Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ghostly Archetypes in Urban Legend

These are the cases you want to avoid getting sucked into by eager witnesses. They are, by and large, archetypal expressions of the human condition given life in the guise of urban legend.
Urban legends are simply modern folktales that express our fears via contemporary themes. Such classic fears are: the dehumanization of a mass- production society, exemplified by tales of rodents or body parts found in sodas or fast food restaurants (although both do occasionally occur). Another fear is the distrust of our fellow humans in an increasingly dangerous and demoralized culture. An example of this would be the tale of the individual who wakes up in a tub of ice with his kidney removed and a note written on his chest telling him to get to a hospital or die.

These tales are modern Grimm and serve the same needs in the human psyche. They warn us of the evils in the world while preparing us for their eventuality. In that sense, we find absolution from responsibility in the understanding that there was nothing we could do about it.

But these urban legends also extend beyond the natural (if improbable) to the supernatural. There are many urban legends about ghosts and within these we can find repeating motifs, or archetypes. By examining the psychology behind these tales, you will come to a greater understanding as to why – unless presented with further evidence – you should not bother to investigate these legends.

Cry Baby Bridge
This is an old tale that folklorists have had a hard time pinning down. Its origins are unclear but the earliest accounts can be traced to Maryland and Ohio. Since then, nearly every state and every town has a "Cry Baby Bridge." This tale usually involves a young mother who is crossing a dangerous (rainy, icy, dilapidated) bridge in the night (the time of fear and darkness) on her way to someplace (often a boyfriend or such) when her car loses control and falls off the bridge, killing both mother and child. It is from there that the stories arise of how if you go to the bridge at night you can hear the pair’s plaintive, ghostly wailing.

Our supposition is often that she is a young, unwed mother and therein lies the tale’s ultimate theme: teen pregnancy or pregnancy out of wedlock will lead to tragedy. We can break the tale down and see the key components more easily. The dangerous bridge is the biggest physical feature of the story and symbolizes the treacherous crossing into adulthood and responsibility; her adult relationships and motherhood lie on the other side. However, the young, unwed mother has fallen from that path with her new child. She has crossed the bridge (or journey into adult responsibility) too soon and has paid the ultimate price. The child’s ghostly cries are an ever-echoed warning of taking on those adult responsibilities before you cross the "bridge."

Variation: La Llorona (the Weeping Woman) of Hispanic lore is well known in Latino communities and serves the same essential archetype. La Llorona is often said to be weeping for the child or children she had foolishly drowned in a well. Although sometimes, she weeps for a lost love.

The Satanist’s House
This tale often involves some rundown and abandoned house on the outskirts of town where it is said that a satanic cult once performed black magic and bloody rituals involving the slaughter of infants. A demonic spirit or presence is said to still pervade the bloodstained walls, upon which pentagrams and other occult symbols can be found.

This tale really took off in the 1970's and 1980's when Satanism hysteria swept the nation. Claims of ritual killings and other criminal enterprises were attributed to Satanists. The FBI investigated much of this in the 1980’s and found these tales to be without merit. But fears die hard and even today whenever a drunken kid spray-paints a pentagram, the local papers will decry how Satanic cults have taken a hold of our children.

The tale can be broken down quite easily to a warning: stray from your Christian beliefs and you could die. It is a feel good moment, to be sure, but it expresses the fears of many Christians who believe demonic spirits can posses the weak. Therefore, they feel fortifications must be built to protect their children from things such as ouija boards, roleplaying games, and certain music, which they see as the stepping stones toward satanic worship. The Satan House (a dilapidated structure, suffuse with dark iconography) is often a trope for the decaying soul of one possessed by the devil.

The Lady in White
It is a vague yet ubiquitous legend and nearly every city from China to Chinatown has some version of this tale. It is the color of her dress that tells you the real story. Sometimes a bride, the lady in white represents purity and her forlorn presence after death is attributed to a fall from grace and innocence. If she were truly pure, she would have ascended to heaven (even if she was murdered). This forlorn image compels us to face the fact that tragedy can strike when least expected – even in moments of pure bliss. Perhaps it exists as a warning to cherish each moment or perhaps simply as a macabre reminder that none of us is safe.

The Vanishing Hitchhiker
These emerge usually during shifts in cultural paradigm, such as the newly liberated women of the 1920’s (Resurrection Mary) or the Hippie movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s (The Vanishing Hitchhiker). Resurrection Mary was seen by many as a raucous and "thoroughly modern" flapper girl of the 1920’s, reveling in a new-found freedom for women. Her tale of woe is most likely a warning to young girls of the time that this new liberation would lead to ruin. The Hippie version echoes the same sentiment but for a later generation, a generation that saw hippies as shiftless, lazy, drug addicts who would demoralize society with their "Free Love."

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