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The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History

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 “Folktales are historical documents,” he argued.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.’”

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American Vampires Long on Lore, Short on Vampires

americanvampireAmerican 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.

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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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The Geography of Campus Ghostlore

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

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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Folklore, Legends, and Ghost Stories

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 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.

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