The season of fear, folklore and ghosts
As fall sends its first gentle October breeze to Los Angeles, Halloween is just around the corner. To uncover the mysteries of society’s fascination with Halloween, the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences hosted a Zoom panel on Monday to discuss the allure of the holiday and the relationship between ghosts and humans.
The event, introduced by Dornsife Dean Amber Miller, was moderated by Lisa Bitel, Dean’s religion and history teacher. Guest panelists included Tok Thompson, Professor of Anthropology, and Leo Braudy, Professor of English, History and Art History and Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature.
Bitel opened the event by explaining the Samhain festival in Celtic culture. Samhain takes place on November 1, October 31 being the eve of Samhain. In Irish mythology, Samhain’s Eve is the time when ghosts and demons set foot on the earth, characteristics that influence modern Halloween.
“Samhain, the day which for thousands of years has been celebrated as the beginning of winter and the beginning of [a] time [of] darkness and a time when the cracks between our world and another world are opening, ”Bitel said. “Not always to allow the dead and the living to mix, but sometimes to allow all kinds of beings to mix with others.”
The Halloween dread is not only evident in its origins, but also in people’s fear of the supernatural, Braudy said. The desire to understand life and death is often what draws people’s attention to ghosts. Analyzing this phenomenon, Braudy said that religion plays an important role in trying to address the boundaries between life and death and the uncertainties of this relationship.
It gives people an idea of ”what it’s like to be alive or to have relationships with those who have died,” Braudy said.
Thompson added that perceptions of ghosts also vary across cultures. In some cultures people don’t believe in ghosts at all, while in other cultures people describe ghosts in different ways.
“The way we think about the afterlife, or souls, or the cosmos and our relationship with it is wonderfully, wonderfully diverse,” Thompson said.
Thompson described how when they envision ghosts, people often relate them to those who have been abused. He went on to explain that there is always immorality associated with the presence of haunting ghosts, which implies that people can be haunted by ethical failures. However, ghosts are only part of the moral issues with Halloween. Braudy said other stories of supernatural beings, both on earth and aliens, are associated with morality.
“They all talk a lot about our fears and our hopes, and the clash between the two of them,” Braudy said.
In many generational horrors, there have been common themes, such as history and social ills, that led to the discussion of morals. Thompson explained how the American ghost stories that take place at Native American cemeteries reflect and tell a societal story of those who have been wronged.
For Braudy, themes can also reveal what is repressed in society. The horror element of these stories serves as psychotherapy that forces American culture to face its own ailments. Just as the problems in many ghost stories can ultimately be resolved, the panelists agreed that the way to solve what haunts society is to right the wrongs.
The modern portrayal of ghosts, supernatural creatures and their stories is not just found in books and conversations. Panelists described their presence through various types of new technology, such as AI, movies, and stop-motion photography. New technologies can help people see things that seem “supernatural” and even reconnect with deceased loved ones, according to the panelists. Technology isn’t developing new types of horror – it just mirrors existing ones.
“You can’t just make things up,” Thompson said. “You can’t let the ghosts act in a completely different way or people won’t buy it. It is not fair. This is not how they act. The [are] limits to tradition. There is agency within limits, but limits within tradition.
The speakers also discussed the future of ghosts and monsters and what might haunt people in the years to come. Braudy indicated that unlike in the past, the creatures most concerned at the moment are the zombies. This is because people have gone from fear of monsters alone to fear of groups of monsters. This reflects the potential fear of the masses in the future. Thompson added that xenophobia and racism were also at the root of this fear.
“This kind of idea of xenophobia, [is] that there’s always the other and they’re not really people, then it’s okay to kill them because they’re not really people. All they want is to take charge of us [and] take control of our brains, ”said Thompson.
Towards the end of the panel, professors recommended books to members of the public interested in learning more about horror and the supernatural. Thompson presented “Ghosts and the Japanese” by Michiko Iwasaka and Barre Toelken and “Shakespeare in the Bush” by Laura Bohannan. Braudy presented his book “Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds”.
“The basic argument [in the book] is: which religion has a better relationship with the spirit world? Braudy said. “What religion knows what God is really doing? So this conflict produces all kinds of ghosts and gives it a quantum boost. “