Informant was a 19 year old female who was born in England and currently lives in Los Angeles. She lives in my hall, and I interviewed her.
Informant: So in 1605, this dude called Guy Fawkes was arrested trying to blow up the house of parliament in London, and it was likeI’m pretty sure the king and all of the important people were there, and he was trying to kill them, but he got caught and that was on the 5th of November. So every year, on the 5th of November, like schools and families and like clubs and stuff in England make a huge bonfire, and then they make like a doll, like a human sized figure of Guy Fawkes, and then they burn him on the bonfire, and there’s like fireworks and like a barbecue and stuff, every year.
Collector: So you celebrate him or him not blowing up the parliament?
Informant: Well, we burn him every year, so we definitely don’t celebrate him. It’s like a celebration of I guess his failure. It’s a very chill day though, we eat burgers and hot dogs and hang around by the bonfire. Like we don’t have a meal with our family. It’s more like the whole community gets together and there’s like fireworks and stuff. There’s a song too.
Collector: A song? What is it?
Informant: It goes like this
Remember, remember the 5th of November
Gunpowder Treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Would ever be forgot
It’s not that big of a deal though, like we don’t sing it around the campfire or anything. It’s just something that people know.
I thought this was particularly interesting because it’s a holiday that revolves around an attempter murder. Albeit the burning of the figure of this murder, but a murder none the less. I think it’s cool how even until today, people remember it, and I think that this might be because the monarchy in England is still in power. I believe that this is not only a fun way for people to celebrate with their family and friends, but also a way to honor their monarchy. It makes me wonder if the holiday began as a way for the monarchy to keep its citizens in line, so that nobody would try to recreate Guy Fawkes’ murder attempts.
Informant: “So I live in a house on [REDACTED] street at the North University Park District of Los Angeles, California. Actually, the Governor of California used to live there in the early 1900s. But whoever lived there in the 1940s or ‘50s, um, they, there was a whole third story. Like picture the old victorian houses with the spirals and stuff. But there was this third story and it burned down, like, in this crazy fire. And the like room that burned like more than any others was the room where this crazy woman that lived there had all of her cats. And like all of the cats died, so now like in the middle of the night, if you go up, there’s like this stair case that leads to the roof of the house but as you’re going up this staircase you can see the remnants of this old third floor. Um, cause they like didn’t do a really good job of getting rid of that, and when you’re going up that staircase to the roof, you can hear meows in the middle of the night. I have not personally heard them, but I’ve only gone up there once.”
Informant: “I learned this story when I was a freshman when I joined a group that has lived there the past decade or so. I heard it from a senior who was also a very superstitious guy who said ‘Oh, I like, hear it every night.’ The people who believe it take it very, very seriously. But the people who never experienced it all kind of think of it as a joke.”
Informant: “We tell the story when we let in new members. I don’t know, it’s just a fun thing to add to the aura of it all – they’re like, typically freshman, you know? It’s just fun to make them feel like a part of the group with a little story.”
Ghost animals are not nearly as common as ghost people in folklore, as we’ve talked about in our class with Professor Tok Thompson. Yet, in this story, they are just as eerily scary. That this ghost story includes artifacts that tie the legend into real observable truth, in that the remnants of the burnt third floor are easily accessible, is truly haunting. In the participant telling the story, I could envision walking up the stairs and seeing the charred, blackened floor.
It also seems like there is somewhat of a ritualistic retelling each year for new members of this group. The story helps identify their group because they collectively lease the house year by year, and so in retelling this story and having it be retold primarily by their group, they are owning the house in more than one way. The formal telling of this story to another member is one way to extend that ownership.
Equally as interesting is that this group is a singing group and that the hauntings come in audio form. Oftentimes, ghost stories, legends, and other forms of folklore are described in terms that are familiar to that particular ‘in’ group. In no way am I comparing their singing to the meowing of 40 cats burned alive, but it is interesting that they are auditorily stimulated, rather than visually.
“So, in Ecuador, around New Year’s Eve, around the holidays really, we have this tradition of burning el año viejo. And what that is is that artists from around the country will each work on, uhhh, these piñata-type things, uhh, and they’ll be different characters, and the characters will range from Kung Fu Panda, Bugs Bunny to Donald Trump, Obama, uhh, like political figures to cartoon characters like they cover the whole spectrum,and their life-size and little and and they cost, they cost money to get these. And inside they have explosives. Umm… *laughs* And on New Year’s Eve, ummm, what everyone will do was, is that you’ll gather around el año viejo, umm, and at midnight you burn it, uhh, so you light a match and the thing will go off. Umm, and it’s supposed to be like quemando like burning all of your grievances from the past year and like starting anew from like the ashes. So that’s what we do. It’s fun.”
Burning el año viejo or burning the old year is a tradition that I’ve heard of in another societies, as well. In Cuba, for example, people will make effigies out of straw that represent the past year, and they will burn them on New Year’s Eve. Ecuador seems to take it a step further, though, by bringing in artists to make special effigies. It seems the burning has become less rigid in their culture, since they’re burning even cartoon characters or whatnot. The symbolism has been lost. It sounds more like a celebration, something to do out of habit, than something that’s supposed to be symbolic. In fact, it almost seems like a joke, especially if they’re burning effigies in the shape of political figures such as Trump or Obama.
Yet nonetheless, the source acknowledges the sense of burning away “grievances” and whatnot. So while the tradition may not look the same as it maybe did in the past, it still holds the same meaning. It reminds me of the phoenix when it bursts into flames and is born again from the ashes. Perhaps it has some kind of connection to there.
Informant: “My parents told me that a man once told a girl that if she burned herself, she would go to heaven. And that’s what she did. She burned herself. She was saved, but she’s was like deformed. And then she died. It was all because of that religion and the cult. That’s why my parents don’t want me to believe in religion.”
Me: “Have you heard this story from anyone else?”
Informant: “Yes. My friends’ moms know about it too!”
Me: “Do you know what religion it was that caused people to burn themselves?”
Informant: “It was that exercise cult thingy.”
Me: “How does that make you feel? Do you believe in religion?”
Informant: “Any religion that makes you burn yourself is bad. It is not real. It’s… bad. Just bad. I don’t believe in religion because my mom and dad told me that it’s bad.”
Analysis: Through research discovered that the informant was talking about the Falun Gong practictioners and the incident in TianAnMen Square in 2001. Falun Gong is a spiritual exercise, similar to Taichi. In 2001, a group of five people (including one twelve year old girl) set themselves on fire in the middle of TianAnMen square. The incident caused major controversy in China.
This retelling of the story of the self-immolation incident in Tiananmen square is an example of an event improperly portrayed by the media, and through word of mouth became a warning against all religion. In reality, there is no evidence that the people who participated in that incident practiced Fa Lun Gong, according to the article.
China has always been a relatively atheist country. During Mao Ze Dong’s reign, he did an attack on the Four Olds, including old culture, which included religion. At the time, the primary religion of choice in China was Buddhism, but with the drive for “New Thought”, many young revolutionists abandoned religion. This may have contributed to the informant’s parents’ thoughts on religion being bad, as they would’ve been teenagers at the time of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.
Fa Lun Gong Burning