Tag Archives: ghost stories

Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #14: Haunted Fort Fisher

Check out the rest of the month’s reviews here, and last year’s reviews here. If you enjoyed this review and want to help out with my folklore research, head on over to my Patreon page and join up, make a one-time donation on this site or directly through Paypal, or send me a coffee.

Gray, Mark. Haunted Fort Fisher: Ghosts on the Cape Fear. 2014.

Fair warning: This is one of my favorite books that I’ve read so far for this project – not just for this year, either. The premise is simple – it’s a self-published picture book of ghost photos. The author decided in 2002 (this book came out in 2014) to start taking digital photographs around Fort Fisher to see if he could catch any ghostly phenomena. He also recorded for EVPs at the same time (Electronic Voice Phenomena: voices and sounds caught on a sound recorder that have no known cause and were not heard by observers at the time).

I’ve mentioned Fort Fisher on the Cape Fear River in previous reviews. Fort Fisher is one of the most haunted sites in North Carolina, if not the most haunted, and some of the reported encounters have been quite frightening to the observers. This is most likely due to the two Civil War battles in 1864 and 1865 that led to the storming and capture of the Confederate fort by Union forces. Fort Fisher had been a major military target because it defended the one Confederate port late in the War – Wilmington. When Fort Fisher fell, so did Wilmington and the War was pretty much won (or lost, depending on your point of view).

This book is a condensed account of 12 years of Gray’s best photographs. Being a computer and AV tech, he goes into quite a lot of useful detail about what type of camera he used, and why, and its capabilities. Some of these pictures are pretty grainy, but in a way, that makes them creepier.

One thing I like about Gray’s observations is that he keeps them very grounded. He talks about how he’s only ever been able to get EVP’s at Shepard’s Battery and that the only ghost photos he’s been able to get were from the Sally Port (facing north) into the woods. Most of them have been in the woods. That he has observed these conditions adds to his sincerity and his observation skills. The only psychic sense he makes any claim to is having an idea when and where would be a good day to take creepy photos. Which, considering he’d done this for 12 years at the same spot by the time the book came out, isn’t that hard to swallow.

Gray also makes no bones about having taken a whole lot of photographs, but that only a few have ever turned out … odd. He also is not shy about putting his photos up, in the raw as it were, for readers to evaluate. And it’s true that some of these look like a straightforward case of pareidolia (like the cover photo). But then there are the others.

By far the most unsettling are the shadows and the photos where something is blocking the view of the background. Maybe the shadows are just sunlight coming down through the trees in odd ways (but they sure do look like people) and maybe the weird fuzzy things are just camera artifacts. But they’re not any artifacts I’ve ever seen in a digital camera.

At any rate, this was not a book I wanted to review at night. Even though it’s short, those photos creeped me right out. Just looking for what is supposed to be odd about them lent a strange kind of menace to them.

I don’t know what the author has captured here. I do, however, think it’s a worthwhile project because he spent so much time, over several years, in the same areas, photographing the same spots with the same type of equipment. At the very least, that lends itself to a cool study about light reflection and refraction, internal and external, in digital cameras. It also involves the kind of scientific method that too-often isn’t used properly by either believers or debunkers. I’m curious to see what Gray finds next. Just … don’t make me read it at night.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #13: Ghosthunting North Carolina

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Ambrose, Kala. Ghosthunting North Carolina. America’s Haunted Road Trip. Clerisy Press, 2011.

This was not the book I thought it was when I bought it (twice, accidentally). I thought it was about ghost hunter organizations in North Carolina. It’s not. I did find something like that, but I will review that book later in the month. And I did end up enjoying this book overall, but let’s address a few issues first.

So, what is this book? It’s basically a tour guide by a professional psychic of a selection of the most interesting and creepy paranormal sites in the state. I wasn’t especially thrilled at first to find out her profession. I found the introduction, where she went on at great length about her psychic abilities and such, very tedious.

It’s not that I don’t believe in ESP, etc., but these claims irritate me for a few reasons. First, there’s more than a little bragging involved about something that is really quite common (and often faked to make money). Lots of people have strange experiences with the supernatural or paranormal, or whatever you want to call it. I think there’s a strong probability that most people are “psychic” to some extent.

Second, it tends to Scooby-Doo folklore. I don’t see a whole lot of difference between dismissing a creepy feeling and strange noises in a house as drafts and bad plumbing, and dismissing it as a “vortex” or whatever New Age term sounds good. It’s still attempting to dismiss a mystery with an untested hypothesis.

Third, it tends to be culturally appropriative and sometimes bordering on racist. For example, I had my hopes up early on when Ambrose was talking about Somerset Plantation and the conditions for slaves there. Yay, finally some ghost storytelling that doesn’t fall for the usual Gone with the Wind mythologizing!

