Tok Thompson is an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. His research and teaching has focused on folklore, and he’s the author of the book Ireland’s Pre-Celtic Archaeological and Anthropological Heritage and of numerous articles and book chapters on folklore and popular culture. He developed and teaches a class at USC titled “Ghost Stories Throughout Time and Around the World,” and he was kind enough to agree to answer some questions about ghost stories and what haunts us.
Q: What led you to teach a course on ghosts?
A: I had the opportunity to teach a course in an “Arts and Literature” general education program, but I was told that “literature” was being construed broadly (films, etc). So, I wanted to come up with a course that could bridge my interests in folklore with “literature,” and decided that “Ghost Stories” could be that course. Of course, I was also trying to come up with a course that would involve students, that would teach students a bit how to do ethnographic research (they collect ghost stories for the USC Digital Folklore Archives as part of the course), and that would open up interesting avenues for discussion. I really had no prior major interest in ghosts, although my work on the Irish banshee comes somewhat close.
Q: What kinds of texts did you cover in the course? How was the course received by the students?
A: There are several great texts available, all done by folklorists. To some degree, I designed my course around the books I wanted to use: Toelken and Iwasaka’s Ghosts and the Japanese, for example, made me want to select Japan as my East Asian country example. I was also very happy to include some of the excellent work on campus ghosts, such as Elizabeth Tucker’s Haunted Halls book, which brings it back directly to the students’ experience. We also cover literature (Charles Dickens’ ghosts, Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, and others), cinema (historically, and contemporarily), and even video games and the internet. The students love the course. All students have something to contribute, and this is particularly nice for the international students, who can tell & discuss ghost stories from their own homes.
Q: In an interview with NPR, you noted that polls show that 50% of Americans believe in ghosts but that they also believe in scientific and religious frameworks that explicitly dismiss the idea that ghosts exist. As a scholar and teacher, how do you handle the question of belief?
A: Understanding belief is a major part of the course. Folklorists often say that legends are a way of negotiating belief, among one’s social group. So, even telling a story doesn’t mean that the storyteller necessarily believes s/he saw a ghost, but often the story is put up for social comment on belief (“what do you think could have explained it?”). Also, another thing about belief is that it is not an on/off switch, but rather somewhere in the great spectrum between absolute disbelief and absolute belief. It is also contextual: what people say in the bright light of day might not be what they say at midnight on a full moon. Belief fluctuates for everyone, and one of the ways that belief is created and sustained is through telling believable stories—legends, in the terms of Folklorists.
Q: We’ve talked a lot this semester about the ways that ghosts disrupt linear time—they bring the past into the present, for instance—as well as the ways they disrupt communication networks—they remind us of what’s missing, what can’t be said. Are there other ways you see ghosts as disruptive forces? Are there ways ghosts function as connective?
A: Ghosts are often connective—most ghosts are family ghosts, giving the idea of a social group that will extend past one’s own death. And even when they are disruptive, they are usually so for a reason, for a wrong that must be righted, or whatnot. This is, ultimately, connective, in the idea that social norms, ethics, and morals are maintained not only by the living but by the deceased as well.
Q: In your interview, you suggest that ghost stories do cultural work, helping us to think or talk about “questions of the past that haunt us.” When you look at our contemporary ghost stories—TV shows like American Horror Story or films like Paranormal Activity or novels like The Lovely Bones—what kinds of questions do you think they are raising about our past? What kinds of continuities or differences do you see from older ghost stories?
A: Sorry, I don’t watch TV. But let me say that ghost stories are different for each group. What nationality you are, religion, age, gender, all influences what sorts of ghost stories you will share in. Certainly there are major differences between American ghosts now and ghosts of, say, 100 years ago. But in general, mostly I see continuities. Ghost stories are an excellent way of understanding a culture: what haunts a particular group?
I do think it’s notable that many contemporary Americans are profoundly uncomfortable with death—that all death is, in essence, a bad death. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ seminal On Death and Dying makes this point eloquently. In part, it’s because our modern society is removed from death—from farms, from family deaths, from all that.
Q: Are you a fan of ghost stories yourself? Why?
A: I’m a fan in that they are terribly interesting social data. They invite larger questions of the soul, of personhood, or thoughts of life after death, morality, and all sorts of other important cultural thoughts. Comparing the ghost stories of different cultures is a fascinating window into some deeply rooted cultural beliefs.