Category Archives: Issue 7: Ghosts and Cultural Hauntings

Visiting the Boo-tique: A History in Ghosts, Sheets, and Halloween

By Kallie Hunchman

It’s Halloween night. The sky is slowly darkening, and children are rushing around, putting last minute touches on their Halloween costumes. As they rush the streets, clutching empty jack o’lantern buckets, it’s not hard to see patterns in their attire. Princesses in sparkling dresses, pirates with little plastic swords, and ghosts under billowing white sheets. Princesses and pirates are pretty easy to understand, but how did a sheet with eye holes become associated with ghosts? And how did it become associated with harmless children rather than terrifying specters? Changing cultural experiences have drastically changed our perception of death and ghosts, changing a simple sheet costume from terrifying and spooky to harmless and childish. New burial practices and perceptions of Halloween are the two most important factors in this change.

Ghost Costume

image via Google Images

Prior to the twentieth century, it was very common for people to be buried wrapped in burial shrouds, thin pieces of fabric that could be anything from plain and undecorated to carefully made and elaborately decorated by the family of the deceased. During the early twentieth century, American society began to focus more on individualism—how a person lived and was during their life—than on family ties and societal expectations, and burying a loved one in clothes they would have worn during life became the more common practice (Barratt). People disguising themselves as ghosts by donning a white sheet descended from the burial shroud would have been a terrifying sight for anyone from that time period (Fick 81-82). So terrifying, in fact, that it is a prominent theme in a variety of texts—including the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), in which a woman puts on a sheet to scare men away, and the television show Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (1969-1970), in which villains frequently dress up as ghosts and ghouls to scare people off and make some kind of profit. To a lesser extent, the frightening potential of a figure concealed in a white sheet continues to be a theme in popular culture today, but much of the frightening effect is lost, since the burial shroud is not as widely used today.

The Halloween we know today is descended from a conglomeration of many different holidays and rituals with much darker connotations. Samhain, All Saint’s Day, All Soul’s Day, Celtic New Year’s, and a variety of pagan rituals contributed ideas and activities of the holiday. Because of these different holidays and rituals, Halloween was originally associated with ideas of trickery, death, decay, and darkness (Clark 182). An article from 1951 describes a Halloween not far from our own, but still visibly different. It describes Halloween as a “degenerate” holiday, filled with witches, demons, and trickery (Linton 62-63).

Halloween’s placement in the year is part of what makes it such a scary time. Set at a period when summer is drawing to a close, it is strongly associated with the beginning of winter and the hardships that come with it. Trees are losing their leaves. Plants are dying. There is more darkness as the days grow shorter and shorter. The arrival of winter means the end of prosperity: less food, colder weather, illness, and death (Akin). Halloween, and more broadly the end of October and beginning of November, are at the intersection of life and death, in the uncanny valley between the prosperous summer and the painful winter, making it an uncomfortable and off-putting period where all bets are off. The changing connotation of Halloween is an important factor in the ghost costume’s change from spooky to childish. Winter quickly became a less terrifying and potentially fatal time, and Halloween became less terrifying, as a result.

Another aspect of Halloween that has changed immensely is the meaning of the costumes. Dressing up for the holiday used to be much darker. Costume wearing contributed to the trickery of Halloween-time rituals, as people dressed as dark creatures and demons to commit acts of vandalism and terror (Linton 66). In dressing up, children are also allowed to embrace the taboo topics of society. Death, demons, spirits, witches, and other culturally inappropriate topics are free rein for children (Clark 186). Now, however, typically scary costumes and creatures intermingle with Disney princesses and tiny doctors, creating a much less terrifying environment.       The dark connotations of Halloween and Halloween costumes have not fully translated into today’s Halloween activities. Trick-or-treating, parties, carving pumpkins, parades, dressing up, etc. are all things that are seen as childish in our society. Since the Halloween of today has so many childish connotations, and since the ghost costume has lost so much of its original cultural significance, donning a sheet and running out into the world at night is no longer the terrifying adventure it once was. As Halloween has become a milder holiday associated with children, treats, and fun, children wrapped in sheets seem more fun than frightening. In reality, the costume has a much more macabre and scary background than it appears.

