USC Digital Folklore Archives / general
general
Legends
Narrative

The Headless Desert Ghost

Note: This story was first brought up to me while camping in Death Valley, around the campfire.

SD: So this is about the ghost of Joe Simpson, ok? So in 1908 there was this saloon manager named Joe Simpson and he murdered the town’s banker. And because of that, the town lynched him, they tied him up, and then a LA Times reporter came down, they put him back up (after they had already taken him down from being dead), and what happened is that they decided to test if he had any diseases. So they cut off his head, and they lost the body of him. And so now, if you go around different parts of Death Valley, you can see this old west guy who is headless just walking around, trying to find his head, and trying to get revenge on the people who killed him.

 

This is a local story to Death Valley. It seems to be a good example of a local legend. A town had a traumatic event in their past, and this continues to haunt them today. This contains the motif of mutilated corpses coming back as ghosts. Many societies believe that the mistreatment of corpses leads to becoming a ghost. Not only was Joe Simpson’s corpse re-hung and beheaded, but he was lynched, tied up, and his body was lost. This could easily lead to the fear that his spirit could come back to exact revenge on the living. SD had visited Death Valley before, but hadn’t seen the ghost. He didn’t seem to believe the ghost was real, but said its was a common story.

general
Narrative

The Murder House Ghost

This story was told at night around a campfire in Death Valley, California.

E: Ok so this is my Grandma’s story, which is 100% true, and not exaggerated at all, probably. So my grandma was 19, I think, she’s like our age, when this stuff happened. She was working as a waitress in Detroit but she didn’t get paid anything so she rented a room from this lady’s house. She obviously didn’t have an apartment or anything. She didn’t have any roommates except for this really old lady who was kind of grouchy and didn’t really talk to her except to get money for paying for the room. But it’s kind of creepy because the house that she lived in was like the classic fucking murder suicide house, where some guy had killed his wife and daughter then killed himself in the house. So she, I don’t remember how many rooms there were, but she stayed in the bedroom where he slept, I think, because it actually wasn’t that big. And so it was kind of like, it wasn’t super bad, but she’s say things like she’d walk through a doorway and it would be super cold and freezing and then she’d get into a room and it would be somewhat fine, and weird stuff like that. But one night, she was laying down, and she, like, feels something on her chest. She can’t see anything; it’s not a night terror because she didn’t see anything, something’s sitting there or whatever. She just feels something really sitting on her chest. It’s really strange. She doesn’t think too much of it, but at the same time she was really freaked out. And this happens again later, but this time it feels like something is literally choking her so she gets up, she walks down, and she sees her landlady, standing in the doorway, but she’s turned around, so she can’t see her face, and she’s hearing some weird stuff. And she tries to go past her, and the landlady is changing some freaky shit and she just runs out of the house and gets out. That’s my grandma’s ghost story.

Analysis:

This ghost story contains a lot of common ghost story motifs. It takes place in a creepy old home, which is often the setting of a ghost story. E’s grandmother is in a liminal period of her life, when she is living on her own and first experiencing adulthood. People are most receptive to ghost stories when they are at transitional points in their life such as this. The landlady is a quiet, mysterious old woman, leading to a lot of questions of who she is and what is happening. The main motif present is the history of murder. Violent deaths, especially murder suicides, is a common way to become a ghost. Most people who move into a house with a history like that know, whether they believe it or not, that the house is likely to be haunted. E seemed to believe this story, and while she doesn’t openly believe in ghosts, she believes that what her grandmother told her is true.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general

A Child’s Connections

The individual who told the following story grew up in Vilnius, Lithuania before moving to San Francisco when she was about five years old.

 

“My older brother, when he was a toddler, he would walk around, well he would be walked in a stroller. Outside. On the avenue around our house. One day our nanny and my brother were walking and they went past some apartment buildings, and my brother started sobbing uncontrollably. He’s normally, or he was normally, like, a normal kid. Especially, at like, he was four during this. He would have temper tantrums if something happened but he wouldn’t burst out crying. So the nanny was really confused but she calmed him down… um. But he kept like pointing to this window in the apartment building. He was crying and screaming, but there was literally nothing there. So, she was like that was weird. But on their way back by the apartment he did it again, to the exact same window. She didn’t understand because there was nothing and no one there, but he was freaking out and he really desperately wanted to get away from the window and the building. And then she told my mom later that night and my mom got really freaked out because that morning in the newspaper she had read that someone had committed suicide from jumping out of a window in that apartment building. So, for whatever reason he felt some sort of presence that disturbed him, that the grown woman couldn’t feel.”

