June 8, 2017

There is No Encouragement for Ghosts

I'm teaching a course on the American Gothic this summer as part of the Summer Humanities Institute at Christopher Newport University. I recently re-read Washington Irving's, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820) and came across this compelling passage that captures the unresolved way a large portion of North Americans relate to the past, ghosts, hauntings, and superstition. Referring to Sleepy Hollow, a community where the rustic, backwater folk are particularly superstitious, the narrator muses...

"Local tales and superstitions thrive best in these sheltered, long settled retreats; but are trampled under foot by the shifting throng that forms the population of most of our country places. Besides, there is no encouragement for ghosts in most of our villages, for they have scarcely had time to finish their first nap and turn themselves in their graves, before their surviving friends have travelled away from the neighborhood; so that when they turn out at night to walk their rounds, they have no acquaintance left to call upon. This is perhaps the reason why we so seldom hear of ghosts except in our long-established Dutch communities."

I find Irving's idea that in most American villages there is "no encouragement for ghosts" and that they are "trampled under foot by the shifting throng" very interesting. Is Irving suggesting that ghosts, hauntings, and superstitions grow like fungus when people dwell in one place over time? When people "haunt" a place for a sustained period of time? This is an intriguing sociological theory of the origins of local ghost stories, one I'd like to think more about.