My friend, R, had gone to Taiwan on a program to teach underprivileged children English in the past, and this is his account of the ghost in his school:
B: Didn’t you have like a ghost story about Taiwan?
R: Let me think, shit, do you remember what it was about? I remember having one too and I remember….
B: I think it was like a classroom with a chair or something?
R: O shit! OK.
B: Hahaha, oh that girl that killed herself right?
R: Yea, on the third floor, and those kids who were badasses for kids. Like, no one would go near the school at night and one night, we snuck in and it was all dark and stuff and we were crawling up the stairs. Shit was scary, and then like, there was a scream from upstairs and we freaking ran so fast. It was ridiculous, I mean, but at the time, like, ok. So we didn’t know about the girl dying, like the kids just told us to stay away. And we snuck in and heard the noise and ran. But then the next day, we asked the village people and they were all like, “Ohhhhhh, did you go to the third floor? Some girl just recently died there. We’ve already sent for the priests to go and collect her spirit” Or something, and we were all like holy shit, cause we didn’t know about the dead girl beforehand.
R tells the story from a firsthand perspective, not to scare people, but rather to share his experience. Through this experience, his ghost story fulfills many societal functions, especially for a band of Americans teaching together in a foreign country, with only strangers around. For R, the adventure into the unknown with only his American peers could be defined as a socializing experience. Together, they sought to learn about their environment, and by sharing this common experience, and subsequently learning the history that could possibly explain the experience, formed relationships and grew closer together. Another function is to form a closer connection to the environment and their culture. When he learns of the dead girl, and the villagers’ customs, he becomes more aware of their culture, more integrated in their society. By partaking in this ghost culture and being a part of it, R is able to understand the Taiwanese a bit more, perhaps helping with his job of teaching, especially if he is trying to teach so called “badasses for kids.”
Another aspect to examine is that the existence of this ghost seems eerily possible given the conditions. R and friends go out at nighttime to a de facto restricted area, perfect conditions for ghostly phenomena. A girl had recently died there, presumably the source of the scream they heard. On top of that they are all in an unfamiliar place, where ghosts stories could serve to teach about culture and reflect social norms. Certainly, Taiwanese culture tends to believe in spirits, exhibited by the villagers’ responses. In fact, through their rituals, such as “collecting” the spirit, in their culture it appears obvious to the Taiwanese that a ghost is the reason for the scream.
The spirit itself is also an interesting feature of the story, which can highlight the organic nature of folklore and cultural differences. I had been told this story before, so when I asked R to retell it to me, I asked for the story of the girl that killed herself. Yet when he retells it, there is no mention of suicide or foul play, or any of the other factors that in American culture tend to produce ghosts. After thinking about the story for a while, I had changed it into an oicotype, to fit in with the American point of view. However, over time this is the impression I got about the story, because if there were no unfinished business, why would a ghost be necessary to the story? This impression would differ from a Taiwanese point of view, where their views on spirits and superstition would require different reasons behind the girls ghost.
Thus, R’s ghost highlights many features of ghost stories. First, it serves functions of social integration and building group relationships. Second, the story and sharing this story with others allowed R to learn others’ viewpoints and cultures by listening to their interpretations. Finally, the spirit highlights differences between cultures in their approaches to ghosts, and shows how a story can become an oicotype as it crosses regional bounds.