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Sun October 27, 2013
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The Truth That Creeps Beneath Our Spooky Ghost Stories

Originally published on Sun October 27, 2013 2:10 pm

Weekend Edition has been asking you to share your scary stories, the ones that have become family lore. This week, we're sharing those stories and delving into how and why they affect us.

As a teenager, Kevin Burns babysat for his sister's daughters — a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old. Throughout the night, he heard a baby crying, but it wasn't the kids, who were sound asleep in their beds.

Each time he investigated the crying, it stopped. When his sister and her husband came home, he asked them if their neighbor had a baby who cried loudly.

"Both of their faces instantly blanched white. They told me at that time that the house was haunted," Burns says. "They got a great deal on the house — they'd bought it, like, a month and a half before — and they were in the process of selling the house. And sure enough, within about another month, they were out of there."

Burns says he has a background in science and he doesn't really believe in ghosts, but the look on his sister's face gave him the willies.

The Unexplained Spooks The Skeptical

"Ghost stories are one of those things that have never been proven — but have also never been disproven, right?" anthropology professor Tok Thompson says. "Science can't really disprove ghosts exist."

Thompson teaches a class on ghost stories at the University of Southern California. The class explores the role of ghost stories in storytelling around the world and how they invite discussions of the soul and the afterlife.

He says most polls find that a little more than 50 percent of Americans believe in ghosts.

"That's fascinating, because most Americans tend to believe in science. And even those who might not believe in certain aspects of science — say, evolution or whatnot — tend to be influenced by their religious teachings," Thompson says. "Well, here's a case ... where most Americans believe something that both their science and their religious leaders tell them not to believe."

Ghosts Are No Big Deal For Believers

Perspectives abroad can be different, though. Take Vietnam, where Ryan MacMichael was visiting his wife's family. One night, he says, a ghostly figure shook him awake and pointed to the bathroom.

"I thought maybe it was one of my wife's cousins had come in and woken me up," MacMichael says. "But first of all, it was three in the morning. Second of all, why would they do that? And third of all, when I had gotten up and left, I had to unlock the door to my room. It was still locked."

When he told his wife's family the story the next morning, they were pretty blasé, telling him it was probably Grandpa's ghost, just there to help him.

Thompson says that in many East Asian countries, belief in ghosts is not only more acceptable, "it's sort of unacceptable not to believe in ghosts."

He also notes that helpful ghosts are a common theme in these stories, particularly family ghosts.

A Creepy, Recurring Theme: Possessed Dolls

Thomas Adkins says he and his mom were visited many times by a Patti Playpal doll that would walk around the house, opening and shutting doors and flicking lights on and off.

"I would be in my top bunk, and I would hear in the middle of the night these footsteps coming and I would hear the 'thunk, thunk' up the ladder at the foot of my bed," he says. "I would see this doll's bangs and then her eyes peer over the edge of my bed and be so terrified that I couldn't even get a scream out."

The word "doll," Thompson says, actually comes from the root "idol."

"So this idea of their possessing a spirit, to some degree, is at the root of dolls," he says.

What Ghosts May Really Be Telling Us

Is there a point to ghost stories beyond instilling fear? Thompson says there must be some value to them.

"If there wasn't value in them, people wouldn't keep telling them. Frankly, I think that ghost stories deal with a lot of issues — not just whether or not one believes in ghosts, but also questions of the past that haunt us, perhaps past injustices that haven't been taken care of," he says.

Take the common theme of building on top of an Indian burial ground, for example.

"That speaks somewhat to America's history of the destruction of Native American peoples and societies that maybe hasn't quite been dealt with," Thompson says. "Or, again, we have a lot of ghosts of slavery."

"There's a lot of, I think, social and even moral messages that can come from ghost stories," Thompson says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's almost Halloween - the time of year for witches, goblins, ghouls and ghosts. Over the past couple of weeks, we've been asking you to share your ghost stories, the ones that have become family lore. Kevin Burns from Memphis told us his. It happened one night when he was babysitting his sister's kids.

KEVIN BURNS: About an hour after they leave, I hear a baby crying coming from the children's bedroom where the kids were.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

BURNS: So, I walked to the room and check up on the girls. And as I approached the room, the crying sound got quieter. When I reached out to grab the doorknob, it had stopped all together. So, went back into the living room and while I was awaiting, I realized those kids are six and nine. They don't make the sound of a baby crying.