References:

Akin, Terri. “Exploring the Origins of Halloween.” The Reading Teacher, vol. 45, no.2, Oct. 1991, pp. 164-166,  https://www.jstor.org/stable/20200840. Accessed 3 Nov. 2019.

Barrett, Claire. “Shroud.” lovetoknow, https://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/clothing-types-

styles/shroud. Accessed 3 Nov. 2019.

Campbell, Christopher. “13 Unlikely Halloween Costumes Based on New Movies.” Film School Rejects, https://filmschoolrejects.com/halloween-costumes-ideas-2017/. Accessed 7 Nov. 2019.

Clark, Cindy Dell. “Tricks of Festival: Children, Enculturation, and American Halloween.” Ethos, vol. 33, no. 2, June 2005, pp. 180-205, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3651928. Accessed 3 Nov. 2019.

“Creepy Vintage Halloween Photos.”Rowsdowr, https://www.rowsdowr.com/2012/10/28/

creepy-vintage-halloween-photos/5/#/. Accessed 7 Nov. 2019.

Fick, Thomas H. “Authentic Ghosts and Real Bodies: Negotiating Power in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Ghost Stories.” South Atlantic Review, vol. 64, no. 2, Spring 1999, pp. 81-97, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3201983. Accessed 3 Nov. 2019.

Linton, Ralph. “Halloween.” Scientific American, vol. 185, no. 4, Oct. 195, pp. 62-67, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/24945292. Accessed 3 Nov. 2019.

Moorman, F. W. “The Pre-Shakespearean Ghost.” The Modern Language Review, vol. 1, no. 2, Jan. 1906, pp. 85-95, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3713754. Accessed 3 Nov. 2019.

Rossi, Holly Lebowitz. “Halloween Traditions for the Family.” Parents. https://www.parents.com/holiday/halloween/traditions/halloween-traditions-for-family/?. Accessed 3 Nov. 2019.

Stereotypes, Toxic Masculinity: The Family Business

By Addison Paul

Saving people, hunting things: The family business.

These words are known to many as a tagline for the dark fantasy television series Supernatural. Created by Eric Kripke, Supernatural has become a long-running pop-cultural phenomenon complete with a loyal and eccentric fanbase. With its 15th and final season airing in 2019 – 2020, the show has inspired a passion for all things ghosts, monsters, and demons for many people. Supernatural’s cult following has earned it a chief position among television show fandoms, but for an internet environment that’s all about acceptance and diversity in entertainment, the series presents numerous cultural problems. The show revolves around stereotypical white men, namely Dean and Sam Winchester, as the main players, while women and people of color only appear as extras, often marked for death. For a closer examination, let’s delve into one of the famously parodical installments of the show: Season 3, Episode 13 — “Ghostfacers!” This episode is an excellent example of the repeated othering and stereotyping often ignored by fans throughout many seasons of Supernatural.

With Eric Kripke and Ben Edlund, also two white men, as the writers of “Ghostfacers!,” it’s no wonder that white men dominate the storyline. Released in the spring of 2008, this particular episode combines stereotypes of masculinity, homosexuality, religion, mental illness, and ghost hunting to prove the Winchesters’ supernatural superiority in comparison to the amateur and oafish Ghostfacers team. Not only does “Ghostfacers!” provide parodical commentary on the act of paranormal investigation, but it also features exploitative use of native American culture, a Jewish person making a casual Hitler joke, and a gay man as the sole victim of the ghost — all in 42 minutes. Cramming this much culturally problematic content into one episode could have been a result of the troubling 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, but circumstances don’t excuse the central message of the episode: the better ghost hunters are stereotypically masculine white men, not the nerdy band of misfits representing some diversity.

