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Finding the Facts Among the Folklore

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Library Research at the
Cabell Co. Main Branch

Nothing in the paranormal research realm frustrates me more than the following scenario: You’re researching a haunted location with a complete back story as to who the ghost is and what tragedy occurred that sparked the haunting. Sometimes names of those involved are given. Occasionally, the storyteller may even have rough or specific dates of when the events happened. It’s a damn good ghost story, complete with an actual location with alleged activity to investigate. 

As a paranormal investigator who specializes in historic research, I’m always excited when a haunted location comes complete with such an elaborate tale that explains why the location is haunted. But, I would be doing my field a huge disservice if I just took those ghost stories at face value and didn’t try to verify and uncover my own documentation. That’s where the frustration comes in. More often than not, I WILL FIND NOTHING. 

It’s one thing to find historical records that dispute the widely accepted ghost stories and debunk the details behind the haunting. It can be disappointing, proving that the stories behind a haunted location that have been told for YEARS may not have any basis in fact—that Mr. Smith, who was said to have murdered his whole family in the barn before taking his own life, ACTUALLY died of rheumatism at the age of 85, and was outlived by all three of his children and wife. In rare instances, it’s possible to find historical documentation that disputes the original story, but offers up details of an even stranger series of events that even more accurately fit the details of the reported paranormal activity. Either way, it’s something I can work with. I can show tangible proof of historic details and go from there. And just because the back story to a haunting didn’t happen the way folklore insists it did, doesn’t mean that the location isn’t haunted. As paranormal researchers and investigators, we have a lot more to learn about why some locations attract paranormal activity even without a tragic event tied to it. Further, lots of ghost stories and urban legends have at least a small grain of truth buried deep within, and it’s always fun and rewarding to find that grain of truth and figure out how it relates to the story as a whole. 

What’s frustrating is the finding of NOTHING—no historical documentation to disprove an event happened, and no documentation to prove it did. As I always tell my clients, just because I personally cannot find confirmation, doesn’t mean that confirmation doesn’t exist or that the story isn’t true. And until I do find confirmation that an event took place or a specific person existed as described, that case is open to me. 

With any of my cases that I investigate, or even simply feature here on Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State, nothing is ever closed. As my historical research skills evolve, as my access to research materials increases, and as more resources are in general are being digitized and made available to the public, the more I discover about the many, many haunted places throughout West Virginia and beyond. 

My biggest fear is that with many of these stories, there never will be confirmation (or denial). Historic research can be a bit…muddled. For most of our history, it wasn’t required to officially register things such as births and deaths. People signed official documents with their nicknames, not the names given on their birth certificates. Newspapers didn’t always get their facts straight, and in some cases, made up stories for readership. Census takers often mis-recorded and misspelled information…and that was if they could even get the accurate information out of the family in the first place. Tombstones become lost or illegible. The digitization of records has opened up a lot of doors in the realm of research, but transcription errors and low-quality or damaged scans are a huge problem and have led to a lot of misinformation.

And unfortunately, some documents have been permanently lost to history. Courthouses burn down, destroying documents. Floods wash away important papers. Newspaper offices go out of business and chuck their archives. Natural and man-made disasters, not to mention just the passage of time, have erased any written documentation of a story, or any proof of the existence of those involved. All that remains is the folklore–the stories passed down orally through the generations. Some of these stories remain largely intact as to the original content, while others grow and change a little with each re-telling and each generation, trying to fill in the gaps and keep the story relevant throughout the years. And as a researcher, it frustrates the hell out of me. I love a good mystery, but I hate the idea of never knowing the truth. Just how accurate ARE those old ghost stories if I can’t find any way to prove or disprove them?

It also leaves me conflicted. I want to do my due diligence. I want to bring legitimacy to the field of paranormal research and investigation. That requires finding out the truth, no matter what that truth may be. If I cannot find solid proof for or against, I feel like I’ve failed. I feel like I’ve failed my clients, my readers, and myself. More importantly, I feel like I’ve failed those whose stories are waiting to be told. But what about those stories? What value, if any, can be found in the tales told that cannot be authenticated?

The older I get, the more I appreciate how our West Virginia folklore, in particular our ghost lore IS a part of our history. Ghost stories serve as a reminder that none of us will live forever. They serve as morality tales, reminding us to act a certain way. They serve as a warning—here in Appalachia, it wasn’t unheard of for ghost stories to be told as a means of scaring outsiders away from a well-hidden moonshine still, and certainly, throughout history, spooky stories have been told to children to keep them from wandering away and exploring areas where real life dangers abound. Ghost stories are a commentary on the values and beliefs of a group of people, and in some cases, are used to explain that which cannot be explained by normal means. 

Ghost stories also serve simply as a means of entertainment. Before the days of television, many dark nights were spent by the fire, telling and re-telling spooky stories. Most of us still love reading/hearing a good ghost story, or watching a spooky show on television to pass the time. Ghost lore is a part of our collective history, and therefore, despite my dedication to the truth, I strongly believe that our ghost stories and related folklore should be preserved and studied, whether or not they can be verified to be historically accurate. Long-time readers to Theresa’s Haunted History might notice that I’ve always tried to represent both sides. I’ve always told the popular ghost lore and shared the ghost stories of each haunted location I feature. Then, I share any historical research I’ve uncovered, whether it backs up the stories or disputes them. I try to do the same for my clients; I will make sure to document the stories that are told, but present historical documentation illustrating my findings. 

This marriage of fact and folklore is the basis for this blog, and as my work as a paranormal investigator. I believe I owe it to this field of study and to my readers/clients to present the facts and documentation. I believe I owe it to our ‘ghosts’ to tell their stories as truthfully as possible, and ensure they are not forgotten. But, I believe I owe it to our collective history and culture to also document and share the stories that cannot be historically proven, as there is just as much to learn from them as any verifiable source. 

Stay spooky, y’all. 


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