In the early hours of Friday, August 27, 2010, about a dozen amateur ghost hunters were standing on a railway trestle in Iredell County, North Carolina, waiting for a legendary “ghost train” to manifest itself. Suddenly a real train, from the Norfolk Southern Railroad, rounded a bend and surprised the group. Everyone fled to the trestle’s eastern end, but 29-year-old Christopher Kaiser didn’t make it. His body was later found in a steep ravine below the trestle. (See ” Man killed while waiting for ‘ghost train,'” charlotteobserver.com.) A woman in the group was also seriously injured. Reportedly, Kaiser’s last act was pushing her to safety.
The tragic irony is that the so-called ghost train appears to be nothing more than the interplay of imagination and folklore. Like many other phantom-train tales, this one originated after a disaster that occurred at the site, Bostian Bridge, on August 27, 1891, when a passenger train derailed and fell some nine stories into the ravine, killing almost thirty people and injuring some two dozen more. Ever since, at 3:00 A.M. (though different times are given) on the anniversary of the tragedy, one “is said to be” able to hear the sounds of metal twisting and breaking, steam pipes bursting, and passengers screaming at the site. The apparition of a killed baggage master is also reported.
The Bostian Bridge narrative contains a number of common folk motifs, or story elements (indicated below by their standard folk-motif numbers):
- Ghost haunts place of great accident or misfortune (E275)
- Phantom railway train (E535.4)
- Sounds of accident reenact tragedy (E337.1.2)
- Persons who die violent or accidental deaths cannot rest in grave (E411.10)
(See Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk Literature , vol. 2, 1955.)
As I learned doing graduate studies in folklore, such stock motifs suggest that the story was influenced by the general climate in which ghost stories are told with spine-tingling relish. In this environment story elements have been known to migrate from tale to tale and place to place.
Most ghost-train tales date back to a time before the advent of modern safety practices and devices. The stories are told and retold (hence the designation folktales), often becoming embellished in the process. For example, an unverified incident attributed to an anonymous group of curiosity seekers, walking near the bridge on the wreck’s first anniversary, allegedly involved the baggage master, Hugh K. Linster, who had been killed in the train wreck. He was said to have asked for the time and then vanished. Now this action is reported as happening repeatedly: “Sometimes the ghost of baggage master H.K. Linster appears and asks for the correct time, so he can set his gold watch” (see Dennis William Hauck, Haunted Places: The National Directory, 1996, p. 319). Still another source says, “Supposedly the scene is repeated at least once a year . . .” (see https://www.ncghostguide.byethost12.com/bostian.htm ).
A ghost train, of course, contradicts the common definition of a ghost as the spirit of a dead person. Modern ghost hunters postulate that the entity exists as a form of life “energy” (which, however, science cannot find; indeed, once the brain is dead, there would be a cessation of mental activity and motor function). Be that as it may, how is it that inanimate things-like clothing, walking sticks, or other objects that accompany people in their alleged apparitional forms, and even means of conveyance like trains and stagecoaches-can become ghostly? The answer is that all such forms appear in apparitional encounters just as they do in dreams, memories, and imaginings, because all are purely mental images. Indeed, sightings of ghosts are linked to dreams, reveries, and other altered states of consciousness (see my “Phantoms, Frauds, or Fantasies?” in James Houran and Rense Lange, Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives , 2001, 214-223).
Evidence notwithstanding, however, the “ghost hunter” mentality persists—a stubborn conviction that ghosts are real and may appear at a vigil. Unfortunately the real world may intrude—sometimes with tragic consequences.