 

I asked if she believed in ghosts. She responded that she believed in spirits, but not in “ooooooh oooooh oooooooh” ghosts (she made this sounds while waving her arms beside her). She further offered that she believed that people had souls and spirits. I further questioned about growing up in Lithuania, if there were any cultural patterns of believing in what she believed in. She commented that especially around Christmas time they would, and still do, leave an empty chair with a plate of food at the table for all the people who have passed. They would also light candles to guide the spirits on their return to the family.

 

A factor of this story that stood out to me is the role of the child. The individual made an effort to explain that the kid felt something, some “presence” which the older adult nanny could not. This is a recurring case in many stories I have heard, ones where a younger child has some perceived connection with different things than adults do. Almost as if most of us grow out of this connection as our brains develop. Also notable is the concept of a lingering should after a suicide. As I have learned, ghosts are perceived most from those individuals who died in ways unnatural, such as a suicide. This element also holds consistent with many tales I have heard, yet they both came from a individual’s personal story. I find this blend of individual narrative and common themes quite interesting.

Folk Beliefs
general

Death is Coming

The individual who recounted this story was fairly eager to tell it and had an extremely detailed recalling of these past events. Her family moved a lot when they were young, and this story took place when they moved from Connecticut to London following a job her father had been offered. The story took place as follows:

 

“ So.. when I was five I moved to London with my family. And we moved into a house, that was this cute little, quaint British house. Um.. and….. (sighs)… that was like a week after we moved there because at first, we had stayed in a hotel, but then we moved into this house and I had my own room. It was like the size of a closet, this tiny little room. It was like pink, with butterflies, and rainbows everywhere, as you might imagine (chuckling). And.. um… I loved it and I was really excited to be living there. But, something happened on my first night there. So.. while I was sleeping, I went to sleep normally, and then I woke up at midnight screaming and my parents ran into my room. They calmed me down, they had assumed I had a nightmare, so.. they put me back to sleep and I was totally fine. Um…. The next day it happened again, at midnight, and they came in and they were confused, you know. They didn’t know why I kept having these nightmares. So.. um.. They put me back to sleep and I was fine, always after I would wake up screaming maybe five minutes would go by and I would go back to sleep and be fine. So this went on for like a week and they were worried because, obviously, why is there five-year-old child waking up screaming. Um.. and.. so they asked me, ya know, what I was dreaming of and I would always say “Oh no, I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t asleep.” And they were like, “What?” So the next night they watched me fall asleep, I was sleeping, and then I would suddenly wake up and scream. So they were like, ”[her name] you were sleeping, [like] what were you dreaming of?” And I was insistent that I wasn’t sleeping but that I was um… talking to this lady who came into my room every night. And they were like.. I’m sorry, what? Who is coming into your room every night. (As she is telling this she is chuckling a little and closes her eyes often as if to remember more clearly) So I described her, I wasn’t afraid of her, I didn’t know like who she was. And I can like literally see her in my mind right now, I know exactly what she looks like. But… she was this like maybe 70 or 80 year old woman, but she like looked younger than  she was. She had like long grey hair and she was wrinkly, obviously. And… she would always come to me and sit on the edge of my bed and talk to me. Umm.. and.. uh.., this is a creep.., uh.. okay… She always every night like wouldn’t say anything, we would have conversations but she wouldn’t be speaking. Until she would say this one sentence, every day, every night, which was just “Death is coming.” Like, literally just that sentence. And I (laughing sigh), I remember  her saying this to me, but anyway so my parents were like okay, what, did you talk to this lady? And I was like, “Yah I don’t talk, but she always tells me, ya know, ‘death is coming’,” and they were like “Oh Shit,” like why is our five-year-old having these creepy dreams. But the really scary part was that it was quite literally always at midnight. Like my parents one night check it out, they like watch the clock change to midnight and I woke up screaming. So… they moved me to a different room, so, they like original guest room in our house, it became my new room. And I slept there every night and I was completely fine after that. Um… and they basically brushed it off as night terrors or something.. because that can have a constant time. Um… and that makes sense. But then the creepiest part is that my cousins and my aunt and uncle came to visit us and, um , so they wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel they stayed with us. And um… my cousins, I have three cousins, stayed in my old room. And at midnight my younger girl cousin woke up screaming and she told us that she saw this lady… which is so creepy!! So obviously then after that night they went and stayed in a hotel, um… No one else ever slept in that room again. Obviously it wasn’t enough to like make us move or anything. My mom to this day, like, thinks it some kind of weird creepy paranormal thing. My dad doesn’t believe that at all, he’s like “I don’t know, something weird, It’s just a coincidence they both had like a similar nightmare.” But it was just so creepy because at the time, that was probably three years later, so I was um.. like 8 or 9. Um… and right now I can still remember what she looks like, but my cousin described her and it was literally the same person. And I never, obviously, told her about it. So that is my story. “

