Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Why People Tell Ghost Stories

On this blog I tell two very distinct types of ghost stories. The first type is eyewitness accounts from people who have seen or experienced a spirit, ghost or haunting in some way that convinces them that there is something beyond the living realm that is not yet understood. * 

The second type of ghost story I retell is more fanciful—based in local legends or myths. This type is told to entertain or scare etc. But what is surprising is this type of ghost story has a purpose that goes far beyond entertainment. **

Storytelling throughout history has been used to define peoples’ identity as well as to define their behavior. Some ghost stories are cautionary tales. In this type of ghost tale the reoccurring theme is one of action and consequence. 

The ghost returns in these tales to settle unfinished business because they did something wrong while alive or someone did something wrong to them—hence they haunt. The result is a haunting where the memory of the wrong done is kept in the forefront in order to show there are consequences to pay.

Another prevalent theme in ghost tales is to point out behavior that goes against the grain of what people expect. Around the world ghost stories have been used to teach what is acceptable and what is not within a group or society. Many traditional ghost stories impart some kind of moral lesson. How they impart these lessons is unique. 

They often teach their lesson by scaring people into believing or behaving in a certain way etc. This method is archaic but a very effective way to get a message across. 

Another message they sent in ancient times was the proper way to grieve and bury the dead.

Ghost tales often present a moral dilemma that we as humans face in our everyday lives. The fear of death and what happens afterwards is at the forefront of many ghost stories. But what most of these ghost tales reflect are our nightmares about death and not the reality –since death remains a mystery.

Ghost stories also reflect the cultural beliefs and fears at the time they originated. This was especially true in early history when people did not have readily available explanations for the natural occurrences around them-- this caused anxiety which sometimes resulted in a ghost story, legend, myth or superstition being presented in order to explain the occurrence and ease people's fears.

As mentioned above, an overriding theme in many ghost stories is how we deal with our own mortality—regardless of whether it is from a religious or secular point of view. Ghost stories were and are often told to comfort and alleviate people’s fear of death. Tales of family members that return as spirits are told for this purpose.  

Another characteristic that is ignored about ghost stories is they often fulfill a very basic human need. They are a way to vent the anxieties we encounter in our daily lives. 

They sometimes revolve around violence and horror in order to help us cope with our own human condition. But what is most unusual is that many of these scary tales actually provide comfort. Since they provide us with one avenue to face our fears. 

So it is not an overstatement to say ghost stories help us to better understand the world we live in.

* I try to share as many stories as possible that reflect paranormal activity that has occurred and been witnessed for many years.

**  Often these two are mixed—both folk legend and real sightings.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Russian Ghost Folktale: The Two Corpses

Russian folktales about ghosts often involve corpses coming back to life. These tales mix horror with ghost stories. I find some of them scary and even macabre because they have “corpses” trying to kill and eat the living. In contrast, these stories often have elements of a person being honored or giving respect to others. Lastly, they often mention God as being the salvation of the person being threatened.

Here is my version of one such tale: *

A soldier given leave headed home to honor his parents and give thanks to God for delivering him. As the sun set slowly the soldier was walking along a country lane near an old graveyard. As the scene around him darkened the soldier was startled to hear footsteps behind him. He had not seen another living soul for miles so he glanced around to see who it was. He saw no one but feeling uneasy he quickened his pace.

Alarmed he heard the footsteps behind him also hasten. He glanced around once more but no one was there. In a panic he started to run. He heard the foot falls behind also break into a run. In the next moment he heard a voice close by cry, “Stop, you can’t escape!”

He dared to glance back one last time. To his horror he spotted a white boned corpse running after him. Its skull seemed to lurch forward and the soldier saw white gumless teeth gnashing quickly. Now desperate to get away the soldier leapt to one side of the lane. He spied the darkened outline of a small chapel and bolted toward its entryway.

He raced inside the chapel but before he could catch his breath he saw yet another corpse laid out on a cold stone slab in front of him. Several thin candles glowed around the body covered in dust and cobwebs. Not finding any comfort he quickly hid in a dark corner. As he stilled his breath he questioned his sanity. The soldier shook off his fear and hoped that what he was experiencing was just a nightmare from which he could awake.

But a cold numbness settled over him as he watched the corpse who had chased him rush into the chapel. In the next moment the corpse laid out on the slab jumped up dislodging several cobwebs.

“What have you come here for?”

Still gnashing his teeth the first corpse replied, “I chased a soldier in here. Where is he? I intend to eat him.”

“Come now you can’t be serious, brother. He has run into my house, therefore he is mine to eat.”

The soldier horrified, quietly watched and listened as the two corpses continued to argue over which one would eat him.

“He is mine.”

“No, he is mine.”



As the two corpses gripped each other in mindless anger the dust in the old chapel was stirred into a violent frenzy. They continued this struggle until the first cock’s crow. The soldier then saw the two corpses fall lifeless onto the ground. He left the chapel swiftly, grateful for the morning's light. The soldier knew God had once more spared his life.

*  As stated this is my version of a Russian folktale. It can be found in W.R.S. Ralston’s book entitled, Russian Folk-Tales, 1873. Ralston’s source was Aleksandr Afanasyev.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Death and Poetry: The Hearse Song

Old-fashioned hearse.
When I was in the second grade my sister and her friend taught me this poem. Once learned, I recited it on many occasions. I don't remember it being connected to just Halloween. 

Looking back I am amazed at how fast I learned it for it is not a short poem. This was probably because it has a nice cadence, and of course, we sang it. 

The subject is gruesome but it was fun. I remember how I relished the words as they rolled off my tongue especially the part about the worms.

The Hearse Song

Don't you ever laugh as a hearse rolls by,
For you may be the next to die.
They wrap you up in a big white sheet
From your head down to your feet.
They put you in a big black box
And cover you up with dirt and rocks.
All goes well for about a week,
Then your coffin begins to leak.
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snort.
They eat your eyes, they eat your nose,
The eat the jelly between your toes.
A big green worm with rolling eyes
Crawls in your stomach and out your eyes.
Your stomach turns a slimy green,
And pus pours out like whipping cream.
You spread it on a slice of bread,
And that's what you eat when you are dead.

Years later when reading the "Scary Story" books written by Alvin Schwartz I discovered that this song/ poem is a more recent version of a poem that was recited by American and English troops during World War l. Below is the version they recited.

"Did you ever think as a hearse rolls by 
That some of these days you must surely die?
They'll take you away in a large black hack;
They'll take you away but they won't bring you back.

"...And your eyes drop out and your teeth fall in
And the worms crawl over your mouth and chin;
And the worms crawl out and the worms crawl in
And your limbs drop off limb by limb."

The words changed in these two versions but both poems had a useful purpose. In World War l this song helped soldiers deal with the fear they felt. 

For children in my generation, I feel it served a similar purpose. I have mentioned in other posts that ghost stories give children a non-threatening fun avenue to deal with their fears. 

The Hearse Song helps children in that it allows them to deal with the concept of death.

Schwartz points out that this song is part of a long-standing European poetic tradition that deals with death and decay and ultimately the hereafter. The following poem is one example from the 12th century.

"A vicious worm lives in my backbone;
My eyes are dazed and very dim:
My guts rot, my hair is green,
My teeth grin very grimly."

Here is the song with an extra verse thrown in for good measure.