The Validity of Ghosts
A few weeks back I had the pleasure to perform at the Sangamon County Historical Society's "Spooky Sangamon." The other two presenters were: Ms. Tara McAndrew McClellan, and Mr Garrett Moffett. Ms. McClellann did a presentation about how Springfield, Il residents reacted to the infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. And Mr. Garrett Moffett spoke on the possible hauntings of the Lincolns’ Home, and on Lincoln's psychic experiences.
My own presentation was of two traditional ghost stories. As I explained to the attendees, finding folkloric ghost stories in Sangamon County - or even in Central Illinois - were as hard to find as the ghosts themselves. So the criteria for my choices were stories that could be found up to the eastern border of Illinois, and on the western border. One of the stories concerned a murdered peddler (I suspect there are more peddlers' ghosts than there were murdered peddlers). And the other had to do with a ghost who had died with things undone. Both of these types of tales are fairly classic folkloric ghost stories.
One of the things that I have noticed in some modern collections of hauntings is that there is a certain disdain of folkloric ghost stories. In some books there is a sense that they aren't "valid," since the reason behind the stories has been lost in time. And they don't register on electronic equipment.
I liked a comment I read in one book. A book that took a more balanced view. I can't remember the book's title, but the gist of the quote was that, “folkloric ghost stories are cultural artifacts, which reflect the mores and fears of a particular time.”
The two stories I told that evening fit that criteria.
Ghosts of murdered peddlers are represented in stories in just about every state, and some states have more than one. Historical peddlers and traveling salesmen had to be wary. They were often out of touch with family for long periods of time, and they often carried large sums of money, or goods.
Ghosts with unresolved issues are also incredibly common. Murder victims whose bodies were hidden often returned as ghosts. And if money was not revealed before death this offered another cause. Of course, hidden treasures are still a popular fantasy.
Now how can such common ghost stories be "valid?" It does come back to reflecting the concerns of a culture.
I recently read a history book, entitled, The Bewitching of America, by Dr. Owen Davies, which is about American witch belief after the Salem witch trials.
What was fascinating is that he was able to find, often via newspapers, an incredible number of actual witch accusations throughout the U. S.; many occurring in the 20th century. This belief was paralleled in the continued spread of folkloric witch belief, which continued to be renewed with new immigrant populations. Dr. Davies does an excellent overview of the history of the various incarnations of witchcraft in America, and ends with how the view of witches has changed.
Ghosts and witches beliefs have always been lumped together when it comes to the devoted rationalist, and in the 19th century most wanted to claim that such superstitions were on the wan. I suspect this is why there is little documented in the Midwest – because of a belief that if these “superstitions” were ignored they would wither away. However, Dr. Davies, proved, at least for witches, that neither belief, nor the folklore, had really gone away.
So I would argue, when it comes to ghosts, that a tale isn’t “just folklore” to be proved, or disproved, by modern ghost hunting. For me the tale itself is a valid cultural artifact, and should also be preserved.
I am a Springfield, IL based storyteller with a fascination for how folklore travels, and for history.