Urban Legends, Folklore and Paranormal Research Today
Within the study of ghosts and haunted locations, psychic experiences and related events have a direct connection to our upbringing, generational locations, timelines, and other similar aspects of the human condition as they relate to the concept of oral-traditions and folklore. Whether experienced by professional researchers or lay investigators into the paranormal, such aspects via cerebral training pique our senses toward such things as ‘the paranormal’ or that which exists beyond our general understanding. Indeed, the idea of a ghostly tale, for instance, is likely to have been brought up by a grandparent or parent in order to achieve an effect from us when we were small. The reasoning may be simply to bring a little excitement to a dull Saturday night, or to act as a cautionary lesson. Either way, these playful anecdotes have been rendered to captive audiences since the Palaeolithic Age, when cavemen painted adventurous scenes on cave walls.
From the earliest recorded documentation of ghosts haunting the living in ancient Greece, or of enchanted forests frightening even the bravest soldiers from treading there during the dark ages, to the tales of deceased military men visiting their family hundreds of miles away as a potent of their demise, right on up to our modern ghost stories, we can see how the concept of the legend can permanently etch its place into every culture on this earth. Without a doubt, the subject of urban legends have been researched and collected by scholars in order to record the human experience for cultural preservation, as well as to add to man’s search for the extraordinary. With such luminaries as Sir James George Frazer, D.Litt., author of the famous treatise on cultural anthropology The Golden Bough (1922), and Dr. Sedgwick Wolfe Grange, D.Sc., Department of Anthropology-Prifysgol Cymru Abertawe, Wales, we can see how important the subjects of urban legends a oral-traditions are to both academia and the common culture. These aforementioned scholars, and others like them, exemplify that the otherwise amusing urban legend of history should be placed under a more studious light in the realms of science and social studies, and not just as a quirky example of post-modern nonsense. Moreover; we should realize that the connections between the urban legend and the serious inquiries of psychical and paranormal research must be examined further for the sake of cultural and scientific growth before any final or undue judgment is made.
As investigators of the unknown, his should be our studious mantra.
During these last few years, I have had the opportunity to lecture at several universities and libraries on the influence that the ancient to modern urban legend and folktale, and how it makes an impact on our modern society. In so doing, I found that many of these time-honored legends are just as potent today as they were centuries ago. And it was during a personal interview that the following questions were asked of me, which were intended to correlate and catalog the vastness of our intellectual pursuits, which psychic research, parapsychology and folklore have a tight, if not unique designation together, and more importantly, on our combined research into the paranormal as a respected and worthy study of science and culture alike.
*The following interview took place as a request from Dr. Brandy Stark Ph.D., director of S.P.I.R.I.T.S. — Servicing Paranormal Investigators Reporting Information Through Study, of Tampa, in 2007.
(1.) What are the characteristics of urban legends intermingled with parapsychology, and how can we define them?
Urban legends and folklore is considered a serious cultural science in academia, and is respected as an integral aspect to the continuation of both common and international folkways for all races and subcultures in all societies. That being said, I would point to the concept of the modern urban legend in many of the movies and television programs of the day. To best exemplify this, we can use the blood & gore films of the 1980s. The Halloween series with Michael Myers, the Friday the 13th series with Jason Voorhees, or The Nightmare on Elm Street series with Freddy Kruger, all represent the oral tradition in flux. At first, we see only the obvious — a maniac running amok, killing teenagers throughout the entire feature. But, the literal, if not a subdued message is for kids to avoid having sex, drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana or otherwise having illicit fun. As silly as this may sound, it’s merely a modern adaptation to an old idea. At my age, I can remember more subtle messages to express the same warnings, yet as one generation passes to the next, it becomes more difficult to relay the original message, thus bringing us a more potent example each and every time the lesson is taught.
The characteristics that define an urban legend are that one entertains with a subtle message, and the other teaches us with a tough, moral lesson. Though there are many examples for this, we will observe the urban legend as it is applied to “ghosts” and the supernatural for the sake of our intellectual pursuits as paranormal researchers. For many, this in itself will automatically separate the believers from the skeptics. This is good, and what we should prepare for as professionals. The skeptics, who can be seen in many sub-groups themselves, separate themselves for their own reasons, which may be noble in every respect. However, there are those who are simply stubborn in their opinions, without any educated reasoning other than wanting publicity or simply an argument. For those who investigate the unknown, whether the subjects in question are cryptozoological creatures, or those otherwise elusive entities of the ethereal world like ghosts, all nonetheless occupy the fringe regions of what is accepted by the masses, and for that, had become known as “pseudo” or that under an official study of an accepted discipline.
