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The Truth That Creeps Beneath Our Spooky Ghost Stories
by NWP
October 27, 2013 at 9:13 PM

The Truth That Creeps Beneath Our Spooky Ghost Stories

5 min 23 sec



We asked you to send us your scary stories, then we told them to an anthropologist.

We asked you to send us your scary stories, then we told them to an anthropologist.

iStockphoto.com

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 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.

"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.

The Unexplained Spooks The Skeptical

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

Thompson teaches a class on ghost stories at the University of Southern California. The class explores the role of ghost stories 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."

Ghosts Are No Big Deal For Believers

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

Ryan MacMichael Tells His Ghost Story

"I thought maybe it was one of my wife's cousins had come in and woken me up," MacMichael says. "But first of all, it was three 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, "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.

A Creepy, Recurring Theme: Possessed Dolls

Doll
iStockphoto.com

Thomas Adkins says he 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. "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."

The word "doll," Thompson says, 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.

What Ghosts May Really Be Telling Us

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

"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 haunt 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.

"That speaks somewhat to America's history of the destruction of Native American peoples and societies that maybe hasn't quite been dealt with," Thompson says. "Or, again, we have a lot of ghosts of slavery."

"There's a lot of, I think, social and even moral messages that can come from ghost stories," Thompson says.

A Ghost Story Between Brothers

The boy in the ceiling has a message. Glynn Washington, host of the storytelling radio show \"Snap Judgement\" has a tale just in time for Halloween.

More Ghost Stories From NPR

NPR.org is haunted by ghost stories from broadcasts past. We've caught some of the best for your spine-tingling pleasure.

Tell Us Your Ghost Stories

Replies

  • NWP
    by NWP
    October 27, 2013 at 9:14 PM

    I have a few personal ghost stories....So, I'll save my place.

    *edit* Here is my true story...This is Hunter our pug:

    We got him from Pug Rescue when he was 2 years old. He wasn't an ordinary rescue dog. He had only one previous owner, who bought him as a puppy and came to us with all his papers and vet records from 8 weeks.

    His owner developed terminal cancer and had no one to take Hunter when she went into hospice care. So we took him in from the rescue group directly from her home to ours. Hunter had a hard time adjusting to our family. He was sullen and did not bond or want to play. We chalked it up to the fact that he missed his owner and that he had never lived in a house with small children. We gave him love and time.

    After we had had Hunter for about a month, he woke us up around 2am with this loud, low whiny howl. He howled for about 20 minutes, then went to sleep. He had never done that before.

    The next day, we got a call from Pug Rescue to let us know that his previous owner had passed away sometime during the night at the hospice. Not shitting you....It was so friggin' weird.

    After that day, Hunter started to warm up to our family and play. Here he is dressed up as a wizard for Halloween. He's been with us for four years now and has never again made that howl.

  • Euphoric
    October 27, 2013 at 9:16 PM

     Interesting

  • smurfbitebug
    October 27, 2013 at 9:23 PM
    Wow, thanks! :) Great article.
  • paganbaby
    October 28, 2013 at 12:24 AM

    Good article!

  • AlekD
    by AlekD
    October 28, 2013 at 12:40 AM
    I don't believe that sentient souls can get "trapped" between this world and the next, but I do think that places where traumatic events happened can somehow soak up that trauma and retain the energy. I don't have any scientific data to back that up though, lol.
  • rfurlongg
    October 28, 2013 at 8:12 AM
    Ditto.

    Although I would love for my grandparents to "haunt" me :-).


    Quoting AlekD:

    I don't believe that sentient souls can get "trapped" between this world and the next, but I do think that places where traumatic events happened can somehow soak up that trauma and retain the energy. I don't have any scientific data to back that up though, lol.
  • Woodbabe
    October 28, 2013 at 8:30 AM

    My mom had Alzheimer's and my dad kept her home until two days before her death. While she was still mobile, she paced up and down the hallway of the house endlessly. Just pacing. After her death everyone in the house continued to hear the floor creaking as if she was still pacing back and forth.

    When my dad died five years later, it immediately stopped and no one has heard it since.

  • JustCJ
    by JustCJ
    October 28, 2013 at 8:39 AM

    Me too. I was actually physically assaulted in front of my mother when I was two. 

    Quoting NWP:

    I have a few personal ghost stories....So, I'll save my place.


  • JustCJ
    by JustCJ
    October 28, 2013 at 8:44 AM

    My mom went to help my nana take care of my papa as he was in hospice for lung cancer. They lived in a retirement park in a trailer, his hospital bed was in the 'Florida room' aka extra living room, my mom's room was at the other end of the trailer and my nana's on the other end. 

    One night my mother was up reading and she kept hearing someone come to her door and stop. This went on a few times, no one was there. The last time it happened it was my nana at the door, asking my mother if she had heard the walking as well? 

    My papa in those last days kept talking to his dead relatives and friends saying they were sitting on the fence and wanted him to go with them.

    I have tons more lol.

    Quoting Woodbabe:

    My mom had Alzheimer's and my dad kept her home until two days before her death. While she was still mobile, she paced up and down the hallway of the house endlessly. Just pacing. After her death everyone in the house continued to hear the floor creaking as if she was still pacing back and forth.

    When my dad died five years later, it immediately stopped and no one has heard it since.


  • NWP
    by NWP
    October 28, 2013 at 11:29 AM

    Bump because I added my ghost story in the first response.

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