looking for work. 

He used a square, saw, hammer, and water and worked in privacy. Six months later, the elegant circular staircase was completed, and the carpenter who built it by himself disappeared without thanks or collecting his pay.

The sisters searched for this carpenter, they even put an ad in the local newspaper. When they found no trace of him the sisters concluded that he was St. Joseph himself, having come to answer their prayers. 

Many still believe in this legend. In recent years several people have tried to debunk it but the more recent Sisters of Loretto have not accepted any of the new explanations for the mysterious carpenter.

When I was little the staircase was still open for visitors to walk up and down—it was originally built without the handrails that adorn it today and it is extremely steep. 

The staircase design was not only innovative for the time but this structure also enhances the aesthetic appeal of the entire chapel. The Gothic Loretto Chapel as a whole is a very beautiful place.

“It has been surmised that the central spiral of the staircase is narrow enough to serve as a central beam. Nonetheless there was no attachment unto any wall or pole in the original staircase.”

Some of the design elements of the Loretto Chapel’s staircase still perplex architects, engineers, and master craftsmen today. The staircase makes over two complete 360-degree turns, stands 20 feet tall and has no center support. It rests solely on its base and against the choir loft. 

The risers of the 33 steps are all the same height. It was made from a wood that was not found anywhere in the region. Where this lumber came from is a part of the mystery for no one saw any deliveries. Glue and nails were not used in its construction just wooden square pegs.

Hundreds of thousands of people have visited the Loretto Chapel over the years to view The Miraculous Staircase. The Loretto Academy was closed in 1968—the chapel was put up for sale. In 1971, the chapel was informally deconsecrated as a Catholic chapel. Today it is run as a private museum.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Shirley Plantation: The Ghost of Aunt Pratt

The Shirley Plantation, located in Virginia's coastal region, is the states oldest plantation. It was founded in 1613, just six years after the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown. 

During its long history Shirley has been the home for eleven generations of the same family, today this family continues to own, operate, and work this grand plantation. 

The Shirley Plantation is a National Historic Landmark.

Through its history, this southern plantation managed to survive Indian uprisings, Bacon’s Rebellion, the American Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. 

One story about the Plantation’s main house called the “Grand House” took place during the civil war. 

Around 2000 Union soldiers camped around the plantation. The Shirley women turned the Grand House into a hospital where they tended to both Union and Confederate soldiers, it is believed this is why the house was not burned down.

The descendants of Edward Hill I, the original owner, still reside in a private residence on the plantation. The Shirley Plantation is the oldest family-run business in North America. 

Edward Hill I established the farm in 1638, and construction on the Grand House started in 1723, when Elizabeth Hill, the great-granddaughter of the first Hill married. The house was completed in 1738. 

The Shirley Plantation is known for its resident ghost. 

Martha Hill Pratt was known to the family as “Aunt Pratt.” She was the daughter of Edward Hill III, 17th-century owner of the Shirley. 

Her manifestations occur through a portrait of her that hangs in the Grand House.

When Martha Pratt finished her schooling, she left an unsigned portrait of herself at the Grand House. She traveled to England where she married an Englishman by the name of Huge Griffin. The surname Pratt is a family pet name.

Originally this portrait was hung in a bedroom on the second floor. When Martha passed away, the family moved her picture to the third floor. After this, the family noticed the portrait started to shake and rock on the wall. So they moved the painting to the attic. 

Then the family began hearing knocking sounds all over the house. Yet later, when they moved the portrait to the first floor, it continued to tremble and shake. 

Some concluded Martha's spirit was attached to the picture, and she was apparently not happy with the moves.

The portraits strange behavior led to it being put on display in New York. While being filmed for a television report, the camera caught it shaking. 

Over the years, the portraits’ shaking and rocking caused its frame to break down. While in a shop being repaired workers stated that they heard bells tolling, but there were no bells in the area.

When the portrait was returned to the house, it was hung in its original place on the second floor. It seems to be finally at peace. 

