By Annette Hinkle
As the days shorten and fallen leaves begin to swirl, it’s a good time to start the storytelling season.
Perhaps its no accident that oral traditions of the odd and mysterious tend to surface at this time of year. The urban legend, the ghost story or the cautionary tale that happened to a “friend of a friend” — all are fair game in the realm of the folklorist.
“This is the end of the harvest season – the veil of afterlife between the earth and heaven is at its thinnest,” says John Eilertsen, director of the Bridgehampton Historical Society who also has a Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania.
This Saturday, Eilertsen will lead “Hallowed Tales,” a celebration of Halloween hosted by Canio’s Cultural Cafe and the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation at the Addams Foundation house in Sagaponack. The event runs from 5 to 7 p.m. and Eilertsen will share accounts he’s gathered of near-death experiences along with omens and tokens of death and disaster he documented through a folk healer he discovered while researching remote parts of West Virginia.
When asked how one technically defines folklore, Eilertsen offers the textbook answer.
“Folklore consists of ideas, knowledge, skill, values and world views of a community that are kept alive by word of mouth and example,” says Eilertsen.
In practice, however, he notes it can include everything from food ways to language, craft skills, stories, even songs and dances.
“The key is, it’s not something someone goes to a school to learn how another culture does it. That’s revivalism,” he explains. “To be truly traditional, it must be kept alive in community. A good example out here is the baymen who fish or decoy carver Bob Hand in Sag Harbor.”
Eilertsen’s point is that even those of us living in the New York metropolitan region still have a connection to the folklore realm.
“We all live in a world in which elite, popular and folk culture intermingle,” he says. “Even folk repertories are effected by other layers of cultural realities.”
There’s a misconception that folklore weakens in modern areas,” says Eilertsen. “It doesn’t. It just changes.”
The vanishing hitchhiker is a good example of an urban legend or cautionary tale that sticks around and seems to be everywhere. The tale involves someone picking up a shivering young woman on the side of the road on a dark and stormy night. The driver inevitably gives the silent young woman his sweater and drops her off in front of her house. In the morning, he goes back to check on the girl and retrieve his sweater only to be chastised by a grieving mother mourning the loss of her daughter. On his way out of town, he passes a cemetery and sees his sweater lying on top of the girl’s grave.
“It’s a fascinating subject, it’s universal – like the hag narrative.”
What’s the hag narrative you ask? Like the vanishing hitchhiker, Eilertsen reports it as “another universal nightmare event.”
It goes like this.
“Someone is asleep and they sense a presence coming toward them and for want of a better description, they become paralyzed,” says Eilertsen. “You feel the entity get in the bed and sit on your chest, preventing you from breathing. Finally you’re able to move a pinkie and it disappears.”
“It’s called ‘hagging’ and I remember reading that a third of all adults have had this experience,” adds Eilertsen. “In some cases it’s an old woman dressed in black, in others it’s a pumpkin with a hole in the shape of mouth.”
“I had it once – within the last five years or so,” confides Eilertsen. “My reaction was I elbowed the creature and that freed me. You think you’re awake but your not.”
Whether this phenomenon is just a form of sleep apnea or a sign of a hidden psychological need, Eilertsen can’t say. That’s what makes it intriguing — and enduring.
Beyond the universal urban legends, there are also many regional entities to contend with in this country. Swamp monsters in the south, Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest, the Jersey Devil in the pine barrens of New Jersey — and in West Virginia near the Ohio border, it’s Mothman.
Mothman is a legend Eilertsen knows well from his youth. His mother was from the town of Point Pleasant, W.V. where the “incident” occurred (it was even made into a movie starring Richard Gere a few years back).
The story goes that shortly before Christmas 1967, residents began catching sight of a man-sized creature with 10 foot wings and glowing red eyes. Dogs purportedly disappeared and TVs began making annoying buzzing sounds. There was also talk of UFO’s and “men in black” in the area and then, on December 15, the Point Pleasant bridge over the Ohio River collapsed during rush hour killing 46 people.
“The Point Pleasant bridge was a very old bridge. The rational part of us says it just was in need in repair,” says Eilertsen. “However, the men in black, UFOs and Mothman stories – that’s the rationale that it was a warning something was going to happen.”
“I had relatives who say they saw Mothman and I know other people who said they knew who perpetrated the hoax,” says Eilertsen.
West Virginia also figures prominently in Eilertsen’s PhD research in the form of Catfish Man of the Woods, a renown folk healer and reader of signs (he even appeared on Johnny Carson) whom he met more than a quarter century ago. Eilertsen will also talk about him on Saturday.
“I was doing research on my dissertation of folk medicine in a neighboring county,” recall Eilertsen. “He sent me a map scrawled with an ‘X’ on his doorstep. He wrote, ‘I heard you wanted to learn about healing. Come see me.’”
“I spent a lot of time with him in his tar paper shack up a holler – he would be using a hatchet out back to chop wood and I’m thinking, ‘No one knows I’m here,’” says Eilertsen. “But he was very religious and very sincere. He wanted to help and educated people.”
“He shared with me omens and tokens,” adds Eilertsen. “He felt strongly this was all originating from God as a way to warn people something was going to happen and tell of the passing of an individual.”
In the case of Catfish Man, Eilertsen explains that the tales, legends and omens served an entirely different purpose from that of sharing a shiver-inducing story around a campfire.
“When you’re more isolated, like where he grew up, there’s a need of some kind of message system,” says Eilertsen. “I think these stories remain because they satisfy a need. They’re entertaining, and some of them are lessons.”
“One of the things I’m hoping this event will result in is stories — people telling me their local stories or scary stories,” says Eilertsen. “As the director of the historical society, I don’t get out to do field work anymore. But I love hearing and documenting them.”
“Hallowed Tales” with John Eilertsen is Saturday, October 27 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Tee & Charles Addams Foundation. A simple reception will follow the story-telling. Charles Addams’s artwork will be on display. Reservations are required, and can be made by calling Canio’s at 725-4926. Group participation and costumes are encouraged.