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Voices Spring-Summer 2006:
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Volume 32
Spring-Summer
2006
Voices

Legend Quests by Libby Tucker

For almost four decades, folklorists have been writing about adolescents’ trips to spooky locations associated with legends about supernatural events. My research suggests that the common term “legend trip” does not adequately describe college students’ investigations of such sites. Rather than expressing rebellion and disrespect, college students seek the opportunity to play a role in an eerie drama that reflects a particular legend’s plot. Are supernatural forces real? Can machines perceive ghosts more accurately than humans can? Legend questers attempt to answer such questions by participating in an open-ended, apparently dangerous adventure. Three texts narrated by New York State college students provide examples of the meaning of legend quests for older adolescents.

During the past six years I have collected ghost stories from college students across the United States, finding especially good material in New York State. Some of the most dramatic texts describe visits to places associated with supernatural characters and events. These stories follow a fairly consistent pattern: identification of a site where something unusual took place, an explanation for the students’ visit, and then a detailed description of what happened during the visit. Since Bill Ellis’s publication of “Legend-Tripping in Ohio” in the early 1980s, many folklorists have called such visits “legend trips” (1982–3). While this term accurately indicates a journey, it makes no reference to the journey’s purpose. I would like to suggest that another term, “legend quest,” does more justice to older adolescents’ reasons for visiting legend sites. Among these reasons are desires to understand death, probe the horror of domestic violence, and express the uneasy relationship between humans and technology. There is also a strong emotional component: an attempt to feel both thrilled and afraid under relatively safe circumstances

Linda Dégh wrote the first articles on adolescents’ nocturnal journeys to haunted locations, including two bridges in southern Indiana, in 1969 and 1971. In Legend and Belief, she argues that most adolescents’ legends are quest stories: young storytellers travel to haunted places, telling stories as they “prepare for the anticipated legend in action” (2001, 253). Kenneth A. Thigpen, author of “Adolescent Legends in Brown County: A Survey” (1971), suggests that putting oneself under the power of the supernatural is central to the success of such visits. Certain ritual actions, such as blinking car lights, sitting on accursed seats, and approaching forbidden tombstones, can result in extraordinary occurrences. Thigpen identifies a three-part structure. Part one is an “introduction to the plausibility of the phenomenon” by someone who has already visited the site. Part two happens at the site itself, when people “act out the specified requirements to cause the fulfillment of the legend.” Here the supernatural collides with reality, shocking and frightening participants. In part three, people discuss what happened, composing a story suitable for narration at the beginning of a later visit to the same place (1971, 204–5).

The main advocate of legend trips’ importance for adolescents has been Bill Ellis, whose books and articles have delineated the legend trip’s meaning. Ellis has urged folklorists to accept the importance of legend trips themselves, not just the legends that get them going. Like Thigpen, Ellis sees the legend trip as a tripartite process: storytelling, rituals to invoke a supernatural presence, and finally discussion of what happened (2004, 114–5). His analyses of legend trips have yielded intriguing and thought-provoking conclusions. After reading 218 accounts of legend trips in Ohio, Ellis concluded that such trips, like recreational drug use, were “escapes into altered states of being where conventional laws do not operate” (2003, 189). He also notes that outrageous pranks and sexual experiments are important parts of the American legend-trip tradition, with antecedents in folklore of the British Isles. For example, written records of visits to British holy wells and graves of saints in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries show that young people enjoyed drinking and carousing late at night at such locations (2004, 116–7).

Defining the legend trip as a “ritual of rebellion,” Ellis says that this ritual “serves mainly as an excuse to escape adult supervision, commit antisocial acts, and experiment illicitly with drugs and sex. Both legend and trip are ways of saying ‘screw you’ to adult law and order” (2003, 188). Cursing and stamping on a grave, drinking, smoking marijuana, and stealing tombstones all defy adults’ moral standards while proving how brave and rebellious the trip’s participants are. Feeling frightened by a site’s spooky atmosphere, young couples may snuggle up to each other, enjoying some forbidden sex (2004, 116).

