Friday, November 30, 2012

The Ghost Stories Children Tell to Other Children

Death is never neat and tidy even in our modern world. Children seem to have an innate sense of this fact. I spent many years teaching young children—I love stories and storytelling—so when my students told stories to each other, I paid close, attention. 

The ghost stories I heard that were shared on the playground and in the classroom have nothing to do with the ghost stories that are told by adults in books, in films or on television.

What struck me as most fascinating is the way these tales were told had a more significant impact on these children than the stories themselves. Young children tell ghost stories to delight in terror, but they very carefully control—“control” being the key word here---how much terror is allowed in these stories. 

Within children’s oral traditions, they do not need adult censure—they are very conscious of how much of a fright they can handle. This knowledge empowers them to a much higher degree, then most adults would suspect.

One trick children use in telling these stories is they never address directly the monster, ghost, or whatever the cause of their fear is. In fact, in many of their stories, this source of fear is never even mentioned. 

Another primary device they use is humor—this humor is placed strategically at the end of their stories and allows them to address their fears with a built-in safety valve or release. 

But foremost in their minds is to entertain and be entertained. Young children adore surprise or unexpected endings, so at the end of these stories, they always break out in peals of laughter. 

Several of the children’s ghost stories I have shared in the past use these tricks. “Bloody Fingers” with its surprise humorous ending. “The Golden Arm” with its gotcha moment at the end. Mark Twain's’ ghost story with him loudly stomping, which startles the audience into laughter at the end and the various “jump stories” I have shared all reflect how young children tell ghost stories.

Young children keep the ghost stories, they tell simple, but when adults consider them more carefully, it becomes apparent that children’s ghost stories just like adult ghost stories impart in-depth lessons. 

So children are not only safely addressing their fears they, just like adults when they tell ghost stories, are passing on societal norms to their peer group. 

A classic example of this is a children’s ghost story that originated in Poland entitled “The Stolen Liver.”  A more modern version of this tale that I heard my own students tell is a simplified version of this original tale. 

There are just two main characters in the story, the mother and a son. This story teaches norms about listening to parents, and I imagine its original intent was to teach children to avoid cannibalism and grave robbing. It has a surprise ending for my students told it as a “Jump Story.”

A mother sent her son to the store to buy liver. 

"Now go there and come right back. I am making your father’s friend a special meal tonight. His favorite is liver, so ask the butcher for the best he has." 

The son jumped on his bike and headed for the store. Halfway there, his friend called out his name. “Hey, Tommy come play with us, we need a good pitcher.”

Forgetting his errand, he played several innings with his friends. As the sun went down, he realized what he had forgotten, he quickly jumped on his bike and headed to the store. But when he got there, it had already closed. 

He reluctantly headed home. His mother was going to be mad. 

As he passed the neighborhood cemetery, he had an idea. He went to the fresh grave of his Uncle Henry. He thought--he doesn’t need his liver anymore. He found a shovel in the cemeteries shed and started digging. He then quickly headed home.

His mother cooked the liver, and his father and his friend enjoyed the meal. Tommy relieved went upstairs to bed. He fell asleep quickly. Later, a booming voice woke him up.

“Where’s my liver?”

Tommy lay still as he heard loud footsteps come up the stairs.

Thump, thump, thump.

The footsteps stopped outside his door.

“Where is my liver?”

“Who’s got my liver?”

The door slammed open, and he saw his uncle’s face floating above his bed.

"Where is my liver?"

He screamed back, “We ate it.”

At this point, the child telling the story would always lunge at or grab another child nearby. The group listening would then laugh, giggle, or shout out in loud delight—showing their approval.

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