 

After the individual told me her story, I asked what she thought it was. She said she doesn’t think there are ghosts that stick around and haunt you, but she believes in spirits that can linger in a location. That is what she identified this woman as. She said there is no other explanation than something paranormal, coincidence is too far-fetched. I also asked her about any history of the house that she knew of. She responded that it was an old house that had been built pre-WWII, and that the street had had bad damage from bombings during that period. Every couple of houses had been destroyed, but the one they lived in remained standing.

 

I find interesting in this story a couple of characteristics. The first of which was the time period of the recurring sightings of the old woman, always at midnight. This, as I have learned, can be described as a liminal time period, directly between two days, not truly belonging to either the day before or the one after. Many ghosts appear in this time of day because of the odd boundary it may form with something that isn’t quite definable. Another aspect that is interesting is the history of the house. Dating back to a heavy period of war, there could have been a number of individuals who passed away in or around the house and had remained in connection to it.

general
Narrative

The Dog With The Red Eyes

“My seventh grade teacher grew up in the American Virgin Islands… you know… basically they are just these small islands… anyways. So, his bedroom window overlooked this cemetery… One night he heard howling, and got out of bed to look outside of his window. He lived near a lighthouse, and that night the light was revolving around. When he looked outside, the light revolved over the cemetery and this dog with red eyes appeared and just stood there staring straight at him. Then, the light came back over the cemetery, shone over the dog, and when the light was gone, so was the dog.”

This story was from a friend who’s seventh grade teacher had a lot of different ghost stories and he would tell them to her class every so often. My friend genuinely believes the story to be 100% true. She doesn’t always necessarily believe ghost stories to be true but the ones that she was told by his particular teacher really resonated with her and she could just tell that he was being completely serious when he told the story. 

I personally believe the story as well. I believe ghosts are real and that even animals can be ghosts sometimes. This one was actually super creepy to me, even though as my friend was talking I could see where the story was going to go, especially with the lighthouse detail. I recorded my friend telling me this story in order to be able to give an accurate story back to the audience, and I heard myself say, “I just got chills,” after my friend finished the story. It truly was scary to me. I cannot imagine being a little boy that had to live right above a cemetery, let alone continue to have to live there after this incident occurred. This was the only story that my friend could really gather from her memory, but I can only imagine the other stories he told her class! Living above a cemetery has to be incredibly scary. 

general

White Suit

James, my grandpa, is a 75-year-old African American man who grew up in the South. This story took place in St. Joseph, Louisiana, in the late 1950s when James was about 10.

“This was way out in the country. We was living way out in the country. So, I was riding a bicycle one evening. It was just dark. I rode up to the end of the street here they got a curve at. So, I seen a little – at the time, I didn’t know it was a ghost; I thought it was my little friend Tom –. He had a white suit, white hat, and he was about 3 foot tall. I thought ‘What Tom doing picking up pecans in the dark?’ I said ‘Imma ride down there, get a little closer, see what he doing.’ The closer I was getting, he just started knelt right down to the ground. *laughing* I turned that bicycle around, boy, as fast I could. I was riding and it looked like he was coming behind me. When I got to the top of the street, I looked back and he had disappeared.”

James adamantly believes this was a ghost because of the way it moved: “He reached down and picked up something. Then he stand up. Go over there. Reach down and pick up something. Then stand up.” James continues, saying “It scared the devil out me. That’s when I realized it was a ghost.”

I don’t know how I feel about this story. I’m not saying I don’t believe it, but my papa says it was dark yet he had no light. Therefore, he may not have seen the figure clearly. On the other hand, it’s hard to mistake a small man dressed in all white out in the woods with anything else.

general

White Rabbit

James, my grandpa, is a 75-year-old African American man who grew up in the South. This story took place in St. Joseph, Louisiana, in the late 1950s when James was about 14 or 15. He was out hunting with his cousin at night with both wearing head lamps to see.

