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Tales of a Real Ghostbuster

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HISTORY MATTERS

Haunted tales and haunted tours are holiday fun – but beware. A revival in supernatural stuff should not be confused with historical fact. Spooky stories, taken literally, can distract us from the true lesson of the past. Hey, someone had to say it out loud.

 

 

 

Just Don't Call It History

Halloween is a dark time for historians. We believe in facts, not ghosts – and yet -- we are also the keepers of the past. We see dead people all the time, and tell their stories. So come October, the phone rings often. Have I got any good ghost stories, reporters want to know? Any thing gross, scary, supernatural, or unexplainable will do.

Now I love a good creepshow as much as the next guy. I spend hours each year wandering the Halloween superstore with its animated talking ghouls and plastic severed body parts. And I adore the annual Halloween Parade. No town does it better than Portsmouth. But duh -- it’s all fake. So are the scary movies, horror novels, comic book heroes, and funhouse rides. It ain’t history.

What scares me silly is the increasingly fuzzy line Americans draw between fiction and fact. People who channel messages from departed loved ones are entertainers, not truthtellers. So are the people who drag electronic measuring devices into old houses to calculate the residual "energy" of dead souls. This is Hollywood, people, not science, and clever charlatans have been making a living this way for decades. Just because you saw it on the History Channel, doesn’t make it true.

Life is not a horror novel

Caught up in the Halloween spirit, even professional reporters may refer to "authentic" or "documented" ghosts from history, when no such category exists. All supernatural phenomena are considered folklore to historians. Those of us who insist on sticking to the facts are considered party poopers during Halloween. Others suggest we are withholding the truth, X-Files-style, about a parallel paranormal dimension where imagined creatures run free. We have raised a new generation, weaned on video games and Sci-Fi films, that is skeptical about history, yet open-minded to fantasy.

The reporters press harder. Have I knowledge of any real local zombies, witches, sprites, imps, devils, vampires, aliens, angels, werewolves, dragons, shape-shifters or yetis? Nope, nor have I compiled a dossier on the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. One can write a fascinating thesis on the evolution of the Santa Claus legend in American culture, but I’m sorry, Virginia, no one has yet produced the real McCoy.

But what about Dracula, the believers insist? Wasn’t he based on a real person? More or less. But little resemblance remains between the medieval Vlad the Impaler (1431- 1476), and the Dracula popularized by novelists Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, Stephen King and actor Bella Lugosi.

In an age of information overload, popular culture often trumps fact. I’ve heard people seriously debate whether garlic and crucifixes can keep a vampire at bay. Historical research is especially time consuming, often dull, plodding work. Most ghost believers are unwilling to dig, or they rely on shoddy research, hearsay, unauthorized sources or ancient amateur history books. Knowledge evolves. An old history book may be as out of date as an old TV Guide. Easier to just search on Google, click the top few items, and call it research.

And yes, people have been convicted, even executed in New England for witchcraft. But that does not make them witches. Puritan law in the 17th century banned everything from drinking toasts to wearing long hair. Besides treason and murder, citizens could be put to death for idolatry, blasphemy, public rebellion, witchcraft, bestiality, buggery, bearing false witness, rape, "man stealing," and burning a house or ship. Even children could legally be executed for cursing their parents. Based on early colonial law, we would all be on death row.

My neighbor is a cat

Ghost stories are the junk food of history and New England towns horde them greedily like Halloween candy. They provide a dramatic sugar rush, but no lasting nutrition. As folklore, they can tell us a great deal about human behavior and life in the past. Taken literally, however, they only lead us round and round the barn – and back to where we started. And junior reporters beware. While it is fine to say, "John Doe believes he saw a ghostly figure in his attic" it is not accurate to say that John Doe lives in a haunted house.

The problem increases when writers unfamiliar with historic research begin pulling "evidence" from early documents without context. It is a matter of record, for example, that in 1656 Susannah Trimmings files suit in Portsmouth Court against her neighbor. A portion of the testimony reads:

"As I was going home on Sunday night the 30th, I heard a rustling in the woods, which I supposed to be occasioned by swine, and presently there appeared a woman, whom I apprehended to be old Goodwife Walford. She asked me to lend her a pound of cotton; I told her I had but two pounds in the house, and I would not spare any to my mother. She said I had better have done it, for I was going a great journey, but I should never come there. She then left me, and I was struck as if with a clap of fire on the back; and she vanished toward the water side, in my apprehension, in the shape of a cat."

Not even Timothy Trimmings believed his wife had been bewitched. She was just suffering from "her weakness" he told the court. But another neighbor swore he too saw a cat, and when he tried to shoot it, his gun jammed, possibly due to witchcraft. There is no limit to what the human mind can imagine or conclude, especially in an era of constant terror and uncertainty like the 17th century – or now.

GHOST BUSTERS CONTINUED

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Monday, October 23, 2017 
 
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