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Is It Worth Chasing Folklore?

Hauntings steeped in foklore are often the focus for paranormal investigators, but do they offer any research value? Trystan Swale considers the evidence...

Finding supposedly haunted buildings to investigate can be difficult for even the most well known paranormal groups. Word of mouth and media reports can highlight current cases yet these are not always in abundance. Even when a new case does arise you can almost guarantee that a glut of paranormal groups will be hammering on the door to gain access.

As a consequence of this shortfall in contemporary hauntings investigators may turn their attentions to historical cases whose origins are rooted in folklore. In my eyes this seems to be a dubious tactic to employ. Defined at its simplest, folklore represents the common beliefs of a group of people at a certain moment in time. Amongst these beliefs are a huge array of ghost stories, many of which have been passed down the centuries in oral form before finally making it into print.

The major issue here is one of verbal stories becoming embellished, altered or amended, whether by design or accident. Even when published in printed form folkloric tales are not immune to alteration as successive authors rework identical tales to avoid allegations of plagiarism. An equally damaging concern is that of a tale's point of origin. It is certainly the case that many ghostly tales are the product of the human mind, invoked as a popular method to explain away events whose origins are obscure; say, a carting accident or unexplained death. Other ghosts may be of parallel invention, designed to deter unwelcome visitors from specific buildings or outdoor locations. For example, it was once believed that ancient burial mounds held treasure and many are supposedly protected by ghostly soldiers, horsemen and headless apparitions. Although easily overlooked or otherwise dismissed as ‘rare’, we should also consider whether some deliberate hoaxes have become embedded in folklore. Centuries old hoaxes may never be uncovered, yet it is worth taking the time to understand that a haunting does not need to be considered historical to be viewed as folkloric.

Perhaps the best known instance is the notorious Amityville case. Although exposed as a hoax by writers Joe Nickell and Rick Moran it is still considered genuine amongst a surprisingly large number of people. For many this is no more than a result of ignorance to the case’s discrepancies and inconsistencies. For others, the case is given strength by the refusal of the couple at its centre to offer a confession before their deaths. Although renamed, the ‘haunted house’ on Ocean Avenue is still a popular tourist attraction for sightseers.

Curious as folkloric ghost stories may be, the research value of investigating the settings of these cases is extremely questionable. Chances are you will have no witnesses to turn to. You will be at the mercy of successive story tellers’ and authors' embellishments and omissions. And if what you are after did not disappear a very long time ago, it may not have even existed in the first place beyond the deep realm of yarns, gossip and hoaxes.