Tag Archives: spirits

Spirit Room

L is 54. He was born in Chicago, Illinois. He was in the Army in his 20s and now works in private personal security. He studied theology in college. He told me this story about his Haitian great grandmother in person.

“She was a big believer in spirits. When my great grandfather died, she moved out of the room they used to share and left the room exactly how he would like it and she said he would come and visit and stay in his room. You were allowed in the room… if you dared to stay in it. I can’t recall anyone ever staying in the room… (laughs) my uncle Glover actually ran out of the house because he said he saw my great grandfather there and for the next two nights we all slept in cars. No one else ever saw him but we all believed in it though.”

In the Voodoo religion, the spirits of the dead are believed to remain active in the affairs of the living. L said neither he nor his family was worried the great grandfather’s ghost would do anyone harm, they just “didn’t want to mess with it.” For more information, see http://www.haitiobserver.com/blog/after-life-beliefts-in-voodoo-religion.html

The Island of the Dolls/La Isla de las Muñecas

Informant Information – SI

  • Nationality: American
  • Age: 20
  • Occupation: Student
  • Residence: Los Angeles, California
  • Date of Performance/Collection: April 20, 2022
  • Primary Language: English

The informant grew up in Mexico and learned about this legend from family members, as well as on a visit to Lake Teshuilo. They aren’t sure as to whether or not the story is true, but they wouldn’t want to spend a day on the island. They shared this information with me in an in-person interview. 

According to the informant, La Isla de las Muñecas (“The Island of The Dolls”) is an island located in Lake Teshuilo. Sometime in the mid 20th century, the body of a young girl was found near the island. It was rumored that she had been drowned by a relative and that her spirit wandered the island in search of a loving home. 

In sympathy for the deceased child, visitors leave dolls on the island. Due to the island’s popularity, it is said to be the site of very intense emotions, which may attract other, malignant spirits. To prevent the dolls being used by these evil forces, visitors tie them to trees on the island.

Analysis:

This piece of folklore takes place in one of Mexico’s most toured locations. Given that Mexican culture includes several rituals, legends, and holidays that honor family traditions, deceased ancestors, and look back at the land’s history, it makes sense that many of these aspects of culture would be found in this location. 

The legend relates to spirituality, with obligation to some spirits and attempts to ward off others. There is a distinct binary between the young girl’s “good” spirit and the potential for “evil” spirits that might try to take advantage of the offerings left on the island. 

Cultural recognition and celebration of spirituality also plays a large role in Mexico City’s tourism industry. As my informant mentioned, many people earn money by offering the lake’s visitors a boat ride to the island. 

The Banshee

Informant Information – GD

  • Nationality: American
  • Age: 57
  • Occupation: Teacher
  • Residence: San Pedro, California
  • Date of Performance/Collection: March 20, 2022
  • Primary Language: English

The informant comes from an Irish-American family that spent summers camping in various forests and national parks near their home in California. On these trips, the informant’s older brothers told her the story of The Banshee. This information was shared with me in an in-person interview. 

Interviewer: 

Can you retell the story of The Banshee? 

Informant: 

So when I was a little girl, my older brothers would tell me this story to scare me when we were on family camping trips. The Banshee was a spirit that only appeared to Irish people; their ability to hear her allowed her to warn them when danger or loss was near. 

According to the legend, The Banshee was an ancient female spirit of Ireland that had faced some terrible loss… her family was killed somehow. When she knows that someone is about to lose a family member, she feels their pain and wails. So, if you hear her screams it is a sign that someone in your family is going to die. The further away the screams sound, the sooner the death will take place, and vice versa. I’m not sure where that part came from. 

Informant: 

Do you know where your brothers heard this legend?

Informant: 

I’m not exactly sure, but probably one of our uncles or aunts. My father’s family was a group of very stereotypical Irish farmers– he was one of 12 or 13 kids and the whole family was really superstitious. They were always telling stories like that, but never to me because I was the youngest and they didn’t want to scare me. 

