Tales, legends, and personal-experience stories about revenants, informally called ghosts,
creatures that return from the realm of the dead to help or harass the living. Popular
among both children and adults, ghost stories have circulated widely in print and in the
mass media, as well as in oral tradition. Some narratives are linked to specific places—
often the scene of the person’s death—while others are more generalized.
In some early ghost stories told by Native Americans, the revenant is a skeleton (motif
E4126.96.36.199) that can heal injuries, frighten travelers, and shift its shape. Most ghost
stories of more recent vintage feature ghosts that closely resemble living people. Their
purposes in returning to Earth include completing unfinished business, getting revenge,
revealing how they died, and disclosing the site of hidden treasure (motif E545.12).
Young children’s ghost stories tell of sudden noises that signal the revenant’s
appearance. Aarne-Thompson (AT) tale types 326, “The Youth Who Wanted to Learn
What Fear Is,” and 366, “The Man from the Gallows,” provide the frameworks for many
children’s narratives. The hero of stories based on AT 326 must vanquish a ghost that
announces its presence with such frightening cries as “One black eye!” and “Bloody
fingers!” In variants of AT 366 that include “The Stolen Liver” and “The Golden Arm,” a
dismembered corpse seeks revenge. Mark Twain explains the art of timing the catch
ending of “The Golden Arm” in his essay “How To Tell a Story.” This folktale has
frightened generations of campers and slumberparty participants. Published collections of
ghost stories by Maria Leach, Alvin Schwartz, and others have reinforced children’s
awareness of oral traditional patterns.
One of the ghosts best known to American children and adults is the vanishing
hitchhiker (motif E3188.8.131.52). In circulation since the 1890s, this legend has many
subtypes, in all of which a spectral hitchhiker disappears. Proof of the ghost’s identity
often comes from an object left behind: a blanket or a sweater, for example, that may be
discovered draped over a tombstone. Sometimes the hitchhiker is a young girl who died a
year or more ago; other times it is Jesus Christ, returning to tell people about the
approach of the final judgment. The earliest vanishing-hitchhiker stories, collected in
New York, tell of the ghost of a girl jumping up behind a young man on a horse. In
Hawaii one incarnation of the vanishing hitchhiker is the volcano goddess Pele. Linkages
also exist between the hitchhiker and La Llorona, the weeping female ghost of Mexican
folklore. The vanishing-hitchhiker legend has inspired scenes in several movies,
including Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Mr. Wrong (1984). The legend has also
developed a connection to conjuring games. Mary Whales, an accident victim said to be a
hitchhiker at the site where she died, becomes the object of a game involving a mirror.
Ritually repeating “Mary Whales, I believe in you,” the player tries to summon Mary,
who may reach out to scratch her summoner.
Places with a reputation for being haunted draw visitors who may tell ghost stories
before, during, and after their pilgrimages. Cemeteries and haunted houses are among the
most frequent destinations, especially for adolescent visitors. Legends about deranged individuals who killed themselves and others—and might still be awaiting further
victims—provide raw material for dramatic enactments by groups. Buildings such as the
House of Blue Lights in Indianapolis become famous locally; it is somewhat rare for
haunted houses to achieve national recognition. The great popularity of the movie The
Amityville Horror (1979), bolstered by newspaper accounts and oral legends about a
house in Amityville, New York, provides one compelling example of the fascination
exerted by haunted houses.
Ghost stories also arise in connection with high-risk occupations. In the South and
West, stories of miners’ ghosts are common; these ghosts may frighten people but
frequently come back to help other miners. Big John and Jeremy Walker of West
Virginia are two miners celebrated in local legendary. Similarly, flight attendants,
firefighters, and others who have died in the course of their work may become the central
characters of stories, often warning others to avoid potentially fatal situations.
While some ghost stories focus on helpful acts and others on malevolent behavior,
certain narratives present revenants that simply want to do some of the same things they
did while living. Residents of an old Yicrorian house in New York speak of hearing the
ghost of the house’s former owner carrying wood upstairs, as he did every evening when
he was alive. Similarly, summer residents of an old house in Maine describe hearing
seven footsteps in the parlor at midnight, speculating that a ghost has unfinished business
there. Personal-experience narratives like these may become legends as friends of the
tellers repeat them; alternatively, they may have more limited circulation within family
Dreams and visions of ghosts often provide the basis for ghost stories. Sometimes
people find omens in visions and dreams; other times they find comforting indications
that the spirit of a loved one is near. Stories about dreaming of a relative close to the time
of that person’s death, for example, may become very significant to the dreamers and
those who hear their narratives.
More research needs to be done on the interrelationships among personal-experience
stories, legends, and folktales about ghosts. The popularity of movies such as Poltergeist
(1982) and Ghostbusters (1983) shows that ghostlore continues to flourish in the mass
media. As more extensive studies of oral, printed, and mass-media ghost stories emerge,
we will have a better understanding of this art form’s evolution in our complex society.
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Brunvand, Jan Harold. 1981. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their
Meanings. New York: W.W.Norton.
Degh, Linda. 1980. The House of Blue Lights in Indianapolis. In Indiana Folklore: A Reader, ed.
Linda Degh. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 179–195.
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Montell, William Lynwood. 1975. Ghosts along the Cumberland. Knoxville: University of
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Twain, Mark. 1897. How to Tell a Story and Other Essays. New York: Harper’s.