Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place

Mapping the Invisible Landscape by Kent C. RydenFirst published in 1993 by the University of Iowa Press, the importance of Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place by Kent C. Ryden cannot be understated. Alongside The Last Laugh by Raymond Moody, it is one of the few books that has fundamentally changed my perception of the study of folklore and ghost stories. Over the years, I’ve had a number of scattered thoughts on the subject that this book suddenly arranged into a clear picture. Just like that, a light bulb turned on and put everything into perspective. The idea that folklore is fundamental to how we understand and experience the places in which we live is simple, but often overlooked. The author, Kent Ryden, holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University. He was awarded the American Studies Association’s Ralph Henry Gabriel Dissertation Prize in 1991 for an earlier version of the book.

Mapping the Invisible Landscape is divided into five essays. The first, “Of Maps and Minds: The Invisible Landscape,” the second, “Folklore and the Sense of Place,” and the fifth, “The Essay of Place: Themes in the Cartography of the Invisible Landscape,” are the three most important. The remaining two essays are just detailed examples of the theories developed elsewhere in the book using history, geography, and literature. If Mapping the Invisible Landscape has a flaw, it’s that it tends to get bogged down in rich, detailed descriptions that start to meander away from the central theme. Though interesting, the third and fourth essays can be skipped in their entirety without taking anything away from the book.

Ryden’s fundamental insight is that places hold meaning for us, and that folklore is an important vehicle for expressing that meaning. Maps only convey a limited amount of information about a place. Physical geography is limited to a stark, black and white description of the landscape and says nothing about the wealth of human experience there. Ryden calls this collection of stories, recollections, feelings, and history the “Invisible Landscape.” It is the meaning we impose on the physical world, a meaning that is exclusive to human experience.

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Goatman: A Refreshing Look at a Strange Legend

Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? by J. Nathan Couch
Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? by J. Nathan Couch

What do we make of the hundreds of legends and sightings of alleged half-man, half-goat creatures across America? This is the question J. Nathan Couch attempts to answer in his new book Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? Published by the author in 2014, Goatman is 152 pages and is available in both print and digital formats. Its cover, a dark, haunting image of a cloven hoofed creature with thick horns and an eerily human face, was illustrated by Amber Michelle Russell.

Before reading this book, I was only peripherally aware of the goatman legend. I vaguely recalled that I had heard something about a goatman once, but never took the idea seriously. One of the many redeeming qualities of Goatman is the author’s awareness that yes, most people find the notion of a half-man, half-goat to be absurd. Yet he demonstrates that this creature has been a persistent (albeit obscure) part of American folklore since at least the 1960s. Always straddling the line between skepticism and belief, Couch examines every possibility, from the mundane to the magical.

Couch begins his exploration in his own backyard, Washington County in southeastern Wisconsin. Washington County is home to several locations believed to be visited by a creature known as “Goatman.” Fascinated by the tale, Couch soon discovered other goatman legends in Missouri, Maryland, Texas, California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Indiana. The tales varied. In some, the goatman stalked lover’s lanes in search of amorous teenagers to kill. In others, the goatman was the result of a cruel genetic experiment gone wrong. In still others, he was a wild recluse or an escapee from a carnival freak show.

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Snowden: A Masterfully-Crafted Fairytale

Last night, a handful of people and I watched the premier of Oliver Stone’s latest film, Snowden, a biopic about NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden. Oliver Stone, who turned 70 today, has written and directed over two dozen films, many of which are considered masterpieces. Alexander, Natural Born Killers, JFK, and Platoon are among my personal favorites. A live interview with Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who played Snowden), Shailene Woodley (who played Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills), and Edward Snowden himself followed the premier.

Oliver Stone is known for his politically-charged movies, and he doesn’t try to hide his biases. Snowden is an effective piece of propaganda. It’s nearly flawless as a film in terms of acting, editing, pacing, and dialog, but lacks the depth usually given to such a controversial subject.

First, here’s what Snowden gets right. Every actor and actress in this movie is on point. Every character feels genuine. Nicolas Cage, in top form, even makes a cameo as Hank Forrester, a (fictional) disillusioned CIA instructor. Shailene Woodley is perfect as Lindsay Mills, a free spirited, liberal photographer Snowden falls in love with.

One of the advantages of portraying a living person is you are able to study their mannerisms, tone, and expressions. Joseph Gordon-Levitt studied his subject well. Levitt, as Snowden, narrates throughout the entire film, as he is telling his story to a group of journalists, but the dialog is tight and the narration never gets bogged down in needless exposition.

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Carbondale After Dark: An Underground History of SIU

The following is not a fable — it all really happened and it has no morals.”

