G is for Ghost Stories

"I know you might not believe this, but..." And so begins another tale of some strange, haunting experience, often told by someone who isn't sure they believe their own story. Frequently these are stories passed down in a family, laced with local superstition and folklore, and almost always well worth hearing. 

Download my story about how Burnt House, WV got its name by clicking here. It's a strange tale to be sure. This story is  on my CD of ghost stories, Beyond the Grave.

Ghost stories and storytelling have been a part of the Appalachian culture since the earliest pioneers arrived on the shores of America. People told stories to while away the time during long winter evenings or on the porch on hot summer days. Stories were a way to pass on family history, traditions, stories from the “old country,” and to teach children the accepted rules of behavior.

But why are there so many ghost stories? What gives this particular type of tale its longevity and popularity? In West Virginia, we have many such tales, from vanishing hitchhikers to malevolent peddlers to crying ghost babies. The degree of "hauntedness" varies. We are a state of storytellers, as you would know if you stood in line at any grocery store. We talk to strangers and we talk in stories, and that applies to telling someone about something odd and inexplicable that has occurred.Sometimes the stories are fragments, really, a mere whisper of a tale or piece of memory passed down as a "they say" story. Others are well-known, documented in books and occasionally on film or in photos. 

The possible reasons for the abundance of ghost stories are several. The simplest explanation might be that the mist rising from the hills at night can create a ghostly aspect that might make a person think of otherworldly beings. Some folklorists speculate that the settlers brought with them the stories and lore of their native countries. Some of these stories were transplanted with the people who told them with new twists introduced in their new land. The heritage in this part of the Appalachians is Scottish, English, Irish and German predominantly, but with a good helping of Italian and a seasoning of Polish, Russian, African-American, and many other nationalities. British folklore, particularly that of Ireland, includes revenants of all kinds, along with both little people and giants. Some of those tales were simply transplanted and adapted to a new environment. The German tales also moved to the mountains, with their often darker themes.

Religion might have played a role as well. Many settlers believed firmly in the flight of the soul after death, and it was not much of a stretch to believe that some souls lost their way on this final journey and were trapped here on earth. Usually these lost souls had a specific reason for staying: revenge, relaying a warning to loved ones, or some other unfinished business. Some ghost stories were cautionary tales, meant to discourage children from dangerous activities. In my county, there is a story of a headless dog that supposedly haunts Tug Fork after dark and chases people. Children in that area might think twice about going out after dark if there is a chance of encountering that dog.  West Virginians are religious people, and ghost stories often carry lessons of forgiveness, retribution, unrest because of a grave sin, or warnings to listen to elders. 

Then there is the environment: towering dark mountains, deep shadowy hollows, evening and early morning fogs, the intense quiet broken only the falling leaves, an owl's call, the cry of some unnamed night creature. All lend themselves to a sense of the supernatural, of someone or something watching, lurking, in the dark and hidden places along our roads.

My interest in ghost stories began when I was a child; my parents told us the story of the haunted house in Royston, England, where they had an apartment as newlyweds. Add to that the big old house in Manassas where we lived when I was young, with its chipping plaster walls, spooky basement and Civil War relics in the yard, and my fertile imagination was well supplied. When I moved to West Virginia, however, I found that I had moved to the mother lode of ghost stories. It seemed like every place in the state had a story connected with it. In my own county, I heard almost a dozen stories of haunted places or events.

As I learned more about my new home, I found the books by Dr. Ruth Ann Musick, who collected ghost stories from around the state. Many tales were brief and vague, others were more developed with names and specific locations. The stories grabbed me because they were told by ordinary people living their ordinary lives--except there were these weird things that had happened that they knew about and were willing to share.

Ghost stories are not horror stories. Ghost stories are typically stories about supernatural occurrences, rarely include violent acts committed by the spirit, and are usually fairly short.  They are generally more haunting than scary, leaving the listener wondering what might have really happened, if the person really saw what they claimed, or why the ghost chose that place or time to appear. The haunting, unexplained nature of ghost stories probably explains their continued popularity. There is mystery in ghost stories that engages the imagination. Many ghost stories have been collected and published in books; still others are still being passed down from parent to child.