But then she fell into the same trap Tiya Miles talks about, where white tour guides in the dark tourism industry treat African Americans and their historical experiences as window dressing and entertainment for white people and their history. I can’t think of a single example in the entire book where she talked about black people except as slaves.

Especially disappointing was her repeated mentions of how slave conjure women may have used magic against their white masters, but she never gets into any details about that. And yes, that’s been researched. Remember the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans in Dixie Spirits? So, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that the only mention of the Tri-County area is a rather pallid description of Blount-Bridgers House in Tarboro that doesn’t even mention Miss Minerva and her tendency to run the house’s elevator in the wee hours.

It’s not all bad, though. One of the frustrating aspects of Ambrose’s gimmick (being a psychic writing a book about NC ghost stories) is that she does do a fair bit of research and travels to a lot of different places in the state. I mean, yeah, there are holes and she never mentions the Frank C. Brown Collection, but she does mention the Rhine Research Center and interviews a bunch of people at these different sites. I actually found her postscript about her research path a lot more interesting than her introduction about her psychic career. Yes, I’m a nerd.

She talks in the intro about how she’ll use her psychic abilities to find ghosts at these sites (while making the apt observation that most ghost experiences happen when you’re not expecting them). Then half the time, she doesn’t sense anything in these places, anyway. Yet, those chapters are usually still interesting because she did her homework. I get that the psychic bit is the gimmick to sell the book, but it detracts from the actual work she put into it.

The story I found most interesting by far comes late in the book. It’s about the 1906 massacre in Asheville (which I’d never heard of before) of five innocent people by an escaped convict named Will Harris. Seems Harris blew into town shortly after his prison break, looking for his “girlfriend.” There was a difference of opinion about that relationship status and she got her sister to tell him she’d left town.

Not believing the sister, he got drunk and took her hostage. When found out, he fled into the street, where he went on a shooting rampage that killed five people and a dog. Tracked down by a very large posse, he shot back at them and ended up full of holes. Classic pattern for a mass shooter. And it led directly to Asheville becoming a dry town for decades (some Temperance campaigners successfully blamed the massacre on Harris’ drinking).

One of the things Ambrose notes is that Harris kept shouting he was the Devil (this, of course, made my folklore research ears prick up). But even though she has a previous discussion in which she mentions (without scraping more than the surface) that NC has a lot of devilish folklore, she doesn’t connect the two.

What she does do is mention that there are shadow people hauntings (among others, like the sound of screaming) since the massacre. She connects this to discussion of previous dark entities at other sites in the book. In this recurring discussion she makes some good points about how violent and unhappy events can lead to a sinister atmosphere and scary hauntings. I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for the kind of history folklore most often preserves.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #12: Cape Fear Ghosts

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Midwood, John. Cape Fear Ghosts. 2006.

This is one of two collections from the Cape Fear region that I read for this year. Cape Fear Ghosts is the older and more conventional one. It’s a collection of ghost stories with some photographs (some of them quite interesting, especially the ones relating to the author’s family history).

I really wanted to like this one. The Cape Fear region has a lot of history, much of it violent and a lot of it related to the Civil War. European history for the Cape Fear River basin goes back to 1662 and includes everything from Native Americans to pirates to Union blockades of Fort Fisher to battleships to hurricanes. There’s even a good business in old growth timber salvaged from the river.

The book reminded me, in overall format, of last year’s Tar Heel Terrors and North Carolina Haunts. The author has spent many years in the Cape Fear region. And he does have a lot of stories.

Unfortunately, he’s not very good at telling them in a way that is compelling rather than frustrating. This book could have used a good editor. There were times when he would be talking about being psychic and how he had witnessed a ghost as a kid, but the story would go on and on and end up nowhere. It was a bit like taking a tour through the Winchester House – lots of creep, but no payoff.

His account of his first ghost sighting as a kid is stuffed with so much extraneous detail that I wearied of ever getting to the point. The account of his father’s career in the military in WWII was potentially fascinating, but again, it wandered all over the place. And details like his mother predicting his father’s death (and supposedly being psychic, herself) needed to be in their own story. I don’t necessarily object to a lot of biographical detail if the stories are well-told, but these often weren’t.

Conversely, there were others that felt sketched out rather than given room to breath. For example, there’s one in which Midwood heard strange noises in the wall of The House in the Horseshoe (in Lee County) during a tour, but the tour guide (being deaf) couldn’t hear them and didn’t understand why the author was creeped out. And … that’s about it. It’s not even clear what the noise was, exactly.

But it’s not all frustration. The tale of Philip Alston, first owner of The House in the Horseshoe in the late 18th century, is bloody intriguing. After a long and nasty career that spanned the Revolutionary War, Alston got one of his slaves – a man named Dave – to kill a political rival. He promised that he would get Dave off and they would both avoid a date with the noose. Things didn’t go quite as planned when the authorities objected. After fleeing the area and other shenanigans, Philip was murdered in bed in 1791 by Dave, who hanged for Philip’s murder, not the rival’s.

