And here I thought I was doing it right all along.
I set nets and lobster traps out there. I publish a story I hear in the hopes that a person keywording something they experienced or were told about will fall in and tell me their version of the story. I then document what they experienced. I go out to the places where things happen and try to experience it myself, maybe asking a few people nearby if they’ve heard about it. I’ve been doing that for more than twenty years, since I first asked people what they had heard about my haunted dorm, Charlesgate. If I’m looking at a place I don’t know, I send out e-mails to the gatekeepers of the tales; librarians, members of town history groups, professors at local colleges. It’s my way of trying to get my hands on what Charles Johnson once called, “our human inheritance.”
Today I received a response back from a doctor of folklore studies from a university in Pennsylvania. Nine words if you don’t count our names.
This is not the way to conduct folklore research.
Years ago Tim Weisberg from Spooky Southcoast gave me the label of Analytical Folklorist. I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded official and important and close enough to what I do for me to embrace. After all, I was slowly moving away from investigating the paranormal and had long held to the idea that the value in looking into the paranormal was in finding what it had to do with the people who experienced it and those who sought out their stories. Tracking down a good ghost story was an exercise in recording oral and written history, and writing it down was capturing more about society than capturing a ghost (or a Ghost on Film). I believed then that tales of the paranormal and supernatural were a major part of our modern folklore, and my work over the past three years has done nothing to change that.
It’s not that I think ghosts don’t exist. There are unexplained things in this world, and those things will always remain that way. The paranormal is our way of trying to make sense out of the unseen, and for every story where we see a possible reason for the ghost, there are ten more that only point at our existing ideas on ghosts or the growing new mythology we are creating concerning the unknown. There is much folklore in how we look for ghosts, including the people who do it, as there is in the ghosts they look for.
But that’s a story for another day.
This is more about the Legends Project and its goal of searching out stories to trip this summer outside of Florida.
I had started the project a few years ago and restarted it about six months ago with the goal of traveling to sites I could trip and collect stories from. The idea was to find places where the locals knew of a story, ghost or just off-center, and then go to the location and see what I could collect by talking to people and enacting any ritual connected to the story.
For example, you go to a cry-baby bridge. You turn your lights out like the tale tells you to do. Honk twice as instructed and be ready to see the bride appear before you with the dead baby in her arms. Before that, you hit the Internet finding variations of the story and ask people about it when you get to the town.
Perhaps the best example of Tripping on Legends doing this would be the case of the Devil’s Tree in Port St. Lucie. We searched the Net for hours, and when we got there we asked everyone we could find the stories they had heard about it. We were able to record four or five variations of the story or little add-ons (the serial killer lived in a shack near the tree) and this led us to other mysteries, like what were the ruins near the tree and was the whole thing signal some kind of disturbance in the area where serial killers, sketchy asylum owners, and random acts of violence would find their way to the same spot.
To me, that’s what modern folklore is about. Find a story, look into the story, try to connect the story.
This is what I learned from reading the people who inspired me. Food for the Dead was one of the most influential books to my early work because Michael Bell set out to find the stories and experience them himself, even though he never really thought there were vampires out there. Jan Harold Brunvand laid out similar methods in collecting as many versions of urban legends as he could. The same could be said for Charles Robinson in prepping New England Ghost Files. I would even say hearing Joseph Campbell describing connecting myths follows a similar pattern.
So what am I doing that’s wrong, Doc?
The logical first step is to find a story. This is a copy of the e-mail I send out to get the pot stirred:
My name is Christopher Balzano, a folklorist living in Southwest Florida.
I am starting a new project looking to explore and celebrate the stories that have become the foundation for the rich oral and written tradition of this country. I am looking for the folklore that has contributed to the development and tradition of America, and I am hoping for your help.
I believe the journey of a folklorist starts with asking a question to get the adventure started, so today I am asking you.
Is there a story in your area that your citizens view as folklore or local myth?
Having done this for more than two decade, I understand how difficult that question may be. It involves sifting through old stories and urban legends to try and sort things out. I am not asking you to go that far, mainly because that’s where the love of the trip lies for me. I’m just searching for whatever information you might have and perhaps a lead.
I am looking to document the more obscure stories, the hidden John Henry of your area.
The story may be familiar but region specific, creepy or spooky, or just plain entertaining or important. Folklore, urban legends, or just regional legends are all fair game.
I am especially interested if you know of storytellers who make these tales come to life or know of local archived audio files of them.
I thank you for your time, and I hope to hear back from you.
I have sent this to countless libraries and historical societies. I have sent it to paranormal investigators and professors. It’s a feeler, and more often than not it gets ignored. The goal is to have someone get the e-mail and remember a story, or be bored enough to look through their files and find something that might fit the bill. Sometimes there is a near-forgotten story in a drawer somewhere, like the Haunted Schoolhouse case a few years ago. The bigger hope is that I get into their mind, so when something comes along, they think of me and what I am doing and get back in touch.
Almost every legend trip I have done in the past six months was born of this letter. A librarian told me about the Singing River. A newspaper writer pointed me towards the Mini Lights. A member of the historical society asked me if Talking Mary fit into what we were trying to do.
So what do I do differently, Doc?
I have since sent a return e-mail asking what more I need to do to warrant a moment of his time and a lead on a story, but when I look at what I do, I am confident I’m going about it the right way. I do it with a love of the story and an eye to what it says about us. I do it with respect and awe. I do it with the hope of experiencing what people have claimed to be their town’s truth but with the realization that more often than not I’ll just be shouting into the wind.
The first paranormal story I can remember involved a retelling of a Devil’s Footprint in New Hampshire. I was living there at the time (seven years old), and as I read how the town had created whole mythos around this imprint in stone, I became fascinated with what was the truth behind the story, especially after the writer gave several different account of the legend. Then he put his socked foot into the print and it fit exactly. I was hooked. Years went by and the same idea of the Devil’s footprint kept coming up.
Maybe I’m not going about this the right way, but methods have to shift. We do not tell our stories the same way, and we do not hear them like the days of old. Smart phones are handheld campfires, and Reddit is your sketchy cousin letting you in on the haunted house down the street. Folklore is happening as we live and changing as quickly as we can switch apps. There is history in the ghost story. There is societal knowledge in the cryptid still wandering in the woods. The best way to hold this knowledge is to experience and squint and look for the strings.
Here’s hoping that’s good enough for you, Doc.