What I Look For in a Book of Ghost Stories

Outstanding collections of folklore and ghost stories are rare, but doing these simple things will greatly improve future publications.

In the past several decades, interest in the paranormal has grown, and every year we see more books coming out on the subject. Sometimes it seems like nothing new could be written about it, especially in my home state of Illinois, where there are more than two dozen books on Illinois ghost stories (literally hundreds if you count everything Troy Taylor has written).

Many of these books fall short of satisfying, let alone come close to what I would consider to be a decent book on the subject. There are some gems to be sure, but they are rare. I don’t feel that my standards are too high–what I think is going on is that authors are rushing to meet the demand for these books and they are not putting very much thought into them.

Some authors, under pressure to produce, have taken the low road and plagiarized much of their content. Some authors (like one mentioned above) cannibalize their own work in order to produce book after book with basically the same content rearranged in a different way.

So what would I consider to be a “Class A” book on folklore and ghost stories? In an ideal world, what standards would a book have to meet to be truly excellent? Here they are in no particular order. Keep in mind, I don’t consider this list to be unachievable. Every author out there can produce a book to these standards, it just requires time and effort. These are the standards, by the way, to which I try to hold my own work.

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Hunting Demons a Harrowing Look at the Dark Side

Hunting Demons: A True Story of the Dark Side of the Supernatural by Sylvia Shults was released by Whitechapel Productions Press in August 2015 in both print and digital formats. This survey of demonology is surprisingly human, combining both cultural and religious history with a compelling personal experience. The combination is unique and takes a skilled writer to execute. It is clunky at times, but helps provide context for an incredible tale.

Hunting Demons is 158 pages and informally divided into two parts. The first part examines the history of demons and Satanism in Western and Middle Eastern culture, and the second is a personal tale of a woman from central Illinois who believed demons were tormenting her.

The personal experience is primarily grounded in Catholic theology, although it begins with a paranormal investigation. Because of this, it may have been more helpful for the author to focus on demonology from a Catholic perspective, rather than a more general overview.

In her historical and cultural survey, Sylvia Shults looks at demons and satanism from early human history to the present day. She transitions from the dark side in contemporary TV shows to the evolution of religion and evil spirits.

While interesting, this history is non-linear and has several noticeable gaps. For example, Shults jumps from the Salem Witch Trials to Vatican II in the 1960s. In her chapter on satanic panics, she goes from the heresies of the Middle Ages to the cult scare of the 1980s.

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The Importance of Citing Sources in Folklore

In a properly cited book, the reader is able to check source material if he or she suspects the author is coming to false conclusions, using sloppy research, or simply inventing things.

Over the course of my lifetime, I have read dozens, if not hundreds, of books on folklore and ghost stories from all over the United States and the world. One problem that comes up again and again is the failure of many authors in this genre to properly cite their sources. Otherwise excellent books are tarnished by this simple oversight.

It is an oversight that not only does a disservice to the individual authors and hinders research, but also prevents the study of folklore and ghost stories from being taken seriously. Simply learning to cite sources would go a long way to solving a lot of the problems that plague books and articles in this genre.

Citing sources helps keep authors honest and promotes accuracy. Without naming names, one author in particular comes to mind that perfectly illustrates why this is so important. He has written dozens of books on haunted places in Illinois. While some of his books include a bibliography, his research is sloppy and difficult to verify. I have been frustrated by discovering numerous inaccuracies, errors, and instances of plagiarism in his work.

The only reason I was able to discover these things is because I have read so many other books and articles, and happened to speak with individuals who had firsthand knowledge of the mistakes. Because this author fails to cite his sources, however, the casual reader is forced to simply take his word at face value. There is no way for them to independently verify any of the information in his books. Consequently, no academic or serious researcher will ever use his books as source material. There is just too high of a chance the information will be inaccurate.

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Trump Support Led to Show’s Cancellation: Roseanne

ABC execs fired Roseanne and canceled her comeback because they were afraid she would humanize Trump voters, she recently told Joe Rogan.

A few days ago, actress and comedian Roseanne Barr appeared on episode #1359 of The Joe Rogan Experience. Amidst an often incoherent and meandering interview, Roseanne and Rogan had an insightful exchange regarding the canceling of the popular continuation of her sitcom Roseanne in March of last year.