The real payoff story that makes the book worth it, though, is the one involving Fort Fisher. Now lots of people include stories about Fort Fisher in their collections if they cover the coast. Fort Fisher is alleged to be massively haunted with Civil War ghosts (and perhaps some others). But Midwood tells a story about the fort that I hadn’t heard before and it’s quite chilling.

After hearing some strange tales told by couples who would go down there around midnight, Midwood and some friends decided to check the place out at night. As they arrived, they noticed 15-20 vehicles in the parking lot (some of them older cars and quite nicely restored), and some people heading from the cars to the beach, so they figured they were pretty safe.

Once they got inside the park, though, they encountered a whole flurry of Civil War ghosts, some of them quite frightening. After a bit, they figured they were quite done for the night and hurried back to the parking. Imagine their surprise when they found it deserted except for their own car, even though they had not heard any other cars start up or see anyone else leaving the beach.

In the coda to the story, Midwood notes that the empty parking lot was a common detail in the previous stories from the couples (he gives us one such account early in the chapter). It seems the road nearby is treacherous and has seen a lot of fatal car wrecks over the years ….

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #9: Haunted Theaters of the Carolinas



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Lambeth, Cheralyn. Haunted Theaters of the Carolinas. Schiffer, 2009.

I interviewed the author for Innsmouth Free Press right after this book came out in 2009. You can still find the interview here. I am, however, a bad and lazy reviewer with a metric ton of books to review all over my house. So, I only got to reading and reviewing this one now. Ten years later. Sorry.

Anyhoo, I thought this book was a fun romp with some creepy photos and layout (that cover – [shudder]) and an interesting premise. Though there are other books on haunted theaters out there – such as the imaginatively named Haunted Theaters (2002) by Barbara Smith and Haunted Theaters: Playhouse Phantoms, Opera House Horrors, and Backstage Banshees (2009) by Tom Ogden – Lambeth’s book offers two unique features. One is that it’s the only book about haunted theaters in North and South Carolina. The other is that Lambeth has worked in the field for decades. This means she hears rumors and accounts that someone outside the theater wouldn’t ever know about.

To be honest, I found the introduction about theater history, terms and customs a bit slow. That said, it was also necessary to get one’s bearings and it did introduce me to the rather creepy tradition of the ghost light (AKA the Equity Light). Unlike the ghost lights of the book I reviewed the other day, this is a single light (often a bare bulb) intentionally left onstage (usually downstage right) whenever the theater is closed. The safety angle is that it provides illumination for anyone working in the theater after hours to see their way around. Hence the alternate name.

But there is also a folkloric element. Some theater people believe that every theater is haunted by at least one ghost. Why the light would be left on for them is less clear. Obviously, with the safety element, you’re actively trying to avoid creating one more ghost for the stage. But whether the light is left there to placate them, comfort them, or keep them out depends on your source.

Of the 21 theaters discussed in the book (starting, fittingly, with the Waterside Theater for The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama on Roanoke Island in Manteo, NC), 16 are in North Carolina and 5 in South Carolina. One review on Amazon complains that there are a lot more theaters from North Carolina in the book than in South Carolina. While this is true, it’s usually the other way round in collections about both states (Charleston and Columbia tend to hog the spotlight), and I’m looking for NC folklore, anyway. So, it depends on your preferences.

It also makes sense if you consider that Lambeth is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and was living in Charlotte when she wrote the book. Nor is she a live theater snob. Some of the theaters covered either started life as movie theaters or were later converted into them. Live theater hit hard times a while back, as vaudeville faded.

Stories in the book range from the unsettling to the hair-raising. The Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, SC, for example is haunted by the ghost of an escort named Nettie Dickerson. It seems Nettie was unhappy about being considered little better than a high-class prostitute and was also a bit reckless. She liked to lean against an external iron balcony of the hotel during thunderstorms. One night, a bolt of lightning struck the balcony, “killing her instantly.” She’s been there ever since.

Many of these theaters are in older buildings that were allowed to fall almost to ruin at some point. They have a lot of history and, doubtless, lingering structural issues. However, Imaginon: The Joe and Joan Martin Center for children’s theater in Charlotte was built in 2005 out of recycled materials – and there are many reports of it’s being haunted by at least one child or teenage ghost. So, age and relative decrepitude don’t always have anything to do with it.

Employees and visitors in these theaters report a variety of phenomena such as cold drafts, disembodied voices, paintings that fly across the room, lights, rattling keys, and pianos playing by themselves. One alderman who died in the 1918 Influenza Epidemic plays the pipe organ in the Old Court House Theatre in Concord, NC.