School groups that tour the Grand House are encouraged to stand to the side when viewing Aunt Pratt’s portrait because she does not like to have her view out the window blocked. Her dark eyes and stern mouth dominate the room.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Crows Connection to Death

Crows for centuries have been closely connected with death. The main reason is this bird feeds on carrion-- the flesh of the dead. Because of this, many cultures associate crows with death and dying. Some cultures in the past believed that crows were messengers of death. How this reputation came about is certainly understandable but is unfair.

If we look at examples in history around the world, it becomes clear why so many cultures have a tradition of associating crows with death. In early times, mans'  bodies were not buried; it was a common sight to see crows feasting upon human corpses. 

For centuries crows during times of war have been observed following soldiers onto battlefields where they wait patiently for the battle to be over so they can feed upon the fallen. In medieval Western Europe, during an outbreak of the Bubonic plague, people noted crows feeding upon the victims’ stacked bodies.

Because of this association with death, crows over time gained a bad reputation. But not all cultures viewed them in this light. 

Some Native American cultures see crows as a positive symbol because they believe the crow acts as a communicator or liaison between this world and the next. They are viewed as assisters that help the deceased cross over. 

The Tibetans held a somewhat similar belief-- they once placed pieces of bodies on top of temples so that crows could carry them to the next life. 

The early Celtics viewed crows as the mediators between the human and spirit worlds. They believed that crows were oracles that god used to speak to them. This belief probably came about because crows can be trained to talk. So to some cultures, crows are spiritual or supernatural in nature.

Over time this belief that crows were connected to death was used to teach lessons.

In the 13th century Talmud, a vast collection of Jewish laws, there is a story where a crow teaches Adam and Eve to bury the body of their son. Adam and Eve, being confronted with this first dead body on earth after creation, did not know what to do with it. The story states the crow then kills another crow and buries it in front of Adam and Eve as a demonstration.

In an early Buddhist tradition, monks would sit in a graveyard and concentrate on decomposing bodies, again in time before bodies were buried correctly, later this was done through imagery and meditation. At one point during this guided meditation, the monk would see the image of a crow feasting upon his own corpse. The idea behind this was to keep death always in the forefront.

In a similar western tradition, the Benedictine monks founded by St. Benedict, who once claimed a crow saved his life by warning him about a piece of poisoned bread, believed death should always be kept before the living. 

The reason these two groups used the crow and its scavenging ways was to remind them that the presence of death is a part of the natural cycle of life. When we can see and understand the ephemerality of our lives, we learn to appreciate life daily.

The false belief that crows bring death has resulted in a variety of myths and superstitions being passed down from one generation to the next. One of the most prevalent of these myths is about crows in graveyards. People say they hang out in them because of their connection to death. After all, crows are big, black, and spooky. 

In reality, crows just find graveyards an ideal habitat. There is a lovely mowed expanse of lawn where they can easily spot earthworms to eat etc. There is abundant water with plenty of trees to keep watch from, and graveyards are quiet which crows like. There is another myth about crows flocking together in cemeteries; they do this for protection, not for any supernatural reason.

The Greeks felt that crows were a negative omen, often foretelling death. Because of this belief, they would say to the birds, “Go on your way, and bring me the good news.” One term used for a group of crows is “murder” this comes from Greek mythology as well. 

The Irish for generations believed that when a crow caws three times, they are announcing the death of an individual. It was also believed if a crow flew in a house and couldn’t get out, it was a bad omen.

Some superstitions state that a crow must fly into the house to foretell death. If the bird flies in a home in the morning, the person will die in a better manner than if the crow flies in at dusk. If the crow is covered in mud or injured, the person will have a long illness.

Today in our urban world, it is still almost impossible to avoid seeing crows near the highway picking at roadkill. This could be the reason why so many myths and superstitions persist about the crow being a symbol of death. 

In reality, crows are not to be feared. In fact, when they are observed carefully, people note they are vibrant and alive. They are always doing something creative, and they are very playful, which is an indicator they are intelligent. 

In a recent Nature episode entitled “A Murder of Crows” on PBS, it was shown crows make tools that help them retrieve food. Research recently indicates they are among the brightest animals in the world.

