Pointing Fingers at Folklore
Where to look for blame in Missouri
by Christopher Balzano
It’s hard to put a warning on local ghostly folklore. It creeps into the personality of a place, feeding on universal themes and attraction and becomes a living, breathing thing that begs to be heard. By its very nature, it draws us in, and asks us to become part of the story. They are tales told during sleepovers and campfires, sometimes even as cautionary tales told by parents with pointed fingers, but they become the narrative of a location, the reason why the house is left unoccupied or the sign is posted. The lure to be part of the story and to test whether the tale could possibly be true is too strong. What fun is it to just hear the story anyway? It’s the easiest way for an ordinary person to be part of something extraordinary.
This week that attraction led to tragedy. In Poplar Bluff, Missouri, five teens were testing the validity of a local ghost story by parking on train tracks that are supposed to be haunted and waiting to see the apparitions that are supposed to invade the car. As the train drew closer, the car refused to start again, and two of the teens who could not get out of the car were killed while a third who rushed back to help them was seriously injured.
The children were trying to get a look at the two ghosts said to haunt the tracks, both of which supposedly died in a train accident that killed several people in the early 1900s. One is of a woman who lost her small child during the accident and who asks people who stop on the tracks for helping finding them. The other is a man who was decapitated and is seen searching for it in a ditch nearby. Other activity includes car radios being played with and an unexplained fog that clouds up the windows.
If any of this sounds familiar, it should. The same story is probably told in your town or a town nearby. Everyone knows the tale, and it speaks to something inherently sad and attractive at the same time. We might not all believe in ghosts, but people tend to believe in the mythology surrounding ghost stories. Tales like this have all the earmarks of appeal: an accident that is plausible, a loss of life, a spirit unable to get to the other side because of unfinished business, children trapped in time. Throw in a specific location and the story that other people have witnessed it, and you too can be part of the legend that is too good to not be true.
The truly frightening part of a story like this is that when something like this happens, it only strengthens the lore of the story. Why was the car unable to start again? As time goes on and the names and faces of the victims fade, people will speak of the man who held them in or the angel who pulled the last girl to safety as she tried to help. At Session House, a dorm at Smith College in Massachusetts, there is a tradition of looking for the ghosts that haunt the building on Halloween night. One year a student got hurt falling down the stairs, but over the years the story became more sensationalized. She now is said to have died and is also haunting the college. And that is the way it goes, half truths become cemented and unquestioned fact.
It is not the first time something like this has happened. The most famous story happened almost six years ago when a group of teens trespassed on a property in Ohio, and one, Rachel Barezinsky, was shot in the head and barely survived. There have been other reports of teens getting hurt or lost looking to follow up on a local legend, but the tragedy in Missouri might be the most dreadful because of the loss of life and the way it played itself out. These stories appeal to people who look for ghosts, but the youth have always felt the stronger pull. Long before Ghost Hunters there was Bloody Mary and Suicide Rock down the street.
In the coming days there will be plenty of blame. Already people have pointed to Web sites such as StrangeUSA.com and the proliferation of ghost investigation television shows. People have said the trend of kids to want to legend trip too often leads to things like this happening, which is, of course, the kind of exaggeration that leads to legends in the first place. The fact of the matter is that people find these places and have found them long before there were lists of haunted places on the Internet. One administrator of a popular site that lists locations to find ghosts and ghostly legends has made it very clear where he stands. “If a place makes it to my site it is because a lot of people in that town know about it.” In other words, responsibility does not land on him because they were going to find in anyway.
Of course, this is only part of the answer. In actuality, today’s climate of investigating and tripping is different from the past. Social media is the campfire of today, Web conferencing the sleepover. People hear the stories from their friends or passed down from the older kid next door, but they also search them out. The information put out there often becomes the stepping stones for thrill seeker. Instead of a trickle whispered about, the information becomes a faucet, but this does not mean any of these sites or the producers of a ghost show are responsible.
There may truly be no blame. The folklore overrides the commonsense of the moment. Thinking educating teens, while a valuable endeavor in other respects, would have stopped this is like thinking teaching gun safety to gang members will stop drive-bys. In the moment there is only the story and something in us that we can only partly explain. It is the reason we watch scary moves or our minds wander during rainstorms. It is why we drive too fast on the highway at night or invent pastimes that call for us to throw ourselves off cliffs. The ghostly legend has its base in our very humanity, and you can’t put always put a warning on that.