Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ghost Stories

Ghost stories abound at this time of year. Fall is a time of death, really, as trees shed their leaves and frost kills what is left in the gardens. Night comes early and the chill, damp air lifts fog from the valleys to cover the land with an ethereal glow. It's a time for drawing in, hunkering down, shuttering the windows, stoking the fire and contemplating the end of life we all face at some time.

Why are there so many ghost stories? What gives this particular type of tale its longevity and popularity? The answers are as varied as the tales themselves. In West Virginia, we have many such tales, from vanishing hitchhikers to malevolent peddlers to crying ghost babies. The degree of "hauntedness" varies. Some 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.

My interest in ghost stories started as a child when 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 a child, 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 books by Ruth Ann Musick, collections of ghost stories from around the state. Many were 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.

I wondered why we had so many ghosts in this state. Was it because of the valley fogs that can look pretty spooky in the evening light? Was it that people who live here just have more active imaginations than people in other places? Did it have to do with the ancestry and cultural background of West Virginians? Did religion play a role?

I've come to the conclusion that it is all of the above. 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. West Virginians tend to be a religious people too, and ghost stories often carry lessons of forgiveness, retribution, unrest because of a grave sin, or warnings to listen to elders. We're imaginative--some of my posts recently demonstrate the imaginative and creative minds of our residents: the plane van and the big eye, for example!

Our heritage here 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.

Then there is our 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.

On this Halloween, take some time to travel into the countryside. Find a quiet place, stop your car, get out and listen. You too may find, even if you are not in West Virginia, that there is something in the air that sends a shiver down your spine, and has you looking over your shoulder. You may go home with your own tale to tell.

I've posted many ghost stories here in the past 3 years. Here are a few you may want to go back and read:

My most recent ghost story was written from a prompt 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. (Yes, I finally found a melody for it)

A ghostly tale from Rowlesburg, West Virginia.

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

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 and I can tell you purchase details.


Susan at Stony River said...

What a great collection! Our house has ghosts in it too, but I've never 'met' them; my son complained about the baby in his room when we first moved in, and then weeks later we found out from the neighbours who'd grown up in this house, that two baby brothers had died here. We asked what room, and sure enough, our son's. We then told them he'd been talking to a baby wearing brown, that we couldn't see, and they didn't even seem surprised--I suppose ghosts a common occurrence then in rural Ireland? (get me out of here!! LOL)

He also kept asking us to chase away the rooster standing on the rock, pointing at it--there was nothing there. I went over and asked our neighbour if her mother had kept chickens, and killed roosters, and asked her to point out the spot. Bingo.

I wonder what stories he'll be telling me over the years...?

Granny Sue said...

Interesting stories, Susan. And similar of the kinds of things I hear often from people. Children especially seem to be able to "see" things that aren't there to the rest of us. Something I've noticed in ballads is that the color brown is often worn by the dead in ballads; the color green signifies someone who is fey, dead and a spirit or someone who will soon die.

Deborah Wilson said...

Sue, I was happy to find this collection of ghost tales at Halloween. Envy wanted me to read her Bloody Bones last night, but she was so tired from trick or treating, she couldn't hold her eyes open. I'll be sure to read it her later this week.

Hope you all had a great Halloween!

Granny Sue said...

We had a great Halloween, Deborah. We were in Alabama where i was telling ghost stories, and drove home across Tennessee and Kentucky under the full moon that was blurred by wisps of clouds. Very spooky. All Hallows Eve, when the spirits rise from their graves. Then yesterday, All Souls Day, when they walk the earth. That's something to think about, isn't it? I just hope they all mae it home safely.

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