“We was hunting one night till we saw, at the fence, there was this rabbit on the other side of the fence. And he was white. I guess we were about 10 feet away from him. My cousin shot at him – *pow*–that thing didn’t even move. I said ‘Boy you must have missed it; let me shoot it.’ So, I shot – *pow*– he didn’t move! I said ‘I know I hit that thang!’ We went to the fence and looked. I said ‘There’s got to be some blood somewhere on the ground.” Wasn’t no blood on the ground so he just hopped right on away. Then we ain’t seen him no mo.’”

Upon asking James if this was a ghost story, he wholeheartedly agreed that it was. “Yea, I believe that was a ghost. Ain’t no way we would have missed that thing that close. And no blood on the ground? Nah, we didn’t hit him. Whatever it was, we didn’t hit him. It wasn’t real. That’s for sho’.’”

I fully believe James’ story as I heard stories of him being a very capable and accurate hunter when he was younger. Hunting was necessary for putting food on the food during this time; for two teenage boys who had been hunting for years to miss such a close target and for the animal not to be scared off or injured is suspicious to me. Additionally, my grandpa has never been an overly superstitious or an easily frightened man.

general
Narrative

The Guardian Spirit

Have you had any odd experiences with spirits or ghosts?  Or maybe just events that can’t be explained in rational terms?

“Haha actually I have one odd event from when I was younger where I saw a spirit or ghost.  So I was lying in bed one morning and I was in a deep sleep, and it was like 6am and I fell out of my bed and woke up on the ground.  When I woke up, I saw what looked like a spirit in front of me with their hand outstretched in front of my face.  I was so surprised I couldn’t move or make a sound, I was just staring at this figure in front of me in complete shock.  I was around 9 at the time, and it is just vividly burned into my memory.  The spirit was almost like a white glow of human, like a glowing cloud in the shape of a human.  In the midst of this cloud was a very prominent human hand, just directly in front of my face.  I couldn’t make out the spirits face or the rest of the body, just the hand in front of me.  But ya that is what I vividly remember.  I feel like this spirit was trying to save me from something that could have happened when I fell off the bed, so I refer to it as my “guardian angel”.  It was just too coincidental for me to have fallen from my bed, which was pretty high up, at such a young age for something to have not happened to me.  I mean, I remember expecting to see a cut or maybe have my head hurting, but the spirit must have taken care of whatever I injured.  I could have also just hit my head really hard and imagined the whole thing, but my belief that it happened is too strong and I already have a strong belief in spirits and ghosts… also my head is already too hard for something like falling out of bed to hurt me hahaha.  It was something that lasted only a few seconds, but I am positive that I saw a ghost or spirit.

 

How do you interpret what happened in the story?

“I already have really strong beliefs that ghosts or spirits exists, so I definitely think it was an encounter with some spirit form.  I have always had weird things happen to me or just odd experiences that I can’t explain in any other way except that I had an encounter with a ghost.  My family is also super into connecting with our ancestors who have passed on and believe they connect with us again in some ways… I guess like having the clock stop on a certain hour or feeling a breeze when all the windows or doors in the house are shut.  I don’t know if it was like a familial ghost that was trying to help me or if it was just some random spirit, but my honest interpretation of what happened is exactly what the story is.  I fell out of bed and was visited by a ghost or spirit, end of story.  No one can tell me any different or cause me to believe something different.  I was the person who experienced this, so no one can change that. “

 

Context:

My teammate is the one who had the above experience with a guardian spirit or ghost.  She was 9 years old at the time and the encounter occurred inside her bedroom in Orange County, CA.  She was in a deep sleep when she fell off the side of her bed, which was located maybe 4 feet off the ground.  Upon waking up from the fall, she noticed a glowing, cloudy figure standing in front of her with a hand directly in front of her face.  This encounter lasted maybe a few seconds, and then the spirit vanished from her view.  She felt a sense of alarm and shock, however was also oddly calm with the situation, almost as if the spirit was meant to be there for her.  This occurred at around 6am in the morning, which is not considered a liminal time frame where ghosts are normally seen.  After laying on the floor for a few minutes, she went running to her parents to tell them she saw a spirit, and being believers in the divine they didn’t rebut her claims.  Their family has strong beliefs in familial ghosts guarding over them, so the fact that she fell off her bed at a young age and came away from it with zero scratches or pain could explain that it was a guardian spirit protecting or healing her.  For years that spirit has been engrained in her memory and to this day she still considers it an encounter with a ghost or protective spirit.