Ellis speaks from experience, having surveyed more than two hundred descriptions of journeys to legend sites. I agree that rebellious behavior is one notable ingredient of such journeys, but I do not find it to be the main motivator among older adolescents. What seems to intrigue college students most is the opportunity to play a role in a strange—perhaps supernatural—drama linked to past tragedies. By visiting legend sites, students try to discover whether supernatural forces are real and to answer other important questions. They also build up intense feelings that range from excitement to horror and fear. Like the central character of “The Youth Who Wanted to Learn What Fear Is,” they go on a quest to discover what stimuli will make them feel “scared to death” (Aarne and Thompson 1961, Type 326).

In college, where education occurs both inside and outside the classroom, legend quests offer a significant kind of experiential learning. Since many freshmen have gone on such journeys as high school students, they know how to organize new ones. The complexity of the college campus and its folklore encourages exploration, as does the transitional life stage of freshman year. As Simon J. Bronner observes, “The college campus resounds with talk of the strange and wondrous” (1995, 143). Sometimes students discover supernatural dimensions of familiar campus buildings or landscape features. Often they go off campus in cars to investigate sites associated with local legends. Simultaneously offering safety and danger, the car becomes a crucial part of the discovery process. All three of the stories in this essay, narrated and collected by college students attending public institutions of higher learning in New York State, describe amazing things that happened to college students after a drive to a haunted place. The connection between legend and location transforms simple storytelling into a performance that builds upon past events and extends into the future.



Massapequa House

As legend scholars have shown, one of the most frequent inspirations of a “good scare” is a house associated with death. Sylvia Grider’s essay “The Haunted House in Literature, Popular Culture, and Tradition” (1999) persuasively demonstrates how consistently the Gothic novel, the oral ghost story, and various forms of American popular culture have portrayed a certain kind of house as a source of danger and supernatural events. The haunted house, “the ugly stepsister of the enchanted castle” (193), usually has more than one story and contains such features as a “gambrel roof, turrets or towers, and broken or boarded-up windows with ‘spooky’ inhabitants peeking out” (181). It often stands on a hilltop or in another isolated location.

One notorious haunted house is the Massapequa House on Long Island. Variously known as the Massapequa Hell House and the Massapequa Satan House, this building draws carloads of college and high school students, especially around Halloween. Heather, a junior at Binghamton University, collected the following story from her friend Alison, a senior at the University of Buffalo, on March 29, 2004:
If you live in Long Island, you’ve definitely heard of the Massapequa House . . . it’s right off the Southern State Parkway. The best part is that this eerie home stands right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Supposedly the place is haunted, and it definitely looks that way. The house is extremely old and appears like a cemetery due to the towering metal fence that surrounds the entire house. There are drapes the color of blood in every window and a hearse in the driveway. I don’t know the story of what went on inside the house, but I do know that when you park your car outside, candles are placed in the windows. AND the number of candles lit in the windows corresponds to the number of people in your car.

A few summers ago, my friends and I took a ride out to the house one night. When we got out of the car to take a closer look, we saw a small flickering light appear in one of the windows. At this point, we all jumped back in the car as fast as we could, and got the hell out of there!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
What happens in Alison’s story might be described as a drive-by legend quest. Leaving the comfort and safety of their car for only a moment, these college students wait to see how many candles will appear in a certain window. They are prepared to drive away quickly, since they know that they may be in danger if they see a number of candles that matches the number of people in their car. A glimpse of one flickering light is enough to make them get “the hell out” of the Massapequa Hell House’s vicinity. Because danger seems imminent but avoidable, the quest succeeds.

Sometimes, however, mere proximity to the house is enough to scare young questers away. Alison’s story shows how strongly the Massapequa House evokes images of death: with “drapes the color of blood” and “a hearse in the driveway,” the place “appears like a cemetery.” Clearly, confrontation with death motivates this visit. In contemporary American culture, we tend to separate death from everyday life. Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited notes that ever since the late nineteenth century, families have tended to let specialists care for their deceased loved ones (1998, 148–9). Young people who have not learned much about death may seek it out within the framework of a haunted house. The Massapequa House, like the spooky edifice on a hilltop in the movie Edward Scissorhands (1990), is an architectural monstrosity that represents death in the midst of everyday life.