Patrons can also end up checking in and staying forever, such as an African-American woman who was raped and murdered in the upper balcony of the Powell Theater/Chester Little Theater in Chester, SC sometime during the 1950s (according to local legend). She reportedly causes nausea, cold spots and the sense of being choked in that part of the theater.

The author herself heard some strange banging noises when taking photos in the Dana Auditorium at Guilford College in Greensboro. She also includes a ghost orb photo from a backstage stairwell in The Paul Green Theater/Center for Dramatic Art at UNC-Chapel Hill, and another one in the house right section.

All in all, this is a fun collection for this time of year. But I wouldn’t suggest reading it after midnight or in the dark. That cover alone is super-creepy and the contents deliver on it!

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #7: North Carolina Ghost Lights and Legends

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Gritzner, Charles F. North Carolina Ghost Lights and Legends. Blair (June 25, 2019).

I’ve been collecting stories about ghost lights for a while, and had even thought about working up a long article or chapbook about them. I was therefore eager to read and review this book. I was pleased to see that it had some 20 more examples than I had collected (or had at least listed as ghost lights), with a grand total of 54 for his book.

Gritzner has a set format (that’s a good thing) in which he lists each light, first by region, then by county and town, as well as by folkloric motif. Then he sets out the nature and known history of the light. He’s visited a bunch of these sites. Where he has, he discusses his visit there and the terrain.

He also brings up possible theories, most of them scientific (personally, I think some of these lights are a natural phenomenon that is currently unknown but possibly related to the local electromagnetic fields). He even has photos of the sites and maps of their general distribution in the state.

I wanted to like this book more than I ended up doing so. For a start, I found the Kindle version really frustrating to work with. Usually, I can access my Kindle library from the site remotely, but I had to download this one onto my old computer, which meant that scrolling through the book took forever. I’ve seen the print version, which is nicely laid out. I will probably just pick up a copy of that for future reference. It’s easier than working with the Kindle version.

For another, despite the author’s claim in his introduction, his list has some significant holes and I also had a few issues with his methodology. For example, while he lists Teach’s Light on the Outer Banks in Hyde County, he’s missing the famous annual Flaming Ship of Ocracoke from the same area. He talks about the Momeyer Light in Nash County, but misses two Middlesex Lights two towns over (one of them a railroad light and one a death omen). He also doesn’t discuss Vollis Simpson‘s whirligig folk art, or how it influenced local urban legends like Acid Park, in Wilson County. Coverage of indoor ghost lights is also pretty spotty, especially in the capital.

Gritzner talks about his background in teaching geography for five decades, yet divides up the state in some strange ways. He does so roughly along the giant crossroad of I-95 (north-south) and U.S. 64 (east-west). Some of these ghost light stories (especially the Maco Light-type railroad legend of the headless conductor, which appears in several forms across the state) go back at least to the 19th century, yet 95 didn’t exist before 1958 and 64 before 1926.

So, why would a geographer divide the state up that way, instead of the traditional geological way of Coast (Outer and Inner Banks), Upper and Lower Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and Mountains? This leads to some puzzling conclusions like Gritzner’s claim that the Northeast has few railroad lights relative to the Southeast, even though Ahoskie (in the former region) has two major examples of that motif.

He makes some other odd assertions, such as that ghost lights occur only in remote rural places. But there are lights that appear inside houses and this condition is not even universally true for outside lights. Ahoskie and Tarboro, for example, are pretty large and established towns.

Gritzner’s research also comes across as a bit shallow. For example, he cites popular ghost story books as sources, yet shows little-to-no knowledge of local history books like those for Nash County that mention the Middlesex Lights. He mentions volume seven of The Frank C. Brown Collection, yet seems unaware that said book is part of a larger collection. This makes his conclusion that North Carolina has an unusually large number of ghost light stories (as opposed to the probability that North Carolina simply has a much larger and more coherent published collection of folklore than other states) questionable.

Further, there’s no mention of the ECU Folklore Archive, or the UNC Folklore Program at Chapel Hill, let alone the Rhine Research Center (in Parapsychology) in Durham. There’s no in-depth look at the geology of the regions and sites studied to get an idea of what kind of natural phenomena might relate to these lights. The author does look into the possibility of car lights in some areas, but doesn’t really look into how long ago the railroad may have put, say, street lights next to the tracks. Nor does he get into the complexities of possible double-refractions and other optical illusions, so his speculations mostly remain just that – speculations.

I’d still recommend getting this book. For all of its flaws, it is a handy reference, in a lot of ways, that hasn’t previously existed. I just wish it had a bit more methodological depth and range.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #6: North Carolina’s Supernatural Phenomenons

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Granato, Sherri. North Carolina’s Supernatural Phenomenons. 2018.

