Haunting Tales: Folklore or—?—

December 16, 2015

I am often struck by how careless are the writers of those endlessly proliferating articles and books promoting belief in ghosts and hauntings.

Their breathless writings generally lack documentation, other than perhaps a token bibliography—itself mostly listing works of other hack writers they have borrowed from! Such writings are found in magazines like Fate, on various websites, and in books that keep filling the “Occult” section of bookstores. This sub-group represents a genre I have called (in a blog of Oct. 30, 2014) “Haunting Hokum.” It is characterized by mystery mongering (rather than investigation), frequent errors and falsehoods, pseudoscience, and other lapses.

For example, Christopher K. Coleman’s Dixie Spirits, is filled with error, repeating, for example, a bogus story about the ghost of “Chloe”—supposedly a slave at the Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana who was hanged for murdering three members of her owner’s family. (In fact, there was no such person as Chloe, and the deaths were due to yellow fever.) Such books are also rife with terms like “legend has it” or “some people say,” highlighting the fact that not only is the alleged evidence largely anecdotal but is anonymous to boot. For instance, Richard Southall’s Haunted Plantations of the South (2015) employs in its 153 pages such non-attribution phrases as “it is believed that” at least 111 times! (See my blog “It Is Said That . . .,” July 13, 2015.)

Another trait of such writings is the often contradictory nature of the story elements when the same tale is compared from one version to another. For example, published stories about the Alaskan Hotel in Juneau tell of the ghost of a woman who was murdered either by her suitor or her husband, who was a miner or a ship’s captain, and who used a hatchet or perhaps a pistol—among other uncertainties.

Now, such differing versions of a tale, called “variants” are—according to distinguished folklorist (and CSI fellow) Jan H. Brunvand—“a defining characteristic of folklore,” since oral transmission naturally produces differing versions of the same story. However, many of the variants in published ghost tales, notes Brunvand, are explained by writers copying others while adding details and making additional changes for literary and other purposes.

I propose we give such products of hack writers their own name, to distinguish them from both folklore and fakelore (the term for invented “folklore” like the bogus Chloe story above). I suggest we label them hacklore, which I define as tales offered by popular writers containing unsourced elements that may be traditional or invented, or a mixture of these, utilized for the purpose of mystery mongering. It may apply to any subject, not just ghosts and hauntings.)

In any case, whether we are dealing with folklore or hacklore, from a paranormal skeptic’s point of view, Brunvand sagely observes that when there is no certain original, the multiple versions of a tale do provide “good evidence against credibility.” (See my The Science of Ghosts, 2012, 69–70.)