Why do candles in a window work so well as symbols of death and danger? At funerals, candles often illuminate the rooms where solemn burial services take place. Folk tradition tells us that a burning candle shows whether we are safe or in danger: “Life bound up with candle” and “Burned candle causes death,” for example (Thompson 1964, E765.1.1 and D2061.2.2.6). The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore also connects candles with mortality: “To see a coffin in the candle betokens death” (Hand 1964, 44). Matching the number of candles to the number of people in a car brings a dead metaphor to life: seeing such a sight, students know that their number is up. If they don’t drive away quickly, their own deaths may follow.



Mary’s Grave

While haunted houses give students the chance to confront images of death, graveyards offer opportunities to tell legends about the deaths of individuals who have died tragically. Some legends describe women who, having died after suffering terrible abuse and injustice, have become horror figures that haunt the living. Many of these women are named Mary. Since Christianity emphasizes the suffering of both Mary, the mother of Christ, and Mary Magdalene, the choice of this name has strong religious connotations. Linda Dégh suggests that Mary legends, which often take the form of séance magic and ritual divination, present “an ambiguous image of the phantom heroine as victim, witch, mother, avenger, child abuser, and protector”(2001, 144). This statement applies very well to the practice of summoning horrifying women named Mary in mirrors (see Dundes 2002, Langlois 1978, and Tucker 2005), as well as to legends of Mary’s grave sites in many parts of the United States. Linda McCoy Ray’s essay, “The Legend of Bloody Mary’s Grave” (1976), presents a collection of such legends in one part of Indiana. “Long Island Folklore: Mary’s Grave” and other web sites have documented Mary’s grave locations in New York State, offering good leads to folklorists with an interest in legend research.

The following legend was collected by Binghamton University student Dianne Harris from Steve, a student at the same university, on March 26, 2004:
This girl Mary, back when Long Island was all farmland, it was very rurally developed and a lot of it was just land. This girl Mary was born into this family; she was born into a farming family in Nessaquogue. When she was born, there were complications with her birth that caused her mother to pass away within a day or two. She was an only child, and her father raised her on the farm.

Mary didn’t exactly have a good childhood, because her father always blamed her for the death of his wife. So growing up, her father basically used to rape and beat Mary on a daily basis, and puberty rolled around and Mary eventually got pregnant from the raping. But her father, being a devout Christian and believing abortion is murder, her father forced her to have the child.

A couple months later, through the fact that she now had the child to raise and her father still constantly beat her, one night Mary snapped. In the middle of the night, around one to two in the morning, she took her baby to the barn-house and in a satanic ritual, she slaughtered all the animals in the barnhouse. She then proceeded to take her baby and herself; she climbed up to the storage area on top of the barn, hung her baby from the rafters, and then hung herself.

Eventually her father, not knowing where she was, went out to the barnyard and found the gruesome scene, and to save his family and his family’s name the embarrassment of what happened, he buried Mary and her baby in an area that is now basically eroding.

The area that he buried her in is now Long Beach, Long Island. There, if you go down to a certain area and you start calling Mary’s name, you’re supposed to start hearing a girl crying and hear a baby crying, and people have actually claimed to see Mary walking along the road carrying her child.

Personally the most fucked up thing that ever happened to me—there is this pond that is right near this general area where she was supposed to live called Rhododendron Drive, and this area is Creepy as HELL. I went down there one day with a couple of friends, and just to test it, we started calling to Mary, and literally before our eyes, this trail of fog around this foggy figure started walking across the lake and just stopped in the middle of the lake, then came up off the lake about four or five feet and just stopped there in midair. My friend said he heard someone crying. I was like, WHOA, we’re leavin’.

And this story is true, too . . . if you don’t believe me you can go to one of the web sites and check it out for yourself.
Steve, this story’s narrator, expresses shock about what happened to Mary. The story of her life and death is painful and difficult to tell. Showing how much Mary’s story has upset him, Steve says that seeing her ghost is “the most fucked up thing that ever happened” to him. Mary’s ghost not only proves the existence of supernatural forces but also drives home the point that such suffering has really happened. Her story may seem fictional, because she belongs to the tradition of la llorona, the weeping woman who killed her child; her misty form after death resembles ghosts of the Victorian era. In legend quests, however, what has seemed fictional can suddenly become real.

