On the Nature of Scary Things

Happy somewhat belated Halloween. The one day of the year when everyone thinks folklorists are cool and listens to what we have to say. Often this is about the origins of Halloween, but I’ve already gone into that way  back in the day when I posted about liminality. So instead, I thought I’d share a spooky story and a short musing on the nature of spooky stories.

I just got back from a conference in New Orleans. New Orleans is an incredible city, but that’s another post. This post is about another guest at the hotel; one of the eternal variety. You see, one of my friends convinced herself her room was haunted and went to the front desk to talk to them about it. While they knew nothing about her room, they did show her a photograph taken by a guest of the fourteenth floor showing the ghost of a little boy who haunts that floor. It was clear and somewhat creepy. I know because I asked to see it.

It probably won’t surprise anyone who knows me at all that my next step was to go to the fourteenth floor and check it out. It was quite late by the time I got there (with another friend). At first I thought we were just doing something silly. It’s hardly my first time looking for ghosts. But in a crowded hotel on a weekend night; I just figured what were the chances he would come out and play?

We were about halfway down the hallway when I remarked to my friend that the hallway “felt” different. She agreed and said her ears were popping. Mine were two. We kept walking. At one point I had to put out a hand to steady myself against the wall because it felt so heavy and my head was swimming. My friend agreed the “heavy” sensation was worse in that part of the hall. Weirder than all of that is the fact that by the time we got to the end of the hall we felt better. It was just that one area; we walked through it four times to make sure.

Now, I don’t know that the dizziness we felt was a ghost or anything supernatural. Maybe there’s unshielded electrical wire there and that’s what was giving off that strange heaviness. Maybe it was all power of suggestion.

But isn’t that exactly why it’s creepy?

As another friend pointed out, it’s that ambiguity which gives supernatural narratives a lot of their appeal. If someone could prove that ghosts exist, they’d become a lot less interesting. They wouldn’t be creepy, they’d just be part of our reality. It’s that unknown that unsettles us.

So maybe the fourteenth floor of our hotel is haunted, maybe it’s not. That’s what makes it a good story.

What do you get for the girl who just became a saint?

Today Kateri Tekakwitha was officially canonized. It’s a little odd that she is only officially canonized now, since there are several churches and at least one convent already named St. Kateri Tekakwitha, but, you know, you have to appreciate that the Catholic Church has never really discouraged its folk elements. Most sources are declaring her the first indigenous saint from North America; this is highly debatable. There’s also an Orthodox Saint Peter the Aleut; my Canadian friends seem to classify Aleuts as something other than First nations, but this is not something I know a whole lot about, so I’m not going to take a stand. I would hazard a guess he gets left out of the Vatican’s press releases on account of that whole “not being Catholic” thing (his martyrdom is actually said to have taken place at the hands of Jesuits). There’s also Juan Diego. He’s definitely indigenous, but he’s also Mexican. Apparently we’re not counting that as “North America” anymore.

Both the US and Canada want to claim her as their own; she was born in New York and died in Quebec. In reality neither nation existed yet and neither would have given her citizenship rights if it had for quite some time. So it’s all kind of a moot point.

But I don’t care that much about any of that; none of that is what I’m excited about. Why did I spend the day eagerly reading news on the canonization? Because she’s in my dissertation! So while some marked this day by praying and some by rejoicing (and a few by protesting), I spent it googling and saving stuff to Zotero. And man, I have to say, the media did not let me down as far as giving me gems to talk about. From calling her the “Pocahontas of the Catholic Church” to the AP talking about her exchanging the “totem for the crucifix” (btw, that’s totally a dissertation chapter title now, thanks AP) it was like they were just showering me with gifts.

It’s not common for anyone to see the topic of their dissertation in the news. It’s less common in my field than some. It’s unlikely to happen again for me. I can’t quite describe what it feels like. It’s kind of like how suddenly at Halloween folklorists become the cool kids everyone wants to interview. Granted no one has called to interview me about this yet… It’s a different kind of excitement though. It’s the permission to go ahead and be a know-it-all. I’m not saying I’m not one usually, but right now I can back it up.