The Ghostfacers team is made up of diverse people (at least by Supernatural’s standards) characterized by stereotypes and portrayed wearing ridiculous head lamps, operating shaky cameras, and working out of a garage. Kripke and Edlund lean into stereotypes surrounding the Ghostfacers’ diverse backgrounds as a crutch for cheap comedy. Harry shows the effeminate fear of a stereotypical geek, Maggie — the only woman and person of color in the episode — is an object of sexual desire, Kenny’s distant Cherokee heritage makes him a “licensed shamanologist,” Alan becomes one of the many queer characters killed for effect, and Ed even pretends to be gay to enlist ghost-Alan’s help,  exploiting his friend’s murder by thanking Alan for “teaching [them] how gay love can pierce through the veil of death and save the day.” The Ghostfacers are merely comedic relief compared to Dean and Sam, the burly, boot-wearing, heroes of Supernatural, affirming that the Winchester brothers, along with whiteness, hyper-masculinity, and heteronormativity, are the superior specimens of ghost hunting.

DLR Blog Ghostfacers

Image via Supernatural Wiki 

Additional cultural problems in “Ghostfacers!” stem from stereotypes of ghost behaviors and mental illness. This episode distinguishes between two types of ghosts: a death echo, a harmless ghost trapped in a loop replaying its death, and a violent spirit, a ghost wreaking havoc because of its violent disposition as a human. The three death echoes shown on screen died from gunshots, a train accident, and the violent spirit murdering Alan. These neutral ghosts all perished from external causes and are even shown as victors at the end of the episode. Daggett, the violent spitit, stole corpses from the hospital morgue to set them up in a horrific birthday party, and later committed suicide due to loneliness. Writers Kripke and Edlund use harmful stereotypes of mental illness and depression to create a shocking backstory for this character, making him the true villain and the epitome of a stereotypically evil ghost.

“Ghostfacers!” perpetuates harmful stereotypes to get a couple laughs and gasps out of the audience, but this kind of writing has more serious cultural implications. This episode creates pop cultural hauntings by associating negative cliches with ghosts and ghost hunters. By connecting women, homosexuals, people of color, and non-Christian religions with the supernatural, “Ghostfacers!” positions these traits and beliefs as “other.” Supernatural maintains such cultural hauntings throughout the series by reinforcing that Dean and Sam, who fit the cultural norms, consistently defeat or out-perform the people and creatures who fall into the category of other.

Ultimately, Supernatural remains a beloved pop cultural phenomenon, but it still presents issues with the writers’ controversial use of cultural stereotypes to affirm white male superiority, create cheap comedy, and present scary ghosts. The Supernatural fandom often ignores these cultural transgressions, preferring to instead celebrate the show for its campy drama and charismatic protagonists. “Ghostfacers!” spoofs and pokes fun at televised ghost hunting, and yet, Supernatural itself is a TV series frequently showcasing that very subject. The show’s ironic and amusing take on televised ghost hunting indicates that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but given its popularity and dealings with heavy topics, should Supernatural be held accountable for its problematic content? Or, is it better to let the show remain a haunted soap opera with little cultural significance outside of Tumblr?

 

References:

“Ghostfacers!” Supernatural, written by Eric Kripke and Ben Edlund, directed by Philip Sgriccia, Warner Brothers, 2008.

Isolation in The Unknown

By Jo Ladner

*contains ending spoilers for “Over the Garden Wall*

“Over the Garden Wall” has been a Halloween tradition for me ever since it first released in 2013. A short mini-cartoon series Cartoon Network did specifically for Halloween, it’s plenty spooky and full of Halloween tropes, with living skeletons, ghosts, singing frogs, two brothers—Wirt and Greg— trying to find their way home, becoming lost and isolated in the woods, and The Beast.

overthegardenwall

image via Bing Images

The Beast is a hulking shadow that lives in the woods of The Unknown (the place where Wirt and Greg find themselves lost), collecting spirits of lost children to use as fuel for his lantern. He remains elusive through most of the show, although all the people Wirt and Greg bump into warn them of The Beast and his spirit-snatching tendencies. What exactly is The Beast, though?