Before we get much further into the month, I need to address some of the dodgier practices in ghost stories and folklore writing (particularly of the self-published variety) to this date. They seem to come in two forms. The first is when a book (like The Beast of Rickards Road and the Ghost of Payne Road: True Ghost Stories of North Carolina or State of Horror: North Carolina) is actually fiction, either a novel or a collection of short stories, but presents itself as folkloric ghost stories.

I have no objections whatsoever to reading fiction based on folklore, and I will grant you that the line can get pretty fuzzy with some writers (Nancy Roberts, lookin’ at you). But there’s a line that authors like Roberts don’t cross, one in which the folklore is still the folklore and not a fictional story with completely fictional characters and a plot that is only inspired by the folklore tale. When I am looking for folklore, I want to read folklore, and I want to know that’s what I’m getting. As a reader, I don’t like being lied to and I don’t like it when authors waste my time. Or my money.

The other problem is when you get the bun, but little or no meat. North Carolina’s Supernatural Phenomenons is of the latter variety. It’s a smartly written book (though it could use a decent copy editor and typesetter – “phenomena” not “phenomenons”). It’s also recent. It even has a few stories about the folklore of the Coast and Inner Banks that I had not yet run across, so I can’t say it was a total waste. I did like the author’s writing style, which is both chatty and spooky where necessary.

But it is also ten pages long. And it’s a fairly padded ten pages, too. To add insult to injury, if I hadn’t been able to get it through Kindle Unlimited, it would have cost me $2.99. That’s a lot of money for ten pages of mostly fluff.

So, what do you get? Well, you get a few pages on the Brown Mountain Lights, ghost walks and haunted pub crawls in Old Wilmington, and an investigation of ghost children by a local ghost hunters group (North Carolina Paranormal Researchers) in Elizabeth City, and … that’s it.

If this were part of a regular-sized collection of a hundred pages (or even eighty) pages or so, I’d be fine with the book. The author includes some nice perks like what exit to take to find the vantage points for viewing the Brown Mountain Lights and where to find the haunted pub crawl in Wilmington. And knowing who is doing ghost research in Elizabeth City is also nice.

But that’s not a whole book. That’s basically a chapter being sold as a book. Looking at the author’s other works for the state (I don’t think she’s from around here), most of them aren’t much longer. It feels as though this one was written over a few evenings as a quickie cash grab. No one likes a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am when they were looking for dinner and movie, first.

If you want to check this out, I’d suggest doing so on Kindle Unlimited. You’ll get a nice quick read. But if you’re going to pay for it, be forewarned about what you’re getting.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #5: North Carolina Ghosts & Legends

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Roberts, Nancy. North Carolina Ghosts & Legends. University of South Carolina Press, 1959, 1967, 1992 (second edition).

We’re back with another Nancy Roberts book (according to her introduction, she had done ten by 1992). This one, however, is a special one for her. It’s her first book (originally titled An Illustrated Guide to Ghosts & Mysterious Occurrences in the Old North State) from 1959, but with a new introduction and six new stories. Otherwise, everything appears to be the same as the original.

Case in point: Remember that book I reviewed last year that investigated the Haunted Hitchhiker legend of Lydia? That story is here in its most famous early form as “The Lovely Apparition.” In retrospect, it’s not terribly hard to dope out that “Burke Hardison” is a fake name for the supposed informant (the young man who drove her home).

Lydia is not the only familiar ghost between these covers. The Maco Light, the Devil’s Tramping Ground, the Music of Roan Mountain, the Hoofprints of Bath, the Dromgoole legend, and the Little Red Man of Salem, among others, are all here and likely in the form that many North Carolinians read for the first time. There is also the story of the old slave who killed his master and buried him under a bridge, that I mentioned the other day.

In Roberts’ defense, her book was one of the earliest popular ghost story collections for North Carolina, at least for the 20th century. Her ex-husband’s atmospheric photos no doubt helped seal the deal for a lot of readers looking for an October chill. I would be very surprised if she had not pillaged the (then very recent, and not quite complete) Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore for fresh material.

I rode pretty hard on Roberts last year, especially her newer collection, but there’s little doubt about the influence she had on the spread of popular North Carolina folklore in the past half-century. I also have to say that her storytelling was better early on, albeit it was always high on atmosphere and low on concrete facts.

One thing that bothers me a tad about this revised edition is that it’s not entirely clear which stories are new and which aren’t. It appears that all of the coastal tales are new (I guess this includes the Blackbeard one). Maybe I’ll get a hold of the first edition and see how it differs from this one.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #4: Whispers from the Past: A Collection of Folklore by North Carolina Students

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Whispers from the Past: A Collection of Folklore by North Carolina Students. North Carolina Heritage Week 1990: “The Arts: From the Past into the Future.” North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Raleigh, 1990.

It’s funny that the quaintest and most dated part of this collection is the “future” part. One major conceit of the introduction is the idea that the students were collecting stories about the past and recording/submitting them on the media of the future – namely, floppy disks.