Coffee and Bandits!

Would we drink coffee with Eric Hobsbawm?

Kristy: When I heard about Eric Hobsbawm’s death a short time ago I had one of those weird, “Oh I didn’t realize he was still alive… but now he’s not…” moments. We had just spent a good amount of quality time together as both The Invention of Tradition and Bandits were on my reading list for my qualifying exams. And it’s because of those that I’m going to have to say yes. Bandits is one of the most delightful pieces of scholarship I’ve encountered–it has a fun subject matter, it’s written in an easy to comprehend manner, and it’s short. It was only in reading his various obituaries that I learned about his political leanings. And yeah, they were a little… extreme. But I think it’s also very easy for people in my generation to dismiss communism; we grew up able to see that it would never work on a large scale. Not because of the propaganda our government put out, but because we literally got to see it fail. But if I hadn’t seen that… I mean, it’s a nice idea. Not a nice enough one to justify Stalin’s actions, and not a practical or realistic one, but in a theoretical sense… nice. So anyway, I’m really hoping I can get him caught up discussing invented traditions and folklorization of history and we can just avoid that political whatever. Honestly, I’d like to know his opinions on how scholarship should be written. Why don’t more scholars write accessible works and should they? I have to wonder if his political leanings have anything to do with his proletarian style. It might be interesting to see. (By the way, are there British intellectuals who aren’t Marxists and aren’t Christopher Hitchens? I feel there must be, but everyone I encounter is fairly severely Marxist. Maybe Eric can tell me.) I’m curious to see where he stands on disciplinary divides given that he often worked kind of on the edge of his discipline. And I’d like to know, even though this might get the political rants going, if he has any regrets about being so vocal on his views. Several of his obituaries stated that his brilliance as a scholar was overlooked because of his political reputation. I’m not sure that will be true for his long term reputation, but if it is, is he okay with that? Was it all worth it?

Cammy: I’m gonna pass.  I know next to nothing about his scholarship, which means I’m gonna have a damn hard time participating in any kind of meaningful conversation, and I’ve a nasty feeling that despite all of Kristy’s best efforts, there will be political ranting.  Since there is about 0% chance he and I are going to be in agreement on anything in that arena, and while I’m sure a debate on political theories with this guy would be WAY more valuable and well-informed than with most people, I’m SO OVER political ranting right now.  So, I’m gonna go hang out at the bar and let Kristy handle this one.

Coffee with a Legend

Would we drink coffee with Davy Crockett?

Cammy:  “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”  So said this guy to voters regarding their decision to re-elect him or not.  They didn’t re-elect and, well, we know where Davy Crockett met his maker.  That quote alone make him worthy of a beverage.  Add to that the Texas thing, and it’s really a no-brainer.  These days I’m not sure kids outside Texas get any real exposure to this figure in history.  For a long time there (particularly when my parents were children), kids outside were exposed to Fess Parker’s Disney-series.  This focused mostly on the legendary woodsman/adventurer aspect of Crockett’s life–events long before his brief, but legendary involvement in the Alamo.  It’s odd to think that part of Crockett might be what some people learn of him first, rather than what Texas kids learn initially which is his role as a hero of the Alamo.  We’re not ignorant of his prior adventures, or even his time spent in Congress (he apparently made liberal use of the spittoons), but that stuff is a kind of foggy blur.  It’s that time I’d love to talk to him about.  As a politician at a time when election campaigns put candidates in real contact with voters, what much he think of how campaigns run now?  When it’s a rare thing for any of us to be in the same room with someone campaigning federal office even once in our lifetimes.  How does he feel about how he’s remembered in Texas vs. elsewhere?  Of course, I still need to at least try to get to one thing Alamo related.  One of the jarring things to happen to a Texas school-kid after years of imbibing the Crockett Hero Legend and multiple viewing of John Wayne as Crockett in The Alamo, is the introduction of the idea that Crockett’s final moments may have been, well, human.  It was a jaw dropper to all in the room when one of my teachers mentioned a letter that had been written by a Mexican soldier describing Crockett’s last moments spent pleading for his life.  I’m not sure whether or not we could get him to confirm or deny (the man was a politician, therefore, a liar), but I’d like to at least attempt to get to the bottom of that one.

