Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore

By Diane E. Goldstein, Sylvia Ann Grider, and Jeannie Banks Thomas. 2007. Logan: Utah State University Press. 272 pages. ISBN: 978-0-87421-636-3 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Elizabeth Tucker, Binghampton University

[Review length: 980 words • Review posted on February 23, 2010]

It is a real pleasure to review this book, which I got “hot off the press” for my Folklore of the Supernatural class in the fall of 2007. Having attended the panel “Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore” that Diane Goldstein, Sylvia Grider, and Jeannie Thomas presented at the American Folklore Society’s annual meeting in Salt Lake City in 2004, I knew that this book would make an important contribution to legend studies. My review will reflect both my own responses to the book and those of my folklore students, who found Haunting Experiences to be a valuable and thought-provoking text.

Haunting Experiences’ main assertion is “that ghosts in contemporary folklore—while found in new contexts, with new motifs, and communicated in new ways using new technologies—are actually not all that distinct from the ghosts of yesterday” (18). Goldstein, Grider, and Thomas present their substantiation of this assertion in three parts: “Taking Ghosts Seriously,” “Narrating Socialization and Gender,” and “Old Spirits in New Contexts.” The introduction and conclusion come from all three co-authors; two of the six chapters come from each of them.

Part One begins with Thomas’ “The Usefulness of Ghost Stories,” which argues that ghost stories “are a useful way to come to a better understanding of the worlds we inhabit”; these stories “help us look more closely and analytically at culture, the environment, and the personal” (26). Thomas contrasts sensational ghost stories in films and novels (e.g., The Amityville Horror) with slightly dramatic legends from oral tradition. Her discussion of bathroom ghosts in oral and filmed ghost stories is especially interesting. This chapter’s wide-ranging intellectual inquiry and intriguing photos engage the reader in lively discourse that continues throughout the rest of the book.

Part One’s second chapter, written by Goldstein, addresses the subject of scientific rationalism in relation to supernatural experience narratives. Goldstein suggests that belief in the supernatural has not declined as education and technology have moved forward; the “conventional academic point of view that supernatural beliefs are survivals from a naïve past” does not hold true (60). Explaining in detail how this viewpoint developed, Goldstein persuasively demonstrates how carefully tellers of supernatural stories gather evidence that supports their claim of having had an experience beyond the ken of rationality. Narratives such as the sea phantom story included in this chapter “are typically told as though [the teller] were on the witness stand, detailed and careful, incorporating numerous strategies that outline the nature of the observations, the testing of alternative explanations, and often including an indication of reluctance to interpret what occurred as ‘supernatural’” (70). Thus, the personal ghost story “doesn’t exist in the face of modern scientific knowledge, but in content and structure it exists because of modern scientific knowledge” (78).

Part Two, devoted to gender and socialization, addresses significant questions related to characters in supernatural narratives. My students greatly enjoyed Thomas’ “Gender and Ghosts” chapter, which analyzes male and female legend characters in an incisive and entertaining way. Beginning with a quotation from the Victorian poem “The Angel in the House,” Thomas contrasts “the ideal, submissive woman and wife” with “the phantom crazy woman haunting the house” who appears in legends (81). Among the characters that Thomas presents are “the extreme guy” (who may also be “Bloody Mary’s boyfriend”), “the deviant femme,” and “the genderless presence,” an intriguing phenomenon that I have encountered in my own ghost story research.

Another very interesting chapter in Part Two is Grider’s “Children’s Ghost Stories,” which presents children’s narratives from the late 1970s. My students told me that they had learned variants of a number of these stories, including the one they called “Johnny I’m on the First Step,” at summer camp. Most of them agreed with Grider’s suggestion that the image of a ghost “as a sheet-shrouded figure with two eye holes (and sometimes a mouth) floating in the air and saying, ‘Boo!’” comes from the plague years, when corpses were wrapped in white shrouds (113). Two illustrations—one from the fifteenth century, the other from the sixteenth—substantiate this assertion. Folklorists of childhood can benefit from Grider’s reminder “that even the seemingly most trivial of traditions may, in fact, preserve vestiges of our venerable shared human past” (114).

In the first chapter of Part Three, Grider discusses the history and function of haunted houses. Finding that “the haunted house [in many ghost stories] functions as both setting and character, with the sentient and self-aware house taking precedence over the beings that haunt it,” she traces haunted houses from the eighteenth century to the present (144). This chapter has wonderful illustrations, including a contemporary child’s drawing of a haunted house and a photograph of children playing with a haunted house pop-up book.

The last chapter, Goldstein’s “The Commodification of Belief,” insightfully analyzes how belief in the supernatural has resulted in spending and earning money. Rich in narrative/photographic detail, this chapter provides an excellent guide to the ever-increasing commerce based on ghostlore. Areas covered here include haunted real estate, haunted hotels and inns, and ghost tours. Goldstein makes the necessary point that “haunted commodities are no trivial matter” (205). Some of my students gleefully went on ghost tours, visited haunted bars, and checked out ghost-hunting equipment online. Their group presentations showed that, while having fun, they had learned to take the commodification of belief very seriously.

Haunting Experiences offers significant resources for scholars of contemporary ghostlore, as well as entertaining material for general readers. I was delighted when this book won the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research’s Brian McConnell Prize in 2008. In their conclusion, Goldstein, Grider, and Thomas make the point that ghosts have remained with us “because they give voice to both the everyday and the extraordinary experiences that haunt us” (227). Having demonstrated the depth and complexity of these experiences, the authors have given us valuable guidelines for future research.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.