There are, of course, different kinds of ghost stories. My focus is on the stories told to me as true events or that I have found documented in some way (books, newspaper clippings, etc). I do tell some of the fictional, folk stories and not-too-spooky stories for young audiences, but my primary interest lies in the "true" ghost stories. 

Some storytellers prefer the ""jump" tales of campfire popularity, others the horror stories and literary ghost tales. All have their audiences. 

For those interested in the type of stories I tell, I offer the following excerpt from my ghost stories workshop for those interested in telling ghost stories reported as actually happening or with a historical basis :

The brevity of ghost stories and the general lack of detail means work has to be done to create a performance piece. This can be accomplished by placing the story in a frame--developing the who, what, when and where of the story. 

Build the Story’s Frame:

1    1.  Time: when did the story take place? If no date can be established, when did your informant hear of the story—how old were they? What were the times like then—i.e. Depression, wartime, post-war, Vietnam era. Set the story in a time period. Historic events? Local history? Local industry or occupations?
2.       Place: where did the story take place? Rural, city, West Virginia or another state? In a house/store/other building, or in a field/graveyard/street, etc? What did the place look like during the time period of the story?
3.       People: who told you the story? Who told it to them (if it wasn’t a personal experience)?Who were their people? Who were the main characters in the story and how did they happen to be in the place where the events occurred? 
4.       What happened? Are there other accounts of the story/events from other/perspectives/others involved? Are there similar stories in folklore? Is the event recurring, or was it a one-time happening? Is there a specific date/time/circumstance that lead to the event, i.e. a holiday, or a storm, the presence of a particular person, an anniversary date?
5.       Why does your informant think the events happened? Are there superstitions/beliefs involved? Did something occur to stop the recurrence of the event?
Place the Story in the Frame:

6.       What perspective will you use to tell the story—what narrative voice? 
7.       Now that you have gathered all this information, how much of it is relevant to the story? How much does your audience need to hear, and how much of it is really to inform your telling (and to be able to answer questions later)?
Dig Deeper—the story in 3D

8.       Is there something to be learned from the story, some moral, lesson, warning, etc? You may not want to state this specifically in the telling, but being aware of them can influence your interpretation of the tale. Is there an underlying universal theme—love, hate, loss, longing, regret, revenge? 

      9.   Build in the senses: evocative scents, sounds, surroundings. Show with the gestures, voice and expression as much as possible rather than using extensive descriptions for such things as the roughness of fabrics or the softness of a touch, etc.

Hang the Story in Place

10.   Circling back: Summarizing/ending the story. Conclusions drawn? Impact of the story on the place/people/time? What is left today—Buildings? Descendants? Place names?

I've posted many ghost stories on my other blog over the seven years I've been writing online. Here are a few you may want to read:

This ghost story was written from a brief account in a newspaper article.

The story my parents told about their haunted house in England.

A couple of ghostly poems; and here is another. And a classic from Thomas Hardy.

Ghost story and comedy, all in one! The Gatehouse Ghost story is a true story that happened to me.

Links to other ghostly information.

Strange photos we took at the old Moundsville State Penitentiary, which now does ghost tours.

Raw Head, Bloody Bones was a look into the background of this chilling tale used to scare little children.

A recipe for Bony Fingers? Why not?

Jump Tales for Halloween--just the bare bones, but easy to develop for telling.

West Virginia's most famous ghost story, The Greenbrier Ghost. This is on my new CD Beyond the Grave both as a ballad and a story. 

A ghostly tale from Rowlesburg, West Virginia.

The Wizard Clipp, another famous story in our state. Another one that's on my new CD.

A short tale, easy to tell.

I've written about the "why" of ghost stories before; this older post contains a good booklist.

A true story of something that happened to me. It still gives me shivers to remember it.

One of the stories from Jackson County, Sidna is a tale I often tell. It's on the CD!

A story told to me by a young girl, this story is on my new CD too.

Want a copy of my new CD, Beyond the Grave; Ghost Stories and Ballads from the Mountains? Email me at susannaholstein@yahoo.com and I can tell you purchase details.