The mission statement reads:

As a part of the 1990 Heritage Week Celebration, all North Carolina schools were invited to participate in an innovative project known as “Tales and Technology.” Students were asked to talk with relatives and friends and to gather folk tales about traditions, family stories, names of places or tall tales that had been passed from one person to another.

One unique aspect of this project involved submission of the tales to the Department of Public Instruction through telecommunications or as text files on a computer diskette. This process gave students an opportunity to inform others about the PAST through the technology of the FUTURE. The invitation drew a response from 600 students, representing 77 schools and 43 school systems.

The project was a splendid example of integrated learning. Students gathered folktales (arts) on their past (history), wrote out the stories (communication skills), and relayed the information through technology (computer skills).

I try to remind myself that this was 1990, after all (our tech will look equally quaint three decades from now), and that I can hardly talk when I lived through that period and was already an adult in 1990. But reading this mission statement, my very first thought was Oh, that’s adorable! Which I’m pretty sure was not the intended effect. The “future tech” angle now feels like opening a time capsule. In a bad way.

There is, however, something timeless about kids from one generation interviewing their elders about the Way Things Were Way Back When. This isn’t the only such collection I’ve run across for this year’s folklore run and I hope to find more. There appear to be things that older people in a community are willing, even eager, to share with their cultural heirs that they would never tell an outside adult. At first, I wasn’t sure these collections would have much folkloric value, but I have definitely changed my mind.

The book is broken down into five sections: Horror Stories, Legends, Tall Tales, Place Names, and Personal Experiences (easily the longest at over half the book, with plenty of thematic overlap with the others). There’s a county index, but no table of contents for some reason. These stories were collected from all over North Carolina. There are even a few from my area. Some are familiar and well-known. Some are a little odd. Some you may not see anywhere else.

Some of these stories seem a tad advanced for the child writing them down, even allowing for the interviewing process. In one case from Morganton, it’s outright admitted that the child’s father, a Son of the Confederacy member, dictated it. That said, I’m here for the themes and the hints of new stuff.

And there is some new stuff. Yes, there are multiple versions of the Vanishing Hitchhiker, the Headless Railroad Conductor, and the Devil’s Tramping Ground, along with various lynchings and Civil War tales. But there are also several about otherwise-forgotten local colorful personalities, family ghosts (usually Grandma), an entire section on place names, and the odd creepy story.

For example, it’s an open secret in Edgecombe and Halifax counties that Seven Bridges Road (Edgecombe) and Thirteen Bridges Road (Halifax) are seriously haunted, including a roadside revenant or two, and a serial killer who may or may not have been caught a few years back. But details are generally lacking, aside from the often-repeated story of how you see seven bridges going one way and only six bridges coming back on Seven Bridges Road.

Fortunately, we get two from Halifax in this collection about Thirteen Bridges Road. One is about a homicidal roadside revenant of an accident victim and the other is a headless horse (which may derive from Scottish fairy folklore). The headless horse story harks back to very old versions of phantom revenants in which a ghost weighs down the traveler’s transportation until the traveler reaches a certain point in the road. In the old days, it was a horse or mule. In this version, it’s a car.

There’s even a witch story (one of only two from Nash County). I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this tale related in another local folklore book about Nash County. She must have left quite an impression.

The other story is about the ghost of a woman haunting Rocky Mount Mills, spotted by the storyteller’s grandfather at 3:30am (the Witching Hour) in 1965. The storyteller appears to mean the old cotton gin on Tar River (what local people generally call Rocky Mount Mills) rather than the old tobacco factory (now the Imperial Centre) on Church St. Both buildings are said to be very haunted.

There are also several ghost lights (usually, but not always, related the Headless Conductor legend). But not all of the more dramatic stories involve the supernatural. One girl claims to have survived a near-miss with a waterspout while her family was at the beach. There is also a section about old-time folkways in which the kids interviewed an elder in their family. There’s even a cute story about a frog in a church that ended a revival meeting early and one about an elastic-eating cat (folks, don’t let your fur-kids do this at home). In another story reminiscent of an urban legend supposedly from pioneer days, a blind grandmother is saved from a homicidal burglar by her watchdog, but no one realizes it until her daughter visits the next day.

In addition to the perennial state favorite, the Civil War, some stories talk about the Great Depression, World War II and more local events such as a 1916 flood of Clear Creek in McDowell County. Some of these stories see the past through rose-colored glasses. Others, however, have a grimmer, more hardscrabble view, especially of the Depression. Life in North Carolina back in the day could be very hard if you were an orphan, poor, black, or all three.

Curiously, the book does not discuss race at all. Nor does it discuss Segregration, which had only officially ended 16 years before the book came out. There are occasional accounts (such as one by a child whose great-something grandmother used to tell stories about being sold as a slave) that indicate the child is African-American, but no actual discussion of what it was like to grow up African-American in North Carolina back in the day.