In the case of a “ghostly” legend, we can see an elevated story to relay a common problem. Let’s take Sunland Hospital for instance; a once reputedly haunted and cursed abandoned hospitals, one in Tallahassee, and the other in Orlando, Florida. Here, we learn of its creepy location, its abandoned corridors and dark passages. Then, we learn of its equally dark history with its terrible connotations of child abuse and neglect, and then we lean of the many legends that are attached to the place itself. Now; we are introduced to the history of weird happenings and spooky events to take place within and around the hospital. Some become scared, while leading some to become angry and even others to become inspired. Why? Because there is so much more than a simple ghost story being told here. In this story, we learn that children have suffered with great neglect, so much so that the hospital itself was closed down by various mental health groups such as the Department of Children and Families, formally H.R.S. and the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC). To further this outrage, we might do more research and see some of the old photographs collected by the Florida Photographic Archives to prove these allegations of abuse and gross neglect – would not any parent or civilized person’s blood run cold? These are the first steps that initiate what we call an urban legend and folktale in its proto-stage of development.
The second step is to isolate, and then relate the legend attached to it, or legends that involve the victims, in this case, the children. In the end, it is the many faces of these long-dead children that are seen in the darkened windows, or the sounds of running being heard in the long-deserted corridors that tend to be the results of these legends being told and re-told over the years. Added to this, the building has sat in decay for more than 20 years, and is surrounded by dark, spooky woods — what paranormal researcher would not be inspired to investigate? Indeed, even though the old Sunland Hospital was torn down in 2006, ghost hunters and other inspired people continue to come from miles around just to stand where the building’s once frightening decaying hulk once stood, in hopes of observing any residual of the alleged haunting. Such proves that a noteworthy urban legend was born, and will continue even though the physical attribute attached to that legend is long gone. Undeniably, even though the hospital is long gone, and a new condominium complex sits where the hospital once stood, the history of pain and mistreatment of its patients, as well as its ghostly legends will undoubtedly live on. This is, after all, one of the primary goals for keeping both the original ‘spooky’ feeling and the urban legend alive for years to come.
(2.) What is the role of the urban legends in modern society?
The role of the urban legend in every society is simply to educate, or for lesser purposes, to promote an idea, like making money from tourists and so forth. Though the lesson in question may vary from simple to extravagant, the local, state-wide or nation-wide legend is meant to pass-on from one generation to the next, in hopes to make future generations understand that which is, or “was” important to the first generation. It is to make sure our generation understands that your parents, and their parents before them (and exponentially in reverse) suffered greatly to get where they are now, and for the things you have now (e.g., I walked 20 miles in 4 feet of snow each day to go to school in order to walk another 5 miles away so you could have that new pair of shoes…et cetera.). This example works well with the concept of an urban legend as well, only to degrees of subject matter and lessons of hardship, and to create guilt. But, the framework is the same.
Our society has many well-known urban legends in place. Like the recent films bearing the same tile, which exposed a few of these well-loved legends for what they are. For instance, we might recall little “Mikey” from the early 1980s Life Cereal commercials…You know: Mikey likes it, he likes it! We might remember hearing that he died while eating Pop Rocks candy while drinking soda pop at the same time. And, by now we might also know that he is alive and well working in New York City as an advertisement agency executive. How about Bubble-Yum Bubble Gum? Do you remember the stories that spider eggs were used to make the gum? I can, and I can also recall that many of the other kids chewing other brands of gum when they heard that story back in the 1970s. These are all are fine examples of just how potent an urban legend can be.
How about the “Bloody Mary” ritual that school girls have been repeating since at least the 1900s, whereby a girl or group of girls, usually while attending a slumber party, go into a darkened bathroom with a single candle, and repeat the name “Bloody Mary” three times. The legend is that the girl in question will see the image of her future husband, or if the news is bad, of a bloodied female with empty eye sockets, or other horrific images staring back at them. To further the legend, if one does see this image, they will die soon thereafter, or a family member will die shortly after that. Further still, the image in the mirror will be released to wreak havoc on the living for summoning her dark and evil spirit. Though no one is quite sure who Bloody Mary is suppose to be, either Mary, Queen of Scots, or another hapless woman of history, you can see this legend has stood the effects of time well, and has spawned many movies and TV shows in the process.
