What's Death?

What's Death?

Local folklife archive tells tales of haunting and history.

Maybe it's an ancestral instinct to spin yarns by a fire during the hibernating winter months that makes storytelling seem apropos this time of year.

"Sometimes people see them as really trivial, but people use ghost stories like philosophy to discuss and debate just how porous the line is between this world and the afterlife," said Margaret Yocom, a folklorist in the Department of English at George Mason University and head of the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive, maintained at the university. "Ghost stories reflect a much wider and deeper consideration than merely trying to scare people."

FOR EXAMPLE, variations in how a story is told — location, added characters, timing and detail — illustrate how legends grow and become influenced by the surrounding culture over time, giving insight into esoteric histories.

"All folklore studies are built on fieldwork," said Yocom. "If this work of interviewing and archiving is not done, then we don't have materials for work in our classrooms or an historical record that embraces traditional materials."

Take the infamous Bunny Man, who allegedly killed a few people, a few rabbits, and now haunts a one-lane cement-covered bridge on Colchester Road in Clifton — appearing every Halloween dressed in a bunny costume. Since 1977, Yocom has sent students out to collect local stories of myth and mystery and each year "Bunny Man Bridge" is highly sought after.

"For my students, one of the most interesting stories is about the Bunny Man," said Yocom. "Every year at least one student wants to do a paper on it and that's great because there are many versions of it. You can see how the legend is growing — and it grows every year."

Students in Yocom's folklife classes have an opportunity to investigate a topic — haunted or not — and submit the final work into the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive, which Yocom runs.

"I try to encourage people to let their interest and passion lead them," she said. "What's that story in your family you absolutely love and want to pass on exactly as your father told it?"

WHILE NOT LIMITED to haunting tales, Yocom's archive yields 154 hits by typing the word "ghost" into the database.

There's the story of a father-daughter team that haunt Hunters Woods in Reston — which was submitted to the archive in 1980. According to Yocom, the daughter was allegedly shot and killed by a group of hunters.

"The father wandered through the woods thinking she was lost," said Yocom. "He died a year later and now they both haunt the woods."

Or the story of the Congressional School of Virginia in Falls Church. According to legend, the headmistress was killed in a terrible automobile accident and her ghost is said to keep watch over the school today.

By collecting these stories of Northern Virginia, neighboring states and even countries from around the world, Yocom believes that there is an obvious universality of ghost stories.

"One thing that is certainly true is that in many cultures there is the belief that the dead can return to their nearest and dearest," she said. "This return isn't necessarily about something that was left undone, it can just be an appearance — but it is outside of formal religion."

The Northern Virginia Folklife Archive is currently based out of Yocom's office in Robinson Hall, but a conversation has begun with the university's special collections section at the library, which might house the collection and help open up the accessibility of the papers.

"Our archive is open to the public, as our web site says," said Yocom. "People should get in touch with me. We also have a graduate research student, Shawn Flanagan, who helps the public."

WITH HALLOWEEN just around the corner and the annual need to stock up on scary stories, the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive is a best bet — keeping in mind that there is more to the stories than fright potential.

"We also have stories about what happens to students when they use a Ouija board, and a fair number of stories when people tell about the return of loved ones — personal testimonies of the spirit world."