Folklore, Legends, and Ghost Stories

Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges and Universities by Michael Kleen is now available on and! Just in time for the fall, you can own a copy of the first book exclusively devoted to Illinois college folklore and ghost stories. Published by Crossroad Press, Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges and Universities is 166 pages and retails for $12.99. Please enjoy this excerpt from Chapter 1: Folklore, Legends, and Ghost Stories.

“A folklorist is a relief mapper, a cartographer of the invisible landscape, exploring and recording the local memory and ways of life, preserving them from erasure and decay, demonstrating how individual features on the map coalesce and form a unified whole rooted to a particular geographical location.” – Kent C. Ryden

Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges & UniversitiesGhost stories (or ghostlore) are a type of folklore that includes supernatural legends, local legends, and urban legends. Legends, generally, are also known as folk history or quasi-history. According to folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, “Rumors, anecdotes, and legends alike are concerned with remarkable, even bizarre, events that allegedly happened to ordinary people in everyday situations.” They are retold as a way of explaining strange occurrences and “are passed on in order to warn or inform others about these unprovable events.” While many legends conform to certain general themes and motifs, they acquire their credibility from localized details inserted by individual storytellers. The more details there are, the more truthful the legend appears to its audience. As a type of folklore, legends retain a fixed central core even while new variants acquire different lengths, detail, style, and techniques of performance. The process by which people in a community absorb new legends into their oral traditions and remake them through repetition and creative storytelling is called communal recreation.

For instance, folklorists recognize the legend of Pemberton Hall at Eastern Illinois University as a variation of a folk motif known as “the Roommate’s Death.” This story, about a young coed murdered by an axe wielding madman and the watchful dorm mother or roommate who failed to come to her rescue, has been told in various forms on college campuses throughout the country. At EIU, however, storytellers have added details based on the unique history of Pemberton Hall. They have alternatively described Mary Hawkins, the first full time matron of the hall, as both the victim and her would be savior. They have incorporated many unusual events as well, until the story has taken on a life of its own. Students hearing it for the first time are unlikely to recognize it as a legend because all the localized details make it seem that much more plausible.

Ghost stories may also be urban legends. Urban legends are semi-realistic stories concerning recent or alleged events, often with an ironic or supernatural spin. They are told as though they were true, are generally anonymous (as in, “I heard this from a friend of a friend”), and vary in details from one telling to another. As a type of legend, urban legends always contain a central core of traditional elements or motifs. They unconsciously reflect concerns of the community in which they circulate, as well as many of the hopes, fears, and anxieties of the storytellers and their intended audience. Jan Harold Brunvand suggested three reasons for the popularity of urban legends: “a suspenseful storyline, an element of actual belief, and a warning or moral that is either stated or implied.” These warnings are up to interpretation, but they most often involve reinforcing group social conventions. Therefore, each generation reinterprets the legend to reflect changing attitudes and values.

Like urban legends, ghost stories generally serve a purpose, whether they are meant to be a distraction from the mundane, or something more meaningful. Journalist Lisa Hefner Heitz, author of Haunted Kansas (1997), suggested over a half dozen possible functions of ghost stories. They are, she argued, a way to express social concerns and parental control, as well as a way to share family history and folklore. Ghost stories can also serve as a bonding ritual in a fraternity, sorority, or college dorm, or even in a neighborhood that shares a haunted house or a location near a legend site, and as relief from boredom and a bonding experience for employees who might work in an allegedly haunted building. They may serve as a type of oral history that commemorates an incident or individual, but with a supernatural twist, and may fill a need to explain what appears to be a supernatural event in the natural world.

Finally, ghost stories can function as a tie to a specific landscape or landscape element, contributing to a “mystic sense of place” that settles in around a ghost’s supposed haunt. This bonding experience is particularly important on college campuses, where students leave behind their old friends and must form entirely new social connections. In Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses (2007), Elizabeth Tucker noted, “I have found that ghost stories entertain and educate students, offering a unique blend of excitement, mystery, and danger. When students gather to tell ghost stories, they get to know one another better. Although ghost stories have more than one kind of meaning in a college setting, they primarily initiate entering students into a new community and a new stage of life.” [Read more in Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges and Universities by Michael Kleen]

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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