Legend Tripping: Ghost Hunting Made 'Real'

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Most of us have seen groups of ghost hunters, both on television reality shows and in real life. Nearly every city in the country has at least one local ghost-hunting group that periodically ventures out into cemeteries and other reputedly haunted locations seeking spirits on moonlit nights.

While many ghost hunters claim that they’re doing scientific research exploring the boundaries of science and the supernatural, folklorists have another term for this behavior: legend tripping.

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“Many types of legend trips are common in the United States,” explains folklorist Bill Ellis in the American Folklore encyclopedia. “Often a baby is said to have died or been murdered, frequently at a bridge, and its ghost is said to cry at certain times. Or a person — man or woman — was decapitated in an accident, and a ghostly light lingers at the site of the tragedy.”

Legend Tripping

“Travel on legend trips is usually by automobile to a spooky location that is remote,” writes Jan Harold Brunvand, in his Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. “Legend trips function both as informal tests of the claims made in supernatural legends and as verification of the courage of the teens themselves, who may try to act out the legends they have heard by blinking the car lights a certain number of times, calling out for the ghost, or sitting on a cursed gravestone.”

The point, Brunvand notes, is not to do any real investigation but to simply have fun, and whether anything spooky happens — from a ghost appearing to a bird fluttering by in the night sky — doesn’t matter. The fun is in the pretending: “Even if nothing happens, the stories associated with legend-trip sites continue to grow and develop as they are passed in the oral tradition of several generations of teens.”

The legend of “Bloody Mary” is a common example, in which people (typically teenage girls) are dared to enter a dark room, either with or without a lit candle, stand in front of a mirror, and call Mary’s name a specified number of times to summon a dead woman’s spirit.

Depending on which version of the story is being told, Mary’s ghost may suddenly leap out and attack the person who looks in the mirror. It’s an obvious myth, but that does nothing to deter generations of girls from participating in the experience. In fact it’s one of the most popular urban legends in the world.

Ironically most ghost hunters aren’t familiar with folklore and don’t realize they’re engaging in legend tripping. To them it has all the trappings of a “real” ghost investigation or spirit hunt, and they claim to take it seriously.

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“The stated purpose of such activities is not entertainment but a sincere effort to test and define boundaries of the ‘real’ world,” notes Bill Ellis in the book Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live. “And even the most jaded participant in a legend-trip may be genuinely frightened by a sudden, unexplained happening.”

Thousands of ghost hunters have spent decades trying — and failing — to find hard evidence of ghosts. Surely real proof of life after death would be more likely discovered by scientists than amateur ghost fans walking around a cemetery at night with an electronic gadget they bought at Radio Shack.

Experience Not Evidence

If ghost hunts or legend tripping were about evidence, they would have been abandoned long ago. Instead the purpose is to have a fun time with friends being scared — or pretending to be scared — by things that go bump in the darkness. The same suspension of disbelief allows people to enjoy movies, books and video games. This intentional blurring of the lines between fact and fantasy is part of the enjoyment, of course. It’s more fun to pretend to expect ghosts to pop out than to acknowledge it’s all myth and legend. After all, everyone loves a good ghost story.

Though legend tripping and ghost hunting is mostly pretend and playacting, it does have its perils. But the danger doesn’t come from angry ghosts.

In 2006, an Ohio girl was shot while exploring legends about a haunted house near a cemetery. She and a friend were trespassing, and she was critically wounded when the house owner mistook them for vandals and shot at them.

A North Carolina man died in 2010 while legend tripping with friends. They gathered on a rural bridge hoping to see the ghost of a train that crashed there over a century earlier. Legends said the ghost train would materialize on the anniversary of the accident. No ghost train appeared, but a real one came around a bend and killed one man who couldn’t get out of the way in time.

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