That is, of course, the opening to John Carpenter’s The Fog, and the late John Houseman doing one of the best versions of the traditional old man around the campfire telling ghost stories and scaring the spit out of the children type of characters seen in modern films. Depending on how old you may be and where you grew up; that scene may have been something you actually grew up with in real life. Stories of the local spirits roaming the material plane just waiting for you to wander unknowingly into their path and become their victim were plentiful for many a generation’s upbringing. They were a part of our childhood, they were something that created the local color of a region, and they were a great deal of fun back in the day.
The local ghost story still exists even as it seems like the interconnectivity of the World Wide Web is making more and more ghost stories and paranormal urban legends less local in nature. However, even the old local stories, as much as I loved them, weren’t really quite as local as they seemed to us back then. As a matter of fact, the truth is that many of them were just variants of stories brought over from the old countries by settlers and immigrants and remade into a local legend. Some would start as stories from back in the home country, but, eventually, they would incorporate local settings and characters into their telling and end up being told by people who swore that they knew the sorry souls involved or knew the now old man or woman who knew those sorry souls way back then or witnessed it with their own eyes in their youth. Then the years of “witnesses” and “documented events” (sometimes complete with names, ranks, and serial numbers) would enter into the tale, and the story would become firmly rooted in the area you lived in.
The headless ghost was a fairly common source of chilling tales no matter where you lived. Indeed, it seems to be a fairly universal concept and found in more or less totally familiar forms all around the world. But the local ghosts would end up finding their eventual decapitation in life and then their eternal hunt for your head tied to key locations and events around your hometown.
Train tracks were a big source for these stories. Sometimes it would be the poor worker who on some particularly rainy night slipped on the soaking wet footholds while moving from train car to train car; falling and having the train decapitate him. Others were told using the town drunk as the origin story. The poor sotted soul, the world spinning and rocking before his eyes due to a particularly powerful local brew, would find himself passing out on the tracks while staggering through the woods on his way home. His head and neck, of course, is positioned in just the right position to neatly relieve him of his head. Variations would have the drunken fellow confusing the train track covered river bridge for a local pier or boat dock. Awakened and confused by the thunderous noise beginning to surround him, he would stick his head up just in time to greet the oncoming train with his face; sending his head flying and sending his body tumbling into the waters below. These locations would almost always be in the most heavily wooded areas, of course.
While I lived in a couple of areas that had tales of haunted train tracks; living in a state that was once a part of the Old South, we would also get the ghosts with a more southern history reason for losing 10 inches of height just above the neckline. This person (usually a soldier, but occasionally just an unlucky witness to a battle) would be the victim of a Civil War cannonball neatly removing his skull. I’ve heard versions from more Northern states where the event occurs instead during the Revolutionary War or even the French Indian War. Still other versions involve accidents in old mills, outlaws being punished by angry locals, captured runaway slaves, etc.
No matter the local variations, the heart of the story was always the same. When you followed the tracks or wandered through the woods after dark, you would risk meeting the headless ghost. If you were lucky, you would, as many a storyteller claimed they did, see him well before he became aware of you. By doing so, while you would forever live with the nightmares of having seen this horrible and unholy sight, you would be able to flee from the woods and live to tell the tale. However, if he were to “see” you first? Well. There was a reason no one was there to tell that tale. They would simply disappear; their head having been removed, tried on for a fitting, and then thrown to the animals and insects when it proved to be the wrong head. By local legend, many a young man who went missing in the area over the decades had, in fact, met that fate.
The drowned love, sometimes also the spurned lover, was another popular one. Somewhere in the area would be a large pond, lake, or the area where a large creek ran into a larger river that was (according to local legend) the final resting place of a woman who drowned (accidentally or by suicide) as the result of a tragic love story. These tales involved a woman who fell out of a small boat on a nice summer day’s jaunt across the water, got tangled in something under the water, and drowned as their true love (but typically not yet husband) desperately tried and failed to get her to the surface.
Sometimes it would be an accident that took place as a young woman secretly went to the water’s edge to meet the young man her family did not approve of. A slip in the mud would lead to her banging her head on a rock or a stumble on the dock would lead to striking her head on a wooden post. Either way, the unconscious woman would fall into the water and not to be found until the next day by family or friends. This story would sometimes also involve the twist of the young man she loved and slipped away to meet getting blamed for her murder.
Usually, these were not the malevolent spirits of many typical ghost stories. Sometimes they were simply the type of ghost you would see that would do you no actual harm as a deliberate act, but somehow the tragedy of it all attached a curse to the presence of the spirit. While she would do you know harm by her own actions or desires, the simple act of seeing her would. You would be told to stay away from the waters after dark and run from them if you heard a young woman laughing or, more typically, crying. For if you saw this woman; you would be cursed and fated to soon die (most likely by drowning) yourself.
Sometimes the ghost would be explained to be not malicious, but rather confused. Unfortunately for the unlucky souls to encounter these ghosts, the end results were the same. The woman’s spirit never realized that she was in fact dead. She would be waiting in the water, and any young men she confused for her love would be embraced and pulled under. A young woman might be confused for a rival for his affection and struck by the spirit. The spirit may have only intended to hurt the young woman and cause her to run away, by the ghostly energy would cause the young woman enough harm that she would flounder and flail in the water, sinking below the surface and drowning if no one was there to rescue her.