Kristy: I study historic people who became folk heroes for a living. So if you think I’d turn down the chance to have coffee with an historic person who became a folk hero, you’re daft. Crockett is a special case because he became a folk hero during his own lifetime. Allegedly he was very uncomfortable with it, and so I’d certainly like to hear that from the man himself. I’d also like to hear how he feels about his postmortem reputation. Who does he think played the best Crokett? I’m not a Texan, but I was raised by one, so I got all the Fess Parker, John Wayne, etc, etc. I also worked for a Davy Crockett scholar who loves him specifically because he wasn’t a perfect hero; my boss informed me that he was an opportunist more than anything. An awesome one, judging by the light in his eyes as he talked about it. So yeah, I guess I’d like some sense of who the man was. On behalf of my boss, the Alamo story I need to check out is whether or not he actually played the fiddle to taunt the Mexicans and what songs he played.

A Folklorist’s Time Vampire

About a month ago a friend of mine slipped me a CD-ROM that had research materials from a ghost tour my department used to run in October. Mostly it was a collection of urban legends surrounding the campus where I teach. My intention was to use it to collect just a couple I could hand out to my students for a group activity. I downloaded all the files to my computer, but had no intention of actually reading all of them.

But then I started opening the files. And even though I had allotted only fifteen minutes to this activity I just couldn’t stop myself. I started opening the file labeled “Dorms”. First I opened all files referencing the dorm where I taught, because, you know, I’m an evil enough teacher to enjoy freaking out my students. That was all well and good, but then out of curiosity I had to check out the dorm where I taught the year before. And then there was that other dorm that I’d heard had creepy stories, but had never heard details…

And it’s not like I could stop with dorms. Because there was a whole folder labeled, “Academic Buildings.” Who doesn’t want to know if a building they’ve been attending classes in was the site of a grisly murder? And if that folder didn’t eat up enough of my time there was a whole folder just for my department. One that contained not only ghost stories themselves, but a chain of emails detailing the investigation that created one of said ghost stories.

But after that I should have stopped. I had plenty of material for my class, I had read about all the buildings with which I had a strong connection. But I was looking for one story in particular: There’s a standard university urban legends about a sorority house where people hear the sounds of babies crying. Everyone thinks it’s just a few people with over active imaginations until a workman doing some maintenance underneath the house uncovers some small bones. It turns out that in an earlier era when unwed pregnancies were not acceptable and abortions not available, sorority girls had hidden unwanted pregnancies and then buried the babies underneath the house to avoid the shame. I’m not sure if this has ever actually happened, but you hear it about nearly every university, and I had heard rumors it was told about at least one sorority at my school. So I wandered into the “Greek” Folder to locate it. Not knowing anything about Greek organizations I had to open all the Sorority and Fraternity folders. I never did find it.

And that’s about when I realized this “quick class prep activity” had sucked up several hours of my time. It was a Time Vampire tailored specifically to my weaknesses.

Coffee with Johann Gottfried Herder

Would we drink coffee with Johann Gottfried Herder?