Roseanne, in which she played the titular character, Roseanne Conner, originally aired on ABC from 1988 to 1997. Roseanne was a sharp, take-no-prisoners working class mother who appealed to a wide audience in Middle America. The show’s realistic portrayal of blue collar life won a legion of fans, and when it returned to TV in 2018, its two-part premier drew over 25 million viewers. There was only one problem, Roseanne Barr was an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, and so was her character on the show.

Roseanne, who has publicly struggled with mental illness and substance abuse her entire adult life, is no conservative. She grew up with gay siblings, and was one of the first television personalities to feature openly gay characters on her show. She was a member of the Green Party, and in 2012 ran for President as the Peace and Freedom Party candidate. Founded in 1967, the Peace and Freedom Party is dedicated to “feminism, socialism, democracy, ecology, and racial equality.”

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Haunted Hoosier Trails Sets a Standard for Folklore

First published by Guild Press Emmis Publishing in 2002, Haunted Hoosier Trails: A Guide to Indiana’s Famous Folklore Spooky Sites by Wanda Lou Willis has quickly become a genre classic. Everything, from the paper it’s printed on, to its layout, maps, and illustrations, is of the highest quality. It is (to put it bluntly) a beautiful book, but it is the stories within that are most important.

Willis does a wonderful job retelling ghost stories and legends from all over the Hoosier State. Like the rest of the book, the quality of writing is superb—clean, and polished. The only things this book lacks are proper citations and an index. Otherwise, it should be the standard that authors in this genre seek to emulate.

The tales in Haunted Hoosier Trails are organized by region and county. Willis divides Indiana into three regions: North, Central, and South. A short history introduces each county, and each location or story is given one or two pages—just enough to explain the background and strange happenings without losing the reader’s interest. In fact, an incredible 78 tales are featured in this 180 page book, but none of them feel rushed or incomplete.

A map pinpointing their exact location accompanies many of the tales. Unlike the poor quality maps featured in other books in this genre, the maps included in Haunted Hoosier Trails are clean and easy to read. They were created by the book’s illustrator, Steven D. Armour. Armour’s ink sketches are a wonderful addition to the book and come at the beginning of each section. They illustrate a handful of that region’s most notable stories.

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Positive Interests Stem from Folklore and Ghost Stories

An interest in folklore and ghost stories encourages reading, travel, interest in history and historical preservation, and tourism.

We often hear of negativity surrounding places associated with legends and lore: vandalism, trespassing, breaking and entering, drug use and underage drinking. The media loves to associate criminal activity with amateur ghost hunting, such as the break in at Ness Church in Litchfield, Minnesota.

Interest in folklore, ghost stories, and legend tripping, however, can have many positive effects. Those subjects can be (and usually are) a gateway to developing interests in other areas. These areas include, but are not limited to:

  • Reading
  • Travel
  • History
  • Preservation
  • Tourism

Reading: Reading was my first introduction to ghost stories. When I was a kid, I devoured every book I could find on the subject and spent countless hours at the library as a result. While there are plenty of reality TV shows devoted to the paranormal these days, literature is still the primary means of preserving and transmitting ghost stories. A child should be encouraged to pursue his or her interest in legends and lore through reading.

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The Last Laugh by Raymond Moody on Kindle

In the early 2000s, I stumbled on a book that radically changed the way I thought about ghost stories and the paranormal. That book was The Last Laugh (1999) by Raymond Moody, Jr. Today, it is only available in digital format on Amazon Kindle. After all these years, I still recommend it to my readers interested in having a more well-rounded perspective on this subject. You might be surprised at what you discover about yourself and what it means to be human.

Raymond Moody, Jr. is the doctor who first publicized the phenomenon of near-death experiences in his groundbreaking book, Life After Life (1975). Much to his chagrin, his work re-invigorated the New Age movement and he was thrust into the limelight as someone who had “proven” the existence of life after death.

This misconception, he reveals in The Last Laugh, came as a result of his publisher’s deletion of a crucial final chapter in Life After Life in which he argues that these personal experiences, though incredibly meaningful and sometimes life changing, actually do not prove the existence of life after death. They just “moved the goalpost.”

The Last Laugh was meant not only to be a post-script to Life After Life, but to also serve as that final missing piece. The premise of The Last Laugh is simple but deeply insightful. Throughout recent history, there have been three main players in the discussion of the paranormal: parapsychologists, professional skeptics, and Christian fundamentalists.

Not only have these three perspectives not advanced our knowledge very much on the issue, but Moody contends that neither actually wants to resolve the debate, because in resolving the controversy they would eliminate their reason for being in the spotlight and also lose a source of fun and entertainment in the process.

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