The darker versions would involve a suicide. A woman might end her life in the waters after learning of her true love’s death elsewhere- when traveling to see her, in the war, at the hands of a jealous suitor she never had any interest in, etc. –or, far worse, after finding her true love in the arms or bed of another woman. The pain and the anguish would create a troubled, angry spirit that would haunt the waters and ensure that no one else she encountered in death would enjoy the love in life that she was denied. These watery ghosts would go after young lovers on the water or at the water’s edge, choosing one or the other to be her victim before pulling him or her down into the murky depths.
After a while with these and others local ghost stories, you started noticing a pattern. On top of just generally scaring the younger set, they seemed very focused on discouraging the not quite younger set from sneaking off to the areas that would fit the bill as being popular make-out spots. I’m sure that it’s purely a coincidence that so many of these stories linked to those locations seemed to provide ample reasons for young teenagers to avoid such areas; especially after dark.
Local ghost stories that seemed less linked to curbing teenage canoodling involved- predominantly in the Southern states for obvious reasons –the tales of the ghost soldiers still fighting on Civil War battlefields where the carnage was greater and more traumatic than in some other local battles. Whether a lonely soldier or an entire battalion, these men were still locked in the struggle that ended over 150 years ago, and late night travelers could find themselves on the wrong nights being confused for enemy forces.
Another favorite- and I lived in areas with several of these –were stories built around old, abandoned, and occasionally seriously fire-damaged houses sitting by themselves and isolated out in the middle of the woods. Whether true or not, these places would always, so the stories went, have become abandoned after a great tragedy, perhaps even a death, and from that point forward no one could stay there for longer than a fortnight before being driven screaming from the home. Time and neglect would eventually take their toll on the house, and the structure would take on a dilapidated state rivaling the best Hollywood studio’s horror house efforts.
The tales of the tragedies- dark/satanic rituals leading mass murder, children dying in a fire, an insane member of the family embarking on a night of terror that ends in multiple murders and a suicide –would become gospel fact in the area, and the stories of odd lights in the woods and in the house, strange sounds, and unusual encounters would begin.
After abandoned homes, the haunted structures start getting larger and start having more obvious similarities to the more widely publicized stories from other areas. These would be the hauntings in abandoned schools, factories, prisons, and hospitals for the clinically insane to name a few. Then there are the historic buildings (state houses, major hotels, large sections of the oldest cities and towns that suffered historically devastating fires or floods) that are presented as the homes of spirits ranging from the charmingly harmless to the violent and screaming dead.
In the era of the World Wide Web, we’ve grown accustomed to having new horror stories more often than not being something less than local. Slender Man and Shadow People and the latest form of the Bloody Mary mirror story among many others become almost instantly shared stories from one coast to the other and beyond. They become a part of the larger, nationwide popular culture until they’re burned out by overexposure (and the occasional crappy direct to video, TV, or theatrical movie) and begin fading away and forgotten. They (typically) don’t have the longevity that local ghost stories told by generations of storytellers had.
And, actually, still have.
This time of year even more so than during the other times of the year, everyone tends to start focusing on the now traditional and/or bigger horror things. There are classic books to dust off and reread, scary movies to be hauled out and rewatched in marathon events, Halloween haunt parties, haunted hayrides, haunted cornfields, and haunted houses popping up like weeds, local or regional amusement parks running Halloween horror events, and advertisements telling you to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to major amusement parks for their once a year Halloween blowout events.
But there are people out there, their works far more often than not found in your book store’s local authors section, who have spent years collecting these stories and preserving them via the written word. Little businesses are popping up all over the place this time of year that conduct ghost tours around the cities and towns highlighting the local haunts with tales of those who refuse to leave this mortal plane to the delight of tourists. If you haven’t done it in a long time or you have never done it, take the time to go through those local author bookshelves and find the stories about the area you live in. Look up the ghost tours and spend an evening walking the area and hearing about the ghost stories they’ve been telling in the area for decade upon decade now. Hell, read a few of the books on your local ghosts and do your own tour with your friends wherever you can legally go.
Almost every town and city on the country have traditional ghost stories that go back through many generations. Pretty much every state has a famous haunted location that may even allow tours or outings. If not this year, start reading now and plan ahead for trips in your area for you and your friends to make next year. Instead of just doing the things everyone else can do and is doing everywhere else, take some time out from your normal Halloween season routine and explore what is likely the very rich and enjoyable local haunted history where you live. You won’t regret it. Moreover, you’ll probably have a lot of fun.
We here at The Assignment Horror Podcast & Blog take no responsibility for any visit to or stay in a haunted location that results in an evening involving supernatural torture and/or death for you and/or your friends. We assume you’ve seen the same films we have and that you know full well the risks of playing with the grumpy dead in their own homes. All liability and costs for exorcisms are likewise completely on you.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. He has in the past contributed to websites like Needless Things, Gruesome Magazine, and others while occasionally remembering to put up the odd musings on his own blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, on Decades of Horror, and on the Nerdy Laser. He is also a regular co-host on The Assignment: Horror Podcast as well as the primary writer for its affiliated blog.