occult image of individuals near a fire, often shown in ghost stories

Anthropology: Ghost Stories and Folktales as Cultural and Historical Indexes

telling ghost stories around a fire
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Interactions and Storytelling

Humans as a species and as cultural beings are defined by their interactions. In interacting with others, we learn about norms, culture, and the rich depths of tales that inform us. Storytelling is one of the key aspects of human interaction. This may involve gossiping in the stands at a college game, or telling ghost stories around a campfire. The process of exchanging information has likely existed throughout much of human history.

A house surrounded by symbols for communication
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Stories as Historical and Cultural Relics

The formation of cosmologies, kinship relationships, and other anthropological concepts all emerge through stories and conversation. These stories often make up the folk traditions of a culture, and can be studied as rich symbolic texts that can teach about a particular cross-section of time. While stories range across many cultural contexts and genres, they are all worthy of study. These can be understood through the paradigms of symbolic interactionism (from sociology) and interpretive anthropology.

Horror Stories comic, showing ghost stories in comic form
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Fearful Narratives

Often, stories with contents about the fears of a society can be the most informative. The things that stories forewarn against and the symbolic content behind the monsters that a society places as outsiders can be highly informative. These tales, such as ghost stories and other folkloric varieties, are commonplace, but they are also easy to ignore as rich cultural texts. According to postmodernist author Don DeLillo, “stories have no point if they don’t absorb our terror” (DeLillo 140). 

individuals around a fire telling ghost stories in the dark
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Categorizing Ghost Stories

Ghost stories are one of the most popular narrative genres that are told. They are told, in varying formats, across most cultures. These stories tend to be captivating because they produce visceral reactions while addressing common fears. Usually, ghost stories are short and oral in nature. They can be recorded in collections, but like various other myths, folktales and contemporary legends, they originate as spoken narratives generally. Ghost stories may often be told around a fire, and are generally told to groups at nighttime. All culturally created objects embody various sentiments and are shaped by cultural context. Therefore, as stories, these tales function similarly.

paint on the ground reads YOU ARE HERE, showing the concept of indexicality which can be applied to ghost stories
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Indexicality and the Linguistics of Stories

It becomes possible to understand a culture throughout its evolution through the variations on scary tales that bifurcate from their sources. These tales may be richly informed with indexical content about their local surroundings, and as they spread, the narrator may choose to rework these elements. In linguistic anthropology, indexicality is the concept of things functioning as signs that index and point to various characteristics about them. For example, if a subgenre of ghost stories always involved poverty, the society that tells the tales may be experiencing economic uncertainty. In this way, ghost stories are continuously evolving and adapting themselves to new cultural contexts. While the locations changes as a tale spreads from the city to a rural area,  generally the overall sentiment remains.

a woman stands with a ghost behind her, a common scene in ghost stories
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Folklore as Index

Folklore is one of the primary categories of cultural creation. It encompasses the rites, stories, jokes, fears, and norms, among other things, of a given culture. It is passed on informally, in the form of oral proverbs, tales, admonitions and ceremonies. Due to this nature, it is an important aspect in shaping personal and collective identities. Therefore, folklore has been studied throughout the history of anthropology. Primarily, it is studied by cultural and linguistic anthropologists, due to its rich indexical content and the ways it can inform an emic perspective.

a man with technophobia screams as a hand emerges from his computer monitor, related to ghost stories based on technology
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Technophobia and Folklore

Fears, like the stories we tell, can be considered as culturally and temporally mediated concepts. Depending on the time period, predominant fears can shift. With an increase in technological reliance and the dawn of the internet age, came fears like Y2K. This contemporary legend shaped life for many in a brief period before the turn of the millenia, as the newfound rapid changes in technology unsettled people. To again quote DeLillo, “the greater the scientific advance, the more primitive the fear”, a statement reflective of how ghost tales embody the sentiments of an era. (Delillo, D. P. 217)

the fear of some ghost stories is biological, a brain illustration shows the area known for fear
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From Biology to Belief

Other fears are perhaps biological, such as fears of the dark or of dangerous creatures. These fears can then be influenced and shaped by cultural factors, into culturally constructed beliefs such as cryptids that lurk in the dark. Due to the conversational nature of human society, our identities are shaped through our interactions. Stories often revolve around fears as semiotic devices that conjure up entertainment and complex emotions.

an image of the pishtaco, an Andean folktale that shows settler-colonial ghost stories
Image Credit: Peru Sabe