One of my favorite urban legends that continue to entice many students at certain colleges and universities across America is the legend of the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, of which I am a fraternal brother. Although many feel that the song was simply made up with no one particular as a model for the ‘sweetheart’, most believe the girl was an object of romance of the author of the song, Byron D. Stokes in 1911. Others feel that she was an ill-fated girl who was actually the model. The girl in question, the “sweetheart,” was said to be a free-spirited girl who was quite popular with the frat boys at her college. She was so loved that the now famous song was composed, and The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, was born. It is so popular that Sigma Chi’s across the globe learned the tune, and has integrated it as its own theme song, which is still enjoyed to this day. An interesting postscript to this legend involves Peter Straub; the author who wrote a book called Ghost Story, which lightly touches on this legend, and later becoming a feature film of the same name loosely based this legend. Whether or not Mr. Straub know of this legend when he wrote his novel, or that the filmmakers would actually use the Sigma Chi song in the film are anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, the real “Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” her life and legend has been augmented substantially since her death more than 100 years ago.
(3.) How did you get started in this field and why is it so important to paranormal research?
I have always had an interest in urban legends and the study of folklore. Folkways are apparent and quite visible in all cultures and sub-groups, and I began noticing my own culture’s examples of the folktale at an early age. I found the old Hammer Studio films very interesting, such as the Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing films who portrayed the Dracula and Frankenstein stories from the British perspective. From there-on in I was hooked on the subjects of legends of monsters, and all things that exist on the outskirts of our imaginations. I found that these creatures of the nightmare world to be very interesting, and directly relevant to our social events of the day, both of the past and the present. Of course, with this fledgling interest, I began to take notice to other things all around me that had a great deal to do with our individual backgrounds and cultures, and started reading on the subject as much as I could.
If we look at music for instance, we will see that it is a prime representative of cultural folkways that are singular to that culture or sub-group. For example, the music of the “Cotton Club Jazz” era, which may be attributed to; but certainly not limited to such greats as Fats Waller, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. We can see a direct correlation between that culture and the people who represented it, making a singular example that separates itself from others. Though such represents a culture that is solely that of an African-American foundation, meaning this music and its credits belong only to this sub-group in American history, it has crossed over to all cultures world-wide. It doesn’t matter who will copy it, or add on to it, it will always be theirs and theirs alone, even though it can inspire and entertain everyone. Similarly, the urban legend can make the same claim regardless of its direct tie to a specific culture, only the common understanding it creates.
Another famous example of the cultural ghost story is the hitchhiking ghost. In Florida, for example, the spirit of a young girl is said to walk the Skyway Bridge in Tampa-St. Petersburg. Though seemingly Floridian, it is actually a common legend heard from one country to the next, with similar variations being told in Europe, the UK and abroad the Dark Continent. Were it not for expert eyewitness accounts, such as from a retired Federal Agent and an off-duty sheriff’s deputy, both who I have interviewed, I might be prone in believing that this is simply a common tale whereby the ghost of a long-dead girl, or boy is just trying to get home from “the other side.” And, when this “person” disappears, leaving no clue as to where they went, the ghostly legend augments from uncomplicated to believable by the masses. In other variations of this somewhat common legend, the person in question disappears, but leaves a personal article of clothing or some other item as a clue, along with an address to where she or he lives. When the hapless driver arrives at the home of the vanished person, the parent, the husband or wife who lives at that address tells the driver that the “person” in question has been dead for 10, 20 or more years. We all know the legends, and we all loved them, but are there any facts to them? That’s the unending allure of folklore and ghostly legends.
Personally, I am always searching for new legends, especially those connected to ghosts and alike supernatural events. I do so not only because it is directly affiliated to my profession as a psychologist and expression arts therapist, but also because it tunes in directly to the human condition, which after all is what we’re all about. Ghosts and life after death, is simply an extension of who we are now, and “who” we will be remembered as after we die. For some, a man might be remembered as a good man, or as a wicked man, and such a nomenclature may very well stay with that man long after his death, where such might become the ingredients for a spooky legend to follow.
(4.) Are there any urban legends that you find are strictly “native” to Florida? If so, what is the most interesting one, in your opinion? And how do you think it reflects the native environment?
This is a very good question, and one which I could dominate for some time. But, to keep the pages short I would have to say that the most prevalent urban legend is that of the “Skunk Ape.” Here’s a legend that has endured since at least the 1920s within the white-European settlements here in this state, and for at least one thousand years with Native Americans. Indeed, here’s a creature that has been reported by every tribe from the Timucuan to the Seminole as a creature who lives amongst and within the land, and brings no harm to people. It is a creature that is as steadfast in history as it is in Floridian folklore. It has deviated very little over the course of the years, mustering a good reputation from expert eyewitnesses in the process. Indeed, from foresters and sheriff’s deputies to state road workers and the average hunter, the Skunk Ape has been seen and smelt over the years with such accountability, it stands to reason that something may indeed be out there in what’s left of our native woodlands and thickets.