Mary, a domestic violence victim who kills herself and her child, inspires both pity and horror. A doomed sufferer, Mary represents millions of women who have undergone similar torment. As Elaine J. Lawless explains in her book Women Escaping Violence (2001), evidence about domestic violence suggests that “the figures are probably not reflective of even one-tenth of the number of women who are actually beaten, abused, and violated, but who never report it” (42). Because women hesitate to speak about such devastating, life-threatening situations, narrative can serve as an important “herstory” (13). Lawless includes the life stories of four women—Sherry, Margaret, Teresa, and Cathy—in her book. Legends about Mary’s grave express the horror felt by all women who have been trapped by domestic violence and sexual abuse. Less personal than the stories in Lawless’s book, yet eerily reflective of them all, Mary’s story demands attention.

Because the legend of Mary’s grave is so disturbing, it interrupts and redefines people’s concentration on their everyday life. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, editor of Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination, argues that the ghost “interrupts the presentness of the present, and its haunting indicates that, beneath the surface of received history, there lurks another narrative, an untold story that calls into question the veracity of the authorized version of events” (2004, 5). Young visitors to Mary’s grave discover that there is more to women’s history than official records generally reveal.



Briarcliff

In contrast to gravesites in secluded places, famous local landmarks are easy to find. One such place that has fascinated both high school and college students is Briarcliff Lodge in the Hudson Valley. Built in 1902, Briarcliff was known as King’s College from 1955 to 1994. John, a Binghamton University freshman, told this story to his fellow student Alexandra on October 30, 2004. The fact that it was the day before Halloween may have enhanced the story’s spooky atmosphere.
Years and years ago a lodge was built in Briarcliff. The lodge did great business when it first opened. Many people stayed there, as its location was in the middle of a high traffic area. However, after a couple years strange occurrences started to happen there. It became a very popular place for suicides, murders, and vanishings. Death loomed over the lodge, and it was soon closed and abandoned for having this bad reputation.

Some years later, King’s College was built over the old foundation of this lodge. Just like the lodge the college was successful in its early years. Many students attended the school and enjoyed their experiences there. Yet, after some time, strange occurrences started to happen at the school, as well. Numerous amounts of students began to commit suicide. People actually traveled there specifically to commit suicide from other colleges. Murders became more frequent, as did kidnappings and vanishings. Soon, due to this reputation, the college was forced to close. This happened many years ago, and the college is now a ghost town.

My friends and I decided it would be a fun time to go to the abandoned college and make a video of the trip. Three friends and I drove to the college at night and entered the old, crumpled main building. The building was in fact decaying, as it consisted of rubble, rocks, and debris. Upon entering the building we heard strange noises that faded, grew louder, and then faded again. As the four of us walked into the main building we heard the footsteps of about twenty people walking. Things were clattering down the halls and strange noises were heard from the high windows of the buildings. We took the time to zoom up to each window to look inside with our flashlights.

We didn’t realize this at the time, but by inspecting the video, we realized that in one of the windows where noises were coming from you can distinctly see a face lean into the window and then lean out again. It is a clear image of a human face. However, we didn’t see this image at the time, so we continued to explore the building.

Upon entering the stairwell to go up, the footsteps came back, as well as faint sounds of people whispering and murmurs. The video camera had full battery and was in perfectly good condition, yet it mysteriously turned off during this time. The camera gave no indication that it stopped recording, and my friends and I thought that it was in fact still recording. Only when reviewing the tape did we realize that it had shut off by itself for no reason.

We wandered the house for fifteen more minutes that the camera did not record. Everything on the camera said it was still recording, yet the film was blank. The noises kept coming closer and then going far away again, but we were never able to discover what was making the noise. We left the college confused and scared.
One interesting feature of this story is its generalization of the events that made Briarcliff a spooky place. Although John mentions a number of deaths, including suicides, murders, and disappearances, none of these seem vivid or verifiable. “Death loomed over the lodge” sounds like a vague threat from a piece of pulp fiction. There are two good reasons why John gives no specific details. Like the Massapequa House, Briarcliff is a haunted mansion, so we expect that deaths have occurred there. More significantly, this is a story about an elaborate legend quest, so what happened in the past is less meaningful than what happens to the brave visitors.