The Beast himself is a spirit—much like the ones he collects—and like most ghosts and spirits he relies on the energy of others to keep himself aflame, as he says, since The Beast is not capable of doing this himself. He needs someone else to fill of role of the lantern bearer and keep him alive, which plays into the common tropes that ghosts and spirits are not able to completely function by themselves and that they need a vessel in order to stay manifested (the lantern, in The Beast’s case). They require assistance, however willingly —or unwillingly— given, and that is what the lantern bearer does. They collect the edelwood to grind into the oil for the lantern, keeping it lit for The Beast, who isn’t capable of doing it for himself.

The Woodsman is the one who holds The Beast’s lantern though most of the show, and in the last episode Wirt is given responsibility for it for a moment when it’s accidently knocked from the Woodsman’s hands and Wirt picks it up. The Beast is a master manipulator, another common trope of ghosts, and in order to keep and motivate the current lantern bearer, he lies to them and tells them that a spirit of a loved one is the one in the lantern. He plays off their guilt of losing that loved one to get them to keep fueling the lantern. The Beast tells the Woodsman that the light is the spirit of his daughter, and for Wirt, he says it is the spirit of his brother, Greg. The Beast keeps the Woodsman isolated in the woods to keep him from learning the truth, and the action of this isolation accomplishes two things. It keeps the Woodsman in the dark about the state of his daughter (who, despite The Beast’s word, is home alive and well), and it alienates him from the other townsfolk. The townsfolk fear The Beast, and they hold the belief that “he who carries the lantern must be The Beast.” This belief immediately pegs the Woodsman as someone dangerous, and so the townsfolk stay away from him and he stays away from them. So, a cycle starts: isolation, alienation, then self-imposed isolation. The Beast is about to do the same to Wirt before Wirt questions who exactly the spirit in the lantern is. This is where we learn that it is really The Beast’s spirit, and Wirt blows it out and sends it back to the world of the dead.

The idea of spirits keeping people in isolation to feed them in seen in a few other characters in “Over the Garden Wall.” Lorna is possessed by a violent and murderous ghost, and Lorna’s aunt keeps her in a secluded house to keep the ghost from harming others. Quincy Endecott, while not haunted by a literal ghost, is haunted by the idea of one, and he barricades himself in his manor while his fear drives him halfway to madness. These two characters aren’t nearly as terrifying as The Beast, although, at first glance, they appear to be more terrifying. They are given physical bodies and appearances, while The Beast is nothing more than a shadow —the shadow in the corner of your eye, if you will. The Beast is given only a passing glance at first, but the longer Wirt and Greg, and by extension the audience, are left to think on The Beast, the scarier he becomes. He plays on the parental fears of losing one’s child, either to kidnapping or death, which you can see with the Woodsman. He uses the children’s fears of “The Scary Thing In The Dark,” the thing that can take them away (another thing we’re warned about). That’s what makes The Beast so terrifying: his ability to evoke fear in both children and adults through very similar means.

The Beast is not a traditional ghost in this sense, but he is still using the tactic of isolation to keep himself alive. And do we not see this in other ghost stories and in other haunted houses and locations? What about Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s The Shining? Elenore Vance in The Haunting of Hill House? Or even your local ghost story, warning you to never go into the woods just on the edge of town on your own?

References:

Over the Garden Wall, created by Katie Krentz and Patrick McHale, with Elijah Wood, Collin Dean, Melanie Lynskey and Christopher Lloyd, Cartoon Network, 2013.

Chestnuts Roasting Over an Open Fire

By Brooke Lilek

*Chestnut: something repeated to the point of staleness; a trope

Phoebe heard a knock on the front door and froze.

An extreme reaction for someone who cannot sense death at her doorstep, but that’s Phoebe.

She tensed before checking the peephole. She found no one out front though. Phoebe threw the deadbolt into place and plopped down on the couch. Within 20 minutes, the knocking returned. But this time it came from the kitchen, a room Phoebe painted a disturbing fuchsia thinking it would fade to a softer color in a few weeks like hair dye.

Phoebe won’t be as bright as the walls of her kitchen, but this wouldn’t be any fun for you if she was.

Removing herself from the comfort of her couch, Phoebe tried to rationalize that the icemaker had kicked on.

Don’t bother believing Phoebe’s rationalizations. Let’s see how I can make her squirm.

