It was a few weeks before Christmas, 1980. Outside the sleepy town of Byron, Illinois, the massive cooling towers of the nearby nuclear power plant were still under construction. Kim Anderson turned down Kennedy Hill Road and headed for home after attending church early Sunday morning. Snow drifted across the country road and ice glistened on the barren fields. As her driveway neared, her mind wandered to thoughts of getting inside and cooking a hot breakfast.
Without warning, she noticed a young woman around the same age walking down the road toward her driveway. The woman had long, blonde hair, and strangely, wore a pair of light colored shorts. Kim pulled her car into her driveway and ran into the house. She threw open the curtains on the front room window to see if the woman was going to come up the driveway. She didn’t. Instead, she continued walking toward Byron. Kim didn’t think much of the encounter after that, until she began to hear the rumors.
Between mid-December and early January, dozens reported seeing a young woman in various stages of dress walking down Kennedy Hill Road. By January 20, 1981, the sightings had reached a fevered pitch. Wild reports circulated around Ogle County, and motorists parked their cars in the frigid temperatures along the narrow rural road to catch a glimpse of what became known as “The Phantom Lady of Kennedy Hill Road.” Newspaper reports reached as far away as Chicago, and the Rockford Register Star ran five consecutive articles on the sightings.
Kim Anderson was one of the first to spot the scantily-clad woman, but other reports soon followed. Register Star correspondent Diane Moats diligently collected dozens of eyewitness accounts from what she described as “credible” regular folks, “not the kind you’d think would make up something like this.” Years after the sightings, she told Bill Rowe of Rockford Magazine, “Each of them claimed to have seen the woman walking alongside the road. By the time they stopped to see if she was OK, she had disappeared.” The woman was always described as being inappropriately dressed for the weather, and occasionally barefoot.
While many encounters with “the phantom” seemed down to earth, many more crossed the line from reality to fiction. At least 20 individuals with whom Diane spoke fell back on a familiar folklore motif; that of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. They told the reporter that they each knew someone who picked up the young woman and drove her home, only to find out upon arrival and after speaking with her mother that she had died years earlier. In all instances, the mysterious hitchhiker vanished from his or her car when they arrived at their destination.
While those particular encounters were obviously driven by hearsay and wild speculation, the majority of sightings were simple and straightforward. Many of the passing motorists were genuinely concerned for the young woman and turned their car around to ask her if she needed help, but she was then nowhere to be seen. For all, it was too incredible to believe. What would a living, breathing person be doing walking along the roadside in the dead of winter, and how could she just disappear? “Usually if you meet someone just walking along the road, there’s a car out of commission somewhere, but there was no car on the road whatsoever,” a waitress and eyewitness named Betty Lingel told the Register Star. “I thought it was kind of goofy, just walking down the road like that. It was cold, below zero.”
In The Great Cat Massacre: and other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), historian Robert Darton attempted to reconstruct and understand the mental world of early modern French peasants through their folktales. He began with the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” as told around firesides in peasant cottages during long winter evenings in eighteenth-century France. It’s a little different than the version you may have been told. The story went as follows:
A young girl was instructed to bring some milk and bread to her grandmother’s house. While walking down a path through the woods, a wolf stopped her and asked her where she was going. She told him, and the wolf took off down a second path. The wolf, “arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed…”
When the young girl arrived, the wolf (disguised as her grandmother) offered her meat and wine from the pantry. “So the little girl ate what she was offered; and as she did, a little cat said, ‘Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!’ Then the wolf said, ‘Undress and get into bed with me.’”
After a prolonged scene in which the young girl is instructed to undress and toss her clothes into the fire, the conclusion proceeds in the now familiar manner until, at the very end, the wolf eats the girl. No hunter comes to her rescue in the original version.
The version as we know it today, according to Darton, was taken by the Grimm brothers from Charles Perrault, a popular writer at the turn of the seventeenth century, who changed the stories to suit the tastes of the Paris elites. The ending we are familiar with, in which the hunter rescues Little Red and kills the wolf, was added by Jeannette Hassenpflug, the Grimm’s neighbor, from a popular German story “The Wolf and the Kids.”
Through an examination of folktales like “Little Red Riding Hood”, Darton hoped to unlock the mentalité of the French peasant during that time period. “Folktales are historical documents,” he argued. “They have evolved over many centuries and have taken different turns in different cultural traditions… they suggest that mentalités themselves have changed. We can appreciate the distance between our mental world and that of our ancestors if we imagine lulling a child of our own to sleep with the primitive peasant version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’”
American Vampires: Their True Bloody History from New York to California by Dr. Bob Curran is an interesting look at the darker side of American folklore, but ultimately falls short as a guide to American vampire lore. Published in 2013 by New Page Books, American Vampires is 254 pages and retails for $15.99. It contains 14 chapters (including the intro and conclusion), and includes stories from Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Wyoming. It is beautifully illustrated by Ian Daniels.
American Vampires takes a multicultural view of American folklore, drawing from American Indian, British, Irish, and African sources to explain the origins of many of our tales. Readers will be treated to a rich tapestry of myths, all of which merge together to form the foundation of our own unique American folklore. This reminds us that certain themes about mortality—and what lurks in the darkness, are universally human. It is a fresh perspective that Dr. Curran, as a native of Ireland, brings to this book.
However, American Vampires suffers from a major thematic problem. Although Dr. Curran argues that vampires are more diverse and complex than often portrayed in popular culture, he stretches the definition of “vampire” to the breaking point and beyond. He describes any supernatural or folk-entity that drains energy or tastes blood as a vampire, and entire chapters go by with only passing reference to a “vampiric” creature.
First 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.
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.
Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges and Universities by Michael Kleen is now available on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com! 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
Universities 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.