When you think scary in the (sort of) South you might call to mind banjos first. As it turns out, there are far more terrifying things in the foothills of Appalachia than meth labs and poverty.
There Is Magic in the Mountains
Local folklore in Appalachia has a mixture of origins. Some areas that are more landlocked like Kentucky hold that most of their history was cradled in Ireland and Scotland. Although, we tend to be a bit more open about acknowledging our Native American and African history these days than in years past, it is a point of pride to align the history with specific areas.
Other influences exist in pockets, but the local language and colloquialisms can often be traced back to English and Irish settlers. The predominant religious preferences are often rooted in early Puritanical roots as well, so applying the word magic might seem to be a misnomer. Not in Kentucky, though, often we acknowledge the matriarchy in our families and speak to the witchcraft analogous skills we pass down through generational inheritance.
The women in our families, at least in deeper Appalachia, tend to hold folklore and spin stories about the past. These stories this time of year often center themselves around fantastical deaths and run ins with the higher power. There is often a tinge of reference to angels or demons in the history of a story and regional differences exist, but the ghost stories are usually pretty consistent in the hollows.
To combat the inevitable creep of spookiness that overtakes the foggy bottoms and low rolling mountains in the Fall, many times over the matriarchs have sacred rituals that are often kept under wraps until the younger women age or mature into a wife (that’s a different patriarchy story for another day). There are cooking rules, clothing rules, prayers and church events designed to keep the evil out. A great deal of families in Appalachia have a broom they hang to dispel the evil. Candles are burned for the dead at dinner events and the hills feel a bit more electric.
The Unfortunate Woman
If you have the occasion to travel around the Bluegrass state you will likely find similarities in the ghost stories you hear. If you don’t, you might be in parts of Western Kentucky which we don’t claim or in the Louisville area that we tried to give to Indiana years ago. Indiana refused our offering, though, and Louisville remains in limbo. We aren’t sure what ghost stories they tell there.
Anyway, a very common ghost story that you will hear during spooky time is some variation of the stranded, strangled, murdered and unburied prom queen. She can also be a simple unfortunate daughter. She can take on the form of a new bride, a jilted lover or a young maiden as well. None the less, you stroll into any hollow (careful here) and ask about such and such road and they will spin a yarn of a tale about some unfortunate woman who met her demise and now haunts the joint while you are driving at night.
Depending upon the general temperature of that particular area and how much influence deeply psychological fear amongst men have had over the years, the protagonist in this story will either be a warning or an omen…or she’ll will try to kill you. I think the latter might by why the women are usually the storytellers around here. I digress
She will often appear on the side of road in a particular area, usually involving some form or bridge. Some variations (in Madison county for example, the Little Egypt bridge ghost) have you stop in some form of odd spiritual bravado and open your car door to invite, of course, the murderous ghost into your car and then start driving. Some say you will see her in a bloody wedding or prom dress appear to you. Some advise she is in a blue dress and is a warning to turn back or change something in your life, this one is a little less ominous and sort of overlays with Christian tales of angels appearing in many of its iterations. Either way, some road somewhere in the middle of the night has some poor girl who is just trying to tell you something…or kill you.
More Dead Soldiers Than You Can Shake a Cane At
Kentucky was a battleground state. We never really made a clear decision about what side was stood on during the Civil War. What we did, have, though, was a working relationship with both sides and neither of them wanted to give Kentucky up. Many blood battles occurred in Southern Appalachia, Kentucky was certainly no exception. Drive around for an hour and you can swing a dead cat and hit 40 battleground memorial something or other signs.
Consequently, most areas of Kentucky have some form of a military ghost that haunts the open fields and nearby pastures. These stories usually originate purely from the Civil War and cite period clothing as proof of concept. Sometimes they haunt cemeteries or areas known to be burial grounds (hang on to burial grounds we’re gonna get there too).
The soldiers are often found marching, wandering or looking for something. Some home fronts have been passed down in the same families so exclusively that their ghosts still haunt their homesteads that exist to this day with intact stone fences and ruined buildings looking for their long dead families. The ghosts in these stories are often assigned either some form of protective spirit that comforts locals or some element of sadness and longing.
About Those Burial Grounds
A common trope in the region are structures and homesteads that were built on ancient burial grounds. Some believe that the evil in a place comes from lingering spirits. This could come from a place of deeper relationships with Native Americans in the area several hundred years ago. Or it could be a way to manage and explain misfortune. Many in the area are agriculturally dependent and their businesses and survival depend a great deal on the land.
While the traditions are mostly Christian on the surface here, this is another place to acknowledge that lingering, old school witchcraft. Settlers in the area became fierce isolationists and many held agreements with the natives that they would work together to survive. The settlers in the area refused to acknowledge ownership from England, the Confederacy or the Union. That hold out independence still exists as a part of culture today in the region. That being said, the nod to our history exists often in acknowledging the sovereignty of burial grounds.
The ground is to be respected. There are certain areas where word of mouth will tell you not the build a home or where things were built and they did not last because of the evil that befell owners when they dared to disrespect the land. The burial ground is usually a direct reference to Native Americans and is, in some deeper way, an homage of respect. Many settlers in the area survived because of assistance from the original tribes. The culture in Southern Appalachia is heavily influenced with pride in our Native American roots. You will often hear people define their heritage by what percentage of which tribe their ancestors belonged to.
Many common themes weaves themselves throughout Southern Appalachian tall tales and ghost stories. Some are rooted in an isolationist history and steeped in tradition. Others have been spread through word of mouth as a point of seasonal pride or warning. Some intertwine themselves in the deeper sense of religious and cultural traditions. Take a ride through these mountains and visit some spookier areas if you dare!