Ghost hunting and storytelling

By Dr. Deborah Atwood, NMB Curator

History | October 12, 2020

Reading time: 9 minutes

Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.  —Stephen King 

The temperature has dropped a little, the days are getting shorter, and the shelves are overflowing with decorations, costumes, and candy, which can only mean one thing…Halloween is just around the corner. As the heat of summer fades and the cold of winter moves in we become acutely aware that this time is an important transitional moment in the year.

Historically, this period was a time when farming communities would take stock of the harvest collected during the summer months and start preparing their supplies for winter. With colder weather, scarcer food supplies, and an increase in illnesses, winter was not surprisingly often associated with cold and death.

Two thousand years ago, the ancient Celts marked this transition with the festival of Samhain, which traditionally was held on the last day of their year, October 31st. It was the night when the veil between the lands of the living and the dead was at its thinnest. Ghosts of the dead could return to earth and those so inclined could peel back the veil and reveal not only the ghosts of the past but also have access to the visions of the future.

Numerous groups have adapted this festival over the years. The Catholic church, which had expanded its reach to the Celtic lands by the 9th century, established All Soul’s Day, replacing the pagan festival with a church-sanctioned one. Several further adaptations over the past few hundred years in America have resulted in the billion-dollar Halloween industry we recognise today.  

I love Halloween, it is one of my favourite times of the year and the things I love most about Halloween are the scary stories. I was one of those kids that devoured books like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps and Fear Street and as I got older, I turned to the classics, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and literally anything and everything by Edgar Allan Poe.

Thankfully, I also have a couple of colleagues who share my love of all things Halloween and over the past two years, we have unofficially started a staff Halloween tradition of attending a local event that blends our love of Halloween with our love of history and storytelling.  

Our inaugural year had us venturing through Bermuda’s history via the dark alleyways and tiny streets of St. George’s, with Kristin White as our guide on her Haunted History Tour. This is a magnificent tour in so many ways: from the stories to the costumes it is brilliant.

The following year we listened to John Cox and Florenz Maxwell share Bermudian ghost stories at the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs event Stranger Than Fiction: Bermuda Ghost Stories. After both of those events, our discussions turned to the historical context for Bermuda’s spooky tales and the ghosts of the past that continue to haunt us.  

This year I’ve been getting my horror fix by watching HBO’s Lovecraft Country, a television series inspired by Matt Ruff’s book of the same name. It tells Lovecraftian horror stories against the backdrop of 1950s Jim Crow America, blending horror, history, and contemporary social justice movements. In the companion podcast, Lovecraft Country Radio writer Shannon Houston and Ashley C. Ford dissect each episode and discuss the various elements. In one episode of the podcast, Ford argues that we control history through the stories we choose to tell and asks what we rob future generations of when we don’t pass down all of the stories, including the ones that disturb or upset us.

Given that this is a time when we actively share horrifying stories, Ford’s point made me think about the stories that we tell during this time of year and why we tell them.  Where do these stories come from, what do they mean and what do they tell us about ourselves and each other?

The first popular American ghost story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving, was published in 1820 and is still a popular feature today with its ghoulish villain the Headless Horseman now synonymous with Halloween. I remember watching the cartoon every year as a kid and later watching the 1999 Tim Burton adaptation.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it tells the tale of school teacher Ichabod Crane, who visits the town of Sleepy Hollow where he is infected with a fascination for ghost stories and later chased by the ghost of the Headless Horseman. There are a few theories about what inspired Irving to write the classic. One suggests the Norse and Germanic folktale The Wild Hunt, another the beheading of a Hessian soldier during the Battle of White Plains in 1776. Some scholars have also suggested that this tale is a response to the yellow fever epidemics in America in the late 18th century, which Irving witnessed firsthand.   

If we read a little more carefully, we’ll find a history lesson embedded in the Halloween tale, a reminder to contemporary readers that the pathologies of the past were just as terrifying as our own modern plagues—and just as cloaked in mystery and misunderstanding. – Elizabeth L. Bradley 

Every culture has its own collection of stories about monsters and the supernatural, and the development of gothic literature in the 18th century created a whole genre, which would eventually inspire the modern horror literature, films, and television shows we are familiar with today. These stories are meant to evoke feelings of fear and suspense and are often set in environments that contribute to these feelings; dark forests, abandoned homes, ruined castles, cliffside cottages, stormy coastlines, and shipwreck graveyards, lonely isolated settings where help is far away.

This last setting is something very familiar to us. Bermuda’s notorious reef system has claimed hundreds of shipwrecks over the centuries and it’s perhaps no surprise that the Bermuda Triangle, a place of mysterious disappearances, is a common feature during Halloween.

The painting below by Dr. Johnson Savage, in the Museum’s collection, certainly evokes the classic gothic atmosphere of the 18th and 19th century, and Bermuda’s history has no shortage of horror from witch trials, torture, shipwrecks, and ghost ships to tales of the dead rising. 

“Somerset Church” from an album of original watercolour paintings and sketches of Bermuda made by Johnson Savage MD, Royal Artillery, between 1833-36.