I suppose that this was perceived to be too controversial a topic for a folklore book by children, but it’s still major blind spot. African-Americans are still the second-largest racial demographic in North Carolina, with nearly twice the national average at 21.48%. In some counties, the African-American population is over 50%. I’m not sure who ultimately decided to whitewash the book’s subject matter, but I think that was a mistake.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #3: Black Spirits: The Ghostlore of Afro-American Slaves


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Gorn, Elliot J. “Black Spirits: The Ghostlore of Afro-American Slaves.” American Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 4 (Autumn 1984), pp. 549-565.

As historian Tiya Miles notes in her book Tales from the Haunted South (reviewed here last year), ghost story books and the dark tourism industry in general tend to ignore African-Americans or, at best, use them as exotic scenery or set pieces. African-American ghost stories certainly exist, but you have to dig a bit to find ones that are actually told by African-Americans.

Elliot Gorn is white, but this is an important article in terms of discussing Antebellum slave ghostlore and I don’t have a copy of John Mason Brewer’s classic Worser Times and Better Days: The Folklore of the North Carolina Negro (1965), yet.

The first part of the article is mainly devoted to discussing the late Gladys-Marie Fry‘s then-recent book, Night Riders in Black Folk History (1975). Gorn disagrees with Dr. Fry’s thesis that Antebellum slave owners intentionally used ghost stories to terrorize and control their slaves, but agrees with her that they most certainly tried to do so with recently freed African-Americans during Reconstruction (one example may be the story of the old slave who killed his master in self-defense, buried him under a bridge, confessed on his deathbed, and now haunts the bridge, still beaten by his abusive master).

For the former, Gorn cites a lack of evidence, among the voluminous source material of methods of control slave owners used and discussed, of using “hant” stories as one such method. Obviously, this situation was different in the post-War period, when one reason the Ku Klux Klan dressed in white hoods and robes was to pretend they were Civil War ghosts to frighten African-American ex-slaves. Gorn is skeptical, however, that very many of the slaves were taken in by this charade. The actual violence the Klan freely engaged in was far more persuasive.

Gorn notes that part of the difficulty in collecting African-American ghostlore from ex-slaves was their general reticence in sharing pretty much anything personal with white interviewers. They had learned the hard way not to overshare with whites, although some admitted to WPA interviewers during the 1930s that slave owners had not encouraged beliefs in, or discussion of, such lore. Slaves learned not to trust their masters – or any white person – and to limit unnecessary contact (or even discussion) with them well beyond the point of death.

Also, while they were not necessarily taken in by living white men pretending to be dead, some slaves found some particularly brutal masters so terrifying that they imagined them coming back from the dead in a classic example of abuse-generated PTSD. But there is a humorous side to “hant” lore that sends up overly superstitious people who see everything as supernatural. Gorn also notes that a major function of ghostlore was to strengthen strained familial ties with helpful ghostly ancestors, since the institution of slavery did not legally recognize any bond save that between the slave and the master.

Much of the rest of his article is a review of the literature on the topic. He notes the theory that African-American slaves held a largely animistic view underneath an imposed, but superficial, white Christian theology. He also notes that slaves tended to perceive ghosts as restless unless placated by grave goods and largely malevolent. This was in contrast to Anglo-American white views of ghosts as largely benevolent. The article ignores the fact that slave owners also included whites from French, Dutch, Spanish, and Celtic backgrounds (despite several mentions of New Orleans ghostlore), and that these could have radically different views on ghostlore than the English.

Celtic lore, for example, freely mixes ghostlore with fairy lore (some sources claim that fairies were the unbaptized dead). The Colonial Era Dutch-American Ichabod Crane is terrified by the Headless Horseman specifically because that figure is a powerful death omen for anyone who sees it. In Celtic lore, headless men (and especially those on horses) were some of the deadliest members of the Unseelie (Dark Fairy) Court. African-American and Celtic lore are both full of headless men, black dogs, restless dead who must be pinned into their graves, and spirits/fairies who can’t cross water. There are differences to be sure (for example, black dogs are seen as helper figures in some West African lore, whereas they are terrifying demons in Celtic lore), but not all Antebellum white culture was diametrically opposed to black culture.

There are not many stories specific to North Carolina in the article, though the author does cite the Frank C. Brown Collection early on. One story does appear about the ghost of a man who was whipped to death, that returns to haunt the plantation where he died. In another, a black woman is beaten to death by two white men and returns to haunt their sleep with her screams.

Gorn puts these tales in the category of avengers who strike from beyond the grave, freed from all earthly bonds and consequences by death. Even though they did little beyond beg or stare in mute reproach, these ghosts could be as terrifying to those they were avenging as to the targets of their revenge. They had a tendency to return to their masters’/killers’ plantation houses and drive them out, effectively taking over the house for their own. In a few stories, however, slave spirits came back to kill their masters outright.

