Using Ghosts to Understand Telephone Wires: Folklore as Cultural Ontology

Careful readers will have noticed the tagline of this blog, a critical look at the stories we tell about ourselves. As with most good taglines, this immediately raises some questions. Who is we? What stories? What is thing called telling, Earth man?

So the standard academic definition of folklore is going to be something along the line of the customs, beliefs, and practices of a community passed down across generations through an oral tradition. Most academic folklorists would probably agree that this definition is a little oversimplified, and if they weren’t busy fretting bout the sad state of modern academia and their departments being shut down left and right across the country might speak up more about it, instead of leaving that to some rando on the internet. But that is the state of the academic world, believe me I know, and so a big hello to all professional folklorists out there from some rando on the internet.

But that’s not really the definition I’m interested in, anyway. I’m more interested in what you might call the folk meaning of folklore. This is how the word is being used among the groups and people that are actively engaging with creating that folklore.

Careful readers will now have noticed that that definition doubles back on itself, and we end up somewhere around folklore is what the people who are transmitting folklore say it is. What prevents that from being overwhelmingly vague is that there are some very clear ideas about what they’re saying it is. That’s mostly ghosts, but let me throw a little jargon at you before we get there.

Careful readers who have not stopped reading at this point are probably wondering just what the hell I’m talking about. And what I’m talking about is using ghosts to understand telephones.

The Thing Under Your Bed is Not Only Real, It’s Reality

I’ve had several conversations over the past few years with people who’ve told me about the shadow people in their homes.  All of these conversations happened in the American Midwest with people who were native to the region, who were women in their thirties, and who were not strongly religiously affiliated. And yes, they were white. More on that later.

Shadow people are essentially anthropomorphic shadows that move, seemingly consciously and of their own volition, around the home. In these conversations, the women generally described them as being unnerving but not actively threatening.

Here’s where we get into that culturally specific experiential understanding. Being afraid of things in the dark is not a new experience. I mean, it can be traced back at least as far as the 1990 Nickelodeon series Are You Afraid of the Dark? But the shape of that core experience, or being afraid of the dark, is determined by culture. What you’re afraid of in the dark depends on what your culture tells you to expect in the dark.

The cultural context of these Midwestern women is one that divides the world into broad categories of natural and supernatural. Both of these categories have a toolkit which they use to describe the experience of reality. So, I encounter one thing, it’s a solid object that I experience as allowing me to speak to people at a distance. It is natural, it is a telephone. This other thing that I experience is indeterminate, it presents itself as a cold feeling and a sense of specific discomfort. It is supernatural, it is a ghost.

I have seen the description of telephone shift from a bulky bakelite object with a dial connected to a wall, to a small flat thing of mostly glass that I carry around in my pocket. If I were to encounter these objects with not cultural context in which to place them, I’m not sure I would categorize them both as telephones. It’s that I am a participant, and am shaped by, a cultural narrative that categorizes both these objects as phones that allows me to understand them as such.

The understanding of ghosts is no different. Understand that the experience of the telephone is no less real to the person having the experience than the experience of the ghost. Whatever this thing is that’s happening when we encounter a ghost, that unknowable, that experience is shaped by participation in a cultural narrative that shapes the understanding of ghosts, and that this should be understood as a ghost.

That’s what I mean by folklore being a cultural ontology. It’s a way of understanding experience based on cultural narratives that we are both participant in and shaped by. And right now I’m hearing pedants cry But surely you mean cultural epistemology, and no I  fucking don’t because the narrative kicks in before it is aware of itself as a system of understanding. We understand the experience of the telephone because we are part of the cultural narrative that tells us that this is a telephone. When the phone rings, you think who’s calling? before you think How do I understand my knowledge of this experience?  and by that time it’s gone to voicemail anyway.

We understand the experience of the ghost because we are part of the cultural narrative that tells us what these experiences are. And the experience of the telephone is no less real to the person having the experience than the experience of the ghost. The shape of these experiences is determined by a cultural ontology. When the ghost says Boo, you jump way before you stop to ask How do I understand my knowledge of this experience? The tools we use  are ll drawn from the same cultural toolkit. We understand telephones the same way we understand ghosts. You pull from that toolkit because it’s the only toolkit you have.

And thats where that word hegemony comes into it.

Hegemony, Shmegemony. Get Back to the Shadow People.

In popular use, the term folklore is used typically to deal with the supernatural. This generally means narratives which fall outside of officially sanctioned ideas about the universe. That experientially hegemonic description. Things which aren’t officially allowed to be. Ghosts, spirits, sprites, haunts, haints, fairies, elves, trolls, the list goes on.  And yes, shadow people are on that list.

For those women in the Midwest, shadow people were real, and a given. They were part of their understanding of how the universe works. To me, who did not believe in shadow people, who was not native to area, and who is more of an observer than a participant in their culture, shadow people did not fit into my understanding of how the universe works. I don’t really even have  cultural definition of the universe that includes the supernatural in the same way they do. But, being a member of a minority culture, I was aware that their understanding of the supernatural and shadow people was culturally based, in a way that they themselves could not see.

Their narratives of shadow people were ontological narratives, narratives about how the universe works, but they were also narratives of identity. If your universe includes shadow people and my universe doesn’t include shadow people, we don’t live in the same universe. And if our understanding of the universe is culturally based, by telling me how you understand the universe, by telling me it has shadow people in it, you are telling me what culture you belong to. You are telling me who you are.

Who Are These Shadow People, Anyway?

Shadow people seem to be a relatively new category in American Folklore. They start to appear in popular culture sometime in the 1980s, and really bloom in the early 2000s.  Shadows are as old as that winning combination of light and stuff. Being afraid of things in the dark also has a pretty respectably lengthy history. Why is it that the past 20 years or so have seen a blossoming in this idea of shadow people as the latest thing to be afraid of in the dark? Well, probably because it wasn’t until around that time that the right technology developed where moving shadows could be convincingly created in movies and on TV.  You are afraid of the shadow people in the dark because movies have told you that there are shadow people in the dark.

The cultural toolkit we use to experience encounters with the unknowable has been thoroughly filled with tools created by popular culture and mass media. And, in a difference from traditional folklore, these tools are generally outside the ability of those who use them to create.  They are built to be consumed, by a group that is outside of or wields more relative power within a culture. That’s cultural hegemony.

This is where I think it gets really interesting. Because remember, that ontological narrative is one that we are simultaneously actively participating in and being shaped by. We consume popular culture, but we also build new stories out of it. We may be handed the tools be the hegemony, but we have some say in how we put them to use. And in a multiethnic, multicultural society, you have different groups playing with the same toolkit. These same tools can have a different ontological meanings to different cultures under that hegemony. Which is where the folklore as who you are part really comes in.

How you react to shadow people could include some really diverse options, such as not believing in them,  trying to banish them from your home, or cosplaying as them. The option you choose reveals a lot about your identity and  relative power with the hegemonic structure. Folklore is bound up in who is, and who is not, folk. And when we are addressing stories that are ontological, that describe the structure of our experience of the universe, this has consequences.

And that’s where the rest of the tagline comes in. We need to think critically about these stories and these ideas. Because folk narratives, and particularly supernatural narratives, are where the groundwork for a lot of ideas about how the universe works, and who is allowed or not allowed in the universe, get brought into the picture. It’s a cultural ontology.

That’s the general framework we’re going to be using going forward, as we start by really getting into the weeds, and taking seriously the idea that Hey, you might be a dragon, too! Careful readers will look forward to that.