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More than a scare: the meaning behind ghost stories

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Ghost stories serve to underscore our interest in the afterlife. (Source: MGN Online) Ghost stories serve to underscore our interest in the afterlife. (Source: MGN Online)

(RNN) – Every town seems to have its own ghost, complete with a legend fraught with doom and woe. Stories about spurned lovers, lost children and haunted battlefields are passed down from generation to generation as authentic.

It's interesting that often stories are not unique to a specific place. Versions of the same tale are told in different parts of the country, and while a few details vary, the core of the story remains the same.

Ghost stories tell us a lot about ourselves and our society. They might appear to be simply meant to give a fright, but a closer look reveals a deeper meaning that mirrors the hopes and fears we have about our world and the afterlife.

Dr. Frank Farley, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Temple University, says that our interest in ghosts and the unknown is a "mixture of things we want to approach and things we want to run away from."

Ghost stories provide answers to the eternal question of what we expect to happen after we die.

Dr. Farley says that humans are "a learning species," and are naturally curious.

"We're flexible and risk-taking. We're interested in exploring and we adapt well to new conditions," he said.

The will to learn what happens beyond death is hardwired into our interests. We cannot resist our natural curiosity.

Ghost stories are a response to that curiosity that spans cultures. Farley warns that we must keep a healthy skepticism regarding ghost tales since the "proof is weak."

But because they are hard to prove has not diminished their appeal.

Thomas White, an author, archivist, and history instructor at Duquesne University offers some explanations about the popularity and longevity of certain ghost legends.

"Ghost stories remain popular because they push against our modern technological (and dehumanizing) society and allow for the possibility of something more," he said.

According to White, some ghost stories serve as cautionary tales that "carry warnings, often in the form of urban legend, about perceived fears and concerns in society or of actual dangers."

The story of La Llorona is an example of a ghostly cautionary tale,.

Common in the southwestern U.S., La Llorona is a lower-class woman who is betrayed by her lover when he marries a woman of a higher class. Despondent, La Llorona drowns her children.

Thereafter, she is doomed to spend eternity wandering the shore, searching for her children, calling out, "ay, mis hijos!" which means "oh, my children!"

Parents often use this story to frighten their children into obedience, warning that La Llorona will get them. But even more powerful is the lesson that the story teaches young women about the risk of engaging in a relationship with a man above her social class.

White said that ghost legends can preserve community history or memory.

"They commemorate the dead and remember both tragedies and achievements," he said.

Haunted battlefields are an example. These sites have rich histories that are recounted in the stories of ghostly happenings. They emphasize the gravity of the horrific events that took place there, and form a communion between the people who died there and the people who are still living.

"We go were the dead people are, because we are intrigued by the possibility of that the dead might reveal," Farley said.

Another type of ghost story is what come folklorists call "legend trips."

White says these trips "allow people to interact with the supernatural at a remote (but car accessible) location to test personal and societal boundaries, while at the same time becoming part of the legend themselves."

Common stories about places where children have died near or under bridges are examples of legend trips. The stories say that if you cross these "crybaby bridges" at a certain time, you can hear the children crying.

People visit the bridge to personally experience the haunting, giving them first-hand experience and the power to tell the story from their own perspective. They become part of the tale.

Being part of the tale is important to the dissemination of ghost stories, because in sharing the stories, we act as "emotional contagions," influencing the listener with our own reaction. We share in the communal emotion of the story, which pulls us into, and makes us part of, the story.

Ghost stories reach a saturation point around Halloween each year.

Farley said Halloween has become an American holiday that institutionalizes the dead.

"We've given the dead their day…and it serves as an antidote to the horrific considerations of death," he said.

Halloween takes the negative, frightening aspects of death, bundles them all into one day and reshapes them into an exhilarating experience.

Ghost stories help enhance the experience.

For all the ways they serve us, ultimately, the beauty of ghost stories lies in the fact that the stories end.

"They are a metered source of fear and curiosity," Farley said. "We don't always want explicit uncertainty. "

The stories allow us to experience uncomfortable emotions on our own terms.

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