 

My interpretation of the story:

I agree with my teammate that she was visited by a ghost or spirit whose obligation was to protect her from harm.  There is no definitive description of what a ghost should or shouldn’t look like or when is appropriate to see them.  Although they are most present during liminal time periods, 6am in the morning isn’t liminal.  However, she did fall out of her bed and at a young age she could have come away with some injury or head pain, but she felt completely normal afterwards.  I believe that the ghosts hand she saw directly in front of her face was in that moment healing or preventing an injury, which would explain why she woke up on the ground without any pain or soreness.  Also, I found it interesting that she referred to the ghost as a “guardian angel” and that her family has a large belief in connecting with their ancestors.  Since they have the belief that those who have passed on are always with them, it is plausible that she had an ancestral ghosts watching over her in that very moment she fell out of her bed, knowing that she may end up injured and was there to protect her.  I am also a believer of those in your family who have passed on being spiritual guardians, so I agree with my teammates reasoning.  People could state that since she fell and hit her head she may have been seeing things, but since she was so adamant that it was a ghost and due to her beliefs, it was easy to accept and agree.

Folk Beliefs
general

Haunted Princeton House

Background:

This story is from a friend who lives in a very old house in New Jersey. Instead of being a traditional story that has been passed down, it is a personal experience of a ghostly presence.

Collection:

“So, my house in Princeton is super old basically from when Princeton started, historical, and creepy as shit. It was just me and my sister and I needed to go in the basement to restart breakers because the lights went out. It wasn’t working so I walk back up the stairs and the temperature drops like 20 degrees on stairs. The lights turn off and on and so then I go back down, and the breaker was off, so the lights shouldn’t have flickered.

The same night, I go upstairs, and I have this plush Nemo in my sisters’ room. So, I’m looking for my sister, like shouting her name and looking around for her. I go into her room and sees Nemo on the bed, and I turns to mirror, and in the mirror, I see Nemo on the floor which freaks me out. I leave her room and see my sister in the kitchen, when I ask her says she couldn’t hear me yelling her name and I basically freaked out again.”

Analysis:

This story is not really a story about a ghost being explicitly seen but more of a ghostly presence in a house. These are very common in American culture and especially in horror movies. Stories like these are generally what start off horror movies, ones where unexplained things happen that scare the people living in the haunted houses. The fact that the house is from the founding of the town also lends itself to be a house that people think is haunted. Most of the houses which are haunted are from the founding of towns or where there is an unknown history of the house. The uncertainty of the history of the house leads to the feeling that something bad could’ve happened in the house and therefore the house has the possibility of being haunted.

general
Legends
Narrative

Zimbabwean Ghost Story

Background:

This is a story a friend from Zimbabwe told me, apparently it is a widely told story in Zimbabwe and a lot of people know it. She has lived in London and Zimbabwe, so she has been exposed to many different cultures throughout her life.

Collection:

“This is a story I’ve been told, I don’t know who it happened too, but it is quite a popular story.

So, a woman met this guy and he was foreign, from Nigeria, and they started dating. Later, he wanted to get married and there’s like a long process for marriage. She went with him to his village and his village is like far away. They drove there, they took a taxi, and they got to a point where they had to walk. Since they had luggage the man said he’d go to the house and get people to help bring the luggage back, so he went and left and didn’t come back for a while.

(Interrupted by a conversation about statistics)

Okay so he doesn’t come back (bless you) after her and the taxi driver waited for a long time. So, when the time had been long enough, so she goes and tries to find him and kind of just went to the village places. She goes and asks for the family name and goes to the house to find him. Once she found the house and is like well guys I’ve been waiting. The family is look who are you and then she explains she is engaged to be married to their son. They’re like that’s not possible because he’s been dead for years. She doesn’t believe them and then they take her to the grave and everything and then it turns out she was lowkey dating a ghost.”

Analysis:

This story seems very similar to Japanese beliefs about ghosts where people are unable to tell whether or not someone is a ghost and not figuring out the person is actually dead until someone points it out. Since this is a story that is very popular in Zimbabwe it shows that the ghost beliefs in Zimbabwe are similar, in at least this one aspect, to the ghost beliefs of Japan. This story seems to be similar to a lot of stories in other cultures which shows a common theme of people believing that ghosts can be present in our lives without us actually knowing.

Personally, I find stories like these very hard to believe for two reasons. One, I personally don’t believe in ghosts, so I find it very hard to believe that a person would be able to come back from the dead and no one would notice, and they would be able to disappear without any warning. Two, this story is so widely told that the chance that this situation actually happened.

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