The Pishtaco and Historical Trauma

Often, human fears are universal, perhaps shaped by evolutionary factors, although they can be quite niche at times. In Peru, the popular horror folktale of the Pishtaco is inspired by colonialist presences. The titular character is known as a tall, white individual (with varying features in some instances) that seeks locals. The Pishtaco aims to collect the fat of the indigenous peoples of Peru, symbolizing the unequal and traumatic history Peruvians share with the settler-diaspora. The Pishtaco is a unique example of a folktale, in that it functions like a ghost story, but has a highly personal tale with a clear inspiration for the villainous figure (Weismantel, in Kulick and Meneley, 2005). South America has a rich history of folklore dating back thousands of years.

image representing the Yellow Wallpaper an example of the haunted house narrative subgenre of ghost stories about gender inequality
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The Spirits of Social Inequalities

Oftentimes, ghost stories can reflect inequalities, as mentioned above. These inequalities can be broad, such as gender and socioeconomic inequalities, as well as more specific ones. As societies evolve and shift over time, the ghost stories continue to mimic these shifts. We can arguably observe that folktales from the 1800s are shaped by the period of industrialization and urbanization. As ghost stories progressed, they tended to include more technology, and early spiritualist narratives often evoked technological metaphors (Manning, 2021).

a skull and books symbolizes gothic literature which is related to ghost stories
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Examining Gothic Literature

Gothic literature is similar in nature to ghost stories, in that they index cultural fears, albeit at a more produced level. Classic gothic literature by authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Charlotte Perkins-Gilman, reflect fears of death, isolation, and many more, including gender inequality for the latter. The genre evolved around the same time as emerging spiritualist narratives in the 1800s, and was part of a cultural change that evoked shifts in religious belief and life structures more broadly towards Enlightenment ideals. The stories often evoked liminal imagery like uncanny architecture that were derived from common ghost story tropes like the haunted house.

A haunted house, a common setting in ghost stories
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Haunted Houses and Settler-Colonialism

As mentioned above, the haunted house narrative is one of the core tropes of the Gothic tradition and ghost stories. Many of these tales are spread by settler-diasporic nations, as ghost stories about dilapidated architecture represent common cultural fears. For individuals living in regions that do not span back historically as a site of cultural existence, they can form ways to express fears and live out excitement. Neighbourhood children may spread rumours about Boo Radley figures living in the old mansion down the block, for example. In the ‘New World’, the same historical ruins, such as castles, that normally host spectral beings, do not exist in the same capacity (Manning 2017). Instead, these tropes are fulfilled using old Victorian structures, and the cultural entities of Indigenous cultures. While these houses all serve as settings for ghost stories, folktales, and various legends, they also all reflect other subtler fears.

a cracked mirror, showing how ghost stories can be self-reflective while showing the strange in the familiar
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Haunted Houses as Self-Reflections

One can argue that in these tales, the haunted house can be used to latently code fears of the self, both as a setting and character. These houses may exhibit agency, actually warping physically and harming occupants. These may be inspired by nostalgia and the expected domesticity of the home. When this comfort is breached, it can become a fear for many readers and listeners to these tales (Vidler, 1992). While different regions have different takes on this trope, it can be seen in varying forms across many folkloric traditions.

a black and white image of a women in a hole in a brick wall, symbolizing the unhomely/unheimlich in ghost stories
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The Unheimlich and Uncanny Architecture

The unheimlich is a concept that means the unhomely. Famous psychologist Sigmund Freud developed his analysis of the unheimlich, which has become a popular theme in the study of both weird and horror literature. The theme can arguably be seen to its logical conclusion in Mark Z. Danielewski’s magnum opus, House of Leaves. This work takes the tradition of gothic literature, extending it into gothic postmodernism that challenges literary aesthetics. In the anthropological study of folklore and ghost stories, we can use the term unheimlich to understand the sense of being unsettled that permeates them. The sense of not feeling at home nor fitting in is common globally. In popular haunted house narratives, the unheimlich permeates the home and adds to a sense of the architecturally uncanny.

anthropologist Clifford Geertz, his theories can be applied to ghost stories as cultural texts
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From Geertz to Ghosts

According to Clifford Geertz, one of the most important interpretive anthropologists, cultures can be understood as texts that teach about what it means to be human (Geertz, 1973). Everything that is produced by a human is reflected as both a product of, and potentially a challenge to, cultural norms and imagery. Therefore, adopting an anthropological approach to understanding the many varieties of stories as cultural texts can be highly informative. Thus, in this form of anthropology, texts like ghost stories become symbolic of latent cultural factors.