Since the article came out in 1984, it is inevitably a bit dated. Though Gorn tries to put his work in context with other folkloric research, he doesn’t mention Jan Harold Brunvand’s classic popular study of modern urban legends, The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981). Obviously, there is no discussion of the internet or how these old stories might have spread on it, either, since the World Wide Web did not yet exist.

More puzzling is Gorn’s avoidance of any discussion of Lost Cause mythology. Since he spends a good part of his article discussing Dr. Fry’s book, this is a pretty big omission. Lost Cause mythology was a major attempt by Southern white elites to recapture the post-Civil War narrative. In the context of their trying to intimidate ex-slaves with ghostlore, it would have made sense to discuss how the Lost Cause narrative fit into that effort. Ah, well.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #2: Ghost Cats of the South

Check out the rest of the month’s reviews here, and last year’s reviews here. If you enjoyed this review and want to help out with my folklore research, head on over to my Patreon page and join up, make a one-time donation on this site or directly through Paypal, or send me a coffee.

Russell, Randy. Ghost Cats of the South. John F. Blair, Publisher, 2011.

This one comes from half of the duo that gave us Mountain Ghost Stories from last year. It’s exactly as advertised – supernatural stories of cats from all over the South, including photographic illustrations. The author did a similar one for dogs, as well.

It has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as Mountain Ghost Stories. There is basically no investigation of the folkloric background to these tales, despite an introduction by the author that discusses his work as a “ghostlorist.” In fact, it’s hard to tell the original legend in some of them (and some even sound like thinly veiled fiction). Russell claims that the South has older stories than any other region of the U.S. But even those two oldest that he claims for this collection (the Cherokee Wampus Cat and the 1740s San Marcos Cat of “Rose Perfume” from St. Augustine, FL) are not likely as old as those of New England and Eastern Canada.

Perhaps the most outrageous in folkloric terms is also the creepiest – an eternally hungry cat ghost called “Eat-Your-Face Cat” from Tunica, MS that haunts a 1956 Chevy Bel-Air. “Butcher Cat” from Tuscaloosa, AL sounds downright terrifying (albeit its story is told from the impossible viewpoint of a victim). So do the malevolent Voodoo haint “Chimney Cats” of Savannah, GA. And “Run-Over-Flat Cats” from Birmingham, AL gets downright metaphysical with its two Schrodinger-like cats, pet(s) of a lonely longhaul trucker.

The book is also pretty lacking in North Carolina content. There are only 3 NC stories out of the 22 in the book and they’re all from the Mountain region. One (“Camp Cats”) is from Black Mountain in the west and I was fairly disappointed at the lack of markers for further research in it. It is a sweet story, though, about a young girl who misses her dead cat so much that she brings the kitty’s ashes with her to summer camp. After she dies relatively young in a car wreck, she and the cat come back in feline form as a benign haunting of the place she loved so much.

Another from Hot Springs, “Wedding Cat,” is about a bridesmaid who makes an inadvertent stop in a holler after her car breaks down. In gratitude to the old widower who puts her up for the night, she agrees to take an old “Wampus” mask, that once belonged to his wife, with her to the nuptials. This has the unexpected effect of “birthing” a mischievous ghost cat at the service that figuratively gets the bride’s tongue.

The one from Sylva, NC (“Cat Cookies”) is also a tad vague in historical or folkloric detail, but is gentle in tone. In it, an old spinster (who may or may not be a witch), uses magic cookies to find homes for her many kitties on Halloween among the local children. This one got a “d’awww” from me.

Others deal with witches, too, but those tend to be rather misogynistic (whether the author’s writing or the original source material, I wasn’t sure). The one from Gatlinburg, TN (though most of the locations in the story are near Judaculla Rock in NC) is about the Native American legend of the Wampus Cat (“Slivers of Bone”). Taken from a story by Davey Arch, a contributor to Living Stories of the Cherokee, it involves a Cherokee woman who is cursed for putting on a cougar skin to spy on the menfolk during their night war meetings against the Colonial settlers.

In “Lightning Cat” from Baton Rouge, LA, a luckless witch caught in a storm is eventually forced to take shelter in a tree, where she is trapped (perhaps eternally) by a bolt of lightning striking the tree. Her attempts to escape cause a periodic discharge that locals mistake for ball lightning. I ended up feeling sorry for her.

If you don’t like feline fatality, this may be one to avoid. Almost all of the cats in the stories end up dead, some of them gruesomely in the manner of urban legends (though usually with a more tragic than comic spin to the storytelling, except in the case of the boisterous “Cat Shine” from Edgefield, SC). My favorite part of the book, though, was the collection of vintage black-and-white photos of cats (and their owners) interleaved with the stories. These ranged from adorable to gravely gorgeous. I wish there were more historical information on them.

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