Scary stories are deeply embedded in history and allow us to discuss the soul, the afterlife and as anthropologist Tok Thompson suggests raise “questions of the past that haunt us, perhaps past injustices that haven’t been taken care of”. Toni Morrison’s award-winning Beloved certainly provides a modern example that uses a ghost story to confront the horrors of the past. Even the origins of the Halloween archetypes that are so familiar to us today—zombies, werewolves, vampires, etc— have historical contexts often tied to traumatic moments in history, and their retellings and adaptations reflect societal ills and fears of the time. 

Fear of the undead can be seen in folklores across the world and each gives insight into the human history behind their creation. The zombie, which has had countless adaptations in popular culture, has its roots in Haitian zombie folklore and is deeply tied to the history of enslavement and the inhumane treatment of the enslaved. Dying was supposed to release one to an afterlife where one could be free, and the worst possible fear was one in which even in death that freedom was not granted. Instead, you were condemned to wander the land trapped in your own body, a body that was not your own but ruled by the horrifying institution of slavery. 

After the Haitian revolution in 1804, the zombie archetype became part of Haitian folklore and was woven into the Voodoo religion. In this adaptation, shamans and priests reanimate the dead for use as free labour. Mike Mariani argues that this adaptation was a “post-colonialism zombie, the emblem of a nation haunted by the legacy of slavery and ever wary of its reinstitution”. 

The zombie archetype has since been whitewashed of its history and has been reused over the years as a device to reflect and comment on the fears and issues at play within Western society from the Vietnam War and consumerism to the civil rights movement and the fear of nuclear war. 

The horror pop culture genre has seen a resurgence in recent years, even The Simpsons take part with their annual Treehouse of Horror Halloween special and many of the recent adaptations use horror as a means of exploring traumatic moments in history. Exploring these stories is incredibly important. We cannot look at history with rose-coloured glasses: to do so would not only be a disservice to those who lived the horrors of our past, but also prevents us from addressing the legacies of the past and healing the trauma. 

We have stories that identify the real monsters of our past, which lie in waiting and they are woven into our folktales. It is important to not only share these stories but also to investigate and unpack them as well, to understand our history fully and why they were written.

In her Ted Talk Ghosthunters and the secret power of storytelling, novelist and anthropologist Jacquelyn Benson explores the power that storytellers have to change the way we think and the role that shared emotions play in forming relationships.

Benson’s talk emphasizes that hunting the ghosts of our pasts and telling their stories is now more important than ever. It allows us to come together as a community to address the traumas and horrors of our past and the legacies felt today and in the process form stronger relationships with one another.

However, this cannot be done in a vacuum by one historian hidden among the library stacks or deep within the Archives. The stories of our past must be shared, discussed, and challenged by all of us. I have learned more about history, not from reading books but from discussing it with other people and I deeply value the relationships I have built through this process not only with my community but with those in the past as well. 

“Humans are experts at ignoring the facts that don’t agree with our existing point of view. We are really good at it. But form relationships, strong relationships with people that think differently than you do and share intense emotional experiences with them and you might just find yourself seeing things in a whole new way.” — Jacqueline Benson. 

This relationship between Halloween, storytelling, and history is one that we have the opportunity to explore with our own folktales and scary stories.

Delving into the past can be scary—what we find can bring up feelings of horror, shame, and sadness and can not only change our view of history but also ourselves. Our history and folktales allude to our own moments of horror and Bermudian writers have brilliantly created their own tales reflecting on and exploring these moments. Minna’s story, recorded in Chained on the Rock by Cyril Packwood, for example, has been retold by both Dr. Kim Dismont Robinson in her poem The Love Ring, and by Florenz Maxwell in her collection of Bermudian folktales.

From poetry to articles and books, there are a number of publications that present our local folktales and ghost stories. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read Spirit Baby & other Bermudian Folktales by Florenz Maxwell, Bermuda’s Favourite Haunts, by John Cox, Mac Musson, and Joan Skinner, and The Stories We Tell: Bermuda Anthology of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. Read the stories, ask questions and share them.

What better time to peel back the veil together, and overcome our fears of what we might find in the past and how that will change what we think of ourselves? Now more than ever, it is vital that we explore and share these stories, acknowledging the past and the indomitable spirit of those who fought against and survived these moments to better understand ourselves and each other.

As the days get shorter and I find myself leaving the Museum in the twilight hours I am reminded that the ghosts of our past haunt us every day. They are embedded in the sites we navigate and the stories we tell, and they have something to tell us. What better time to sit down and listen?

Stay tuned for our next blog article where NMB Curator Dr. Deborah Atwood will explore some of the Atlantic World connections that can be found in two of our Bermudian folktales. If you would like to check out some of the Bermudian books mentioned in this article, they can be found in the Bermuda National Library, Bermuda Bookstore, and Brown & Co Bookmart.

Become a Member

Membership supports NMB education programmes and offers year-round benefits

Support NMB

Donations help us tell Bermuda’s story, preserve our past, and connect people with history


Join our team of volunteers. Digital and in-person volunteer opportunities are available