West Virginia is an ideal place for ghostly encounters. Its hills cast long shadows into deep hollows, and patchy valley fog rises from cooling waters to hang from green ridges and skitter through the forest. Suddenly, a breath of wind cuts the fog into will-o-wisps that spin off into the pale moonlight and settle on a lonely road or in a mine’s dark portal or by an empty railroad track, waiting for someone.
Among our countless ghost tales, there are three major types:
The first type is that of the helpful spirit that aids mortals in distress. Most prevalent is the benevolent ghost that returns to save a loved one in distress, such as a sick mother or trapped miner. The West Virginia hills echo with accounts of helpful spirits.
The second type is that of the unrested spirit. Usually the ghost of a person who has died suddenly or tragically before his time, it drifts upon the earth, attaching itself to a familiar person or place. Thus, the haunted house, haunted person, or vanishing hitchhiker story is created. In the latter, a ghostly hitchhiker disappears en route, having been picked up by a kindly motorist. When the baffled driver makes inquiries, it is learned that just such a person as the mysterious passenger died on that stretch of road years ago, perhaps in a car wreck. The bluegrass song ‘‘Bringing Mary Home’’ popularized the vanishing hitchhiker story in recent years.
The third type is that of the vengeful ghost, the least common tale to be found in our hills. Sometimes such a ghost returns to see that justice is done or that the truth be known. The Greenbrier Ghost is the most famous of these in West Virginia, a young wife whose spirit returned in a dream to condemn her murderous spouse. He was convicted of the crime, once an examination of the victim’s exhumed body corroborated details of the dream.
The late Ruth Ann Musick, regional folklorist, specialized in collecting and analyzing our state’s ghostly legends. She believed that a combination of social and historical circumstances contributed to the abundance of ghostlore in West Virginia. Isolated hills and little-traveled roads were scenes of potential violence, robbery, and murder. Until the late 1700s, unprotected settlements were preyed upon by Indians or white renegades. The Civil War left many fatalities in the hills, not all of them attributable to lawful combat. Later, railroads, road building, and construction of tunnels and bridges took a heavy toll in lives. Coal mining, long our deadliest occupation, has been particularly haunted by ghostly encounters. Sometimes a mining accident would kill only one person, sometimes many. Each of the major groups making up West Virginia’s mine work force—native white mountaineers, blacks from the American south, and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe—brought their own rich heritage to bear on the tragedies.
Musick’s folktale collections include The Telltale Lilac Bush and Other West Virginia Ghost Tales, Coffin Hollow and Other Ghost Tales, and Green Hills of Magic: West Virginia Folktales from Europe. Other collections include Stephen Brown’s Civil War spirits in Haunted Houses of Harpers Ferry; James Gay Jones’s Appalachian Ghost Stories and Other Tales; and Indian haunts in William Price’s Tales and Lore of the Mountaineers. Dennis Deitz’s Greenbrier Ghost and other Strange Stories, Parts I and II, mainly display the supernatural in contemporary settings, often as guardian angels, ghostly messengers of mercy.
This Article was written by Judy Prozzillo Byers