(5.) Do you think that urban legends are valuable tools in a ghost hunter’s research? Why?
Absolutely! Before we, as “ghost hunters” go out on an investigation, we should firstly learn all there is about that location, person or object before any assumption is made. The first thing to do beyond mere interest is to run a complete scientific objective first before anything else. In a ghost research group; whether a professional scientific research team, or even a small group of people interested in paranormal research, you might want to follow a pre-op regiment before the actual, on-sight investigation is conducted. Firstly, understand the nature of the urban legend in question. If researching “ghost lights” a.k.a. foolish fire, ignis fatuus or jack’ o wisp, and etc., you should understand the location first and foremost. Is this location near a swamp or otherwise free-standing body of water? If so, do the reported events usually occur in the summer months? If you answer yes to both these questions, the ghost lights in question may very well be swamp gas naturally expelling itself or “burning-off,” an event that takes place around this time of the year in Florida and most southern states.
Secondly, we must look at the history of that location, as this may override the attached urban legend at hand. If we observe the legend known as The Oviedo Lights, a legend that dates back to the 1800s in central Florida, we will find that there are two separate events that point to the creation of this legend. The first is that a carriage overturned in the celery fields near here, killing several children, where ever since this accident, laughter of children is sometimes heard, as well as there being strange lights sometimes being seen in this area. At the site were the ghost lights are seen directly, which is where an old bridge once stood, (Old Snow Hill Road Bridge) we will find actual evidence that a man did indeed hang himself from the bridge around 1945, after returning home from the war only to find his girlfriend had married another man. Moreover, this site is also located (built over in fact) a series of Indian burial mounds — both historically leading to a possible haunting or paranormal event.
Finally, we must look at the witnesses. Since at least the 1800s, people have been observing these strange lights, which have been reported as bobbing up and down, and on occasion, even following or chasing cars and people. Whether spirits of the dead, swamp gas or unsettled and angry ghosts of ancient Indians, these are the questions that formulate such an urban legend, and one we can see in many similar legends world-wide. In short, once we do the aforementioned research; which may consist of an in-depth historical study of that location, along with investigations of the witnesses and/or victims, and even having a skilled professional conduct an interview clearly defines the way we should do our research, which will eventually culminate in the marriage of philosophies of our passions, and vindicate the outcome of our efforts.
(6.) How do these two fields cross over?
Because many urban legends are based in one way or another in a truthful event, such an origin may in turn produce reasoning as to why the legend grew in the first place. As “ghost hunters,” we might first discover a creepy story, which is full of tantalizing things. Such a story might consist of a full-bodied history, such as a murder or suicide, and then a listing of odd occurrences that follow that event. Perhaps people had noticed a variety of paranormal things, or perhaps the essence of that original murder/suicide created a haunting all its own. Either way, the very nature of that “haunting” is based largely, if not entirely on that legend/folktale. What comes later is for you, the “ghost hunter” to decipher which is which; legend or (possible) truth. Indeed, it is as someone famous once said, The Truth Is Out There.
(7.) Do you have any advice concerning researching urban legends?
The best advice I could offer for those truly interested in conducting a professional investigation is to research, research and research even more. Whether your examination takes you to libraries, which contain microfilms, government files, newspapers and periodical stacks, and all in between, you will be afforded the best chance of finding pieces to the puzzle your working on. Such will aid in your quest nicely. When I was researching past events for a story in my first book, I used the library, as well as local government archives to unearth a few disturbing facts, which lead directly to the legend I was researching. The segment titled Woodbridge Cemetery — Forgotten Souls and a Spirited Supermarket, which takes place in Fern Park, Florida, and details this cemetery and the adjacent plaza that was constructed directly on top of a Civil War-era graveyard, used primarily for ex-slaves and poor pioneers. Though fully understood to be a graveyard, construction took place anyway, and the “facts” were never explained to the buyer, resident or public alike — That is until several years later when strange things began to take place throughout the stores and supermarket here. Thankfully, I knew a few people living in that area who knew a few people working in this plaza. And so, with a little investigation, personal interviews and of course, more research to back-up these newly found facts, I can stand behind my story and its history with confidence. In short, this philosophy should be the mantra to our endeavors…Make your research so airtight, it’s court-worthy. Doing so will justify your efforts in psychical research, and promote our cerebral passion as a serious discipline in academia.
(2007) Interview with Brandy Stark, director of S.P.I.R.I.T.S. – Servicing Paranormal Investigators Reporting Information Through Study, of Tampa, Florida. http://centralflghosts.homestead.com/home.html