Kristy: Well… I spent the morning reading about him for the umpteenth time and historiography really isn’t my thing, so off hand I kind of want to say no. But on the other hand, my academic discipline owes him a huge debt, which means that I owe him a huge debt. Many of his assumptions about the Volk were hugely problematic, but you have to recognize what a huge deal it was at that time for someone to actually see value in their artistic expressions. And I’m particularly interested and impressed by some of his ideas about vernacular languages. Also, it’s hard not to be amused by a guy who was so entranced by reading Ossian that he didn’t notice when the ship he was on nearly sank. (I realize this story is likely apocryphal, rest assured I will ask about it.) So yes, I will share a cup of coffee with the man. I’d be interested to hear how he feels about the present state of ethnology and folklore. I’d like to know how he feels about his legacy–his ideas have led to great things and horrific things. Was it all worth it?

Cammy: Dude, he’s absorbed in all things German which means I would definitely love a chance to pick his brain. It seems like he was trying to boost German self esteem even before they had their current national self esteem problem brought on by the Holocaust. Rather ironic given that his original attempts to bolster some pride in the German language, history and culture was later perverted to justify and support the shit Germany pulled in WWII. Like Kristy, I’d like to have him talk about that one. And, he had a hand in influencing Goethe, which means I owe him coffee since Goethe is to German literature as Shakespeare is to English literature. As far as discussion of Volk, I’m pretty sure I’ll leave that anthropological-folklore-historiography-other-big-academic-words lifting top Kristy, but even then I’m sure I can take something away from listening in.

Disney Happened

In ethnomusicology they have a saying:  Radio happened.  It’s basically short hand for pointing out that you can spend all day lamenting the fact that radio interfered with the age old face-to-face methods through which music used to be passed, but it won’t do any good.  The world changed and we need to come up with new ways to study it.  Rather than fighting the radio, we’re better off incorporating it into our studies.

I’ve recently decided we need an equivalent in folklore:  Disney happened.

This became clear to me this week when I was discussing ABC’s new show Once Upon a Time with a colleague.  Now I didn’t find the show to be particularly great; it has more cheese and cliché than are probably helpful.  But keeping in mind that pilots are often the worst episodes of a series, the pilot entertained me enough to make me watch a second episode.  But not so much that I’ve added it to my DVR.  My colleague on the other hand has higher standards.  Her response was, “OMG, it was horrible.  The writing sucks, the acting sucks (I’m not sure they suck worse than most of what you see on TV, but she’s not totally wrong) and OMG they used DISNEY VERSIONS of the fairy tales.”  (Please note: this is a bad paraphrase of what she actually said)

Putting aside her use of the totally non-scholarly term “fairy tales”; she’s not wrong.  They did use a fair amount of imagery and variation that, to my knowledge, is found only in the Disney versions of certain folktales.  For example, Snow White (or her modern day incarnation to be precise) has a bird land on her hand.  (I admitted it was cheesy)  No, that wasn’t in the original.  Except… wait… what was the original?

And here we get to my point:  folk tales have always changed.  Hell, variation across time and space is one of the major things us folklorists study about folk tales.  Given that most folk tales probably circulated in some form in oral tradition long before the earliest written versions we have (there are some who debate any folk origin for folk tales, but… such theories are not widely accepted) it’s a fair bet that what we think of as “the original” form of a given folk tale is not completely accurate.  And if we don’t know what the original is and we know the tales have always evolved, how to do we crucify Disney for continuing the process?

Yes, I understand complaints that Disney sterilized their tales to appeal to modern sensibilities and children (like for example, taking the whole rape-mance out of Sleeping Beauty).  But it’s not like Disney invented that idea either.  That too was a process that goes back at least as far as the Grimm brothers.  When we look at variations in folk tales we generally analyze them as reflections of the particular culture that produced them.  They are a product of when and where they were told and tell us a lot about those cultures.  Like it or not, Disney variants do the same damn thing.  Maybe it’s easy for me to say this because I don’t have the emotional connection to folk tales that a lot of folklorists do.  I never had a collection of Grimms Tales as a kid and I didn’t even watch the cartoon versions very much.  But sometimes distance helps give perspective.