What is impressive is that crows seem to understand their own mortality. When one of them dies, people have observed the following phenomenon. They often fly around the deceased bird cawing; in fact, they seem to hold their version of a crow funeral. They are seen landing and forming a circle around the dead bird’s body. They stand still and silent for anywhere from a few minutes to over thirty minutes. 

The people who have witnessed this event state that it shocked them, for it was evident to them these crows were not just standing around.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Family Ghost Story: The Canterville Ghost

The perfect family holiday ghost story is The Canterville Ghost a short story written by the Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde. This story was first published in 1887. 

The Canterville Ghost is unique in many ways. Wilde wrote his story from the ghosts’ perspective, which is unlike most ghost stories that are told from the point of view of the people being haunted. Wilde also manages to mix the macabre with comedy delightfully.

Wilde uses two cultures, the American and British and pits them against each other, which creates a very humorous story. 

He takes the quintessential modern American family, the Otises, and places them in a traditional English country manor house, Canterville Chase, that also happens to be haunted by Sir Simon who has been haunting the place for 400 years. 

In a twist that is no less than genius, Wilde turns the tables on Sir Simon and makes him the victim of the Americans as opposed to him being able to victimize them.

The dark side of the story is that Sir Simon committed a terrible crime—he killed his wife for being plain and a bad housekeeper—which you have to admit is kind of funny. His wife’s brothers punish him by locking him in a room and leaving him to starve to death.

The story begins with Mr. Otis being warned by Lord Canterville that the Chase is haunted. 

Besides Mr. Otis the family includes Mrs. Otis whom Wilde complements by stating she is British like, their daughter Virginia, their eldest son Washington and two younger boys who are twins referred to as Stars and Stripes. 

None of the family believes in ghosts but when they discover that the Chase is indeed haunted they all take it in stride adding to the humor in the story.

Sir Simon in a series of very funny attempts tries to impress and scare the Otises, which results in his ultimate chagrin. 

He makes a bloodstain reappear near the sitting room fireplace, which is his wife’s blood, he rattles chains and his apparition appears to the Otis family each time more gruesome than the last. Humorously the Otises foil his efforts at every turn.

He plots his revenge but he doesn’t succeed. In fact, the Otises’ terrible twins turn the tables on him. 

They use trip wires, a butter slide which results in Sir Simon falling down the staircase, buckets of water balanced on half open doors, and they even rig up an apparition themselves made with a pumpkin head that torments and terrifies Sir Simon which results in him giving up. 

To his shame, he finds himself creeping around the manor quietly so he is not discovered. Finally, he retreats depressed and in a weakened state to his secret room.

Wilde presents the Otis family in a variety of lights. A humorous bit he uses throughout the story is their belief in commercial remedies to solve all problems. 

When Mrs. Otis discovers the bloodstain in the sitting room Washington immediately suggests they use “Champion Stain Remover and Paragan Detergent” to get rid of it. Wilde in a tactful way is also making fun of Americans which I find is not offensive because it has shades of truth.

In the end, Virginia the Otises fifteen year-old daughter who is the only Otis who doesn’t dismiss Sir Simon listens to his problems and helps him, which ultimately helps her. 

So this story is actually one of redemption through the power of love.

You can read The Canterville Ghost On Project Gutenberg for free or at Wikisource:

There is a nice audio version of the story at Librivox:

There is a nice abridged version of the story for children, which leaves out the gruesome details at:

Many film and television versions of The Canterville Ghost have been made over the years as well. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

English Christmas Ghost Stories: Told After Supper

Recently I shared a little bit about the history of the English Victorian practice of gathering around a warm fire on Christmas Eve in order to share ghost stories. 

This tradition was as prevalent to the English Victorian as Santa Claus is to Americans today. The ghost stories these Victorians shared are fascinating.

Here is more of the history of why the Victorians chose Christmas Eve to share these stories.

The Victorian Christmas was based upon many Roman pagan and Northern European beliefs and traditions that the early Christians adopted. Some of these traditions include the Yule log, holly berries, and even Father Christmas. 

