There are a lot of ghost stories from New England, and one of my favorite types is what I call the "Scooby-Doo" ghost story. In these stories, the ghost is rationally explained away at the end. There is nothing supernatural in these stories, although people in them initially think there is. I call them Scooby-Doo stories because each episode of the Scooby-Doo ended with the ghostly terror being revealed as someone impersonating a ghost, not something supernatural. These stories are similar, but without all the greedy real estate developers and smugglers.
You can find these Scooby-Doo ghost stories in a lot of the local town history books which were written in the 19th century. I found a bunch of them recently in William Little's The History of Weare, New Hampshire, 1735 - 1888 (1888). In one story, an early settler named John Hodgdon was riding home to Weare on horseback one night when he saw something creepy in his cornfield. As the hair on his neck stood up, he saw a large white object appear on a small knoll in the field. It disappeared with an uncanny sound, only to reappear again. Hodgdon dismounted and walked through the dark field to the knoll, determined to discover what this ghostly object (or entity) was. He learned it was not a ghost, but was instead a large basket some of his workers had left in the cornfield. When the wind blew it rolled up the hill, and when the wind subsided it rolled back down. Mystery solved!
|William Little, author of The History of Weare, New Hampshire|
In another tale, David and Betsy Purington lived in an old shanty, and "one winter were terribly troubled with ghosts." David Purington thought it was the spirit of his deceased father-in-law. One night, a neighbor came to visit the Puringtons. As they sat talking a strange rapping sound was heard from the attic loft above them. It grew louder and louder and louder. David screamed out for the ghost to desist, but the infernal rapping grew louder! Their neighbor was the only one brave enough to climb into the attic to confront the ghost. After climbing the rickety ladder, she saw a chicken whose legs and been frozen by the cold. It was unable to walk, and made a rapping sound as it tried to stand. "The hen was carried to the room below, and the ghost was laid." Mystery solved! Hopefully the hen recovered from being frozen.
In East Weare, there was another house that was supposedly haunted. A minister had once lived there, but after he moved away the house stood abandoned. People reported hearing strange noises and even seeing strange lights at night. Some brave schoolboys once approached the house during the day, but fled when they heard an eerie noise and heard the doorknob rattle. Eventually the apparitions stopped. When someone finally went into the haunted house, they saw a dead cat lying on the middle of the floor. Apparently the minister had left it behind when he moved and it had caused all the noise. Mystery solved!
Or is it? A cat doesn't create ghostly lights. And clearly people didn't take very good care of their animals then...
William Little does include at least one ghost story in The History of Weare that's slightly ambiguous. A man name Mr. Eaton was out hunting raccoons one misty autumn night with some friends. Mr. Eaton paused to rest, when out of the mists emerged a terrifying ghost. "He could see the sunken eye-balls, the worm-eaten face, the shriveled hands, and he shook with terror." One of his friend arrived and Mr. Eaton explained what he had seen. The ghost was not visible to the friend. Many people in Weare believed Mr. Eaton had truly seen a ghost, but others suspected that he had just been drunk. So that mystery was perhaps not completely solved.
There are a lot of books like The History of Weare out there, histories of New England towns written in the mid-to-late 19th century by people who lived in these places. New England had become a modern industrial area by this time, and you can sense the pride the authors feel in the progress their towns had made. At the same time, they're fascinated by the earlier, pre-industrialized way of life that is vanishing and the supernatural worldview that went with it. Maybe these rationalized ghost stories are the authors' way of straddling both worlds, of indulging the wonders and terrors of the past but also explaining them away with the light of reason.