And no matter how sad we think it might be, the Disney versions are the ones most familiar to most Americans today.  So if you’re trying to evoke a folk tale and get a contemporary American audience to recognize it, of course you’re going to reference Disney (unless you’re afraid of getting sued for copyright infringement*).  The fact is that the writers of Once Upon a Time also had to deal with the fact that Disney happened.  If you really want your television show to educate contemporary American audiences on the “real” versions of these stories, that’s great.  But it’s going to take a lot of exposition.  And given the infant mortality rate of primetime shows, who has time for that?

So anyway, while the writing and the acting and the high cheese content may be totally valid complaints about the show, I think we have to let the Disney one go.  It may be sad, but those movies happened and were watched and beloved by many.  We need to accept that and work it into our analyses.

*MTVMPB concedes there are many legitimate reasons to hold a grudge against Disney, most notably their control of our copyright code.

Don’t Mess with Nanaimo (Bars)

I’m not a purist with much.  I’m not a purist with food.  Generally speaking, the more wacky culinary combinations you come up with, the happier I am.  Cucumber basil lime sorbet?  Yes, please!  Pineapple black bean enchiladas?  Delicious.  I have my limits.  I’m willing to try bacon in my ice cream, but not oysters.  But generally, I’m very flexible.

 

But I think we all probably have some dish that you just can’t mess with.  Back in college I once made something with red potatoes, I couldn’t even tell you what it was anymore, but I remember Cammy thinking it was a crime against nature.  Her comment on trying my dish was something along the lines of, “It’s good.  But this is not what you’re supposed to do with red potatoes.”  For me a big one is the use of whole wheat tortillas in enchiladas.  Or brown rice or whole wheat pasta in dishes that normally call for their whiter counterparts.  It’s one thing if you make a whole new dish and throw some whole wheat spaghetti in there.  But don’t just throw marinara on there and expect me to not taste the difference.  Then there’s my mother’s tendency to add salsa in dishes where it doesn’t belong.  Like lasagna.  It’s just not right.

 

Well I discovered a couple weeks ago, that Canadians have a recipe you don’t mess with: Nanaimo Bars.

 

If you haven’t tried Nanaimo Bars before, let me recommend that you go out and try them right now.  There’s an official recipe online, go try it.  We’ll wait.  They are that good; you don’t want to miss them.  I love Nanaimo Bars, but, of course, being an American, I didn’t grow up with them. I didn’t discover them until I was in my late twenties.  (I first heard about them on a soap opera message board of all places.  Incidentally, new rule: anyone who makes fun of my soap obsession cannot eat my Nanaimo Bars!)  But it seems for Canadians (and I have a whopping sample size of two) they have a special place in their memories.

 

The first time I made them after coming to Indiana my friend S. walked into a party and gasped, “Who made Nanaimo Bars and can I hug them?”  She practically got misty over them talking about how they were just like the ones her grandmother used to make (her grandmother is from Nanaimo).  I felt all warm and fuzzy at helping her revisit nostalgic memories.

 

What I didn’t know, because no one told this hapless American, is that you really shouldn’t play around with that recipe.  And here’s the thing: the interwebs are full of all sorts of different flavored Nanaimo Bar recipes.  My Newfie friend sent me a bunch of variations (all folklorists have at least one Newfie friend—Newfies actually care about folklore) from a bakery someone in her family used to own.  So when my friend D threw a tacky party I decided to make Cherry Nanaimo Bars.  They use maraschino cherries, which, let’s face it, are inherently a little tacky, and the middle layer of the bars turns an almost neon pink color, so they look extra tacky.  Also, they are delicious.

 

Except the reactions from my Canadian friends, S and K were much like Cammy’s response to my red potatoes.  “They’re good, but this is not how you’re supposed to make Nanaimo Bars.” Now I don’t think either was that offended; both ate several.  K’s favorite part is the bottom later, the recipe for which was unchanged.  But you could just tell from their faces they were thinking, “Why would you do that to a Nanaimo Bar?” K informs me that mint ones have become common enough to be acceptable.  But neither had seen cherry ones before and… let’s just say no one asked to hug me for making them.