The Victorian Christmas also embraced the winter pagan festival that commemorated the winter solstice. The winter solstice, which is the longest night of the year, symbolized “the death of light and its subsequent rebirth the following day.”

Believing in the death of light resulted in a belief that the winter solstice night was the most haunted night of the year. It was believed that the barriers between the world of the living and the deceased were thinnest on this day. 

Therefore on Christmas Eve ghosts could walk the earth and finish unsettled business. The character of Marley in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol epitomized this concept.

As mentioned in my previous two posts on this subject this tradition is almost completely forgotten today in America. In England ghost stories are still shared at this time of year.* The stories that were told during this period of time should not be forgotten—they represent a rich literature history.

            “Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round the fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories.”

            “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres.”

                                                                        ---Jerome K. Jerome

Jerome K. Jerome an English writer and humorist wrote these words as part of an introduction to an anthology he wrote in 1891 entitled Told After Supper. This is a superb collection of stories that the Victorians told each other on Christmas Eve. 

Click on the link below to hear an audio version of Jerome’s book. This audio player shares the entire book one section after another. The first part is a wonderful overview of the kind of stories that were told. Then the following sections share just a few “true ghost stories that were told.”

Free Audio Books - Told after Supper by Jerome K. Jerome

* Another reason ghost stories became popular at Christmas time in Victorian England was this was a relatively cheap entertainment for the aspiring middle classes. Starting in the 1840's publishers were able to produce cheaper special editions for serials and magazines. These stories were often ghost stories. 

Charles Dicken's twopenny weekly "Household Words" launched in 1856, always had a short story in its Christmas edition and this story was more often than not a ghost story. He also wrote ghost stories for its successor "All The Year Round". 

So these ghost stories became an integral part of the Victorian Christmas. Read around the fire, they were popular home amusement in those households that could not afford the expense of going to the theatre or a concert.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Christmas Jump Story

In my last post I talked about the Victorian English tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas Eve. These stories are often more fable than scary; all were shared for their entertainment value. The following story was often told in English households on Christmas Eve it is inspired by William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It is also as the ending will attest a traditional jump story.

John Poole lived in house once owned by the local priest. It was situated so that its back windows looked upon the local churchyard. It was said the local priest had moved away with his wife for she did not like the view especially at night. Poole a widower lived in the house alone. He was not a friendly man so he spent his days very much by himself.

During this time it was the custom to bury people at night by torchlight. It was remarked upon that John Poole was always at one of his back windows looking upon these funeral ceremonies. One stormy winters night Poole watched as the old Wilkins women was buried. She was an ugly hag known to be stingy and cruel. Bad luck followed her and even the beggars in the town would not knock upon her door. To the surprise of all she left a large sum of money to the church but she was so disliked a large fee had to be paid to the bearers and torch carriers that accompanied her body to the churchyard.

As Poole watched from his window he took note that she was buried in a woolen without a coffin and that no one attended except those few men who were paid. Just before her grave was filled in the parson stooped down and cast something upon her body—it clinked as it landed. The parson in a low voice stated, “Thy money perish with thee.” He and the rest hurried away leaving only one torch and the sexton to shovel the earth in.

The next day being Sunday the churchgoers noticed how untidy this fresh grave was in comparison to the rest. They criticized the sexton for a sloppy job. When he inspected the grave he was concerned for it looked worse than when he left it.

Presently the locals had yet another surprise, John Poole started to be seen out and about. People noted he appeared happy but nervous. He spent more than one evening at the inn, which was very unusual considering his normal unsociable habits. He hinted that he had come into some extra cash and was looking for a better house. The smith patted him on the back and stated, “Well it is about time, that house is too spooky by far. I imagine you fancy all kinds of scary things at night. They say old Wilkin’s grave has been disturbed. If I were you I’d be worried she might climb up to my bedroom window one night.”

The landlord intervened, “Don’t be scaring our friend here.” He glanced at Poole with a fatherly concern. “But they do say there are lights in the yard when no is about, do you ever see the lights, Master Poole?”

