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The Truth That Creeps Beneath Our Spooky Ghost Stories

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
October 27, 2013

Weekend Edition has been asking you to share your scary stories, the ones that have become family lore. This week, we’re sharing those stories and delving into how and why they affect us.

As a teenager, Kevin Burns from Memphis, Tenn., babysat for his sister’s daughters — a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old. Throughout the night, he heard a baby crying, but it wasn’t the kids, who were sound asleep in their beds.

Each time he investigated the crying, it stopped. When his sister and her husband came home, he asked them if their neighbor had a baby who cried loudly.

“And both of their faces instantly blanched white. They told me at that time that the house was haunted,” Burns says. “They got a great deal on the house — they’d bought it like a month and a half before — and they were in the process of selling the house. And sure enough, within about another month, they were out of there.”

Burns says he has a background in science and he doesn’t really believe in ghosts, but the look on his sister’s face gave him the willies.

So how do we balance our natural skepticism with the unexplained?

“Ghost stories are one of those things that have never been proven — but have also never been disproven, right? Science can’t really disprove ghosts exist,” says anthropology professor Tok Thompson.

At the University of Southern California, Thompson teaches a class on ghost stories — their role in storytelling around the world and how they invite discussions of the soul and the afterlife.

He says most polls find that a little more than 50 percent of Americans believe in ghosts.

“That’s fascinating because most Americans tend to believe in science. And even those who might not believe in certain aspects of science — say, evolution or whatnot — tend to be influenced by their religious teachings,” Thompson says. “Well, here’s a case … where most Americans believe something that both their science and their religious leaders tell them not to believe.”

Perspectives abroad can be different, though. Take Vietnam, where Ryan MacMichael was visiting his wife’s family. One night, a ghostly figure shook him awake and pointed him to the bathroom.

“I thought maybe it was one of my wife’s cousins had come in and woken me up, but first of all, it was 3 in the morning, second of all, why would they do that, and third of all, when I had gotten up and left, I had to unlock the door to my room. It was still locked.”

When he told his wife’s family the story the next morning, they were pretty blasé, telling him it was probably Grandpa’s ghost, just there to help him.

Thompson says that in many East Asian countries, belief in ghosts is not only more acceptable, “but it’s sort of unacceptable not to believe in ghosts.”

He also notes that helpful ghosts are a common theme in these stories, particularly family ghosts.

Another creepy, recurring theme: possessed dolls.

Thomas Adkins and his mom were visited many times by a Patti Playpal doll that would walk around the house, opening and shutting doors and flicking lights on and off.

“I would be in my top bunk, and I would hear in the middle of the night these footsteps coming and I would hear the ‘thunk, thunk’ up the ladder at the foot of my bed,” he says, “and I would see this doll’s bangs and then her eyes peer over the edge of my bed and be so terrified that I couldn’t even get a scream out.”

Thompson says the word “doll” actually comes from the root “idol.”

“So this idea of their possessing a spirit to some degree is at the root of dolls,” he says.

Is there a point to ghost stories beyond instilling fear? Thompson says there must be some value to them.

“I think if there wasn’t value in them, people wouldn’t keep telling them. Frankly, I think that ghost stories deal with a lot of issues — not just whether or not one believes in ghosts but also questions of the past that haunts us, perhaps past injustices that haven’t been taken care of,” he says.

Take the common theme of building on top of an Indian burial ground, for example.

“Well, that speaks somewhat to America’s history of the destruction of Native American peoples and societies that maybe hasn’t quite been dealt with. Or, again, we have a lot of ghosts of slavery,” Thompson says. “So there’s a lot of, I think, social and even moral messages that can come from ghost stories.” [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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