 

Clearly in our culinary experimentations, we need to be careful not to tamper with other people’s childhood memories.  No matter how well we do it, they will not thank us.

This Blog Post was Written by a Friend of a Friend

To make me feel like I’m back in the Midwest, Mother Nature has decided to pelt us with thunderstorms all day and night and I’ve only just felt comfortable turning on the computer to type this, so this will be brief.  Today It’s My TV, It’s My Peanut Butter is going to teach you an important term in folkloristics:  FOAF

You actually know this term, but maybe you don’t know you know it.  It’s one of the defining characteristics of Contemporary Legends (you may call them Urban Legends because maybe you haven’t noticed they don’t always take place in urban locales).  It’s an acronym.   It stands for “Friend of a Friend.”

And by now you’re probably nodding or rolling your eyes at the fact that I actually thought you needed this explained to you.

The importance of the FOAF factor is that Contemporary Legends, in order to have that “keep you up at night with a heavy object by your bed listening for footsteps on the stairs” appeal need to hit close to home.  Things that happen to some random chick a million miles away might be creepy, but not as creepy.

But if they hit too close to home they are too easily proved false.  If you say the event happened to your friend instead of a FOAF inevitably someone’s going to ask “What’s her name?”  Then you either have to make up a friend no one’s ever met or say it happened to an actual friend and hope said friend will play along if questioned.  Or panic under the pressure of being asked about the lie you just told and blurt out, “Foot massage!” thereby ruining the whole thing.  And if you know the story isn’t true it’s far less terrifying.  Which means you’ll be less likely to pass it on to others and the story will die out.  Also, an assertion of truth is a major dividing lines between folktales and legends, so from a scholars perspective it’s very important.  So it doesn’t happen to a friend.  Happens to a FOAF.

So next time you hear or tell that creepy story and assert it happened to a Friend of a Friend, just remember you’re not a cliché.  You’re part of a major socio-cultural phenomenon and somewhere you’ve just made a folklorist very happy.

Did you check your backseat?

A woman was driving home alone one night when she noticed a truck tailgaiting her.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, it kept flashing its lights at her.  It started to make her nervous so she turned off the road, hoping to lose him.  The truck followed her and continued flashing its lights.  She made a series of complicated turns but the truck kept following her.  She didn’t know what to do (presumably this was before cellular phones), but she finally drove home, hoping her husband would be able to protect her.   When she pulled in the driveway she honked her horn several times to get her husband’s attention then sprinted to the door.  The truck followed her into the drive as she expected, but to her surprise (and that of her husband who came running out the front door) the driver got out and opened her back door then began hitting something with a baseball bat.  “Call the police!” he ordered the woman.  It turns out there was a man hiding in her backseat.  When the trucker flashed his lights at her it was because the man was raising up a knife to stab her!

Sound familiar?  It’s the urban legend commonly known as “The Killer in the Backseat” and if you’re like me you probably heard it from your slightly paranoid mother around the time you started driving.  But it’s just an urban legend.  Right?

Well… mostly.  In Kokomo, IN last week a woman came out of a convenience store and got in her car, only to be grabbed from behind by a man hiding in her backseat.  The good news is she got away.  The bad news is there’s some evidence the man may have done this before.

But the folklorist in me thought this would be a great time to educate you all about a fun folkloric concept:  Ostension.

Ostension is when someone hears a legend and acts is out in some way.  Put another way: When I told my sister that the “Killer in the Backseat” story was just a legend she said, “Yeah, but you never know who will hear it and get ideas.  I’m still checking my backseat.”

Now it’s not clear whether this was actually ostension or just a crazy guy who hid in a woman’s backseat.  But the point of ostension is to keep in mind that no legend is ever just a legend.