Poole now in a foul mood denied ever seeing any lights and sulked over to a dark corner table with another drink. He headed home later than he had planned. Once home he found himself in bed unable to sleep. The wind outside lashed out at the house. He crossed to a cupboard in the wall and took something out that clinked and tucked it inside his nightshirt pocket. He went to the window that framed the churchyard.

The drink or his imagination was playing a trick on him for he thought he saw a figure draped in a shroud. The shroud was bunched together at the top in an odd manner. This figure was near the grave in a part of the yard that Poole knew very well—he darted back to his bed and lay there very still.

A few moments later he heard something rattle the casement of the window. With dread he turned his eyes in that direction. Outlined in the moonlight was a curiously bunched head—then there was a figure in the room. Dry earth pelted the floor.

A low cracked voice said, “Where is it?” Faltering steps rustled back and forth with difficulty. The figure peered into corners, stooped to look under chairs; finally it fumbled with the doors of the cupboard in the wall, throwing them open.

Poole heard a scratching of nails on the empty shelves. The figure whipped around, stood for an instance at the side of his bed, raised its arms, and screamed hoarsely, “YOU’VE GOT IT!”

At this point the teller of the story lunges toward the closest or most scared listener of the story…

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Tradition of Ghost Stories at Christmas

A long time ago, I read an interesting question posed on an English forum about when the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmastime first came about. The responses to this question were so compelling I started to wonder how this tradition evolved. Even to me, it is an odd connection. 

My research led me to this fact—the English Victorians shaped the Christmas that many Americans celebrate today—and one fact about the English Victorians is they loved telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. This tradition is all but lost in America today. The British, however, showed ghost stories near Christmas on television up until more recent years.

An early example of this Victorian tradition is Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol. Some state that the English told ghost stories around the holidays because this was when most new literature was published. 

Others state that the tradition came about because winter brings the longest nights of the year, which lends itself nicely to the telling of ghost stories. Yet others speculate that ghost stories were told to overly excited children during the holidays to help them expel some of their excess energy. 

Regardless of its origins, this tradition in part jumped the Atlantic and played a small role in America 160 years ago.

An  example of this is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which has a group of friends sitting around the hearth on Christmas Eve telling a terrifying and sinister ghost story. 

Another is in the Christmas song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, where one line states, “there’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.” 

More recently Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas reflects a lingering interest in ghosts during the holidays.

Some object to this connection between the ghost story and Christmas--they state it has pagan beginnings. Regardless, even in the mid 19th century, it only played a tiny part as mentioned above in American Christmas traditions, so I feel this is a non-issue.

Another possible reason for this tradition is that many believe that spirit activity is more pronounced in the colder months of the year. Some even state that snow makes for a more proper setting for the telling of ghost stories. 

One ghost story told by the English Victorians involved a shipwreck and a sailor, this story was not only told at Christmas but also happened on Christmas.

It was a very stormy night, and the Shipwright Arms in Faversham was closed tight for the night. The violent storm had forced a vessel to run aground on the Kentish coast. 

The captain of this ship washed up on the shore—he managed to stagger to the Arms and had just enough energy left to pound upon the door. 

The landlord within hearing the rude knocks ignored them thinking it must be some of that nights’ drunk customers returned for another drink. The landlord, unconcerned, fell back asleep. 

The next morning being Christmas, the landlord had no reason to open his door for business, so it wasn’t until noon that he discovered the frozen captains’ dead body near his doorstep.

Ever since, the spirit of the captain has haunted the landlords of the Shipwright Arms. 

He announces his presence with the distinct smell of tobacco and rum. His apparition always appears at Christmas. 

One former landlady who ran the inn encountered the ghost of the captain late one Christmas Eve night. She lay asleep when she awakened to glaring eyes at the foot of her bed. The next morning she realized that the figure she had seen was dressed like the captain who had been described to her.

A more recent landlord at the Arms also encountered the captain’s ghost on Christmas. He was awakened in the middle of the night, he glanced over and realized that something was lying on the other side of the bed; in horror, he realized it was the semi-transparent form of the captain. 

Yet another phenomenon that occurs at the inn late at night, on Christmas Eve, is the ghostly pounding on the front door and windows. When people go to see who is making such a racket, there is no one there.