Why do John and his three friends want to enter the “old, crumpled main building” of Briarcliff ? Their main goal is to make a video that they can share with others. TV shows like “Fear Factor” have encouraged young people to videotape their own exploits, proving their courage in tough situations. As John and his friends enter the main building, they watch their camera carefully to make sure that it will produce a good record of their adventure.

The video camera, however, has a mind of its own. Although it is in perfect condition, it mysteriously turns itself off, giving “no indication that it stopped recording.” John says there is “no reason” why the video camera would do such a thing: the solution to this conundrum must be supernatural, not rational. After the legend quest has ended, the students see that their video camera has recorded a face leaning in and out of the window through which they heard noises. Although they thought they were aware of what was happening, their recording machine saw more than they did. This contrast between human perception and mechanical capabilities unnerves the students. Nonetheless, their quest is successful. They have escaped from Briarcliff unharmed, carrying a video that offers proof of supernatural activity.

Whether or not they use advanced technology, college students learn important lessons from legend quests. They learn about supernatural presences that seem real and past injustices that seem almost unbearably painful, as well as deaths that are inextricably related to everyday life. As they talk about what happened to them, students remember the intensity of their emotions during confrontations with the supernatural. Like the hero of “The Youth Who Wanted to Learn What Fear Is,” they come to terms with their fears and move on.



 






Libby Tucker teaches folklore at Binghamton University. She is the author of Campus Legends: A Handbook (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005). Her next book, Haunted Halls, will investigate college ghost stories.



While haunted houses give students the chance to confront images of death, graveyards offer opportunities to tell legends about the deaths of individuals who have died tragically. Some legends describe women who, having died after suffering terrible abuse and injustice, have become horror figures that haunt the living. Many of these women are named Mary.



References

Aarne, Antti, and Stith Thompson. 1961. The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Bronner, Simon J. 1995. Piled Higher and Deeper: The Folklore of Student Life. Little Rock: August House.

Dégh, Linda. 1969. The Haunted Bridges near Avon and Danville and Their Role in Legend Formation. Indiana Folklore 2:54–89.

——. 1971. The “Belief Legend” in Modern Society. In American Folk Legend: A Symposium, 55–68. Ed. Wayland D. Hand. Berkeley: University of California Press.

——. 2001. Legend and Belief. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dundes, Alan. 2002. Bloody Mary in the Mirror: Essays in Psychoanalytic Folkloristics. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Edward Scissorhands. 1990. Dir. Tim Burton. Twentieth Century Fox.

Ellis, Bill. 1982–3. Legend-Tripping in Ohio: A Behavioral Study. In Papers in Comparative Studies 2, 61–73. Ed. Daniel Barnes, Rosemary O. Joyce, and Steven Swann Jones. Columbus, OH: Center for Comparative Studies in the Humanities.

——. 2003. Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live. Jackson: University Press of Kentucky.

——. 2004. Lucifer Ascending. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Grider, Sylvia. 1999. The Haunted House in Literature, Popular Culture, and Tradition: A Consistent Image. Contemporary Legend n.s. 2:174–204.

Hand, Wayland D., ed. 1964. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore. Durham: Duke University Press.

Langlois, Janet L. 1978. “Mary Whales, I Believe in You”: Myth and Ritual Subdued. Indiana Folklore 11.1:5–33.

Lawless, Elaine J. 2001. Women Escaping Violence: Empowerment through Narrative. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Long Island Folklore: Mary’s Grave. www.lioddities.com/Folklore/mg.html.

Mitford, Jessica. 1998. The American Way of Death Revisited. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Ray, Linda McCoy. 1976. The Legend of Bloody Mary’s Grave. Indiana Folklore 9.2:175–87.

Thigpen, Kenneth A., Jr. 1971. Adolescent Legends in Brown County: A Survey. Indiana Folklore 4:141–215.

Thompson, Stith. 1966. Motif-Index of Folk- Literature. 6 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Tucker, Elizabeth. 2005. Ghosts in Mirrors: Reflections of the Self. Journal of American Folklore 118 (Spring):186–203.

Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew. 2004. Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.






This article appeared in Voices Vol. 32, Spring-Summer 2006. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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