May 25, 2018


Ghosts have always played a role in fairy tales, and Enchanted Conversation Magazine's contributing editor, Kiyomi Appleton Gaines, explores the topic in this week's article:
I was in a car with my family in Thailand, and to pass the time, asked my sister in law if she knew any Thai fairy tales or folk tales. No, she said, there aren't any Thai fairy tales. My brother in law chimed in, "Thailand could use some nice happy stories with fairies and happy endings."

No folk tales? Of course I didn't believe them.

"We have a lot of ghost stories," my sister in law said, and I asked her to tell us one.

I spend so much time in these stories and thinking about the shape and content of traditional tales and the stories of the marvelous that we tend to refer to as a body of folklore, or fairy tales, that I forget and am surprised when people still think of them as Disneyfied children's stories, where the girls are always beautiful and the princes are always charming. Of course, much has already been said to turn this notion on its head, and any cursory perusal of "original" fairy tales will quickly correct that perspective.

Ghosts have always played their role in fairy tales, from the unloved child who returns as a bird to claim justice for their murder, to Cinderella and Vasylissa's mothers, who guide and protect their orphaned daughters, as godmother, tree, or doll. Dead mothers, a frequent fact of medieval life, are a common thread through fairy tales, and it isn't a far stretch to imagine their influence in the magical assistance given to their children in other stories as well, even when it isn't spelled out as such. The selkie, for example, is known to return, secretly and unseen, to take care of her children after she regains her skin and returns to the sea.

As in the case of the fairy tales mentioned previously, ghosts can also be identified with, or even replaced by, fairies, elves, demons, or other types of fay or spirits in various tellings. The ghost of Cinderella's mother, for example, is replaced by a fairy godmother.
Most often, ghosts in fairy tales represent the voices of children killed by neglect, or murdered outright. In a world where child mortality was also quite high, it can be seen as a way for a community to reckon with the loss. For example, in the case of the Juniper Tree, step-parents are warned they must be good to the weak and vulnerable in their charge, or certainly justice would be meted out - and if no ghost appears, then there was truly nothing else that could be done to save the child.

In the broader category of folklore, ghost stories have always been important, serving a similar function to wonder tales or fairy tales. One of the most common tales, told in variation around the world, is the White Lady. The White Lady is usually a tragic tale of a woman who has lost a loved one, and her spirit continues to wait for that person's return. She is often the victim of murder, or suicide brought by cruel circumstance, and occasionally is described as having died in an accident. She is always dressed in white, often her wedding gown. She either seeks justice in the case of her own or her loved one's death, or serves as a warning to others of the dangers of a particular place. This article presents a good overview of The 8 Most Common Types of Ghost Stories, and you can find a version of the White Lady story to cover almost every one of them. White Lady stories can be traced back to the 1300s, but interestingly most versions seem to take place in the modern automotive era.

Like fairy tales, ghost stories can be retold for nearly any circumstance, and it's impossible to identify one specific "true" and "original" version. Ghost stories serve a similar function to other folk tales in that they outline right behavior, reinforce social norms, and lay out consequences for violating those standards. Though ghost stories tend to fall more into the realm of horror than fantasy, they are deeply rooted in folk and fairy tales, and can shed new light on how we understand our favorite stories. For example, if Cinderella is helped by her mother, and not by a fairy in return for her goodness, that can change the reading.

Ghost stories almost universally represent some unfinished business, either a personal obligation left unmet, or some failure of the family or community to observe some standard of behavior. Many of the rituals we associate with death and proper burial, such as placing a coin on the eyes or lips of the dead, and covering mirrors, are to prevent the spirit from lingering. In their absence, the ghost only becomes dangerous when that social duty is delayed or forgotten. Once the need is met, the ghost can rest, usually never to return. In this way, these stories remind us of the essential importance of community, of taking care of each other, especially the most vulnerable; children, travelers, those living with disability and mental illness, the elderly, the marginalized. Failure to provide care in life, these stories tell us, will lead to misfortune. But, although the dead will stay dead, there is a path to redemption. Bad choices, neglect, unkindness can't be undone, but these stories tell us that we can find forgiveness in observing culturally prescribed rites.
Kiyomi Appleton Gaines is a contributing editor at Enchanted Conversation Magazine who writes stories and articles inspired by folklore and fairy tales. 
Find more of her writing at A Work of Heart
and follow her on Twitter @ThatKiyomi

Cover: Amanda Bergloff 

Thanks for reading, and please share your thoughts about Kiyomi's article in the comments section below. We'd love to hear from you!
Interested in reading more about Cinderella and her ghostly fairy godmother?


AMOffenwanger said...

Very interesting. In German, there are different terms for the different kinds of folktales: Märchen (fairy tale), Sage (secular legend, often geographically rooted), Legende (religious legend). If you had asked me to tell you a Bavarian (south-east German) folktale, my first thought would have gone to a "Sage", not a "Märchen" - and many of those are also ghost stories. In other words, even though Germany is the quintessential land of fairy tales, I'd still try to hunt around for a ghost story first! Ghost stories are usually very specific - there is a named ghost in a named place, in contrast to the generic "princess in a kingdom far away".
And I thoroughly agree - when you spend so much time thinking about "real" folktales, it often comes as a surprise when people still think "Disney". :)

Guy S. Ricketts said...

‪My first reaction - besides GREAT ARTICLE - is how much I prefer the ghost of Cinderella’s mother helping her over a fairy godmother. It makes the story so much better!‬

Charles Christian said...

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