She went into the kitchen to confirm her suspicions, but upon finding no ice, she conveniently remembered she broke it last week. Her heart pounded so fast it almost ran out of blood.

What should I make her afraid of? Nothing too easy, I’m taking up Phoebe’s whole night.

It’s all in my head, Phoebe thought. In the living room, she turned on Deadpool 2 to avoid hearing anything but Ryan Reynolds’, “and that is why the man bun is just a millennial mullet.” But more knocking at the door interrupted Ryan’s sultry voice.

She rose slowly and slunk towards the door. Peering through the peephole, Phoebe saw a man in a red jacket holding a pizza.

“$17.23, please,” said the delivery boy.

Pulling out 20 dollars, Phoebe said, “You didn’t stop by earlier, did you?”

“Nope, just this once.”

“Maybe you got the address wrong for another delivery?” She said.

“Yeah, no.” He said taking the money and leaving.

Phoebe set the pizza box on the couch and walked into the kitchen. She scrounged up her last Pepsi, which she dropped upon finding the pizza box open and a bite missing.

Perhaps you’d like more suspense?

Phoebe told herself she forgot she stole one heavenly bite before retrieving her drink.

As if someone could forget that so quickly.

Phoebe inched closer to the open box. The landline rang, freezing her lungs. Relax, it’s probably just mom, she thought, answering the phone.

What kind of scary story would this be if she didn’t answer the phone?

“H-hello?” she said. But only heavy breathing answered, and the line went dead. It must have been a wrong number, Phoebe thought.

Don’t worry, I won’t let Phoebe off that easy.

She looked at the pizza again. Just to be on the safe side, Phoebe threw the bitten slice away. Near the trash bin, she heard strange noises floating up from the basement, almost like a rusted window hinge creaking in the breeze. I should just go check, she thought, I’ll just close the window and it will be fine. She even imagined a raccoon sneaking past her and taking a bite of pizza.

It feels as silly writing that down as it does for you to read it, but I’ve already decided Phoebe doesn’t have much going on upstairs, so here we are.

With a flashlight in hand, Phoebe wandered into the depths of the house. Something deep inside told her turn back and shamelessly eat pizza while watching Ryan Reynolds leap around in a tight, red suit.

But you have entered a scary story, so she won’t do that. Her survival isn’t my top priority. Also, if you’re wondering why she didn’t turn on the light, you’ve learned nothing about Phoebe.

Halfway down the steps she called into the darkness.

“Hello?”

Something grabbed Phoebe’s ankle and yanked her down the remaining stairs.

Oh Phoebe, if only I hadn’t sent you into the basement.

Her head smacked the steps, breaking them from the walls. Cackling flooded her ears as her body slammed against the cement floor. Her vision swam as she looked around for the source of the insane laughter, but she saw no figures, only the glare of her flashlight as it rolled to the opposite wall.

Barely able to lift her head, Phoebe tried dragging herself back up the steps only to be flung backwards by the collar of her shirt.

“Stay,” a voice hissed.

She swung out her arm hoping to knock over her assailant, but her hand passed through what felt like maple syrup, not sticky, just resistant.

“Anybody, please! Help me!” Tears filled Phoebe’s eyes. She was dragged by her hair across the floor; cold concrete rubbed her skin raw. The laughter continued to fill the basement until Phoebe was practically breathing it.

“Please, let me g—” Phoebe started, but the Being gripped her throat. Cracks spread through the concrete surrounding Phoebe’s body. She thrashed her legs to no effect.

This may seem harsh, but if I just let Phoebe off the hook, who would read about her?

Pieces of concrete fell as sections of the floor split farther apart. Phoebe watched the outline of a head darken as her vision faded. Concrete walls rose to surround her limp body. She attempted to pry its hand away from her throat, but with every ounce of strength it gained, she lost hers. She fixated on its ravenous eyes.

Waves of heat beat against Phoebe’s back. The depths of Hell rose to trade her life for the Being’s. She found herself wondering how Deadpool 2 ended and sighed knowing she would never find out.

Maybe I should have let Phoebe eat some of her pizza. A last meal so to speak.