an old image representing Little Red Riding Hood
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Ghost Stories and Folklore as Cautionary Tales

One of the key features of folklore and horror stories in general, is not only to speak of fears, but to forewarn against dangers. Many of the folktales that are taught to us as children across cultures are used to warn about various dangers. Folktales like Little Red Riding Hood, in their folk origins, served as cautionary tales for young women. Since, due to changes in the division of labour and gender roles, these tales can be updated. These works may include folkoresque adaptions, such as the cartoons of Tex Avery, as well as more standard new publications. In these updated tales, the bravery of female characters, for example, may be increased to reflect cultural shifts.

an image showing a typewriter and interactive media, symbolizing writing and interaction as it relates to the adaptation of stories
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Adaptability of Stories

In this way, folklore changes across generations. Cultures are amorphous and nebulous in nature. They are continually shifting and adapting themselves to the environment. Most aspects of cultures thus become highly suitable to the cultural context, and when these aspects start to fail, change is often initiated. Arguably, the oral tradition of cultures through storytelling allows stories to be updated more easily. When an aspect of a story ceases to be applicable or relevant, it can be removed or updated.

an image of a vanishing hitchhiker ghost, a common genre of ghost stories
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Hitchhiking Ghosts and Portable Fears

In the cannon of ghost stories, one of the most enduring subgenres is the tale of the hitchhiking ghost or vanishing hitchhiker. The hitchhiking ghost follows a basic formula in which someone gives a ride to an individual who they later learn is a non-corporeal being. However, there are variances, such as age, gender, setting, and other details based on the era the tale is told in. Comparing various contemporary legends and ghost stories that emerged from the culture of automobility allows one to examine common fears around technological advancement. In this genre of tales, the real and the fictive blend to create a form of amorphous unreality that lends itself to oral transmission. These fears are portable as they transcend geographic and cultural barriers. 

an image of Japanese folklore, showing a shipwreck and ghostly yokai figures, a form of Japanese ghost stories
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Japanese Folklore

Folklore is very significant in all cultures. One culture that draws significantly from folklore and horror aesthetics is Japan. Japanese aesthetics are dominated by the weird as well as local history. Interestingly, imagery inspired by Japanese monsters, known as yokai, can be seen in many popular franchises, like Pokemon. These folklore tales are often scary in nature, featuring specters, death, and are often shaped as cautionary tales. Also, these folktales are often shaped by Buddhist and Shinto iconography and beliefs.

a black and white grainy image of a vanishing hitchhiker, related to the genre of ghost stories
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Hitchhiking, Trauma, and Folklore

Japanese folklore is also shaped by recent events as well as historical tales and tradition. During the period following the 2021 tsunami, the theme of the hitchhiking ghost, which we addressed above, was updated to fit the new milieu. Due to current fears based on the destruction of property, the loss of ways of life, and the deaths of loved ones, the tale was renewed. Afterwards, it became a popular folktale among taxi drivers in the region, as well as other locals, who told about ghostly passengers who came from regions impacted. Traumatic events often harbour many spirits.

a grainy black and white image of a hitchhiker, symbolizing the vanishing hitchhiker narrative of ghost stories
Image Credit: Real Ghosts Webs

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

The art of storytelling is deeply rooted in the cultural expression of human beings. Through much of our history as a species, we have engaged in telling tales. Sometimes, these stories may be weird, horrific, normative, discouraging, or revolve around gossip. The way we tell stories tells us about who the narrator and the audience are as individuals and members of a group. Therefore, things that discomfort us teach us about what is considered normal and abnormal in our society, and about pertinent modern and historical issues. Thus, through the examination of the stories we tell and the ghosts that lurk in our shadows, we can understand what it means to exist as cultural beings.

Bibliography

  • Delillo, D. 1991. Mao II. Scribner. New York. 
  • Delillo, D. 1985. White Noise. Viking Adult. New York.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. Basic Books. New York.
  • Kulick, Don., and Meneley, Anne. 2005. Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession. Tarcher-Perigee. New York.
  • Manning, Paul. 2017. No Ruins. No Ghosts. Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural. 6(1): 63-92.
  • Manning, Paul. 2021. Spectral Aphasia, Psychical Ghost Stories, and Spirit Post Offices: Three Modern Ghost Stories About Communication Infrastructures. Signs and Society 9(2): 204-233.

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