Carbondale After Dark by HB Koplowitz
Carbondale After Dark by HB Koplowitz

I first became aware of H.B. Koplowitz’s Carbondale After Dark and Other Stories while I was doing research on Southern Illinois University for a book on the legends and lore of Illinois colleges. Carbondale After Dark was first published by the author in 1982. A 25th anniversary limited edition was released in 2007. The new edition contains a foreword by actor Dennis Franz, a Backword by humorist P.S. Mueller, and of course a new acknowledgements by the author himself. At 132 pages, Carbondale After Dark can almost be read in one sitting, but you will want to pick it apart piece by piece. The book contains standalone articles (as opposed to one linear narrative) so there is no need to read it from cover to cover.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, SIU-C went from a small rural teacher’s college to a major university in just a few short years. That shift permanently altered the landscape of Carbondale, Illinois, creating what became known as “the Strip.” Since then, the Strip has been the scene of mass parties, riots, and a lot of fond memories. H.B. Koplowitz was right in the middle, writing for alternative publications and documenting these changes as they happened.

Carbondale After Dark is divided into three sections: The Strip, Pontifications, and A Koplowitz Now. The highlight of the book is the section devoted to Carbondale’s Strip, which also takes up the most amount of pages. What particularly stands out is a year-by-year history of the strip, from its inception to the early 1980s. Student parties and protests are mentioned, but the author also documents the origin of SIU’s massive annual Halloween party, which was a fixture of campus life until a particularly devastating riot in 2000.

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Devil’s Night at Southern Illinois University

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.

Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges & UniversitiesOctober 30th, the night before Halloween, has been variously referred to as Mischief Night, Cabbage Night, or Hell Night. In most places, teens celebrate this unofficial holiday with pranks, mild vandalism, petty crime, parties, and fireworks. In Detroit, Michigan, it became known as “Devil’s Night.” From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, arsonists started hundreds of fires throughout the city. In Carbondale, Illinois, students from Southern Illinois University celebrated the weekend before Halloween with riotous parties along the downtown strip.

According to author H.B. Koplowitz, this tradition began in 1974, after political demonstrations on the strip gave way to fun and revelry. “Nobody realized it at the time, but Thursday, Oct. 31, 1974, the bizarre Halloween street party tradition was born,” he wrote. “At about 9:30 [pm] that night, about 1,000 young people, many of them in outrageous home-made costumes that ranged from the abstract to the obscene, took over the street between Merlin’s and P.K.’s.”

The crowd soon swelled to over 5,000, and Carbondale’s mayor ordered the bars to close. Rather than diffuse the situation, this action inflamed the crowd and led to confrontations with the police. By 1977, word of the carnival-like Halloween party had spread and attracted partygoers from elsewhere in the state. “The weekend before Halloween, about 6,000 people, many of them in costumes and from out of town, closed South Illinois Avenue from College to Walnut,” Koplowitz explained. “The city had not granted an extension of the 2a.m. drinking hour, but Saturday night the bars stayed open an hour later because of a time change from Daylight Saving Time. When the bars emptied, a bonfire was lit in the street, rocks and bottles were thrown, and a few people took off their clothes.”

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The Geography of Campus Ghostlore

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 2: Hallowed Halls: The Geography of Campus Ghostlore

Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges & UniversitiesUniversities are centers of learning where young adults devote two to four years (or more) of their lives to academic study. In addition to attending class, students must also have places to eat, sleep, study, socialize, and find entertainment. To facilitate this activity, a university needs professors, administrators, secretaries, custodians and maintenance, security personnel, and a whole support network operating largely behind the scenes.

All this activity takes place in a physical environment that includes classroom buildings, towering residence halls, libraries, theaters, gymnasiums, open spaces, gardens, and walking paths. Off campus, fraternity and sorority houses, apartments, and other rental properties provide additional student housing. On weekends, students looking for a scare might venture into the wilderness away from the perceived safety of campus to seek out the scene of a local legend. These places are often decorated with curious messages, remnants, and monuments left behind by previous students. Together, these places set the stage for campus lore.

Because every university contains these essential features, it is their architecture and arrangement that makes each one unique. More than physical features, however, it is the invisible landscape of tradition, reputation, history, stories, and other human associations that gives each university its identity. Campus folklore and ghost stories are an important part of this invisible landscape, connecting the present generation to the past.

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The Importance of Legend Tripping in College Lore

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.

Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges & UniversitiesOne often-overlooked aspect of campus lore is the popularity of mysterious places outside the immediate boundaries of the college or university. These allegedly haunted locations are destinations for an activity known as legend-tripping. Author Lisa Hefner Heitz defines legend-tripping as “Visits by young people to a locally famous site that is known to be haunted or a hangout for monsters and other supernatural creatures.”

Others have described it as “a usually furtive [secret] nocturnal pilgrimage to a site which is alleged to have been the scene of some tragic, horrific, and possibly supernatural event or haunting.” These destinations, though not located on campus, should be included in any discussion of university folklore because students often make no meaningful distinction between these places and reportedly haunted locations on campus.

In my research on the legends and lore of Illinois colleges and universities, I discovered that in most cases, there was a remote destination (usually a cemetery, bridge, or abandoned building) that students sought out for its purported supernatural occurrences, often spurred on by articles in their college newspaper around Halloween. These locations—Vishnu Springs in McDonough County and Sunset Haven in Jackson County, for example—were occasionally owned by the university, even though they were located more than a mile away from campus. It struck me that these destinations are an important, but often overlooked addition to college and university lore. Although other authors have written plenty about them, their relationship to campus folklore has yet to be explored.

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