Analysis:

In this legend, hearing The Banshee acts as a sign, foretelling a death in the family. The informant also shared with me that, when she was a baby, her oldest brother suddenly fell gravely ill and died shortly after being diagnosed with meningitis. Although this story had been shared throughout the family for generations, it became especially relevant after this loss. The piece of folklore’s setting, camping in the woods, also adds to its feasibility. Spending the night in a strange place where you cannot see outside of your tent could easily make the screeches of an owl sound like a woman’s screams. Thus, aesthetics, relevance to one’s life, and the legend’s source and setting all play significant roles in its believability. 

The Grateful Dead – Band Name Origin

Main Piece:

While with my dad, JK, listening to the Grateful Dead music in the kitchen, he asked:

JK: “Do you know how they got the name Grateful Dead?”

Me: “No?”

JK: “They were sitting at their house at 710 Ashbury, and they were called ‘the Warlocks’ at the time. Jerry turns to the others, ‘We’ve gotta name this band. The Warlocks aren’t a good name.'”

Me: “They were called that?”

JK: “Yeah. Stupid. So they open up this dictionary there and there was an item called ‘Grateful Dead.’ And it’s basically a story that’s present in a ton of cultures. They read it and were like, ‘Hell yeah man.'”

Me: “What’s the story?”

JK: “The common story is that there is a weary traveler that encounters the corpse of someone who never received a proper burial. And they didn’t get one because they had unpaid debts when they died.”

Me: “Does the traveler burry them?”

JK: “The traveler pays their debts and gets them the burial. Then, later in life, their life gets saved by the soul of that person. So the grateful dead are the protective spirits that have been earned through charitable gesture.”

Background:

The informant has gone to many Grateful Dead shows and stays very versed in the lore of the band, still being an avid listener. The story, however, seems to cary more weight for him because of the connection to the band rather than it just being a regular tale. It’s been enhanced for him because of it.

Thoughts:

Yet another example of music and musicians borrowing from folklore then creating a new interpretation of the lore. Examining the lyrics in Grateful Dead songs also shows many aesthetic parallels to this tale as they sing about being friends with the Devil’s friend, hauntings, and death (but all under an upbeat psychedelic rock tone). What’s interesting about this specific adaptation of the tale in borrowing the name of the subject of the story, it has made the tale more known, at least to me. For I would have probably never heard of such tale, if it weren’t for the Grateful Dead being tied to it.

Squonk

Background: 

Informant is a USC student living in California. 

“The Squonk is a creature that foresters and lumbermen started seeing in the late 20th century in Pennsylvania hemlock forests. So they’d be cutting down trees and in the glade, and they’d see a squonk. And they’ve described them as like ugly dog-like creatures with loose-fitting skin and really huge eyes that are like full of sadness and hatred for themselves and then, um, if a squonk knows that it’s been seen, it will dissolve into a pool of its own tears and, yeah, I’ve never seen a squonk but I like the legend of it, I like to think they’re out there.”

Context:

I asked my informant whether or not he knew of any legendary animals. He told me about the squonk, which he first encountered on the Internet, and then found more information in bestiary texts.

Analysis:

Legendary creatures can be somewhat associated with spirits—they generally don’t appear without a particular reason or are tied to a specific place (depending on how popular the creature is). Spirits are also usually reminders from the past that appear to uphold culture, enforce the status quo, and/or remind people of traditions. In the case of the squonk, it seems to be related to issues regarding deforestation and/hunting, warning humans (as it appears to foresters and lumberjacks) against the dangers of doing so, given how it seems to be a creature filled with sadness. Spirits come and go, some evade human contact while others don’t, so their existence is guaranteed more by the texts and performances that contain them rather than their actual presence. In the case of the squonk, as it is a relatively recent creature, its presence on the web is a textual space it exists in, providing meaning for its existence.