MARTIN: When his sister and her husband came home, Kevin asked them if the neighbors had a baby.

BURNS: Both of their faces instantly blanched white. They told me at that time that they got a great deal on the house - they bought it, like, a month and a half before. The house was haunted, and they were in the process of selling the house.

MARTIN: Kevin Burns says he has a background in science and he doesn't really believe in ghosts. But the look on his sister's face gave him the willies.

BURNS: So, babies crying, phantom knockings, haunted houses. For some perspective on the paranormal, we spoke with Tok Thompson. He's a professor at the University of Southern California where he teaches a class on ghost stories. I asked him how we balance our natural skepticism with the unexplained.

TOK THOMPSON: You know, ghost stories are one of those things that have never been proven but have also never been disproven. And, you know, most Americans believe in ghosts. At least from the surveys that I've seen, it usually comes in at over 50 percent. So, that's fascinating, because most Americans tend to believe in science. And even those who might not believe in certain aspects of science, say evolution or whatnot, tend to be influenced by their religious teachings. Well, here's a case example where most Americans believe something that both their science and religious leaders tell them not to believe.

MARTIN: OK. Moving to another story. This one from Ryan McMichael. He was visiting Vietnam with his wife, whose family lived there, and one night this kind of ghostly figure shook him awake and pointed him to the bathroom.

RYAN MCMICHAEL: I thought maybe it was one of my wife's cousins had come in and woken me up. But, you know, first of all, it was 3 in the morning; second of all, why would they do that?

MARTIN: So, when he told his wife's family the story the next day, they were pretty blase. You know, they told him it was probably grandpa's ghost just there to help him. Is that a common theme you have found, this kind of idea of a helpful ghost?

THOMPSON: Sure. Helpful ghosts are pretty common, especially when they're family ghosts. And also let me say that there's a notice that this story that you just told took place in Vietnam. And, you know, ghost beliefs in the United States is somewhere over 50 percent. But in a lot of East Asian countries, it's quite a bit higher, like well over 90 or well over 95 percent. So, this is not only an acceptable belief but it's sort of unacceptable not to believe in ghosts in a lot of these countries.

MARTIN: OK. Last story. This one from Thomas Atkins. And his is especially creepy. So, here's how it goes. He and his mom were visited many times by a Patty Playpal doll, who would walk around the house opening and shutting doors and flicking lights on and off.

THOMAS ATKINS: I would be in my top bunk and I would hear in the middle of the night these footsteps coming. And I would hear the thunk, thunk up the ladder at the foot of my bed. And I would see this doll's bangs and then her eyes peer over the edge of my bed and be so terrified that I couldn't even get a scream out.

MARTIN: That is horrifying.

THOMPSON: That's spooky, yeah. That's a pretty good one.

MARTIN: Oh, man. You know, there are lots of stories of possessed dolls. It's hard not to conjure up images of Chucky. But is this something you've seen a lot in ghost stories and family ghost stories, this idea of possessed dolls?

THOMPSON: Possessed dolls, yeah. It does show up a lot. In fact, the word doll actually comes from the root word idol. So, this idea of possessing a spirit to some degree is at the root of dolls.

MARTIN: Is there value in ghost stories, especially the kind that travel from generation to generation?

THOMPSON: Well, I think if there wasn't value in them people wouldn't keep telling them. Frankly, I think that ghost stories deal with a lot of issues, not just whether or not one believes in ghosts but also questions of the past that haunts us, perhaps past injustices that haven't been taken care of. So, for instance, in America we find a common theme of building on top of an Indian burial ground and that haunts the owners - very, very common. Well, that speaks somewhat to America's history of the destruction of Native American peoples and societies that maybe hasn't quite been dealt with. Or, again, we have a lot of ghosts of slavery. So, there's a lot of, I think, social and even moral messages that can come from ghost stories.

MARTIN: Tok Thompson is an anthropology professor at USC. Thanks so much for your time and Happy Halloween.

THOMPSON: Same to you. Happy Halloween. Have a good spooky one.

MARTIN: And you can find more those stories, including some from the NPR archives, at our websitenpr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And you are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.